Kavita Dwibedi’s odissi homage to the Buddha was rich with expression and meaning.
There is a certain beauty in simplicity, as amply proven by Kavita Dwibedi’s odissi dance show last weekend in Kuala Lumpur. Shweta Mukti, presented by Kalpana Dance Theatre, was a one-woman performance on a bare stage – no props, no complex formations, no costume changes. Fitting perhaps, for a production that pays homage to the Buddha and the liberation of the soul from worldly trappings.
And yet, for all its pared-down austerity, Kavita’s performance at Shantanand Auditorium, The Temple Of Fine Arts, was rich with expression and meaning, telling the story of Gautama Buddha through the journeys of five different women who all played parts in his life. An original production by the odissi exponent from New Delhi, India, Shweta Mukti brought together not just dance, but music composed by veteran odissi musicologist Ramhari Das and Odia poetry by Kedar Mishra.
Those used to more dynamic presentations of odissi may have found this production a little slow – Kavita favours a more traditional and lyrical style, and here particularly, the focus was much more on emotions and storytelling.
Kavita is renowned for her abhinaya (expressive movements), and the show was a fantastic showcase of what an expert dancer can achieve with just a minute change in facial expression or a subtle shift in posture. Each character Kavita took on was signified externally only by different shawls – a gold angavastra for the queen, a simple red dupatta for the “untouchable” woman – and yet, each woman was brought to vivid life in a clearly distinct manner.
The confluence of traditional odissi tropes, most often used to depict Hindu-based stories, with principles of Buddhism was fascinating. Young Gautama with his mother, for instance, brought to mind oft-depicted scenes of Krishna and his mother Yashodha. The character of the furious Magandhi, meanwhile, was almost certainly influenced by dances in which the goddess Devi is portrayed in her wrathful form.
Kavita also cleverly wove in the traditional rasa (primary emotions) of Indian classical dance into each segment, and with her superb use of bhav (expression), brought them to life beautifully.
First, we see Gautami, Gautama’s foster mother. Here, Kavita depicted an entire spectrum of maternal affection: initially, she plays with her young son, lovingly dressing him up and chiding him for his mischief, but when he leaves in search of enlightenment, she is deeply saddened and yet resigned, wishing him well on his quest.
From mother, we move to wife, and Kavita’s portrayal of Gautama’s wife Yasodhara was one of the show’s highlights. In a lovely display of shringaram (love or attraction), the young wife coyly readies their room and herself for her husband as flowers bloom and birds chirp outside. When he appears, she is both excited and shy, and begins massaging his feet.
The idyllic moment is shattered, however, when Gautama reveals his intention to leave, and Kavita captured the utter heartbreak of the moment in her expressions. Sadness, however, eventually melts into acceptance, as Yasodhara realises that her husband has a larger purpose.
In stark contrast is the beautiful, arrogant Magandhi, who both deeply desires the Buddha and is enraged by his rejection of her. The most energetic segment in the show, Kavita effortlessly moved from raudram (fury) to karunyam (sadness), as Magandhi alternately seethes with anger and beseeches Buddha to love her. The movements were markedly more tandava (vigorous, masculine) than the other segments, and combined with the powerful, primal music and red lighting, it was terrifically intense.
The next character, the courtesan Amrapalli, was perhaps the least defined of the five. Her story is of a woman who is rich with material wealth, but longs for spiritual fulfillment, and eventually finds it with the Buddha.
While Kavita’s portrayal was pleasing, it felt less substantial than the others – there was opportunity here to creatively depict the life of a courtesan that wasn’t fully realised.
The show was brought to a close with the story of Prakruti, a woman born into a low caste who finds her liberation in the Buddha, becoming the first female ambassador for equality in his fold. When she encounters the Buddha, she is initially overjoyed at his presence, but when he asks her for water, she recedes in shame, saying she is an untouchable. He, however, treats her as an equal and enlightens her in the way of the truth, and Prakruti is filled with wonder at this acceptance.
Kavita portrays these changing emotions expertly, and as Prakruti finds her salvation, the show rises in a crescendo to its end: a lone woman, dancing in pure bliss to sonorous chants of “Buddham sharanam gachchami” as an image of the Buddha descends slowly to the stage, and in the end, all is still as she prostrates before him – a fitting end to a richly-layered tribute.