ONLINE: Sharmila Biswas showcases two made-for-video choreographies

Sharmila Biswas (stock picture: Anoop Arora)

The multimedia arts platform Aalaap recently organized a series of online events under the title ‘Lights, Camera, Dance’, attempting to analyse how dancers were adapting to the camera after being forced to go online after March 2020, when the COVID lockdowns in India began. The session I watched featured veteran Odissi dancer, choreographer and teacher Sharmila Biswas, among the well-known students of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. She was in conversation with Akhila Krishnamurthy, journalist and the founder of Aalaap. The session was ‘a thorough study and discussion on choreographic methods through the lens of two multi-layered dance films’ made by Sharmila: ‘Upeksha’ and dance sequences from the feature film ‘Chitrangada’.

In the session, Sharmila aptly said, ‘There are stories within all of us and a dancer expresses them through dance.’ In the past one and a half years, dancers have been forced off the stage and have had to find other ways of expressing their stories, creating a lot of digital work during the pandemic. The two films that Sharmila presented, ‘Upeksha’ and the sequences from the 2012 Rituparno Ghosh film ‘Chitrangada’, were created for the camera. They were created with a great aesthetic sense and an intense thought process had clearly gone into making each video. The dance has been stylized for the camera. The two films have taken instances from the Mahabharata and have a complex plot.

Various mythological incidents and stories have always been used by dancers since they lend themselves to storytelling through dance. Many stories have been woven around Draupadi as the central figure as she is a very strong female character. ‘Upeksha’ is about a small incident in the Mahabharata which has still not been explored much. Arjun marries Subhadra and gets her to Draupadi’s palace. Draupadi is wife to all five brothers, but none of their other wives stay with her. And Arjun is Draupadi’s beloved out of all the five. When Arjun marries Krishna’s sister and gets her back to their home after the marriage, the conversation that takes place between Draupadi and Subhadra has been called the Kautuk milap, as Sharmila mentioned. Sharmila explored those emotions which Draupadi felt, and those which she expressed, after her meeting with Subhadra. The movie was called ‘Upeksha’: disregard on both sides. There is no undercurrent of malice or hatred. It’s just a certain kind of rivalry which brings about anguish.

I would first choose to take up the plot of the story. It has been divided into three parts: the introduction, the prelude and the main story. It is short and can hold the undistracted attention of the viewer on a laptop or a mobile screen. The second aspect is the stagecraft – lights, props, the use of colours and costumes – and the videography.

The duration of the entire production was short, about 15 minutes. That much time is good for people since they are not sitting in an auditorium; they are watching on a gadget and can get distracted after a while if the performance is very long.

Sharmila Biswas (stock picture: Anoop Arora)

As for the second aspect, in the introduction, the story says that Draupadi is preparing her palace for the mangalachar associated with the welcoming of a new bride. Sharmila used a small corner of her studio to create the set of a palace very effectively and aesthetically. Draupadi’s hands and feet are in focus as she is preparing her palace. Matkas are placed in corners, covered in cloth, and Draupadi lights diyas around them. She cleans the steps gradually and on the landing, she draws a rangoli and pours milk in a platter to clean the visitors’ feet. She grinds camphor and puts it around on flowers and bedecks the stairs with flowers. It gives the ambience of all the things that are done for the mangal of a bride. The colours are muted in the video and her face is not shown since no expressions are focused on, just her hands and feet, which are shown to focus on what is being done. Draupadi is all set to welcome the new bride and their chamber is all decked up with petals.

Sharmila used a white bed, white cushions and a white cloth tied all around the set in criss-crossing lengths of fabric to give the look of the bedchamber. Again, everything was in muted colours. Before leaving, Draupadi simply brushes away the petals with a red sari. In all the subdued colours, that red was the only hint of a bright colour, which probably showed the anguish of Draupadi as she was still not ready to offer her bed and her position of Arjun’s wife to Subhadra.

