"Does my sexiness upset you?" taunts Mallika Sarabhai, quoting a Maya Angelou poem during Hot Talas, Cool Ragas, an art-in-the-service-of-social-justice evening Saturday at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theater.
Beautiful and bold as brass, Sarabhai's persona infuses every aspect of the 10-person dance production, from depicting the persecution in a literal manner to using emerald greens and banana yellows. Great art it isn't. But then, great art isn't its main purpose. Message is. It is birthed by intellectuals and realized for common folk. The medium gets across the message. That makes it a success.
In a week when more than 55 were killed in bombings in New Delhi fueled by Muslim-Hindu hostility, and newspapers reported an Indian bride set on fire by her husband's family, Sarabhai's messages of women's rights and peace are not lost on her American audiences.
In "I Rise," she delivers Angelou's poem about women rising above adversity. Where many Indian dancers eschew the overly dramatic and favor subtlety over "look at me," Sarabhai smiles widely in the bharata natyam "Nataraja Vandanam" and fixes her eyes squarely on the audience, commanding them to follow the story. Stories morph throughout the evening -- women in a mental asylum ("Bird in My Ceiling"), the taboo of being a dancer ("Marking the Spaces"), sense of self (the hauntingly beautiful duet "My World" by Padmakumar Damodaran), and celebrating differences ("Celebration"). In "Kaun," she uses a Sufi poem set to popular music by the group Indian Ocean to criticize hiding behind masks of wealth and power ("Kaun"). The dancers are masked. She is not. They persecute her. She exhorts them to reveal their true selves. Visually it's exciting. There's no mistaking the message.
With jazz, poetry, percussion, movement and a superb lighting designer (Divya Kumar), Sarabhai uses the stage to deliver social commentary. She is unapologetic. For her, art not used in the service of social justice is a waste.
The evening was presented by the Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh & Company.
-- Pamela Squires