In its preamble, the ancient Hindu epic "Mahabharata" calls itself "a veritable ocean containing countless pearls and gems." From these treasures, West Los Angeles-based dancer and teacher Viji Prakash has assembled a program with a special focus.
Scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, Prakash's dance-drama "Women in the Mahabharata" looks at what she describes as the "feminine energy" shaping the narrative and, in particular, the lives of four key women.
Prakash herself will dance the roles of the goddess Ganga (fated to drown seven of her babies) and the queen Draupadi (wife to the five hero-brothers of the epic), as well as a number of male characters. Members of her Shakti Dance Company complete the cast and, for them as for Prakash, the performance will be something of a homecoming, since they normally rehearse in Orange County.
Although "Mahabharata" tells many stories in a text nearly 15 times longer than the Bible, the central conflict concerns a power struggle between two groups of cousins. Prakash believes that a non-Indian audience will easily be able to follow the story line of her adaptation, as well as to appreciate the "force and brilliance" of the South Indian form of classical dance called Bharata Natyam to which she has devoted her life.
When growing up in Bombay and studying this dazzlingly intricate, powerfully expressive idiom, Prakash found the tales and lessons of "Mahabharata" deeply connected to the daily lives of the Indian people. At 20, she moved to Southern California, establishing a Bharata Natyam school in 1979 and a company four years later.
For the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, she collaborated on a "Mahabharata" dance-drama--but, she emphasized quietly in a recent phone interview, "that performance was built around two of the male characters," as well as involving two different Indian dance disciplines.
In contrast, "Women in the Mahabharata" will be expressed entirely through Bharata Natyam--though Prakash promises that it will break with classical tradition in several important ways.
For starters, the propulsive, rhythmically complex Carnatic music from South India that normally accompanies Bharata Natyam will be supplemented by passages of the more melodic Hindustani music from the North, the latter composed for this production by Shubho Shankar.
The son of the renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar, Shubho, a Garden Grove resident, was scheduled to perform the new work with Prakash, but died of pneumonia in September. Prakash has dedicated the Irvine performance to his memory.
Another innovation: Prakash wants to bring contemporary relevance to the great war that resolves the catastrophic family conflict in "Mahabharata." Thus her finale will juxtapose classic "Mahabharata" images with references to "famine, the destruction of the environment" and other modern calamities, she says.
Even the focus of her piece might be viewed as radical, since many stagings of "Mahabharata" (including the Peter Brook stage and television versions) make the male characters dominant. To Prakash, however, the very soul of "Mahabharata" is nurtured by its women and she finds that in this mythic saga, "women are accorded a dignity and status that they have not regained in contemporary life."
Indeed, she considers the famous scene involving the public disrobing of Draupadi--a shocking crime that is averted only by a miracle--to be "the act that began the destruction of women's status," and she speaks of it with the same bitter surety of someone describing the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King.
Someone who takes an ancient literary source \o7 that \f7 personally is bound to be a compelling artist, and more than once in the past, Prakash has proved able to transform herself in a role, fusing her technique and interpretive prowess with the spirit of a historical or legendary character--and also, in classic Bharata Natyam style, moving from role to role in a bravura display of storytelling versatility.
The big question, however, is what happens when Prakash is offstage. Can her company members sustain the interest she generates? Based on previous performances of "Women in the Mahabharata" (including one in Long Beach five months ago), she believes they can.
"Some of them have been with me for 10 years," she says, and then softly reveals the secret of success in the Bharata Natyam world.
The most difficult thing to learn, she says, \o7 isn't\f7 the fast, percussive footwork, the angular, sculptural stances or the detailed vocabulary for eyes and fingers. It isn't even the fierce concentration that yields such expressive magic in a fine performance. No, it is something much rarer in the modern world: a devoted patience.
"The art isn't something you can learn in a single semester," she explains. "You have to be willing to give many years to it." She began at 4 and now her young daughter dances alongside her.
Prakash may be far away from her cultural roots, beset (like all Americans) by constant change, but she has transplanted the tradition of art as an expression of family values and has now helped isolate the issues in a timeless masterwork to make it unexpectedly timely in her adopted land.
* \o7 "Women in the Mahabharata," a program of Indian classical dance by Viji Prakash and the Shakti Dance Company, will be presented Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $10 to $20. (714) 854-4646. \f7