A woman's movement
By David J. Craig
Moving gently across the stage, her sinuous figure draped in brightly colored traditional Indian dress and ornate jewelry, Aparna Sindhoor is the epitome of the exotic Indian female.
And then suddenly, her timid facial expression twisting into a scowl and her large brown eyes glaring angrily at something offstage, she flops on the floor. Sindhoor (UNI'07) quickly bounds back up, and with her bare feet pounding out an aggressive rhythm, lets out a long series of guttural noises meant to express the rage of a contemporary Indian community facing relocation because of a dam project. The scene culminates in a downright terrifying cry.
That performance of River Rights at the Tsai Performance Center on March 20 was jarring, not simply for Sindhoor's theatrics or its tragic story about poor citizens in India's rural Narmada River Valley, but because of its unconventional treatment of the classical Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam. An ancient art characterized by communicative facial expressions and hand gestures, Bharatanatyam traditionally features a solo dancer portraying a meek woman contemplating love, loyalty, and spirituality.
Sindhoor, who has choreographed, directed, and performed 20 professional Bharatanatyam dance works since 1992, turns the form on its head. Rather than dancing silently with musical accompaniment as is traditional, she uses dense spoken word narratives to tell stories about contemporary social issues, especially women's rights and the oppression of the poor and ethnic minorities. The 33-year-old native of Mysore, India, has danced to sold-out venues across North America, Germany, and India, and has been praised by critics for her work's personal vision.
A dancer from the age of five, Sindhoor learned Bharatanatyam from her mother, a feminist activist whose politics profoundly affected her daughter. By age 11, the youngster was being taught by one of India's most prominent proponents of the dance form, K. Venkatalakshamma, and as a professional in her late teens she became anxious to produce her own dances.
“I always wondered why the women I had to portray were weak, especially since my mother and all the women I grew up around were so strong,” says Sindhoor, who is working toward a Ph.D. on the history of dance theater in The University Professors program. “In university, I began to find dancing very confusing, and I'd feel unhappy after my performances. But I still saw a lot of beauty and possibility in the form. So I decided to find my own voice.”
Today, most of Sindhoor's productions are based on short stories or news articles she reads and adapts for dance, or on stories written especially for her to dance by her husband, Raju Sivasankaran, a computer engineer, writer, theater director, and filmmaker. Sivasankaran wrote River Rights after interviewing people he knew in the Narmada River Valley.
While Sindhoor's and Sivasankaran's politics are clearly progressive, Sindhoor says she tries to avoid overt polemics in her work. “I do hope to raise some questions about politics, but I want to let people feel all sorts of emotions, and not to tell them how to feel,” she says. Sindhoor has lived in the United States for six years, and runs her own Boston-based theater company, the Navarasa Dance Theatre, as well as the Navarasa Arts Academy, through which she teaches Bharatanatyam.
“Mainly I want to make people feel that they're not alone, and that there is a connection between them and me,” she says. “A lot of the stories I tell are about women simply because I'm a woman and I can relate so strongly to how they feel. I hope that when I do that, some kind of bonding between me and the audience happens, too.”
To learn more about Sindhoor, her dance company, and upcoming performances, visit www.navarasa.org.
26 March 2004