Mata Hari and her majestically tragic story

Stories are not to be judged by our cultural or moral standards. They are the finest mediums to express our anomalies, intricacies and the evil side of humanity. The scandals and dark stories deserve to be heard as much as the ones that are uplifting and optimistic. The solo drama/ dance that I witnessed today at Allaince Fracaise de Madras fell in the former category.In fact, even I was surprised to see such a neo-liberal piece of art being performed in the heart of Chennai (which is considered to be conservative for all practical purposes). Notwithstanding the content and my own cultural background, I wholeheartedly absorbed and appreciated today’s performance.

Mata Hari : A short biography

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, to father Adam Zelle, a hat merchant who went bankrupt due to bad investments, and mother Antje Zelle, who fell ill and died when Mata Hari was 15 years old. Following her mother’s death, Mata Hari and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives. Her life which was a happy and luxurious one till then, turned out to be treacherous and tragic.While living with her godfather she had an affair with her head master at school, (not sure if it was with or without her consent). Then she fled to her uncle’s home in The Hague. She saw an army officer’s ad seeking a beautiful and young wife. She boldly answered it and married. She also endured a nine year old marriage that was full of violence and drunk brawls. She had two kids with her husband Colonel McLeod, who were eventually taken away from her after their divorce.It is only after this separation that she managed to make it to Paris and attain fame as an oriental dancer who performed with sparse yet seductive attire.

Crowds thronged to watch her strip and dance with her bare buttocks. At the height of her popularity, she had affairs with several high ranking officers and government officials throughout Europe. She enjoyed the attention and luxurious lifestyle that was possible due to her beauty and popularity. Completing her dramatic transformation from military wife to a page 3 persona, she coined her stage name, “Mata Hari,” which means “eye of the day” in Indonesian dialect.This brought her in contact with high rankng military officers during world war II. She was suspected to be a double agent who worked for both Germnay and France. However, some secret German documents unsealed in 1970s have confirmed that she was a German spy enlisted as H-21.

However, her trial and execution were based on inconclusive evidence , mostly dependant on the invisible ink found in her room.Mata Hari’s life was filled with stuff that society would call as scandalous and indecent. However it is also evident that society has always been so hypocritical. It was the society that bestowed fame upon her. It was the same societythat wanted to see her half naked dances. And then, it was the society that wanted her to lead a “respectable” life.

The Performance

“Mata Hari: Butterflies who live in the sun must die young”Mata Hari has been a figure of deep intrigue for years. She is an iconic woman, whose flamboyant and tragic life has fascinated biographers, actors, directors and writers alike. It is then justified to say that she embodied the phrase ‘femme fatale’ through her life- one that was misunderstood, envied and scorned.  The costumes, the influence of Orientalism, the lively connect she shared with Paris, the ensuing tragedy makes it a colourful and intense production.”

This is what the online link said about the program. I thought it would be a colorful display with a few narrations in the background. It turned out to be a bold and courageous performance. It must have been immensely difficult for the performer Ms Ramani to memorize and act out a one hour ten minute script with such energy and passion. There was not even a single fumble or confusion. Apart from the performance, the stage was empty. There were no decorations or settings in the background. In fact it went unnoticed due to the intense story that was being narrated by the performer. The guy who managed the lighting must be given due credit for depicting the mood of the situation at appropriate momentsI also liked the way in which the script was written. It was filled with phrases that stuck with  the audience.

My personal favorite was ” majestically tragic”. The solo drama was just a narration of the life of Mata Hari accompanied with sensual dance moves and brilliant facial expressions. The artist used her eyes brilliantly to convey emotions. That was similar to  netrabhinaya in Indian classical arts.  It depicted the depth and intricacies of the character very well.Though Mata Hari’s life was full of sorrow and pain, it could also be perceived as a work of art or a mysterious character that turns up in a book.  In fact , the performance ( and her life story) I saw this afternoon epitomizes what Oscar Wilde had to say about art.

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. 

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