Usha RK got together four young dancers who presented portraits of India’s warrior women in a show titled ‘Veerbala’.
There are some individuals who just charm the audience each time they put up a performance and what they showcase is not just different and unique but totally extraordinary. Recently, the renowned arts consultant Usha R.K. put out a show which was incredible and mesmerising. It was not about the regular Ram-Sita or Shiva-shakti stories nor was it about Radha-Krishan and their ras lila, this time the show was totally about patriotism.
Keeping with the ensuing election fever and the flavour of the month certainly is celebratory and of desh-bhakti (love for the country). Ushaji got together four young dancers who presented portraits of India’s warrior women in a show titled “Veerbala”. The four valiant women featured were Kittur Rani Chennamma, Rani Rudrama Devi of the Kakatiya dynasty, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Sultana Raziya of the Delhi Sultanate.
Kittur Rani Chennamma without a doubt is the first female freedom fighter of India who turned into an inspiration to the women who followed her path. Shivaranjani Harish, a disciple of Gurus Kiran and Sandhya Subramaniam delineated this role using the Bharatanatyam technique laced effectively with movements from Kalaripayattu that enhanced the vigorous aspect needed.
Just like any woman, Chennamma did go through the emotions of ambition, love, motherhood, loss, hopelessness and betrayal, but she surpassed all of life’s challenges and gathered all the strength to fight for her rights and against slavery.
Who was Chennamma? — Chennamma was born on October 23rd, 1778 to a Lingayat family in a small village called Kakati in the Belgaum district of present day Karnataka. Chennamma was trained in sword fighting, archery and horse riding at a very young age and was well known for her bravery. At the age of 15, she was married off to Raja Malasaraja who belonged to the famous Desai family and ruled the kingdom of Kittur. Thus, she got the title Kittur Rani Chennamma.
Rani Chennamma had to fight destiny even before her fight against the British, since her husband died in 1816, leaving her with her only son. Soon Chennamma was struck with another tragedy as her only son also passed away in 1824. Struck by the cruelty of fate, all Chennamma had was her beloved kingdom of Kittur and her loyal subjects.
Rani Chennamma had to adopt Shivalingappa as the heir to the throne due to her son’s death. The British were irked with the adoption since Lord Dalhousie had introduced the Doctrine of Lapse according to which if a King dies childless then the kingdom would lapse to the rule of the East India Company and not to the adopted heir. St John Thackeray, held in-charge of administration for the province of Dharwad and then the kingdom of Kittur, fell under the Dharwad province. Hence, Rani Chennamma was notified about the doctrine and asked to accept to fall under the rule of the East India Company to let go of her throne.
She was not ready to succumb to the pressure laid by the British. She was ready to stake her claim for what belonged to her and the only way she could do that was to fight for her kingdom. The British underestimated the power of this valiant Queen and sent their forces, but the British were forced to kneel in front of the Queen and her army since they had suffered a major humiliating loss in the battle.
This war also led to the imprisonment of two British officers, Walter Elliot and Stevenson. They were held as hostages and they were released only with a mutual agreement between Chaplin, the then commissioner and Rani Chennamma that the war would be halted and the Kittur kingdom would be left in peace under the rule and wishes of the Queen.
But the British, like many other times, stooped down low, broke their promises and with the help of some of Chennamma’s trusted ministers who betrayed Chennamma, entered into another war in a treacherous way. Kittur Rani Chennamma fought valiantly in the battle against the British until she was captured and imprisoned.
The greatest Queen of the Kakatiya Dynasty, again was one of the first warrior queens of India and one of India’s earliest icons of feminism. But strangely, we don’t know anything substantial about her death — no body, no funeral, no last rites performed for her. We are not even sure when she died — 1289 or 1295 AD? One is forced to wonder how the death of such a great Queen went unrecorded. And then one wonders if her death was purposely kept a secret. Dakshina Vaidyanathan Baghel chose to create an interesting perspective of these six years.
In 1289 AD, Ambadeva, a King of one of the subsidiary kingdoms to the Kakatiya dynasty revolted against paying allegiance to the dynasty and waged war on the Kakatiyas. Rani Rudrama Devi was always equipped for any external war, but she was unprepared for rebellion from one of her own. The Kakatiyas lost the battle and some historians say she died on the battlefield in 1289 AD itself. Her grandson and heir to the throne, Prataparudra, became the King but was strangely referred to as Kumara Prataparudra instead of Maharaja, which was a deviation from the norm of the time. Another point to be noted is that Ambadeva’s memoirs mention the names of all the Kings he had killed but does not mention Rani Rudrama Devi. In the first part of Prataparudra’s reign, he subjugated Ambadeva. Many historians believe that Rani Rudrama Devi died only in 1295, one of the reasons being that only in 1295 was Prataparudra referred to for the first time as Maharaja.
This Bharatanatyam dance production is an attempt to crack the unsolved mystery of Rani Rudrama Devi’s death. This is a fictional theory based on all the existing historical evidence of the era, presenting a plausible explanation of what might have happened.
It is set in 1289 AD, when Rani Rudrama Devi is fighting a losing war against Ambadeva’s army — Long live the Kakatiya Dynasty! May the flag with the bore emblem always stand high!
I stand today at the behest of this lost war, and I surrender my life on the battlefield for my kingdom…
But I cannot die today! Alas my heir Prataparudra, my grandson, is too young to be King!
