The disempowerment of women does not happen all at once; it is a continuous, often insidious process that begins early in the life of a female child and goes on to infiltrate almost every aspect of her life. The girl who isn’t allowed to play “boys’ games”. The teenager who is told a girl shouldn’t talk too much. The young woman whose sole goal is viewed to be marriage. The mother who is expected to build her life only around her family.

An upcoming Indian classical dance drama, Saa Shakti, seeks to disrupt and question this process by telling the story of a woman’s journey to empowerment. The show’s title, which evokes not just the Sanskrit word for power and empowerment but also the Hindu goddess Shakti, is an apt metaphor for a show that uses the classical traditions of odissi to express contemporary thoughts and ideas.

Saa Shakti plays at the Shantanand Auditorium in Kuala Lumpur on July 15.

For odissi exponent Leena Mohanty, the show is an opportunity to engage with issues of gender equality through the art that has become her life’s passion.

Mohanty, who trained under preeminent odissi guru Deba Prasad Das and his disciple Durga Charan Ranbir, is a renowned performer and choreographer in her own right, and a familiar face to odissi audiences in Malaysia. Her previous performances here include Anjali (2009), Leela Purushottama – The Supreme Absolute (2011) and Sharanagati (2013).

While the award-winning dancer has presented many critically-acclaimed odissi performances around the world, this will be her first to take on specifically contemporary themes.

“Gender equality has been an issue that continues to be relevant and is always a big topic of discussion. We have sent women in space, women in the armed forces. Yet, we still live in a world where women are exploited, treated unequally and not allowed to make their own choices. I realised that this was an opportunity for me to explore a topic that isn’t commonly done in the traditional Indian dance format,” says Mohanty, who is currently based in Bangalore, India.

Odissi-trained dancer/choreographer Leena’s works will be featured in Kalpana Dance Theatre’s upcoming dance fusion performance Sharanagati. Photo: Ricky Lai/The Star

The show, presented in Kuala Lumpur by Kalpana Dance Theatre (KDT), will tell the story of a female child as she grows into adulthood, looking at the challenges and struggles she faces along the way. Performing alongside Mohanty will be Malaysian dancers Daisyga Rani Vijayakumaran, Nritta Ganeshi Manoharan, Lawrence Sackris, Kunaratnam Velautham and Muneeswaren Palsamy. The cast will be rounded out by 40 other local dancers in various supporting roles.

KDT founder and artistic director Shangita Namasivayam says there is much potential in Indian classical dance to engage with modern themes and ideas. “These traditional forms are so well-codified and have such a strong language. We have the rasas (emotions), mudras (hand gestures), abhinayas (expressions) – all of which can add so much richness to any story.”

To help flesh out the initial idea behind Saa Shakti, Mohanty and Shangita turned to Indian writer, poet and art critic Kedar Mishra, as well as musician Kumar Mohapatra for the original music score. From there, despite it being relatively unfamiliar territory, Mohanty says the odissi simply flowed.

When it came to the choreography, Mohanty found inspiration in nature. By using the language of odissi to depict flora, fauna and natural landscapes, she discovered a way to break free of the constraints of modern life and instead depict femaleness in an equal footing.

“Nature doesn’t segregate between male and female; each are given an equal and important place. I linked this to the concept of gender equality through classical odissi gestures and postures that evoke nature,” she says.

The culmination of Saa Shakti, says Mohanty, is the woman’s discovery of her own identity and inner power.

“During the course of the show, she realises that she has become defined by the roles she plays to different people – daughter, wife, mother – but has lost her own identity. And so the story becomes about her learning who she is through her own eyes,” she says.

As mothers of female children themselves – Mohanty’s daughter is 12, while Shangita’s are 19 and 20 – the two women behind Saa Shakti are keenly aware of how important the message of female empowerment is.

“This is of course an issue that is personal, something we have actually experienced. And sometimes you just have to say something,” says Mohanty.

“Empowerment is not about negating the roles associated with women, or putting men or marriage down. It is about freedom, the freedom to make choices,” says Shangita.

Saa Shakti will be staged at the Shantanand Auditorium, Jalan Berhala, Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur on July 15. Showtime: 7.30pm. For invitations, call 017-672 5672, 012-650 7226 or 012-787 7467.