The second scene, called the prelude, is more about the contradictory emotions in Draupadi’s mind as she is preparing to greet Subhadra. Sharmila sits with her back to the audience and her hair open as Draupadi, and again, she is wearing a dark-coloured or a black sari. The colours are muted, the light and the smoke are in front of her. The entire sequence has been depicted with gestures and mudras, mostly her hands raised above her head. Arjun is hesitant to go and meet Draupadi and look her in the eye, so he stays behind in the shadows. Subhadra comes forth in the court dressed up as a cowherd girl, in clothes that are dusty, and falls at Draupadi’s feet. Addressing Draupadi as Mahadevi, she tells her that she is her servant. This is a clever ploy by either Krishna or Arjun to make Subhadra more acceptable to Draupadi. In return, Draupadi wishes Subhadra that her husband may have only one wife. The words highlight not only the practice of polygamy but also the emotions of both women. There are undercurrents of anguish, pain, jealousy. In Draupadi’s mind is the despondency that the knot of love has loosened with time and Arjun’s love for her has waned. Yet, she has to wear the face of a polite and cordial queen who is here to welcome her husband’s second wife, since all her responses are going to be watched. For Arjun, she simply has disregard and disappointment. Subhadra’s retort, ‘Yes, may he have only one wife,’ shows her complacency and the confidence of youth. Draupadi cringes, since she will have to live with this moment all her life. The use of hastas and mudras conveyed the turmoil in a different manner than facial expressions.

In the final scene, Sharmila depicts Draupadi as the queen in her bedchamber. She is wearing a black saree and a long rust-coloured drape on one shoulder. Clearly, not the colours that one would wear for a welcome. The bedchamber was depicted using white cloth wound and tied to demarcate a room. Draupadi is shown as entering, smiling outwardly, yet the anguish keeps surfacing. She is surveying the preparations. One corner of the studio had criss-crossing lengths of cloth wound to create a balcony and steps. Draupadi showers the new bride with flowers. She chooses to escort Subhadra up the stairs into the chamber. Offers the younger woman her own clothes, jewellery and services. And as she leaves for her room, her walk becomes almost a run and in a huff, she throws back her drape and bolts her door. The drape incidentally got stuck in something as Sharmila was running away. Sharmila wanted to shoot the poignant moment again but the director kept it as it was since it conveyed the irony of the situation well.

A few impressions and takeaways: Draupadi holds her own despite all adversities. She had to be the wife of five husbands. She was humiliated and disrobed by the Kauravas in a game of dice, and pledged to avenge herself through war. She lost all her sons as a result of the war. All these aspects of her character have been highlighted many times. But this particularly poignant moment in her life has seldom been explored. Sharmila’s portrayal was very effective, with very sensitively done abhinaya, enhanced by stagecraft, creating small niches where the film was shot, very effective camera work, lighting and muted costuming and colours. There was an interesting point she made about aharyam in the talk. She did not wear anything to do with Odissi costume. She said the form of dance has to speak through the technique, not through the uniform, as she chose to call it. The costume should suit the theme of the performance. Though there were no contemporary elements to the production, the theme would resonate with many women in the present times in every community and in every stratum of society.

Chitrangada is a film by the late Rituparno Ghosh, featuring the Bengali director also playing the lead role of a queer male dancer wanting to undergo gender reassignment surgery to become a woman. There were two parallel narratives in the movie: the staging of Tagore’s drama, based on the story of Chitrangada from the Mahabharata, and the other of the choreographer of the production, who wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery to adopt a child with his lover. According to Sharmila, the stage in the dance excerpts was divided into different levels according to Natyashastra and the division was used to show different scenes – the two narratives shown on two different levels.

A stock shot of the late Rituparno Ghosh, director and lead of the film 'Chitrangada'

In the first scene from the excerpt, the birth of the princess is shown behind a red sheer cloth. In the second scene, the princess is shown riding on a horse with her army, equipped with weaponry. As per the story, the princess Chitrangada was brought up as a man, trained to be a warrior. The dancers moved up and down the stage, dancing and hunting. Next, the princess goes to ‘the mother of love’ to request her to turn into a beautiful woman whom Arjun will be attracted to, since she had fallen in love with the prince but was afraid he would reject her for her manliness. The mother of love sends her to Madan, who is to transform her into the beautiful princess. This scene was created with all the ‘helpers’ moving around in white clothes, some holding lights, their hair pulled back and tied up in ponytails, giving it the look almost of an arcane Egyptian ritual. The ambience created was magical. And in the front of it all is the director, who is grappling with his own gender identity and his decision to change his gender. When the curtain parts, Madan is standing with a balance in his hand with which two individuals are weighing the satisfaction of their atma. Both of them become dissatisfied for whatever they have become. The dance has been used well to create the parallel narratives, about Chitrangada, written by Rabindra Nath Tagore, and that of Rudra, the choreographer. Various elements like stagecraft, costuming etc. were used to create the scenes of the surgery artistically. But since I have not watched the film, the experience of watching ‘Upeksha’ was a much more intimate experience. Nevertheless, Sharmila choreographs awe-inspiring compositions. This out-of-the-box thinking is needed for productions both on stage and on film.