Navtej Johar

New Performance

Grant Period: Over six months

Navtej Johar is a Delhi-based Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer. Trained in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, Chennai, and Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi, he has danced with the New York City Opera and with Chandralekha’s group besides choreographing his own solo and ensemble works such as Gray is Also a Colour, Dravya Kaya and Mango Cherry Mix. As a choreographer, Navtej has been drawn to the padam, the lyrical sections in Bharatanatyam that narrate stories of God, the interplay between the sacred and profane, especially. Inspired by this interplay, Navtej is all set to reflect on the padam tradition through the creation of a multi-media dance theatre piece based on Jean Genet’s classic play, The Maids (1947), with IFA’s support.

The Maids depicts two sisters, servants in an upper-class Parisian home, who engage in secret ceremonies of revenge through role-playing while their mistress is away. Through the role playing, Genet explores disparities in power and representations of gender and sexuality within the intimate yet strained relationships. Navtej will adapt the play to imagined narrative on the lives of the devadasis—the maids of the god/king—whose tradition of temple dance is considered the precursor to Bharatanatyam. According to Navtej, the narratives of the two maids in the play and that of the devadasis conflated well because of their social marginalisation and disempowerment within bourgeois society. Neither Genet’s maids nor the devadasis have a ‘real place’ in society, and in the production, Navtej will portray how both resist and fight their invisibility through role-playing. What interests Navtej the most is to deconstruct the ‘games’ of the maids and the devadasis. The maids’ role-playing of the Madame allows them to identify themselves as the ‘Other’ rather than who they really are or what they could be. In a similar vein, the devadasi is a concubine, but through the padam, plays the role of a devotee and consort of the temple God. By juxtaposing the games in the devadasi’s padams and Genet’s dramatic narrative, Navtej will locate and review the profoundly beautiful padam within the closed quarters of oppression, thereby exploring the underside of this fine art by trying to look at the imagined/real lives of the marginalised community that wrote, sang, lived and danced them.

For this performance project titled, The Dasi-Maids, the maid characters will be performed by male dancers, which was in line with what Genet had originally proposed, namely, that the maids be played by male actors. Navtej shall loosely adapt scenes from The Maids to create a performance narrative in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam. The narrative will be carved from research on the devadasi tradition, a collection of stories, interviews, biographies, plays, and reports from the late nineteenth century to the Yellama devadasis of the present. The audio-visual material generated from the research will be combined to suit movements on stage.