Local South Asian arts non-profit Pratidhwani again teams up with ACT Theatre, this time to present a sprawling Indian ballet with a cast of 40. Chitrangada, The Warrior Princess, written in 1892 by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, focuses on gender, love, and of course, the many faces of Indian dance.
In this piece, which resonates with both classical and contemporary elements, Princess Chitrangada must decide how to approach the man she loves, the warrior Arjuna, by choosing between her warrior persona and her fabricated feminine alter-ego.
Featuring eleven classical and contemporary Indian dance forms, this production of Chitrangada is an all-volunteer project which has been a year in the making. The show’s director, Moumita Bhattacharya, reports that preparations began last May, with auditions last September and October. “Every person performs because they love dance and are ready to take precious time off from their lives to practice for six to ten hours a week over a four-month period,” Bhattacharya said.
Pratidhwani reports that selection for the show was an easy choice. “We had staged this show seven years ago at a small scale and it has been one of our best-received shows to date,” said Bhattacharya, who also serves as President of Pratidhwani. “The underlying theme of gender stereotypes and love is especially relevant in the times we live in.”
The group is happy to be staging this work at ACT, according to Bhattacharya. “Over the years, we have partnered with ACT multiple times to bring South Asian arts to a mainstream Seattle audience,” she said. “For a primarily volunteer-driven immigrant arts organization, reaching a mainstream audience is difficult, if not impossible, and ACT facilitates that by being a channel for presentation.”
Many members of this production have a long history with Chitrangada. “I first heard Chitrangada at the age of five, when my parents had acquired a vinyl record of the musical,” Bhattacharya said. “I grew up knowing the songs and the music and the story of Chitrangada, of a princess who fought all odds to gain her love, while not losing out on her innate sense of being.”
Over time, Bhattacharya’s appreciation for this ballet has changed. “For a girl of five, the music and the dance was beautiful,” she said. “Many decades later, while the music and the dance still stir the soul, it’s the essence of the story that captivates my senses.”
The show’s producer, Nitya Gupta, has likewise accompanied the show’s progression here in Seattle. “I wore several hats for Chitrangada in 2010, juggling between a producer, choreographer, actor, and dancer,” Gupta said. “It was then for the first time, Pratidhwani introduced Indian classical dance to our audience. The production received an overwhelming positive response.”
Actor Tanyee Kale, who plays the role of Kurupa in this new production, recalled the great experience of the 2010 production, and was enthusiastic about participating again. “I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect and better show for me to get back to dancing and the stage after giving birth to my child,” she said.
The performers and artistic team all have decades of dance training and experience between them, led by director Bhattacharya, with 35 years of classical Indian dance experience.
Actor Anwesha Das, who plays the role of Surupa, is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer with twenty years of dancing experience. “I started learning Bharatanatyam from my Guru Urmila Sathyanarayanan in India in 1995,” Das said. “It has been enriching journey of discovery and is an integral part of my life.”
Yet despite these decades of experience, this show has been a process of discovery for Das. “My role entails a lot of expressive dance, so it has been a wonderful experience to get under the skin of the character who is going through a myriad of emotions,” she said.
Das’s character Surupa is the alter-ego of the title character, the warrior Chitrangada. Surupa, in her bid to win the love of Arjuna, attempts to embody feminine charm. “Surupa is suffocating under the guise of eternal feminine beauty and ideal companionship, which is a façade,” Das said. “It pinches her to live under these veneers of lies, which hide her true identity of an intelligent and valorous woman.”
Guiding us through the journey of Chitrangada and Surupa are two narrators, played by actors Suchitra Mohan and Pushkara Chaganti. “I love telling stories,” Mohan said. “I get to go on stage every evening and tell people the story of a really powerful woman. What could be better than that?”
Chaganti concurs. “I love the fact that my character matches my natural personality,” she said. “I am naturally bubbly, energetic, and very good with telling stories filled with imagery and dance-like actions.”
Despite 17 years of experience dancing and teaching dance, Chaganti has also found this production to be a growth experience. “Normally, I am a dancer and choreographer in all the Pratidhwani shows,” she said. “However, this is my debut acting experience and I have learned that staying on top of my lines, not paraphrasing, and making sure the entries and exits are in sync with the dances is just as important as giving a full-edged performance on stage.”
Performing at ACT has added to the novelty of this production. “The biggest challenge in this show was tackling the 360-degree stage,” actor Kale said. “Rehearsals are always fun because, even though I have done this since 2009, every dance team brings with itself its own dynamic and its own energy.”
Likewise, the dynamic of the behind-the-scenes team has also been illuminated for Gupta, now that she is focusing solely on the role of producer. “The director and producer are two sides of the same coin, where the director is responsible for everything on stage, and the producer is responsible for everything offstage,” she said. “My role as a producer is to oversee that every aspect of the production is running properly.”
She is particularly excited about new marketing and outreach avenues. “I have produced several shows in the last eight years, primarily for South Asian audiences,” she said. “This is the first time I have an opportunity to diversify the audience base.”
The vast number of women involved with this production seems to mirror the message of this show. “Chitrangada is a beautiful story of a woman who epitomizes feminine power,” said actor Anwesha Das.
Director Bhattacharya agrees. “A woman can be whatever she wants to be,” she said. “That is what Chitrangada stands for.”
‘Chitrangada’ runs from April 28 to May 20 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, Seattle. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org/Tickets/OnStage/Chitrangada.