N.B. This entry was to have appeared on the SF Weekly’s Exhibitionist Blog the week of April 23, 2013. A technical error prevented it from being uploaded. Photos are by CedarBough T. Saeji.
It takes a captivating performer to hold a stage alone for an hour, and Sheetal Gandhi, who performed her solo show Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife) at ODC Theater April 19-21, is no less than a conjuror as she combines North Indian song and dance with theatricality that reflects her east-meets-west sensibility. In monologues, sung passages, and rhythmic movements derived from her training in Kathak, modern, and West African dance, Gandhi creates humorous and moving vignettes of cultures colliding in the shape of nine women from her own life, ranging from teenage arguments about wearing tank tops to the touchy subject of arranged marriage on a simple set composed of a clothesline, a washtub, and stage strewn with white feathers.
The piece begins with Gandhi singing mournfully in a North Indian dialect, crouched on the floor sweeping the feathers before transforming herself with a roll of the shoulders into a creature with stubs for wings, tremulously fluttering her fingers. The tortured beauty of the bird struggling to fly juxtaposed with the comic awkwardness of how a plucked chicken might move characterizes Gandhi’s performance, as does the way she changes characters and costumes almost by sleight-of-hand, the flourish of a scarf billowing out from nowhere, a pair of glasses magicked from the bosom, the endless bracelets and necklaces that emerge from a long gold cloth unwound from the wing and spooled around Gandhi as a wedding sari. The gesture of the fingers, suggestive of a bird with clipped wings, a blind person sending out feelers, or a febrile helplessness, recurs throughout the piece, as do small gestures like the twitch of a shoulder or the jut of a hip, not wild enough to throw the dancer off balance but suggestive of a body that betrays order, neither in the control of its owner nor of the music and structure in which it exists.
A hint of why this might be comes when Gandhi takes on the role of a scolding grandmother, who, for the briefest of glimpses, becomes a young woman again as she remembers a boy she loved before she was forced into marriage. This memory is prompted by an attack of the hiccups, as if the body could force an admission that the mind, schooled in tradition, had long suppressed. A more painful instance of patriarchal subjugation is suggested in an obsessive and intense scene in which Gandhi, seated on the floor, chants in halting bursts, “I will grind—red chilies fine—with my new pestle—and throw them—in my father-in-law’s eyes—to blind him—” growing more agitated as she tosses up plumes of red powder.
Within these instances of resistance, it’s still the blinded or bound woman that forms the core of Gandhi’s piece, the woman plotting revenge trapped under a dark cloth while her arms and legs are bare to our examination, the grandmother tangled in her sari hobbled not by age but by cultural expectations. The final image, Gandhi under a diaphanous red scarf rained upon by a shower of feathers, is simple and poignant: the white feathers hovering in the air, their languid fall defying the strict law of gravity but tumbling downward nonetheless.