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Stratford's Sanskrit Show

April 26, 2008 at 6:08 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

The lights were low in Little Nourse. Indian music struck up, and Laura Stratford ’09 pirouetted onto the stage draped in jewelry and a magenta dress. With red dye on her fingertips, palms, and soles of her feet, she began her one-woman performance of Shiva-Shakti-Sambhavan (a Sanskrit fairy tale by the poet Kalidasa).

“This story has everything: humor, drama, … and a long honeymoon scene,” Stratford began. The demon Turaka is terrorizing the universe, and only the as yet unborn son of Shiva, one of the most important gods of Hinduism, can defeat him. Shiva has just lost his wife Sati when she sacrificed herself on her father’s funeral pyre and is determined not to remarry. Little does he know that Sati has been reborn as Parvati. Desperate for Shiva to produce a son and defeat Turaka, the rest of the gods decide to play matchmaker between Shiva and Parvati.

Once Stratford narrated the scenario, she performed it. Her dancing was a highly expressive pantomime. Using the beat of the Indian music and special hand gestures called mudras, she played every single roles of the drama – Shiva, Parvati, and Kama, the god of love who has been sent to shoot Shiva with his arrow (picture an Indian Cupid). Unfortunately, Shiva discovers what Kama is up to and vaporizes him with his third eye.

Stratford completed the performance as part of an off-campus study program, SIT’s Arts and Culture program in Delhi. The first two months of the program were standard classes, while the third month was devoted to an independent study. She had the choice of doing either a paper or a practical project for a final project and chose the latter, which ultimately became the Shiva-Shakti-Sambhavan performance.

Originally Stratford wanted to perform a different Kalidasa play, but lacking fellow Carls she could not fill the multitude of parts. Fortunately, Kalidasa wrote not only plays but also poems, in which she could play all the parts by herself. Stratford spent a lot of time in the National School of Drama at Delhi researching her story, planning her lyrics, and practicing her dance choreography.

Statford’s inspiration for the performance a performance of Ramayana at Carleton last spring. “It was beautiful. I remember sitting in the audience there and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I want to do something like that.’”

Her performance of Shiva-Shakti-Sambhavan in India was one of the last final presentations of her class. There are different modes of Indian music for different times of the day, and Shiva-Shakti-Sambhavan uses evening music, but her presentation was to be in the morning. Since there is a rich tradition of bards bursting into flame for using music at the wrong time of day, she closed the curtains to try to block out as much of the light as possible. She had live accompaniment at that presentation – a tubla, which is a pair of drums, and a harmonium, a piano-accordion hybrid – which she had to do without when she re-performed the poem at Carleton.

After the performance in Little Nourse, Stratford demonstrated some of her mudras for me. “Some of them are more symbolic than others.” She cupped her hands. “This one is literally a flower blooming. But it can also be used as Parvati’s heart opening. You can kind of toy with the symbolism there.”

Then she held her hand in a shape like a sign language “d” and drew it across her front. “This is the sacred thread that members of the top castes would wear, male members, to show that they had received instruction from the ancient books, the Vedas. I like a lot of the ones that show the animals because they’re fun. The bumblebee, the elephant’s foot. This one, that I used at the end of the song, and in the last lines of the chorus, I sing the lyrics, ‘the brilliant nearness of the two.’”

She crossed her arms over her chest and made shadow-puppet antelopes with both hands. “This does not literally mean ‘nearness,’ or anything like that, it literally means ‘the marriage blessing.’”

Stratford scoured through the Abhinaya Darpana, a compendium of Indian mudras, for just the right mudras to express the emotions of each of the characters. “It took me a long time for me to get my fingers flexible enough to do all of these,” Stratford said.

She also spent a lot of time in preparation, exercising of all things, her eyeballs. “Kathak [this style of dancing] is very expressive, and very communicative, even in the face. They get their eyes, their optic nerves, really strong, so they can flick their eyes and really add emphasis to different things. That was cool because that was a level of acting I have never worked on before.”

Kathak dancing requires a lot of broad gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, which may feel strange at first to a Western actress. “I realized in India that stylized acting and overacting are not the same thing … You can do stylized acting with a really true emotional core, and as long as you’re sincere about it, it’ll read as true, even if you’re doing stuff that you know that you don’t see people doing down the street.”

Stratford originally met with some resistance from the English Department to her plan to go to India because the program was not directly related to English literature. She finally convinced the department to support her however, maintaining that Shiva-Shakti-Sambhavan (which combines poetry and Southeast Asian culture) was her “way of proving that [her] interest in India, and [her] interest in English, in stories, in writing, are not mutually exclusive … This project synthesizes everything [she] likes to do. It’s writing, it’s singing, it’s acting, it’s dancing, it’s pretty costumes.”

So, how does the matchmaking between Shiva and Parvati work out? Shiva ultimately forgives Kama and brings him back to life. He still has no interest in Parvati, who decides to “beat Shiva at his own game” and live a life of asceticism. When Shiva realizes her dedication to him, they end up together, and they do have a son Kumara who defeats the demon Turaka. So at last, “there was a happy ending for all … except for Turaka.”

Click here to watch a clip of the performance.