Words like spirituality and Bhakti have always evoked strong feelings, both for and against. What is this state whose passionate outpourings have, from time immemorial been articulated by people from all cultures and social groups?
Like an all-pervading fever, this yearning and longing for the divine is not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish, for its all consuming fire can singe you. Untameable, this unappeased hunger, which will not settle for half measures, can make the possessed go against all societal bonds. Bhakti movements in India’s history are also powerful social movements. Can a dance work, while being just to its artistic credentials, succeed in capturing the throb of this state-of-being in a convincing manner?
The week before provided two examples of dance work, which in the world of today, can only be described as belonging to another space. The first, Naama Mhane was on the first evening of Kri Foundation’s two-day Madhavi Dance Festival, mounted at the Stein auditorium by the managing trustee, Arshiya Sethi in fond memory of late Madhavi Gopalakrishnan, whose immense contribution by word and deed, the Foundation remembered with gratitude.
Conceived and choreographed by Bharatanatyam artist, Vaibhav Arekar, Naama Mhane is woven round Sant Naamdev’s spiritual awakening.
The enactment deserved the highest praise in succeeding in transporting a mixed audience to another world of experience, with a cast so involved in the action that performers as individuals had ceased to exist, while Bhakti as a lived-in state was being evoked. Designed to specifics of the period dealt with (viz. early 13th-14th centuries) when Naamdev, a sant, belonging to the tailor community, along with Jnyaneshwar, the son of a socially outcast brahman, together formed the Varkari tradition, whose main deity Shri Vitthala of Pandharpur iconographically combining Saivite, Vaishnavite and even folk principles, the production was reminiscent of vintage Maharashtra, providing performed glimpses of the pilgrimage to Pandharpur (a tradition started by Jnyaneshwar), very much a part of the devotee’s worship.
The dancer’s own short introductions made clear that the Varkari tradition does not entail any special pooja — for worship that is a sakriya and not nishkriya tradition, god can be realised in the midst of fulfilling one’s daily chores — the potter in his pottery work, a Janabai in her maid servant activity can experience god.
In this tradition attracting people — men and women from all walks of life, humble and elevated, god is a companion, a friend, the mother, even perceived as performing chores for the devotee.
The production indirectly brings out the devotee/ deity relationship where devotee is not a subaltern. He teases, questions, even abuses, praises, demanding answers. When a devotee, passionately pleading for a view of Vitthala gets crushed under the machine he is working with, Naamdev angrily queries divinity: “Was it too much to just give him a glimpse of your self?”
There was symbolism in Naamdev angrily recovering the fallen cap of the crushed devotee and donning it himself, demanding of Vitthala if such lack of generosity to a devotee behoves him. Jnyaneshwar, it is said, always maintained that Naamdev spoke to his deity Vitthala regularly. For a work of this nature where a major part of the devotee’s worship comprises rendering Abhangs penned by devotees to the Lord, the musical component had to be of the highest standard. Music composition by Sudha Raghuraman who provided inspired vocal accompaniment in rendition of Abhangs of Sant Jnyaneshwar, Janabai, Sant Naamdev, Santa Sawtamali, Eknath Maharaj and Sant Tukaram added much to the production. An excellently accomplished singer, she could have, one felt, stressed and aspirated the Vi–TThala syllable, for even more of the Maharashtrian flavour.
What one liked was the absence of any recourse to ornamentation and virtuosity, which would have lessened the internalised strength of being absorbed with the pre-occupation of God realisation. Whether a Tat Dhit Tom Nom Nandi Chol segment or any other scene, minimal movement, even in the Brindavan Saranga Tillana is what characterised the production. In one scene, where told by Vitthala to still his mind and look for divinity within, Vaibhav as Naamdev struggling to keep at bay the mind, which plays tricks and distracts, in order to reach inwards to look for the god, the enactment and the singing in Amritavarshini to start with, with taanam bits before going on to Vasanti were so persuasive that it was as if the entire process was being revealed moment by moment till the final calm and tranquillity, after the inner storm. And finally, the Tillana in Brindavan Saranga — again with just glimpses of adavu movements.
Sensitivity lay in even decibel levels never being allowed to become shrill — for that would have destroyed the feeling of trying to hear that intimate inner voice. Even the mridangam sounds were so soft and muted! A highly moved audience rose to applaud the effort.
The second day Vivartana - Dance Transforms, a group work by Rama Vaidyanathan and Ensemble just did not quite measure up to expectations. Starting from the poor recording with smudged sounds and nondescript singing, the entire designing of Pratikriya (dance Responds), Samayoga (dance merges), Nimagna (dance immerses), Pratibhodddhana (Dance awakens) and Rasa Bhava (Dance evokes) seemed too involved with a play on words, sans an integrated feel.
