Himanshu Srivastava’s Shikhandi grows stronger with each performance

At times you see a dance performance, solo, duet or group, which appears to be larger than life. And on a huge stage like Kamani, it feels like a mega show and becomes an experience to remember. On the other hand, in some performances, particularly this one, which are predominant in abhinaya, where every action, every eye movement, every eyebrow twitch, every hasta and all other nuances are so thoroughly choreographed that you have to have an up-close experience. Atelier is that kind of an intimate space where the stage is not high and the audience is not distant, and a performance like this one becomes memorable. I refer to the evening when Prachi Save Saathi and Himanshu Srivastava performed their solo Bharatnatyam pieces. Prachi’s Ashtanayika has been reported separately on this blog.

Himanshu had previously performed the full-length Shikhandi at the IHC’s Stein Auditorium in Delhi, which I had seen. Before that, he had conceived it as a short presentation for an ensemble event by Usha RK in Mumbai. This article is a combined report on two more performances I have watched since – the short version, at Atelier, and another slightly longer version at a Ganesa Natyalaya festival called Tilakam.

A quick recounting of the story: Shikhandi is the son of King Dhrupad, brother/sister of Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna. He/she was born with both sexes and went on to become the main tool for Krishna to vanquish Bhishma Pitamah and so orchestrate a win for the Pandavas. However, the journey from his childhood to Kurukshetra was a painful one and required Shikhandi to remember his past life as Amba.

Himanshu wore a black and magenta aharyam for this performance. The music began with the sounds of the wind and Himanshu blew the conch, the battle call, which takes you into the battlefield.

Following that was the sequence on the battlefield, where Shikhandi is being mocked – ‘stree ya purush?’ said the voiceover by Dr. S. Vasudevan. Himanshu aptly captured the expressions of Shikhandi at the mocking laughter. Urged by Krishna, he goes back through memory into his previous birth.

Amba is being wooed in a swayamvar. Himanshu went through the sequence of her being elaborately adorned and dressed like a bride, and then he playfully portrayed how she mocked the kings who had arrived – too fat, too thin, too ugly. The one she loves, she writes a letter to with her kajal. Then there is the sequence of her being kidnapped by Bhishma, rejected by all upon her return and ostracized – ‘bahishkrita, parityakta’.

This is followed by Amba’s rigorous tapa invoking Shiva. She asks him for the boon of being born to take revenge on Bhishma in her next life. When Shiva grants it, she immolates herself. Shiva’s attributes were elaborated in nritta, with the damru playing. Amba is reborn as Shikhandini to King Dhrupad, a child who had both male and female organs. Himanshu portrayed the scandal at her/his birth, being forced to act like a boy in childhood, derision in youth and rejection in marriage (he/she was married off to a woman).

His/her dilemmas and confusions were portrayed with a lot of sensitivity and insight. In this performance, he portrayed the two genders within a person, through the metaphor of androgyny in flowers, which have the pistel and the stamen. The performance was an experience in itself. Himanshu never fails to make it engrossing.

Finally, Shikhandi tries to commit suicide by hanging. A yaksha appears and gives Shikhandi the boon of male organs, allowing him to become a warrior. Then Himanshu went on to elaborate the training of Shikhandi as a warrior through his jatis.

Himanshu has honed this piece well, and the abhinaya is especially accomplished. The mannerisms of Amba were commendable as she looks in the mirror and dresses up, and her gait as she walks down for the swayamvar is done very well. Himanshu performed very elaborate jatis for Shiva as Amba does the tapasya. And then the act of Shikhandi’s confusion as a child, when he/she looks in the mirror, about her figure and little things like kajal and bindi and sari. The sudden transformation to a warrior as the yaksha gives him the boon and brings out the masculinity in him was expansive and impressive. The flexing of his muscles and the expressions were used very dramatically.

The last stance that he took was for male on one side and the female on the other. Again, a feast of dancing, abhinaya that makes you totally believe the story and get under the skin of the character. Through all this, a very pertinent point that emerges is how our society deals with human beings who have been made differently by God.

Pics: Anoop Arora