Kali’s Chemotherapy- A Reflection

by Trishala Parthasarathi Shah, AI Choreography Fellow ’19-20

When applying for this fellowship, I wanted to explore the parallels between art and medicine, particularly how scientific research can be used to create art. When researching mythological stories and scientific topics that might be interesting to delve into, I came across the story of Raktabheeja. The story of Raktabheeja is not very common as I had not seen it presented in any performances I had attended, and thus I was inspired to learn more about the mythology behind this episode.

Raktabheeja was a demon given a boon that every drop of his blood spilled on the floor would multiply into a new, stronger version of himself. He caused so much trouble on Earth that the dark-complexioned Kali was invoked by the golden Devi in order to defeat him. This story bears a striking resemblance to cancer. Just like the demon, cancer cells create new mutated versions of itself and creates havoc in the body. I thought exploring this parallel between the mythological Raktabheeja and the scientific cancer cell would be a great way to bring my two passions together.

The choreography process forced me to go out of my comfort zone and consider many aspects of dance I had not thought about before: How do I portray a parallel of two distinct stories? How do I choreograph a seemingly abstract concept like cancer? While I know the story and how they connect, how do I create clarity in my movement so that the audience sees this relationship the same way I do? Providing a narration was one way to convey my thought process to the audience and explain the similarities before the piece starts. Cancer cells were portrayed by showing how different parts of a jathi (pure footwork and hand gestures) become abnormal as the cancer spreads. Providing the relationship between movement and story is something I am still working towards as it is important for me to do justice to the journey of a cancer patient.

While portraying the parallel between science and mythology in this piece was intriguing, portraying the reality of a debilitating disease such as cancer was equally important. I have personal relationships with cancer patients, and each of their journeys is unique. Beyond just expressing the similarities between Raktabheeja and a cancer cell, I therefore also wanted to include the trials and tribulations of a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy. Similar to how Kali was invoked to kill Raktabheeja, chemotherapy is needed to kill the mutating cancer cells. However, this process is not only physically difficult on the human body, it also takes a toll mentally and can affect the caretakers. I wanted to show how quickly cancer can mutate and how fast the changes can take place in a normal human being, as well as what the person endures while receiving treatment. It is important to note that while this piece ended with chemotherapy defeating cancer, this is not always the case. Many times, the cancer defeats the human body due to several reasons. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world, and yet many countries do not have the adequate resources or research to manage this disease and more often than not, patients present at later stages of disease with high tumor burdens or other complications preventing the performance of optimal debulking surgeries prior to starting chemotherapy. Additionally, not everyone has the capability of receiving chemotherapy, whether it is due to where they live, what resources they have access to, or if treatment options are even available. Access and equity in cancer treatment remain a large issue globally. 

Most people can relate to cancer, whether it is going through treatment themselves or knowing someone with this disease. This piece not only shows how a scientific process such as mutating cells can be paralleled to a mythological story from thousands of years ago and portrayed through an ancient art form, it also expresses the realities of a devastating disease with so many complexities that affects a large population of people in the world. Through this choreography project, I have delved into only a small portion of a concept that can be interpreted in various ways as each person’s story is unique.

Final Choreography is coming soon!