Brihannala: A Myth, A Journey, A Dance-conversation

A conversation with Aniruddhan Vasudevan (first published in Aainanagar)

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, performer, writer, translator and activist based in Chennai. His dance/theater piece ‘Brihannala’ raises questions about gender in Indian Dance, Theater and society.

“I had watched an earlier version (excerpts of which are to be found in this page) of this piece in Chennai four years ago, and a desire to talk to Aniruddhan about it has been there ever since.” – Madhushree (interviewer).


Scene from Brihannala

Q: Why Brihannala? It’s an Indian mythological character and as a Bharatanatyam dancer you may have sought your protagonist in that literature…there might be other reasons…but I’m naturally assuming that the issue is the so-called social ambiguity of gender. But then there were other characters with – I shouldn’t say similar – may be parallel gender-issues like Shikhandi, Yuvanashva, even Chitrangada in the same literature.

Aniruddhan: The answer to that is, I am afraid, rather simple and straightforward. I started learning Bharatanatyam in 1988 when I was six years old. That was also the year BR Chopra’s famous mega TV series, ‘Mahabharat,’ started airing on Doordarshan. The episodes that had me riveted were the ones where we see the Pandavas in the thirteenth year of their exile, living in disguise in the kingdom of Virata. Arjuna becomes Brihannala, a transgender woman. I was really enthralled by that visual representation of Arjuna’s temporary transformation. That impact, I think, stayed with me. Later, as a queer adult, I have had moments of deep gender crisis, but they were always short-lived, though intense, experiences. And when I looked for some kind of a metaphor or a short-hand or an ideal-type to understand these temporary intensities of gender I experienced, I thought of Brihannala again. Plus, I also had this weird crush on the Arjuna I saw on TV, and I could not tell if it was actually a puppy crush on the actor (Feroz Khan) who played the role). Then later there was also this intense Krishna love, triggered by dance songs and Vaishnava poetry. So all of it seemed to somehow converge on Brihannala as a figure that helped me make some order out of this chaotic flow of desires.

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Total Masala Slammer/ Heartbreak No. 5: A Review

A case of mistaken identity for the Indian classical dancer?

Preethi  Athreya

This review (also available online here) was first published in Dance Research Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter, 2004), pp. 139-143. It is being re-presented here with the permission of the author, in addition to a few performance photos and a short excerpt of the performance (uploaded by the director). Photo courtesy – Michel Laub ( and photographer Monica Rittershaus. We would be happy to remove the review/ video/photos if we are notified of any copyrights rule violation.

Total Masal Slammer/ Heartbreak no. 5, conceived and directed by Belgian director Michel Laub and visual artist Marina Abramovic [1], has been described as a European American Indian multimedia theater project combining dance, theater, video projection, art installation, and music. Laub and Abramovic draw on vastly mixed references to deal with themes of race and multiculturalism. A recurrent theme is women and their abuse in different cultural perspectives. Laub and Abramovic are fascinated by two extremes of Indian culture: on the one side the purity of classical Indian dance and art, kathak; on the other, the triviality of soap operas and kitschy TV serials produced by Bollywood (Archa Theatre 2001). Laub’s theater is said to play with the conventions of theatrical representation, constantly bringing the rehearsal process onto the stage. Less interested in trained actors than in forceful personalities, Laub looks for a fusion of the autobiographical details of his performers with fictional situations. So, what happens when Michel Laub, a postmodernist with a tendency to parody order, system, and signification, collaborates with Kumudini Lakhia, a traditional reformist for whom art is about poetry, wonder, simplicity, and dignity?

In Total Masal Slammer, unrequited love is “performed” in different performance traditions of kathak and Bharatanatyam, Bollywood soap opera, and German theater. Actors, sometimes wearing period costumes, read out excerpts from a book with exaggerated melodrama or affected irreverence. Audition videos are screened, and there is much dancing– contemporary dance, cabaret, kathak, and bharatanatyam. It has a deliberately fragmented piece-by-piece approach with actors seated on stage, taking turns to perform their acts. Goethe’s text. “The sorrows of Young Werther,” appears and disappears between numerous unconnected episodes. It concerns a young man stricken by unrequited love to the point of taking his life.

