When Indian dancer and performance artist Mallika Sarabhai came to Washington a number of years ago to perform "Sita's Daughters," the performance was edgy. Her convictions as a feminist and political activist who puts art in the service of social justice were undiluted, but the staging and script were tasty.
"An Idea Named Meera," which Sarabhai and Daksha Mushruwala performed Friday at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, was more run-of-the-mill. In an odd move, Sarabhai presented her multimedia dance essay on the 16th-century poet Meera in Bollywood style. She explored the religious ecstasy of this royal who so unfashionably devoted her life to Lord Krishna and finally left the court to wander as a religious mendicant. But Bollywood often depicts formulaic characters, and this, by association, coarsened "Meera's" content.
In research for this performance, Sarabhai, herself from a wealthy and well-known family and a bit of a rebel, delved into Meera's little-known diaries to flesh out this saint whose devotional poems are so widely known. But the outcome was a meat-and-potatoes representation of ecstasy and did little to transmit the transcendent and addicting experiences of this royal outcast.
Dance followed dance, interspersed with short monologues. The video images had badly costumed extras, emotions were stereotyped, the music was canned, and the script suffered from phrases like "No woman is alone." To be fair, Sarabhai and Mushruwala were put at a disadvantage by technical difficulties. Twice the soundtrack faltered and the performance temporarily halted. It was next to impossible to hear the spoken English translations of the songs over the distorted recording.
Yet clearly this was far from the in-your-face feminist rebel who used to cut through the "woe is me" rap to get across her conviction that women in India get the short end of the stick. "Sita's Daughters" sizzled. "An Idea Named Meera" simmers.
-- Pamela Squires