Bharatnatyam dancer Himanshu Srivastava explores gender with Shikhandi

Hmm…. Shikhandi. That was my first thought when Himanshu told me he was presenting a production on Shikhandi. I thought this was going to be interesting, firstly because the character of Shikhandi is not very often visited, and secondly, because the portrayal in dance was going to be a tough job.

Himanshu Srivastava (Pic: Vinay Tiwari)
And so it was with anticipation that I turned up on the 4th of December, when Bharatnatyam dancer Himanshu Srivastava presented ‘Shikhandi’ at the Stein Auditorium in Delhi. His prowess in dance is apparent to anyone who has seen him dancing, and he further strengthened that opinion through this performance.

Himanshu Srivastava is an accomplished young Bharatanatyam dancer and painter. He is a senior disciple of Guru Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan and Guru Rama Vaidyanathan. He has also trained in Odissi under Guru Chitrangada Jain.

Briefly, the tale is that Bhishma had abducted the three princesses of Kashi, Amba, Ambalika and Ambika, from their swayamvar for his brother Vichitravirya. Ambika and Ambalika are married to him, but Amba is sent back since she loves someone else. However, her lover, Salva, rejects her, since he had lost the challenge of the swayamvar to Bhishma and because Amba had returned from a match with another man. Bhishma refuses to marry her to his brother since she is in love with someone else, and finally, refused her plea to marry her himself since he was a sworn celibate. Amba’s pleas to various kings and warriors to avenge her go unheard, and she is rejected as an outcast. Finally, an infuriated Amba does penance for the boon of being reborn in her next life to slay Bhishma. Having received the boon, a bitter Amba immolates herself and is reborn as Shikhandi or Shikhandini, to Drupad. This character’s gender varies in different texts - a man born as a female, a eunuch, a hermaphrodite and a transgender. Shikhandi then plays the pivotal role in the death of Bhishma in the Mahabharata – he is urged by Krishna to remember his past life and is placed at the forefront of the attack on Bhishma, who does not retaliate since Shikhandi was not a man.

Pic: Vinay Tiwari
The stage had two cloth drapes hanging from the ceiling – a blue and a pink one – symbolic of the dilemma in Shikhandi’s life. Himanshu wore a red dhoti for the performance. The scene began with the blowing of the conch, announcing the commencement of the war. Arjuna was depicted on his chariot with Krishna as the charioteer, with stances to show the bow and the arrows being shot. The nritta and footwork that followed exuded veer rasa. Himanshu depicted Arjuna taking aim and shooting arrows rapidly. Then, with the entry of Shikhandi, raw laughter echoed for some time, mocking Shikhandi, who is standing in front of Arjuna on his chariot. “Stree ya purushah,” said the mocking voice.

Krishna sees no other hope after ten days of war, since Bhishma Pitamaha is unstoppable. His only hope is Shikhandi, whom he addresses and reminds of his previous birth. The chanting of ‘smara, smara, smara’ in the background was jolting. And just as Shikhandi remembers his previous life, Himanshu suddenly transforms into beautiful Amba with graceful, feminine movements. Amba’s swayamvar was held amid drums, trumpets and swastivachan. Shyly, Himanshu depicted the rows of princes standing in front of her. As she walks with her varmala towards her lover, Bhishma appears on a chariot. He pulls the three sisters away, and then Amba’s distress at being rejected by Vichitravirya, then her lover, and finally, Bhishma. ‘Bahishkrita samajen parityakta’ were the words used to describe her as she becomes an outcast and a reject. She pleads with Bhishma to marry her, but he is bound by his pledge. The abhinaya of pain and misery was done very expressively. Then, in her pain and fury, she takes an oath to take revenge - pratishodh. She immolates herself and the fire of revenge within her was manifested outside.

The scene then transports you to the birth of a baby to King Drupad. The sakhis are singing mangal geet for the birth of a girl, who is the reincarnated Amba. But as it is discovered that she is a male and a female both, she is ostracized, the bahishkrita. She is left out of the play of other children.

