'A long-time dream": 'Meera, the Way of the Storm' celebrates a venerated Hindu saint
“This has been a long-time dream of mine,” says Vinitha Subramanian of the new musical Meera, the Way of the Storm. Fifty years ago, as a student, Subramanian saw Indian dance legend Mrinalini Sarabhai in an earlier version of the story of Hindu saint Meera Bai. In the decades since, Subramanian moved to Texas and founded the Natyalaya School of Dance, where she has instructed countless students in the Indian classical dance style of Bharatanatyam.
Natyalaya also presents an annual show, and for years Subramanian has planned and hoped to stage an original musical about the life of Meera Bai. This weekend, those plans will see fruition as Meera, the Way of the Storm makes its debut.
“In 2017,” Subramanian says, “after a discussion with Usha Akella, who is a well known, internationally renowned poetess and author who lives in Austin. We took a trip to India and visited all the important places in… Saint Meera Bai’s life. She's a very important part of the devotional movement of the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries and she lived in 16th and 17th century. So we went there and we did the research and after coming back home, Usha wrote the play Meera, the Way of the Storm. And then COVID intervened and everything was on hold and we picked this thread up back in 2022.”
Kanaka Sathasivan, who works as an associate director at Natyalaya School of Dance and serves as a producer and director for Meera, says the saint remains an important figure in Indian culture. “You know, I grew up here in Austin,” Sathasivan says, “and even as an American, I still heard a lot about Meera. My parents have a very small statue of Meera in their house and she is just known for being especially a feminist icon who discarded everything that was handed to her. She was a princess and a queen and she left all of that behind to follow her devotion, and she became penniless and a wandering sage. And her devotion kept her going and she penned so many songs and poems – I think they credit about 800 songs and poems to her. So she is just a very well-known figure and an aspirational figure, especially for young women.”
“She also was a woman who stood up for the lower castes, she denounced a lot of the fake wise men or the fake sages, which took a lot of courage back in the day also,” adds producer Priya Subramony. “They would use faith to exploit devotees, and those were the kind of people she called out. And in general, she challenged that male-led hierarchical society and made it possible for women also to be devotees and [to] attain spiritual heights. She was a queen and she gave up all of that and stood up to the royal society.”
The musical is a large-scale production, featuring a partnership between Natyalaya School of Dance, Natya Sabhai Arts, Austin Nautanki, Wings School of Arts, and Indian Dance Endeavor of Austin. “So we have five organizations that are collaborating, which is kind of an unheard of thing in Austin,” Sathasivan says. “We have dozens of people helping us with the costumes and the jewelry and the sets and the props, as well as our stellar cast of about 27 people.”
“And so we want everyone to come and enjoy the play,” says Subramanian, “because it's got simply phenomenal music… original background score for the play [recorded] in India, as well as the acting [and] the costumes. The dances are also authentic and period specific.”
“It's just a great combination of different forms of dances of India,” Subramani says, “and different kinds of music. So it's gonna be an exciting and spectacular show, I think.”