Rebellion comes in many forms, some of them destructive, some of them violent … but rebellion can also come in the form of pure creativity. “Devi,” the newest dance-drama production by the Seattle-based South Asian performing-arts group Pratidhwani in conjunction with ACT Theatre, is a story about a rebel, written by a rebel for rebellious times, helmed by writer/director/costume designer/auteur/rebel/multiple hat-wearer Moumita Bhattacharya.
Pratidhwani’s production of “Devi” is based on an adaptation of the Raj-era Bengali novel “Devi Chaudhurani” by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It’s a classic in India, about a downtrodden woman who rises up against the British, and is rife with themes of anti-colonialism and a kind of pre-feminist feminism. Published in 1884 (and immediately banned by the British), the novel is credited with inspiring the women of the subcontinent to mobilize for independence. While the story has been adapted several times for film and television, Pratidhwani’s English-language version was written and adapted entirely by Bhattacharya herself.
“When I started off I did not think about [the anti-colonialist themes],” says Bhattacharya, “but as I got more into it, it made so much sense … given the way the world is going right now, it makes the show very relevant.”
Still, for those familiar with the novel, Bhattacharya’s adaptation does take some (motivated) liberties with the source material.
“Devi makes very important choices several times throughout the show,” says Bhattacharya. “And that’s what really speaks to me about the story; a woman who has been abused mentally and emotionally and how she turns her life around. … I wanted to make [Devi] sit down and think: what are her choices and why? So,” Bhattacharya hints, “there are times when the show may or may not deviate from the novel.”
In “Devi,” Bhattacharya not only translates the story, but also the medium through which it is told. The production and choreography draw from the whole spectrum of Indian dances, including the temple dance bharatanatyam and kathak, a storytelling dance which Bhattacharya herself studied, and which she describes as being “like flamenco without the shoes.” Her aim is to maintain the integrity of the classical dance forms while at the same time translating them into a vernacular that those unfamiliar with Indian classical dance can appreciate.
“I have usually observed that friends, or even my husband, are done with a classical performance after about five minutes,” Bhattacharya laughs. “And my goal is to have them sit and watch a classical performance and make them understand what’s going on, which is what I did with ‘Chitrangada.’ I have friends who do not like dance come up to me after that and say ‘OK, that made sense.’ ”
Bhattacharya’s last production, “Chitrangada,” was a hit for Pratidhwani in 2017, and “Devi” promises to top that in terms of ambition. It features roughly 150 vibrant (and mostly period-specific) costumes for a raucous cast of 45 performers, and will be presented in the round (so there are no bad seats).
Pratidhwani, Bhattacharya explains, was founded in 2001 by a small group of subcontinental friends who had grown up learning the arts but who also had regular jobs and, she says, “wanted to indulge their passion.” Today it’s a 501c3 nonprofit with an alumni list of more than 500 — and all participating artists are volunteers.
“It’s very hard to find a platform that will support you almost unconditionally and let you do your thing,” says Bhattacharya. “I’m very thankful to this organization. One of the things that drives parents in India to take their kids out of arts is that if you’re a dancer, you may spend 20 years perfecting your art, and you still may not make a living. If you are an engineer, you’ll make enough to have a decent life.”
Organizations like Pratidhwani make it possible for people to nurture their creative sides and celebrate the arts in their free time, and at a high level. Bhattacharya is a product manager at eBay. Dancer/actor Tanvee Kale, who stars as the titular “Devi,” is an engineer who works at Expedia. And in a world where everything is monetized, it can even be an act of rebellion to pour one’s heart into art that may never make you any money at all.
“From the time I was 3 to the time I was 16, I learned kathak,” says Bhattacharya. “At 16, my parents said, you may be good at dancing, but it’s academics you need to focus on. So that’s what I did. I went and got an MBA, and I started working … and then I found Pratidhwani.”
“Devi,” adapted by Moumita Bhattacharya from “Devi Chaudhurani” by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. April 19-May 11; Pratidhwani, in collaboration with ACTLab, at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St. Seattle; $22-$42; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org/devi