The French Kiss Scene

The set is minimal with a cinema screen on a raised platform upstage center, a wooden platform downstage center and chairs on either side. A backdrop of billowy cloth tumbles down dramatically with some scene changes. Among the characters are three contemporary dancers, seven kathak dancers, and two bharatanatyam dancers chosen from the auditions in Bombay, Ahmedabad, and Chennai. Woman as sex object is a recurring motif. A dancer in a sequined dress wriggles and sways as she recounts the mischievous story of her Caribbean-European origin while a European dancer in a clinging red sari listens to her Walkman, giggles, and imitates an Indian accent; she returns later in the nude and joins a group of female kathak dancers, mimicking their delivery of bols [2] .

A male kathak dancer sings a song about love while a frantic woman repeatedly runs across the stage. Two male Bharatanatyam dancers begin dancing a traditional fast-paced rhythmic piece while the traditional accompaniment suddenly changes to an electronic techno beat. Excerpts of films are projected on the screen from time to time, including a clip in which a Bollywood dancer with her thrusts and covert glances fills up the screen and is followed by a eunuch. Renowned choreographer Kumudini Lakhia demonstrates sorrow in the classical tradition. During intermission, a kathak dancer performs a complicated rhythmic piece in front of the curtained stage. The last scene brings all the characters on stage at the same time, each doing their routine in a frenzied pace.

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Padme: The Obscure Lotus-bud


Padme– brain-child of Netherlands-based contemporary (trained in Bharatanatyam) dancer, choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman and India-based contemporary (formerly Bharatanatyam) dancer, choreographer, dance-journalist, dance-producer-presenter Anita Ratnam– has been one of those long-awaited long-advertised contemporary dance productions all over the social (dance) media. December 25th, 7:45 in the morning, Chandralekha’s Spaces– the clay-court of Indian dance performances, looking onto the waves of the Indian Ocean at Besant Nagar, Chennai, was just the apt venue and time for the troupe first time visiting the city– the soft sun and the morning-breeze cleansing the Margazhi frenzy of last evening, the smell of damp leaves and wet sand welcoming us to the sweaty clammy weighty brain-racking physicality that dance is.

I had arrived to Chennai just the day before, after a desperate year-long hunger for watching dance performances. And there it was– fresh and fleshy to be pounced upon– the one that I have been often reading and contemplating about in last few weeks. Padme has been different in many ways. Result of a cross-continental collaboration between Ratnam and Raghuraman, respectively the co-producer along with Korzo Productions and the choreographer of Padme, as well as seven young Classical dancers from Bangalore, keen and excited to travel the new path– Padme has been, from the beginning to the end, a professionally commercial piece promoting the youth as a package along with all its components of freedom, freshness and arrogance, which is often a good thing to some extent.


The program started with a music repertoire titled as Float performed by Anil Srinivasan on the piano and Krishna Kishor on the percussion. I am a regular back-bencher when it comes to music shows, but that day it was not just my intrinsic musical shyness but also the already packed rows of chairs replacing the more frequently present striped carpets at The Spaces. As it happens with music, it was possibly working for some and not for the rest. I was one of the latter. I repeat though– I am really a philistine when it comes to music; besides I might have been too distracted trying to save myself from nature’s well-directed droppings from the overhead greenery. Yet, what put me off that day was not that particular form of art but its presentation in a manner of calculated corporate nicety, even during the Jugalbandi. Somehow it did not fit as a justified inauguration to an experimental art-piece! But then there was the Narthaki booklet in bright red and black with thousand dance anecdotes as well as the inimitable enigma of Anita Ratnam herself with all of her five feet and eight inches to keep my eyes occupied. For such a long time she has been a name to look up to for so many young Classical dancers (including myself, ages back, in a workshop in Kolkata) all over India, providing some of them with space, money and most importantly inspiration to work differently within but at the same time out of the Classical terrains, to come out of the labyrinth of the guru-shishya parampara and claim one’s Art as one’s own. But of course after the claim comes the matter of accepting the responsibility of it. That is where Padme failed.

