Vasanth Kannabiran’s book offers a rich and rewarding reading experience. The writer intended each of the five pieces to be ‘shaped into music and dance’, in order to be performed as ballets in the Bharatanatyam tradition. But they also merit their own rightful place as works of literature.
There are five ballets in this volume: ‘Menaka’, ‘Peace on Earth’, ‘Ahalya’, ‘Gandhari’, and ‘Rajasimha’. As can be expected, ‘Menaka’, ‘Ahalya’, and ‘Gandhari’ are based on mythological characters. All three ballets retell the stories of these figures—familiar to many—with a shift in the point-of-view, endowing each of these famed female characters with their own individual voices. ‘Peace on Earth’ presents Esther, Mary Magdella, Rabia of Basra, and Akka Mahadevi to ‘connect and celebrate the unity and diversity of faith’. This ballet ends with a call for peace upon our earth. ‘Rajasimha’ ‘evokes the avatar of Narasimha as a metaphor of liberation’. How this representation finds its development from the violence of destruction to revival of life is the key element of this story. In the underlying mythological story, goddess Lakshmi, reincarnated as a tribal child Chenchu Lakshmi, subdues Narasimha’s rage and puts an end to his rampage. Chenchu Lakshmi can be seen as a personification of nature with all its inherent wealth (in contrast to Goddess Lakshmi, who is conventionally identified with the glitter of prosperity).
Kannabiran is a consummate storyteller. For those of us who find it difficult to connect the dots related to the genesis of celestial beings that populate our ancient Indian myths, her retelling of stories from these myths is easy to follow. She is able to provide background stories and revive our memory of those labyrinthine connections with a light touch. For example, her Sutradhari in ‘Menaka’ is as brisk as she is precise, and quickly recaps the complex conception stories of many characters who are mentioned in it. So we know Dushyanta begot Bharata, who was helped along by Brihaspathi to have an heir in Vitatha. There are several other instances where such help is very handy, as in the story of Gandhari and Kunti’s offspring.