There are two major Sanskrit epics that are written almost exclusively in slokas (a couplet or unit of verse consisting of two lines in a series of light and heavy syllables in varied set combinations): the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The latter consists of 100,000 slokas and is based on the Hindu mythology that tells the story of the holy war between two clans of warring brothers—the wronged Pandavas and the evil Kauravas. Arjuna is one of the five righteous Pandava brothers and is considered by many to be the epic’s main protagonist. It is believed that Arjuna was guided through the holy war by Krishna—the human incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.
On November 15 and 16, the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose will perform a unique re-telling of the story. Abhinaya’s Artistic Director, Mythili Kumar, is co-directing Arjuna, A Warrior’s Tale with her daughter, Rasika. “The great war [Mahabharata] has always shed many lessons on loyalty, hypocrisy, deceit, friendship, fairness, and above all, righteousness. The episodes in the Mahabharata are intriguing and fascinating to all, young and old,” Mythili stated. Rasika added, “Stories from the Mahabharata are great since they include characters who perform heroic and not so heroic deeds as they navigate their own path in life. Plus, many of our audience members have grown up with these stories so they’re near and dear to their heart. Arjuna is an especially flawed character, and we were therefore excited about basing a whole show on his life.”
Anjana Dasu, one of Abhinaya’s seasoned dancers, is making her debut as one of Arjuna’s choreographers. “As a member of the ensemble (or audience for that matter), you don’t always realize how much preliminary work goes into crafting a single piece. Researching texts, developing a thematic concept, working with a composer, experimenting with movement, formations, characterization—all of this must happen before dancers can learn the choreography in a rehearsal.”
When asked about any challenges presented by choreographing the epic story, Dasu replied, “In Arjuna, we’ll be an all-female cast playing mostly male characters. The choreography of stances, gestures, and expressions will be integral to transforming us into warrior princes. Another interesting aspect of Arjuna is that we’ll need to convey the spatial geography and magnitude of large scenes, [such as] battlefields, military formations, a palace, [and] a gurukulam, through choreographed formations.” Rasika concurred, stating that the casting goal has been “to find dancers who can tap into the essence of the character and communicate it through their mukhabhinaya (facial expressions) and angika abhinaya (expression through stance and the limbs of the body).” In fact, they have cast a different dancer for each episode. She added, “Each dancer will bring her own interpretation to Arjuna’s character thus presenting multiple shades of his complex personality.”
The audience can expect an intricately composed and well-executed choreography that will not only showcase the talents of Abhinaya dancers but also define the scope of their dedication and commitment to a novel interpretation of Arjuna’s heroic story into the classical dance form of bharatanatyam. Choreographer Malavika Kumar asserted, “What we’re doing is so much more than just choreographing to a set piece of music. Everything we’re doing is completely from scratch—it’s never been performed before and the music is all brand new. Therefore, what we’ve really been focusing on in choreographing this show is how we can bring something new to these stories that isn’t just the usual re-telling. In particular, we wanted to really focus on Arjuna’s internal monologue during all these episodes—how does he really feel about what’s going on or happening to him? What lesson, if any, is he taking away? And I think that’s really what makes this show different from other shows, because it puts a unique spin on these stories, and hopefully gets the audience looking at them in a new light.”
Through its signature rhythmic movements and stylized gestures, Abhinaya Dance Company’s Arjuna, A Warrior’s Tale will explore the moral and ethical struggles that the mythical hero Arjuna overcame before taking the Pandavas to victory.
Rasika hopes that the show will profoundly inspire and touch all who attend. “Tales of these heroes and heroines were our bedtime stories. We wanted to create something that both honored this great epic but also provided a fresh look on these age-old stories. I hope many in the audience can sit back and enjoy scenes from their favorite stories about Arjuna, [and] that others understand the deeper relevance in his struggles and how it might relate to their own lives. For those not familiar with any of these stories, I hope to introduce them into the world of the Mahabharata and to capture their imagination.”
Saturday, November 15, 7 p.m. Sunday, November 16, 4 p.m. School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets: $50 (donor), $30 (preferred seating), $20 (general), $15 (seniors and students with IDs).(408) 871-5959. www.abhinaya.org.