Salabhanjika and her many faces

TNIE speaks to renowned dance exponent Rajashree Warrier on her new thought-provoking production Salabhanjika
Rajashree, through ‘Salabhanjika’, is trying to evoke a sense of unease, challenge societal complacency.
Rajashree, through ‘Salabhanjika’, is trying to evoke a sense of unease, challenge societal complacency.Photo | Express

KOCHI: Salabhanjika translates to feminine power, vitality, transformation. Whether shown beside a sacred tree in Buddhist art or adorning Hindu and Jain sacred spaces, ‘Salabhanjika’ portrays beauty and grace.

It represents a woman standing by a sacred tree, showing Maya giving birth to Siddhartha by a sala tree. It also embraces an interpretation of any female figure breaking the monotony of space with her presence.

At the same time, it also shows a sense of confinement or rigidity within societal roles and expectations. This idea is well portrayed in the latest production of renowned dancer Rajashree Warrier, which recently premiered at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) in Mumbai.

“Nearly eight years ago, I worked on a project centered around the issue of female foeticide. At the time, I did not think of exploring this subject much more. However, as the years passed by, changes happened both in society and within myself. Meeting many people throughout my life has broadened my perspective. I have learned more about the problems faced by women in different parts of the world through these interactions. This experience inspired me to explore this area further and show these injustices through the art of dance,” says Rajashree.

Drawing inspiration from Kanayi Kunhiraman’s famous sculpture ‘Yakshi,’ one of her incomplete productions explores similar themes. Now, ‘Salabhanjika’ represents a refined and expanded version of ‘Yakshi’.

It portrays a poignant moment of feminine existence, symbolising the limitations imposed by societal norms. The title itself hints at the idea of women being metaphorically ‘frozen’ in their assigned roles and expectations.

This dance production encourages viewers to explore the essence of this frozen moment—how society both celebrates and restricts women.

It compels us to confront uncomfortable questions: How many girl children are killed in the womb due to gender bias? How many of them face the trauma of assault? How many of them are raped? After perpetrating such violence, can the person sleep well?

Such questions emphasise the impact of sexual violence and the potential psychological repercussions for the perpetrator, who may live in fear for the rest of their lives.

Salabhanjika

Rajashree, through ‘Salabhanjika’, is trying to evoke a sense of unease, challenge societal complacency, and encourage dialogue about these critical issues.

“In my production, I explore these themes through a non-linear narrative. I depict female foeticide, objectification, and society’s gaze toward girls. I show how cruelty can blind a person, how ordinary eyes turn red towards a girl child, and how the fear of their actions haunts perpetrators for life. That fear is central to my production,”” she says.

In the first part of the production, the narrative focuses on the character Madhavi from the story of Yayathi. Rajashree chose Madhavi due to the story’s emphasis on virginity, where she can seemingly regain it with each new encounter, which is considered a blessing.

However, Madhavi’s lack of choice, with decisions made by a paternal figure, mirrors the ongoing reality for many women. The segment also features a song by Bharathiar, encouraging girl children to dream.

Yet, the production also highlights the societal constraints that stop these dreams. “I tried to incorporate additional sound elements into the production, like whispers and cries, such as the sound of a child calling for help. One standout feature is the violin pieces by Attukal Balasubramanyam, which are powerful enough to paint a beautiful setting for the production,” Rajashree says.

“Additionally, Srikanth Cameo, a leading technician in Kerala, handled the lighting. ‘Salabhanjika’ is part of my ‘Naattumozhi, the vernacular’ series, which integrates more regional and native elements into its storytelling,”

Including various symbolic representations and techniques, the production diverges from Rajashree’s previous works. More theater elements plays an important role, with lighting, costumes, music, et al. Soundscape is given equal importance alongside the performers.

‘Salabhanjika’ is a collaborative effort involving Rajashree and eight students. She handled the text, narration, and music composition.

“After our performance at NMACC, the audience was silent for a moment, then they stood up and clapped. It was the best feeling ever! I think dance speaks to everyone,” she shares.

“Getting a standing ovation is like the highest praise a performance can get. It feels really good. But sometimes, people try to record the show, even during rehearsals. As someone who has dedicated her life to dancing, it makes me sad. But you know what? I have learned to see it as a form of recognition. If someone copies my show, it must mean they think it’s significant, right? Being creative is a big deal. It takes a lot of work to come up with ideas and bring them to life. But there’s no easy way to protect your ideas.”

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