Staging stories of iconic women

loading Sabera Shaik conveying a thoughtful moment during her performance.

Sabera Shaik spotlights womanhood at the Naga Women Festival. Too bad the Penang audience is found badly wanting.

It’s hard to believe from the way Sabera Shaik writhes and wriggles on the dance floor that she is 62 years old. Slender, mild-mannered and sharp-eyed, Sabera is the founder of Masakini Theatre, a local company that initiates young performers into the theatre scene. She is also, on this occasion, the producer of Naga Women Festival, a compact series of three solo performances held in April that celebrate women and the various stories they tell.

Why women? “It’s something I know,” says Sabera with pride. “I know how a woman feels, how she sees things and how the world sees her.”

Puteri Saadong

As the stage lights dim in anticipation of Puteri Saadong, it becomes evident that Sabera knows what she’s talking about. The performance begins with an elegant introduction by musicians Susan Sarah John and Kamrubahri Hussin, who also expertly handle the exotic salad of Malay instruments on the side. Then Sabera glides into view, the tresses of her traditional dress whipping at her calves as she shows off her legs.

Her performance is near flawless as she cavorts about the stage, her large golden earrings swinging to her gait. A tale of obsessive love, Puteri Saadong tells of a Kelantanese princess who leaves her husband, Abdullah, to save her country. The heady mix of patriotism and passion drives the story into unexpected places. When the princess finally returns, Abdullah has remarried. Unable to withstand the betrayal, Puteri Saadong murders Abdullah with her own hairpin.

Sabera likens the local tale to some of the most famous epics in history. Referring to the plot twists and complex reimagining of characters pushed beyond their limits, she explains that “what happens in Greek tragedy happens anywhere.” To demonstrate this, Sabera narrates and sings the words of some of greatest writers since 500BC, referencing generously to Aeschylus and, to an extent, Shakespeare. Alongside epics like The Persians and Macbeth, Puteri Saadong is more than able to hold her own.

The ingenuity of Sabera’s approach is that these references are used to tell the story of a woman. Her approach reflects her mission since the 1990s: to give voice to women everywhere, particularly the displaced. Puteri Saadong, under Sabera’s touch, is given a dimension wherein she has “her own mind” and, by extension, her own epic.

Eleni of Sparta

More so than her fellow performers, Rajika Puri often gazes out into the audience for effect. Supplemented by an all-white costume – a figure-hugging top with pants in the style of Bharathanatyam – the Eleni of Sparta star cuts an unnerving figure. Her silver toenails glitter under the spotlight, flashing like the tips of Aladdin’s footwear whenever they pointed upwards.

It is an ambitious project, telling the story of Helen of Sparta – a woman who, according to Homeric legend, brought about the Trojan War by the sheer force of her beauty. But the challenge does not faze Rajika. In fact, when asked to portray an “epic woman” for the Naga Women project, it was she who decided on telling Helen’s tale.

“Anita (a fellow performer) told me to do an epic woman, but not an Indian woman!” she says, recalling that her previous projects were mostly of Indian women. Instead she was asked to “do something different”, something based on her multicultural experience, given that she speaks both Spanish and French and currently resides in New York.

After some thought, she finally settled on beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus and later captive of Paris. “There’s only one woman really,” she says, effectively positioning Helen against the whole canon of Western literature. “Epic women are almost gods. They’re people whom we look up to, whom we think represent the best of us.” They are, as she says, “icons”.

As Rajika sings, acts and narrates the tale of this particular icon, it becomes clear that Helen is as much a driving force of the Trojan War as Paris or Menelaus. Using a complex choreography of facial expression, bodily movement, English and Ancient Greek narration, and acting and vocals, Rajika is able to depict anything from the god Zeus in the guise of a swan to whole delegations of soldiers charging into Troy. Accompanied by Suchet Malhotra on a Nigerian clay drum and an appropriated wind instrument, she draws invisible swords, caresses the crowns of princes and parades as the victor Hector after the war. On stage, there is nothing Rajika cannot do.

When asked about turning 70 this year and still performing around the world, she happily says, “Oh God, absolutely, no other way to go.”

The cast and musicians on opening night. (Left to right) Subhasri Lakshmanan, Sharanya Krishnan, Anita Ratnam, Sabera Shaik, Kamrulbahri Hussin and Susan Sarah John.

A Million Sitas

Unless you are familiar with the Hindu epic Ramayana, you may not know of Sita, daughter of the earth goddess Bhumi and wife of Rama, heir of Ayodhya. Like Puteri Saadong and Helen of Sparta, Sita is a woman whose story demands to be told.

A neo-Bharatnam dance-theatre performance by activist and choreographer Anita Ratnam, A Million Sitas tells not only of Sita’s experience as Rama’s wife, but also of justice, loneliness and the dislocation of women everywhere. Framed by the strong vocals of Sharanya Krishnan, Anita explores Sita as a connecting link to other women in Ramayana, as well as women outside literature.

“I’m not looking to find fault with the men,” she says, “but I’m trying to draw the women out of the shadows. I want to listen to the women’s voices because these stories silence (them).”

Under the spotlight, her costume is almost fluorescent. Not only are women brought forth from the shadows in A Million Sitas, they are also luminescent, having taken their place centre-stage. Anita kneels by a pond covered with lotus flowers, apportions mangoes from her basket and occasionally narrates in Malay, thus appropriating the epic for the Malaysian audience.

“I am Sita,” she announces, “and so are you. We are a million Sitas.”

The crowd that appreciates Anita’s pronouncement is a selective one. Those who attend are here to witness fleeting moments of genius on stage, and like perfect audiences they titter at references to Aeschylus, Ancient Greek and Malaysian colloquialisms.

But however engaged this crowd may be, even Sabera, who has held out for the Malaysian audience all these years, is disappointed in the turnout. She announces that the state of performing arts in Penang is “terrible”, and she has a point. For such world-class performances, the attendance is appalling. Sabera doesn’t envision working in Penang again in the near future.

Such news is distressing to Penang, a city that is arguably Malaysia’s second largest cultural hotspot. Rajika asks Malaysians, Penangites in particular, to be more culturally curious and to invest in the stories passed from generation to generation. “I tell people you should know more about your own culture,” she says with a sigh. “You don’t have to know lots, but just be aware.”

Michelle Leong is a freelance writer. Her work has previously been published in The Star and Not Your Eyes.

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