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December 17, 2005

Devi Diva

Since Rajika Puri, who will probably eternally be The Elegant Lady in the Fur to me, is responsible for introducing me to the beauty of classical Indian dance, there was no way I was going to miss her concert at the Rubin Museum of Art.

The museum, on 17th and 7th is in the building that was Barney’s well before it went posh. If I recall correctly, Dad brought me there for my first navy blazer when I was about 11. Instead of six floors of off-price suits, it now houses art from the Himalayan region and a small auditorium downstairs. (Knitter report: There are hand knit and crocheted scarves from Nepalese women’s cooperatives in the gift shop, but most textiles are woven and embroidered.) The auditorium is interesting and informal with tables sprinkled among the chairs and candles lit for atmosphere, but looks as if it was designed more for beauty and atmosphere than for practical concerns. The audience is level rather than raked - it looked as if the rear of the auditorium was actually raked slightly in reverse.

Devi-Malika was a performance of “manifestations of the feminine divine in India”. It was efficient in resources: a director, a musician (Steve Gorn playing a bamboo flute and other percussion) and Puri herself who sang, spoke and danced. Projections and film were used judiciously to heighten the atmosphere or practically to give Puri a brief rest in a solo performance. Puri and her director, Yuval Sharon, collaborated well; their focus made efficiency seem extravagant.

Six aspects of the feminine divine were shown. As the lights dimmed we heard a low resonant rumble; it was Puri beginning the tale of Lalita (beautiful), a creation myth. Indian classical dance is magical as a solo form; the narrative intimacy and power enables a talented performer to conquer the stage. Clothed in silk and bells (but with relatively little makeup – the theater is small and her eyes don’t need it) Puri has a similar magnetism to the best Graham dancers. It’s totally different than the magic of a ballet dancer; weight versus weightlessness. Darci Kistler was omnipresent yet intangible on a stage, like sunlight or dew. She perfumed the space. Puri, in the way I imagine Martha Graham, is a vortex into which all energy onstage converges and through which it must pass.

Her manifestations are colored by this power. Parvati – “of the mountain” and Shiva’s consort is both power and feminine guile. Her power is her beauty; Shiva was entranced by Parvati the moment he saw her. Puri changes her posture as Parvati; she becomes lighter, gently swaying confidently and seductively. This becomes even more so in the story of Savitri ("born of the sun"), the princess who renounced her status to marry the man of her choice and was so beautiful and quick-witted that she could trick Death out of his intended quarry – her husband. The most delightful of all the vignettes, Puri used a mask that appeared unexpectedly to create a duet out of a solo.

Saraswati, a river diety, was represented in music and on film. Gorn played a raga named for her while we saw only Puri’s bejeweled hands on film, performing larger-than-life mudras that flowed like water. It was a lovely and intelligent interlude. She returned as Radha. A common girl as fair as Krishna was dark (With his indigo skin he was known as Shyam – evening); their love elevated her to godhood in partnership with him. The final incarnation, was Sati, “true” – the namesake of the Hindu custom of immolation. But Sati was more than human; she could throw herself into a fire in vengeance for her father’s slight to her husband, Shiva, yet return to Shiva as Parvati – in her own sweet time, a millennium later. And as Puri ended, “But that is another story”.

Puri is not an anthropologist and makes no bones that what she’s offering us is her take on traditional myths. She has the taste to accomplish this and knows how much she can bend the twig before it breaks. It isn’t a reinterpretation as much as a view from other angles, such as a dance only of jeweled hands on a projected screen. She knows how to make what she is doing feel traditional even when it obviously isn’t.

There are a few common threads I’ve noticed in the Indian dance I’ve seen to date, but none more striking than the attitude towards sensuality and sex. In some of the most compelling Western myths, when mortals and gods couple the consequences are dire, far outweighing the pleasure. Even without the intersection with the supernatural, sex and pleasure are often followed by misfortune or punishment hard on its heels. In these dances sex is not only pleasure, but inspiration, bestowing creativity and poetry on the fortunate participants. Even in its poetic euphemisms (“Ah Monsoon, you have drenched me”) the sensuality is celebratory. (Added 12/18/05: The closest equivalent that comes to mind from Western culture is the Song of Songs.) It’s surprisingly hard to calibrate one’s brain to an artistic vision of sex completely untainted by shame. This is idealized, just as the portrait of women in Indian dance is idealized. But it is a fascinating and thought-provoking ideal.

The troika of Puri, Sharon and Gorn provided us with a jewel of an evening, an intricate box with several compartments each with a different surprise. Puri was as delightful talking afterwards as performing; she is very self-aware as a performer. If there was any difficulty with the performance it was that she came up short of breath early on when singing before she found her rhythm and a way to release her diaphragm as singing requires while still engaging it as dancing requires. It was one of the first things she acknowledged about the performance.

Puri lives comfortably in more than one artistic world. She’s acted in Julie Taymor’s productions and performed in several fusions of Western and Indian dance including meshing it with Flamenco and anatomizing it in a post-modern fashion. Fusion probably came naturally to her; she holds one of the secrets to it. To meld both worlds you must understand and honor both equally and know what can mesh and what cannot. But magnetic performers such as Puri can reconcile what lesser talents wouldn’t be able to. In her many incarnations she can contain multitudes.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at December 17, 2005 10:19 PM

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Wonderfully written. Wish I cd have seen the performance

Posted by: Rekha Surya at January 5, 2006 12:21 AM

Thank you for bringing back to my mind, the beauty and power of Rajika's performance!
All my friends who I invited enjoyed it thoroughly.
I always find her stage presence mesmerizing, and this time, it was sometimes dramatic, often amusing, and other times charming, but sooo wonderful always.

Posted by: Sarina Tang at January 11, 2006 1:20 PM

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