The tale of a mythological woman told in a contemporary world
Let’s listen to this story in the rewind mode; for rarely does it happen that one gets a sneak peek into the mind of the creators. When the gorgeous 80-minute dance-music storytelling performance, A Woman’s Mind, came to an end; the entire team sat down with the audience for an informal Q & A session. For me, that’s one of the many highlights of the three-day show that was performed at The Junction, Alserkal Avenue, last weekend. The UAE audience is still, gradually, discovering the various art forms and conversations like these can serve as starting points to a higher art literacy in the country.
Music took a backseat, as it complimented the story: (L-R) Music & Vocals: Jogiraj Sikidar; Violin: Oindra Kumar Dutta; Percussion: Prashant Yeware
Director Michael Harvey (featured left) used the analogy of a gardener to explain his role in the show and shared how it all began as a lockdown project and how the Zoom sessions led to the completion of the same in a year’s time from concept to stage. Professional actress and storyteller Paola Balbi, artistic director of Raccontamiunastoria Storytelling Company, passionately enlightened everyone on the concept of storytelling; inviting the audience to assist in the revival of the art form, which is on the verge of a quick death. The music and vocals were courtesy Jogiraj Sikidar, founder-director, Malhaar Centre for Performing Arts, who threw light on how he relied on Indian ragas and was happy to let the music take a backseat and instead compliment the story. He was supported by violinist Oindra Kumar Dutta and percussionist Prashant Yeware, and the trio did ensure that at no point the music overpowered the performance; rather only enhanced each aspect of the tale — from anger to lust, and devotion to romance; each beat corresponded well to the emotion. The show was a cultural initiative of the HIBA Art Project and Beata Stankevic, the managing director, played a lovely moderator during the session. The spotlight was of course on Indian-born Dubai-bred multi-disciplinary artist Shereen Saif (her practice spans dance, theatre, storytelling, voice acting and conceptual art), who’d created and performed the show based on the tale of Ahalya, a mythological woman from the Indian epic, Ramayana. And she mentioned how there’s no script for storytelling, and how she researched the tale, adding in the elements that resonated best with her or A Woman’s Mind — in this case, the woman being Ahalya.
In the Ramayana, Ahalya’s is a tiny tale narrated in a few Sanskrit verses. I first performed a 10-minute version of it in 2018 at Raccontamiunastoria International Storytelling Festival in Rome. In 2021 I started to work on a re-interpreted, fleshed out version thanks to a production grant from the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. I draw from the rich oral, literary and performing traditions of India to create a version of this tale that will (hopefully) connect with global audiences.
Shereen Saif, multi-disciplinary artist
So, who was Ahalya? According to the legend, Ahalya was created by the deity Brahma as an impossibly beautiful woman. A besotted Indra seduces her in the guise of Gautama, her husband. Although Ahalya sees through his deception, she chooses to submit to her passions, only to face its dire consequences. Through a retelling of this ancient myth, the show explored traditional values in a modern world through the themes of love and loyalty, marriage and morals, desire and deceit, rage, revenge and repentance. Whilst the entire production was brilliant, a few specific scenes are likely to stay in my mind for a long time — the love-locked eyes of Indra and Ahalya when they see each other for the first-time depicting passion; the light-hearted introduction to Narada (a sage famous as a travelling musician and storyteller); the tad humour that peppered the subsequent welcoming of the gods to take a look at Ahalya on Brahma’s invite; the bold scenes between Indra and Ahalya depicted passion, yet steered away from coarseness — and all these characters played by one storyteller.
Shereen brought alive the tale in images, and at one point one could actually breathe in the scents of jasmine and sandalwood; visualise the boulder on which Ahalya sat; sensed the pain of Ahalya; rejoiced at her liberation from the curse. If there’s a way to tell an old tale to a contemporary audience, then the artist got it right in terms of languages, body movements, vocals, interaction with the audience, et al. Here’s to the revival of this beautiful art form, and more stories being brought alive on stage.