From a Sanskrit translation by Divyanand Jha of an English poem by Rama, to verses from Tirumular’s Tirumandiram, to a Persian Rumi poem set to music by Rajat Prasanna, to Lal Ded’s Kashmiri poem, to Meera’s Brij Bhasha lyric, to Muttuswamy Dikshitar’s Sanskrit composition to Narsi Mehta’s Gujarati poem and finally to Abhinaya Darpan verses, it became a jumbled miasma in costuming and body movements by both solo and group, which detracted from a staying power. And even the passages set to music by Dr R. Vasudevan and K. Venkateshwaran, two fine composers did not impress. Rama’s own dance in Samayoga, also lacked its usual riveting quality.
The redeeming part was seeing a confident Sannidhi, her daughter, starting the show in her new role, playing slow-paced rhythm on the mridangam, though the instrument could have done with some tuning. And ideas like Ajapa Nadanam, are too esoteric in concept to translate convincingly into dance and are best left out, for anything less than what is done with total understanding seems to trivialise which was not the aim.
The other out of the ordinary work pertained to Kathak by dancer Rani Khanam who presented In Search - A Journey of Ruhaniyat. Rani began with a Persian ghazal on RAQS (dance) composed by Kwaza Usman Harooni Rehmat Ullah Rh, a sufi saint and master of Garib Nawaz (Ajmer)
Nami danam keh Aakhir choon Dam-e-Deedar mi raqsam — from the form to the formless, Rani perceives dance in the play of the entire universe that the almighty’s love has created — its play of seasons, its every movement characterising rhythm, which is dance and which is performing to the tune of its creator who is playing with the sun and moon in two hands.
The enveloping sky ornamented with stars, the nine planets dancing round the Sun, everything seems to be rhythm in ecstasy.
It is amazing how poetic minds, no matter from which part of the world voice the same thoughts. Very close to the thinking in the Persian ghazal is the Sanskrit Angikam Bhuvanam couplet where the dancing Shiva becomes a metaphor for the dance of the cosmos and the universe. Dancing in complete abandon, Rani, now slimmer than ever before, relied on her sensitive abhinaya skill cutting out all the nritta flash of Kathak. Showing the movements of a fish, the flow of water and the rain falling in drops, there was grace with rhythm in every act, at different paces.
Taawaan kaatil keha aj bahar e tamasha khoon e man reji.
Calling out to the god she loves, the dancer talks of her own state where in the midst of this inevitability of dance all round, her dance in the love of God is frowned upon by society. God is the guilty one, she says. Her feet are tied, a sword hangs over her head. Stones are thrown at her. But she, as victim, is willing to embrace death, for her dance is after all for love of Him.
Much of Sufi poetry expresses devotion suffused with eroticism. One emotion leaking into the other, the emotional range articulates human experience, which much like the Padams and Javalis of Indian music composers like Kshetrayya, and a host of others, is very complex.
The dancer’s next composition: Jara kholo Ji Kiwariya Maharaj lag Muinuddin Rakhani padegi moi Mouinuddin written by Hamid Kalwattewale, met with an impassioned interpretation through abhinaya. The dancer used a range of metaphors, suggesting the suffering of the helpless one, in the absence of the divinity (loved one resembling the virahini nayika) much like the fish without water and the fallen flower from its tree, like the deer wounded by the hunter’s arrow, like the bird in cage fluttering its wings for freedom.
“I yearn for a glimpse of you. Please open the door (of your heart) for otherwise I am willing to die”.
The finale comprised two couplets, one of Kabir and the other of Bulle Shah. Kabir’s oft quoted Aval allah nor upaya, kudrat ke sab bande,ek nor se sab jag upaja, kaun bhale kaun mande is on the micro and macro presence of divinity in all of creation. When it is the same effulgent light that has created the entire universe, what is Good, and what is Bad?
It is the same god whose play has decorated creation, like the potter his pot, in the seven different colours, colours which do not fade with washing daily, but become brighter. In this play of colours, those of misfortune and sadness are washed away. “He has painted me in his colours,” says the dancer.
Ringing in the finale was dance based on Baba Bulle Shah’s words:
Hori kheloongi kehkar bismillahnaam nabi kiratna chadhi,boond padi illillaah.
The dancer interpreted this part with a play on the sacred number 7, the 7 colours of love, the 7 days of the week, the 7 notes on the musical scale, 7 colours of the rainbow, 7 spiritual steps of love. “I will recite the name of Bismillah and play Hori, in the colours of love”
As Rani ended in rhythmic abandon, one could see how as performer, her work is evolving.
The white and gold costuming showed taste and restraint and the dancer was helped by a highly involved musical crew with Shakeel Ahmed Khan on the tabla, Soheb and Zoheb as singers, Nasir Ahmed and Salim Chowdhuri on Sarangi and Sitar respectively, with Leena Sargam rendering the Kabir Doha — all of who seemed to be singing and playing what came to them naturally.
The writer is an eminent dance critic