She dances around the world - across Europe, the United States, Latin America... In India, we remember her as Eleni of Sparta, or Helen of Troy - the most beautiful woman in the world for whom the Trojan war was fought.
As her feet move, Rajika Puri also sings songs in ancient Greek, uses Greek rhymes, talks, cries, is powerful and sometimes vulnerable. Eleni’s story is uniquely narrated by her on stage with chants, vocalised rhythmic syllables, and songs she sings herself. Puri is Helen personified.
She finds it easy to transfer her soul and body into the characters she plays because she is “not someone who is beautiful and so does not suffer from the tyranny of beauty.” That is the secret of being a magical performer. “You are not standing there on the stage, make-up on, telling the audience, ‘look at me, look at how beautiful I am’.” Free of that burden, “I can make a face like Kali and I can become Achilles raging over the death of his friend Patroclus,” she says.
She can, in an instant, be a Krishna timidly tiptoeing into a room to meet his lover. Then she is an angry and grieving Radha, asking him to leave as he has danced with the gopis and is late for their meeting.
This Lawrence School, Sanawar-educated daughter of a general in the Indian Army was “put through all kinds of dancing classes” by a mother who was passionate about dance. At the age of eight, Puri’s mother thought it was time for her to train in Bharatanatyam under Sikkil Guru Ramaswamy Pillai. “When I was 16, my mother watched as I was getting ready for my arangetram, and suddently said, ‘don’t worry about being dark - because you have Parvati’s complexion’.” Training in Odissi followed later from the Gurukul of Deba Prasad Das.
A lot of learning happened during travels as Puri’s father was once the military attache at Egypt. She learnt French and Arabic in school and then progressed to Spanish, some German and a little bit of Italian. “Now I have learned Greek (for Eleni),” she adds.
Theatre has also been a passion since 1986, when she played the dual role of Kali for a Lincoln Centre production directed by Julie Taymor, American director of theatre, opera and film. Since then, Puri has performed in Western classics like Euripides’ The Bacchae, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Cymbeline (Off-Broadway, NY), Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and a modern adaptation of Racine: Phaedra Britannica. Her films include Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala and Dev Benegal’s Split Wide Open.
Puri has been constantly innovating her act. So deep has her involvement been with dance that she has worked for a master’s (New York University) in the anthropological analysis of movement. “I found an amazing professor of social anthropology. She had done her work in semiotics – really hardcore linguistic analysis, studying the motion of body language, learning how to use the body and its many parts to make gestures, to say something.” When she wove all the learning into her performances, Puri found the audience change completely and really enjoy the power-packed action on stage. “When I say ‘run’, I make the movement of running, when I say ‘Gandhi’ I copy his stance that’s reminiscent of the song ‘ekla cholo re’ (walk alone, written by Rabindranath Tagore and a favourite with the Mahatma).”
Dance has brought Puri many moments of pure joy - doing a command performance for the president of Mexico; dancing at this cute little opera theatre in Costa Rica and making 33 curtain calls, checking her Facebook account and finding numerous messages from aspiring young dancers asking for tips and advice on dancing.
So far, it has been worth it.