If I die just yet, it shall mark the end of my beloved Kakatiya dynasty! I cannot die today!
I must go back to the fort and rule.But that will mean turning my back on the battlefield — O what a dishonourable thing to do!
But I must train the boy, but from the shadows, and he shall learn to be King.“O Prataparudra, proclaim to the kingdom that I am dead, I shall live in secrecy and you shall rule on my behalf.”
And through an extensive six-year training process from 1289 to 1295 AD, Rani Rudrama Devi teaches Prataparudra —
In 1295AD, she finally sends Prataparudra to war against Ambadeva. When she sees that he has won the war, protected the kingdom and is a worthy King of the great Kakatiya dynasty, she feels she has achieved the goal of her life and has nothing more to live for, but her honour to die for. In 1295 AD she leaves her body for good.
A traditional dance form of Andhra Pradesh called Perini Shiva Tandavam was popularised by Rani Rudrama Devi and was taught to all the soldiers as warm up to be done before going to war. This danceform reached its peak during the Kakatiya dynasty. Dakshina, with the supportive advice of Alekhya Punjala wove the jatis of Perini Shiva Tandavam in to the production. The lyrics translation was done by Dandi Bhotla Vaikunta Narayana Murthy and the music composition was by S. Vasudevan.
Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, the great patriot, was born in 1828 and was named “Manikarnika”. She lost her mother at a tender age of four years and was raised by her father. She had war-like qualities, was tutored at home and was more independent in her childhood than others of her age; her training included shooting, horse riding, fencing, mallakhamba and the use of weapons with her childhood friends Nana Sahib and Tatia Tope.
Manikarnika was married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao, and was afterwards called Lakshmi Bai (or Laxmi Bai) in honour of the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi and according to the traditions. Lakshmi Bai gave birth to a son who unfortunately died when he was barely four months old. Damodar Rao was adopted by the Maharaja of Jhansi as his son. Lakshmi Bai could not enjoy her married life as she became a widow very soon. When the Maharaja died, Rani Lakshmi Bai was just 18 years old, but she didn’t lose her courage and took up her responsibilities.
After the death of the Maharaja in November 1853, because Damodar Rao (born Anand Rao) was an adopted son, the British East India Company, under Governor-General Lord Dalhousie, applied the Doctrine of Lapse, rejecting Damodar Rao’s claim to the throne and annexing the state to its territories. When she was informed of this she cried out “I shall not surrender my Jhansi” (Mein meri Jhansi nahi doongi). When the British army entered Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai tied her son Damodar Rao to her back and fought bravely.
Lakshmi Bai was firm about protecting Jhansi from British annexation. Lakshmi Bai began securing her position and trained both men and women, who were given military training in fighting a battle. She was a brave and fearless woman who fought courageously with the British and won many battles keeping the flag of independent Jhansi flying high and remains immortal in the hearts of Indians. Poorna Acharya of Bengaluru, a disciple of Gurus Nandini Mehta and K. Muralimohan, executed the role with grace and her expressional abilities enhanced by her workshops with not only her Gurus but with abhinaya experts like Bragha Basel stood her well.
Sultana Raziya, 1205-1240, was the Sultan of Delhi (or “Sultanah of Delhi”) from October 10, 1236 to October 14, 1240. Sultana Razia is a name that echoes the vibes of power, grandeur and supremacy. The Kathak star Vidha Lal began with a composition describing the manner in which Raziya attained knowledge of using and driving the weapons. A training that glorified her name for lives and lives to come. We then saw a great leap of achievement. With all the valour and bravery that she had been achieving as a warrior, it finally led to a day when the whole kingdom was awaiting her coronation ceremony as the Sultan. With that, she created history by becoming the first and the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate.
The preparation, the celebration and coronation was lyrically framed in the “Madhya Laya of Teentaal”. Vidha moved towards poetry “Phool kamal si komal kaaya, Kaliyon si muskan hai, Durga Kali Rann Chandi si, Iski aan-baan hai”, describing Raziya as dainty as the petal of a flower, but what she actually adorns is strength, power and bravery, which is meticulously embossed upon with the “Tishra Jaati of Teentaal”.
Vidha used the permutations of the Taal Dhamaar, a time cycle best chosen to exemplify heroism. The lyrics stand true to how she actually was a delicate lady, adorned as a male, and when she walks, she seems to be prancing like a fearless tiger.
With all the brave fronts, she did have a softer part too. Like any other woman, she too fell in love, she too embraced romance, she too went head over heels for a man. That part of her life is woven into a dreamy ghazal. The entire performance blended towards the end with the battle that she fought for last time, a fight that spoke of all tangents of her audacity, valour and fearlessness.
A host of extremely well-equipped musicians accompanied both genres of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. The Carnatic set included Dr Vasudevan — vocal, Sumod Sreedharan — mridangam, Raghunandan — flute, Nattuvangam by Ramya Janakiraman and Himanshu Shrivastava who also designed Dakshina’s costume creatively. The Kathak ensemble included Abhimanyu Lal on padhant, Pavithra Chari — vocal, Nasir Khan — sarangi, Zuheb — tabla and Salman Warsi — pakhawaj.
This was one show that was fantastically conceptualised and curated by sought-after arts consultant Usha R.K. Veerbala not only added freshness to the stage but also made people love their country even more. This is one show which indeed was exceptional and truly memorable.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore, is a World Book Record holder, a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with three National Excellence awards and one National Achievement Award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org