Review: Sheetal Gandhi at the Painted Bride

By Nancy G. Heller
For The Inquirer

This was not just another Asian-fusion dance concert.  In recent years there’s been a vogue for combining Indian classical dance with western techniques -- Bharatanatyam and ballet, Kuchipudi and modern dance, Kathak and tap — with varying degrees of success.  In her one-woman show, Friday and Saturday at the Painted Bride, Sheetal Gandhi used Indian heel-stamps and turns, alongside western-style isolations and floorwork, to create an eloquent, inventive, virtuosic dance-theater piece that kept the opening-night audience transfixed.

Gandhi has an unbelievably varied resume.  She has toured with Cirque du Soleil, performed with the National Dance Ensemble of Ghana, and acted on Broadway; she’s a percussionist with a university degree in psychology and dance.  She also wrote, directed, and choreographed Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife), which she has presented at venues from Israel to Hawaii.

In this piece Gandhi explores her cultural heritage, as a 21st-century Californian whose life is still shaped by age-old Indian traditions. She assumes various identities:  petulant teenager, disapproving old woman, 30-something man.  Each character speaks -- and moves --differently, in scenes that evoke humor and melancholy, rage and abject terror. 

In one especially amusing sequence a young girl mourns the end of a romantic relationship.  “He loved his cat more than he loved me,” she sings.  Did I mention that Gandhi also sings --beautifully, live, and in two languages: English and Marwadi (from the northwestern state of Rajasthan)?  In fact, Gandhi’s vocalizations — rhythmically complex, operatic or rap-like, chanted and sung using Indian musical scales — were the most striking element of the performance.

There are two truly devastating scenes in Bahu.  In the first a woman, pushed beyond the breaking point, reveals her plan to blind her father-in-law — so that she will no longer have to hide her face behind a veil.  The performance ends with Gandhi, as a little girl, slowly winding herself into a white wedding sari while plaintively asking her father why he’s decided to punish her by marrying her off so young.

After the stage went dark the audience sat in stunned silence for several minutes, before breaking into sustained applause.  This was Sheetal Gandhi’s first appearance in Philadelphia.  Bring her back.  Soon.