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Dancing the Gods: Sanjukta Wagh’s Retelling of the Mahabharata

by Bonnie Rosenstock
April 30, 2016
Symphony Space
2537 Broadway
New York, NY 10025
(212) 864-1414
The epic poem, the Mahabharata, considered an early history of India and a founding myth, recounts the devastating war of succession and control of the Indo-Gangetic plain. It is fought over by two sets of cousins, the hundred-strong Kauravas, born to a blind king, and the five Pandavas, the sons of a younger brother to whom he ceded his throne because of his handicap.

Against great odds and with trickery, the Pandavas won, and as everyone knows, to the winner belongs the spoils – and heroic mythmaking. As in many founding myths, women either get short shrift or over the centuries their roles are greatly diminished or skewered. Think Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus’s, vaguely mentioned in the bible, whose image nevertheless has been distorted over the centuries.

In “Rage and Beyond: Irawati’s Gandhari,” Indian performer and choreographer Sanjukta Wagh retells the Mahabharata from the point of view of the lesser known Gandhari, an incarnation of the Goddess of Intelligence, who was the wife of the blind king. When she discovers that her betrothed, prince Dhritarashtra, is blind, she decides to remain blindfolded for the rest of her life. She gives birth to a stone, which she divides into one hundred and one pieces that becomes her hundred sons, the Kauravas, and one daughter. At her sons’ defeat, she, her husband and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, embark on an ascetic life in the mountains but meet their fate in a forest fire.

The script, which Wagh also wrote, is inspired by and interspersed with excerpts from anthropologist Irawati Karve’s book, “Yuganta: The End of an Epoch” (1967; republished 2008), which is a contemporary interpretation of the struggle from historical, anthropological and secular perspectives. As Wagh explains in the program notes, ”In the rewriting of Irawati’s Gandhari in movement, music and text, I try to keep the pulse of this character as imagined by her author alive in my moving body. I explore her complex and shifting relationship with her blindfold. In doing this, I endeavor to bring alive the violence and contradictions of her inner experience and her various roles as a Kshatriya (warrior) woman in the Mahabaharata, who finally moves beyond her physical and metaphysical blindfolds. In my exploration, I encounter my own rage, and the blindfolds that we perhaps unconsciously inflict upon our individual and social selves.”

Wagh is a lovely dancer with great stage presence. She embodied the young princess, full of hope and desire, with light, airy movement. Then when she learned that her husband-to-be is blind, her dance turned to rage and betrayal, with quicker movements and foot stomps (the bells around her ankles jingle nicely). She wrapped a long red sash around her eyes to blindfold herself, “on that which we don’t wish to see,” she said. But, unfortunately, those dance nuggets were few and far between, wedged into the monotony of the written script, which Wagh, seated off to one side, expounded on. Quotes from Irawati were displayed on a back screen from time to time, but at those moments, Wagh was standing downstage and blocked a chunk of it.

This ambitious piece won the 2015 Mahindra Excellence in Theatre award for Best Actress and the guitarist, Hitesh Dhutia, won for Best Sound Design. However, I wasn’t impressed with the uniformity of the score. Even during that one heightened emotional dance of betrayal, the music droned on at an even keel instead of driving the action. Throughout the performance, it seems they were each dancing and playing to a different drummer.

In the sparse audience, there were many sleeping bodies, lulled by the verbosity of the spoken word. We all felt Gandhari’s pain.

The annual Dancing the Gods festival, was instituted by World Music Institute in 2011 to provide a platform for Indian classical dance in New York City as well as to spotlight veteran masters and emerging artists.

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian


Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian


Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian


Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian

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