Himanshu’s portrayal was very emotive - how a child looks at her friends, who have turned her away. She is told by her father that she is a boy, and not to behave like a girl. She ties a saree and a dhoti, and she is confused. She looks in the mirror at her shringar and wipes it off. The body contours confuse her as she grows up. She/he is married to a princess and is rejected when it becomes apparent that she is a woman. This despondent character had to be depicted very realistically. This is the turning point in the life of Shikhandi. She tries to commit suicide by slashing her wrists, distressed by the rejection that her indeterminate gender brings. A yaksha saves her life and offers to exchange his masculine organs with hers, allowing her to become a male warrior. At this point, Himanshu turned towards the drapes, symbolizing his move from femininity to masculinity. He used rapid, flexing arm movements to show Shikhandi becoming muscular. The jatis in the nritta had movements in broad plie and expansive movements of the arms and hands.

Shikhandi is brought back to the present with the words of Krishna - ‘smar, utthishth, jaag, pratishodh’. Shikhandi now becomes the warrior who’s standing on Arjuna’s chariot, the chariot being shown using sliding movements in rapid nritta. He is shooting arrows and the war is won as Bhishma does not counter his attack.

The final stance Himanshu took, with his back to the audience, wrapping one wrist around each drape, pink and blue, flexing one arm into a feminine hasta and the other into a male hasta, was suggestive of the duality that Shikhandi grappled with in his time, and which still continues in present-day society.

Choosing this character and depicting it in dance shows the innovation in the dancer, his abhinaya, the expressions, the understanding of the character, and even his nritta. All showed a lot of maturity and sensibility as a dancer. The nritta does not take away from the mood of the story. His technique was flawless, the movements had a lot of expanse, energy and flexibility. The fact that it was a story that had so many characters to be depicted, and that it was done without a break, shows the stamina of the dancer. However, there is a special mention for the script and the music by Dr. S. Vasudevan, without which the performance would not have been what it was.

Shikhandi was first premiered at the Mudra Dance Festival in Mumbai, which was curated by Usha R.K. The research, storyline, script and choreography were all by Himanshu. The script in Sanskrit and music composition were by Dr. Sridhar Vasudevan. The lyrics of the regional wedding song (Mangalgeet) and childbirth song(Sohar) were by D.K. Srivastava. Vocals were by K. Venkateshwaran, mridangam by Tanjavur R. Kesavan and flute by Rajat Prasanna.

Later, I spoke to Himanshu about the production and the aspects that I found most impressive. Himanshu truly spoke from his heart about the attempt and the underlying purpose of this production, and it turned out to be a very intense and engrossing performance. If only the spark would ignite the flame for the reform of such societal norms.

Q: I want to know about the jatis that you did. They don’t take away from the mood of the piece at all.
A: I always believe in soulful nritta. That is what my teachers have taught me. It cannot be one patch, then one patch and end of story. I don’t believe in it being patchy. Like the kartari adavu is used appropriately according to the mood. Some of the adavus had to be tweaked to go with the flow, otherwise it would be staccato. The mood is more powerful. Otherwise, the audience will be taken away from the frame of the piece. I personally find that nritta has to fit into the frame of the whole thing. Even in the varnam, I feel that it has to blend into the storyline, particularly in the beginning and at the end.

Q: What was it like to get into the skin of Shikhandi?
A: I have done a lot of in-depth research and taken inputs about the (transgender) community - what was their past, what is their present and what all they have gone through. Going through their lives made me a part of them on a kind of sub-physical plane, to understand that pain - like when I did Amba doing the role of a parityakta nari, going from door to door and not receiving anything but a disrespectful gaze. I did thorough research on the transgenders and I got myriad shades - the men, women and the shades in between. I had to pass through each of them through the research I did on them. Yes, I would say that on a sub-physical plane, at one point of time, I was Shikhandi on the stage, and I feel it when the laughter echoes. That element I had put deliberately in the beginning. They say that within you, both the elements exist - Shiva and Shakti. Yes, I did feel both, though at different planes, and what Shikhandi felt, standing there alone – yes, I do go through those emotions each time that I go on the stage for this production.
And I would also like to say that the way the story is penned by Ved Vyasa, I feel the child is told gender. He is born with a sex, but he is subconsciously taught a gender. A girl is always told to bear with everything and a boy is told not to cry. Those dos and don’ts affect us in a way that they start framing our mindset. So it is stuck in my mind what might have happened with this character.
I also realized that he was not entitled to the crown, even though he was the first-born, because of the social pressure around his gender. That is why the father, Drupad, had to do a yagya to get Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna as his rightful heirs. The society at that time was stuck with the same mindset as it is today. So I wanted to spark a conversation about this societal mindset with Shikhandi, though in a subtle manner, since all of us might not think the same way.
I hope that this production produces, if not a crack, then at least a chink in our societal fanaticism.