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Art and Gender – a Pedagogical Conversation(!?)

Natesh Muthuswamy with Madhushree

An email-conversation between Natesh and myself about gender, art and abstraction. Not sure how many of the questions are actually answered or whether, in the first place, the questions make sense or if there are anything such as discrete questions in this context or all of it is just another fuzzy interval in a continuous process of thinking and/or learning. If nothing else it certainly adds to the existing stream of doubts and dilemmas so that the brain feels muddled and happy. It’s a pity that WordPress humanifies all emoticons so that the multi-colour-of-consciousness-ed smileys that Natesh distributes all over the email space turn into dumb faces here!   – Madhushree

Natesh (August 4, evening) Objectivity is total rubbish. The whole thing is subjective and `gendered’. Totally bored of everything I wanted to close down totally. I saw a movie and then another movie. This woman comes on screen and life changes. Though I am not a killer, I used to make bows and arrows as a child. It struck me like an arrow. Pierced. The perfect line. The active line. Though portraits are a big no, no, it is the female face that has the line. When gender never happened, it was lions, horses and then Ganeshas. But nothing is as compelling as the female countenance with its expressive detail. And then the abstract line if she looks at you. All life connect with the line. Even a crow looks at your eyes. All of them look at you in the eye. And if she looks at you in the eye, the abstract line gets registered. I am wired again, the line is back like an addiction. And I know that it is the female line. Male gaze? Me is not interested in making; making dissolves the line. The line is instinct. The line is life. Line is life? Good title for a show….. for once I found the missing link. In the total abstraction of the line. If you can save the link between the two of you with the line, you live with him/her forever. A link that can link you with the universe. Death becomes a good friend.

Painting by Francesco Clemente

Madhushree: Whole thing is subjective – one can possibly agree to some extent, but `gendered’? Isn’t that something all of you were against at one point?

N: Actually it is a politically correct lie. If you really look at it, we try so hard to befriend intellectual idiocy…. so wasteful since they are not organic enough; hence their unfriendly, necrophiliac evaluation…. an area which is inherently contradictory since at the moment of hardness, they are very subjective with their dried-up juices…

Gender not as a negative connotation but as an inherent fact….

Please correct me…

M: Oh personally speaking I don’t really care if a work of art is `gender-biased’ or not as long as there’s some thought and work behind it. This may not be the correct attitude – I don’t know. But then what’s the correct attitude!

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B21 Improvisation – A Review


“Preethi pulled Chandana into her circle of obsession and in turn acquired Chandanas’s stable serenity. She countered Chandana’s proposition of an abstract definiteness with a frenzied narrative of familiar gestures”… it was when I wrote this line I simultaneously realized that I was increasingly sounding like a football commentator gone slightly askew in her mind, and that it was really three whole hours that had passed since I came in. It was not an extremely intense technique-based three hours. Rather cornily, it felt like a fun time that allowed both a bit of work and a bit of gobbledygook, and finally seemed to get over before one would like it to. The genre of fun might have had a shade of the obscure, or more appropriately a hint of uncertainty. But that might have been the whole point of the session –one that probably made each participant think, search and improvise beyond the grids of the auditorium of the Alliance Francaise of Madras.

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‘Stranger In Indian Paradise’ With David Rolland

Recently David Rolland Choréographies created `Stranger in Indian Paradise‘ – a contemporary dance production in association with Basement 21 and through The Embassy of France in India, Institut Français en Inde, the Alliance Française de Delhi and the Alliance Française network presented two shows in Chennai and Delhi, as part of DanSe DialogueS festival, from April 11 to 29, 2014 throughout India.

L’Etranger au Paradis Indien

The production featured ten dancers walking on carpets of different designs (by David Rolland and Sumant Jayakrishnan) – the walk varying with each carpet. The styles of walking were inspired from the designs – sometimes airy and animatedly `dancy’ along the colorful, curves, sometimes grave and heavy, exploring tensions created by the contrast of the vibrant base, the playfulness of the intersecting lines and the achromatic intensity of the moving bodies, sometimes ethereal, almost weightless like memories from remote past.

Excerpts of the production can be viewed here:

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