“The hope was for zero tolerance. It started off with some phenomenal strong young women and spread like wildfire in the Arts field. A committee was established to create awareness and to figure out what to do about the perpetrators and to understand how we can change the process from within. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed.”Vidhya Subramanian, Bharatanatyam Dancer
Margazhi season is Chennai’s annual winter tryst with classical music and dance. However, the festival, nearing its centenary year, was mired in controversy last year, as #MeToo allegations surfaced in the city’s classical music and dance circuits, calling out several big names for consistent sexual harassment.
A year later, has the community done anything to show intolerance of sexual harassment? Veteran dancer Vidhya Subramanian answered in the negative.
‘Creating Fear Not Enough’
Sabhas had blacklisted a few musicians and cancelled their performances. The names haven’t been included in the list this year either. The Federation of Sabhas has even encouraged many to come forward and register complaints with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
However, Subramanian said no action has been taken and that it is quite unfortunate that the movement died down.
“My hope is that this has created enough awareness amongst people that, at least, in the future some people will have fear in the minds before they think of committing acts of violence or sexual harassment. But that’s not enough. We need to do so much more. Like some of the artists performances were cancelled. But I don’t know how that changed anything. Awareness needs to start from homes, schools need to bring in awareness classes.”Vidhya Subramanian, Bharatanatyam Dancer
She said the silver lining is, “At least a few people who hadn’t even realised they were harassing, understood that their actions were gravely inappropriate.”
Subramanian pointed out that the harassment isn’t limited to the Margazhi season, which lasts two months. It’s the harassment during classes and at rehearsals that’s quite worrying.
“Students should know to report behaviour that is not appropriate. The season is just a special time for performances but it’s not very different from the rest of the time when harassment is concerned. Such acts are perpetuated in every space where the relationship of power and authority is present,” she added.
Portrayal of the Naayika
Subramanian has been a part of the classical dance circuit for decades now. She gave her arengetram (first performance on stage) at the age of 16, in 1984. She recalls being a disobedient disciple until she took to the stage and understood that this is what she is meant to do. She is known for her elegance and her choreography combines knowledge of space and time, as well as draws parallels with the present day issues.
She said she loves performing within the margam and also loves experimenting outside the margam.
Her performance ‘Still I Rise’ inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, is testament to her experimental work. The act premiered at Palo Alto in California in May last year and she has performed it around the world several times.
Using Bharatanatyam, theatre, spoken word and music, Subramanian transports the audience into Draupadi’s world, but in our current context. She weaves imaginary conversations with Sita and Radha and talks of the crimes perpetuated against women even today. She even mentions Nirbhaya, the young girl who was brutally gang-raped in New Delhi.
“I didn’t want to show the disrobing of Draupadi which we have all seen, that is, to show her in a weakened state. Instead, in my oration and dance, I showed the violation that happens every day to us all over the world,” she said.
“I didn’t want to retell Draupadi’s story, instead I wanted to find that bridge that connects it to the everyday woman of today. Because I feel nothing much has changed. I drew parallels to what women go through today, not necessarily with the intent to shame men or that it is hopeless. There is hope and I want to show that power within each of us, so basically the idea was to empower each other.”Vidhya Subramanian, Bharatanatyam Dancer
She elucidated how the naayika (heroine) within or outside the margam is more than just a woman who has to conform to established norms of choreography.
“The naayika is a very strong person who is able to portray herself and her life fearlessly. At least that’s how I choose to portray her. I believe a lot of life experiences blend into your performance. So the person and the naayika become one,” she said.
No More Money, Only Merit
As a teacher and artistic director, her intense involvement and attention to detail has helped several students express reality through dance. One such student is Sharanya, who aspires to stage a performance that men and women will draw inspiration from.
Sharanya’s love of dance began when she was eight, in Coimbatore, and she has since been fond of the salangai (anklet). The Biotechnology graduate worked at Bioconn for over five years, only to realise her passion is dancing, and quit her job.
Sharanyaa Ganesan has been trained from the tender age of 8 by Kalaimamani Late Smt. KJ Sarasa, in the “Vazhuvoor” style of Bharathanatyam. She performed her arangetram at the age of 12 and has given numerous solo and group dance performances all over India and abroad, since.
In Bangalore, she pursued the art form under Smt Poornima Kaushik, and is now performing it under Smt Vidhya Subramanian’s guidance at Bay area, California, where she is part of her Guru’s ensemble of dancers.
When she had her first child, she found herself extremely driven, she said, while warming-up before her performance as a part of the Margazhi season at Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai.
Sharanya believes there has been a lot of change in terms of discipline at the sabhas as well. She explains how bribes aren’t demanded for opportunities.
“In 2014, when I had performed, as in when I had applied, most of the sabhas were particular about paying to be able to perform. But this time, it was purely merit based. But that doesn’t mean the problem is completely over,” she said.
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