I also spoke to S. Vasudevan, an excellent and multifaceted artist – musician, dancer, scholar, writer – who had composed the score and written the Sanskrit lyrics for the production. I am quite openly a fan of his work in all disciplines, and interviewed him since this was the first time I had heard his Sanskrit writing in a production.

S Vasudevan (Pic: Anoop Arora)
Q: I think the music was an integral part of this production. What would you say about the process of developing the script and the music?
A: I always believe that any thought is the sound of your consciousness. A thought blasts out in the form of a sound, which becomes a movement, music or a rhythmic structure. They all flow in a package. In the classical system of art, even before the classical thought, the whole nature is bound with these core elements. We are all characters reflecting and echoing different aspects of this nature. Today, we saw Shikhandi, which was a beautiful thought process scripted, conceived and chapterized by Himanshu. He brought this idea to me with his script and he was speaking to me about his story of Shikhandi.

During this dialogue, when he was talking about his ideas and vision, I could hear the sound coming from him while he was talking. So I can naturally hear the sound when the artist comes to me with his script and a vision. It is flowing with the rhythm and structure, it is flowing with the mood of a melody. So when a character is emoting, there is a melody within itself. Music is a by-product of an action. Also, there is a pace, a structure, a geography, a geometry that goes with an action. In this production, there are layers of past, present and future. To manage this transition, there was a whole thought and the music had the opportunity to sound ancient, sound present, dialogue the present and talk to the future, and bring the future to the present with the strength of the past. Shikhandi was the cause of this purpose of killing Bhishma, which was predestined, and there was a necessity of the secondary body, who was Krishna. Krishna gave this memory - ‘jagrita, utthishtha, smara’. You are Amba, and after several insults by Bhishma, you were cursed and betrayed and boycotted by society. That is a situation which happens to a woman even today. It is a pain, and gives scope for so much music, each raga flows through moods and requirements. Musical arrangement is a natural process in this case, it happened effortlessly because vision, characters, roles, transitions of past to present was clear and evident in the dancer’s presentation.

Pic: Anoop Arora
Q: It also played with masculinity and femininity.
A: The grey is a very important element of this production. The raga chosen, Hamsanadam, Bageshree, they all fitted the situation of past and present. The yaksha’s story – a blessing in disguise – it had to be supported by an alaap. The exchange between the yaksha’s body and Shikhandi’s, the process was very beautifully depicted by Himanshu. When he acted in front of me, gradually and naturally, some music came to me. Raga is basically the mood – raga itself is an engagement of emotions, that’s what the word ‘rag’ means, an emotional engagement. The raga is predominant, not its name. These productions, where the characters are so strong, mood and melody are more important than the name of the ragas. Sometimes, I mix ragas to highlight the statement and sentiment of the characters, which is very important. Thus, we take some liberties in productions that would not be accepted in classical presentations of music. It’s more of an art presentation.


  1. Thank You Shveta Arora ji for bringing up this wonderful review n the story line about "SHIKHADI" a Journey in collaboration with Dancer-Aritst-Poet Himanshu Shrivastav .. this flashes the moments of making process ..

    Thank You and Warm Regards,
    Dr Sridhar Vasudevan

    1. Thank you very much for the praise, always look forward to seeing/hearing your work.


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