After over 70 years of Independence, it was a maiden exposure for Shimla residents with the three-day classical dance festival mounted by the department of language and culture of the government of Himachal Pradesh. Of the three forms featured, Kathak represented familiar territory with local practising dancers, Bharatanatyam a familiar name though rarely seen and Manipuri a totally unknown art. The Historic Gaiety Theatre complex venue, a legacy of the second quarter of the 19th century, evoked images of old Shimla as the summer capital of British India. To encourage local talent, each evening’s curtain raiser comprised a brief Kathak recital by a resident dancer.
The packed hall responded enthusiastically to Kathak Guru Rajendra Kumar Gangani in crying form. The inner repose, stillness and minimalism of the Panchakshara Stotram invocation, (with Vinod Gangani singing) portrayed the iconographic features of Shiva without restless movement gestures marring the quietude of prayer. The subtle rhythmic improvisations and the solfa syllabic passages woven in had Fateh Singh Gangani’s excellent tabla support. Gangani’s teental presentation had choice segments rendered to the lehra musical refrain. The contrasting rhythmic tones emerging from Shiva’s Damaru, soft and thunderous, with the percussionist chiming in with his “bayan”/”dayan” play, Thata in its typical Jaipur gharana flavour, and the special Uthan were followed by the Ganesh Paran which was given an excellent prelude with Gaja Gamini, the gat, quite masterly given the balancing of dancer’s weight showing the swaying movements of the elephant’s gait.
The dancer’s evolving understanding of interpretative dance was experienced in Katha, sans any instrumental support, with just ankle bells and gestures narrating a whole story of thunder, followed by gentle drizzle and then rains, the drenched earth filled with the joy of birds, animals and the peacock . Pavana-mandala the Ram Bhajan had its main thrust in its portrayal of Hanuman’s deeds. Wisely chosen for Shimla with the Hanuman statue overlooking the city! The smaller audience next day warmed to Manipuri dancer Bimbavati Devi holding her own, despite ill health weeding out more ambitious items. Pontha Jagoi and Nritya Ras in full Manipuri regalia, saw Bimbavati as Krishna dancing to her disciple Arpita Shaha as Radha. The latter’s Radhaswaroopvarnan, describing the beauty of Radha was a very graceful number. In the Tulsidas Shivastuti presented by Bimbavati one saw a dancer with a firmness combined with her grace, very typical of her father late Bipin Singh’s Manipuri style, evocative of the tandav digniy of Shiva.
Singer Pramila Devi defying a sore throat, still sang with conviction. Brajen Kumar Sinha the Pung artist, presented a solo Pung Cholom , the vibrancy of his simultaneous dancing while playing the percussion instrument, evoking warm applause. The ball play in Kandul Khel, a metaphor for ups and lows of life featured both dancers.
With the plain black backdrop, wisely replacing the over- ornate stage, crowding out the dance lines, Geeta Chandran presented vintage Bharatanatyam .
Right from her start with Gangai Muttu Nattuvanar’s composition of Chokkanathar Kavutvam set to music in Mohanam, Vasantha, Shahana, Shanmukhapriya and Madhyamavati, showing Shiva’s glory with all his accoutrements, bewitching Goddess Meenakshi in Madhurai, the dancer and her exceptionally gifted accompanists had announced a performance out of- the- ordinary.
The passion for Krishna epitomised in the Meera Bhajan in Rajasthani Maand “Mane Chakar Rakhoji” made so famous through late M.S.Subbalakshmi’s singing, saw the dancer and musicians immersed in Krishna adoration, eliciting thunderous audience applause.
The varnam centrepiece Vanaajaksha, a composition in Behag by late T.R. Subramaniam , far from the very neatly set nritta/abhinaya structure, often presented by Geetha of the past, was an inspired rendition filled with the immediacy of manodharma, each statement in the composition eloquent in improvised abhinaya elaborations of the involved dancer. Krishna’s lotus eyed beauty, the devotee’s unshakeable faith in his merciful grace, the Lotus feet at which great sages paid obeisance (capped by powerful abhinaya narrating Vishnu’s Vamana Avataram ), and the divine flute play of the God (Rajat Prasanna’s dulcet flute interventions quite evocative) were unusually visualised through fertile creative imagination.
Fortunately for the dancer, the singing by vocalist Dr. S Vasudevan, himself a dancer and composer, kept pace with Geeta’s creative urgency. As for the Jati teermanams, Shankar’s nattuvangam, the dance and the delightfully delicate tones of the mridangam by Manohar Balachandra (particularly in the arudi punctuations) made for a treat.
The format intelligently designed for a Hindi knowing audience had introductory thrust coming from compere Rajiv Chandran.
In the Surdas Brij Bhasha Ramayana Suni suta ek katha kaho pyari narrated to child Krishna by Yashoda, struggling with a recalcitrant child’s refusal to switch off and sleep, the narration in the seated posture (as before a sleeping child) could have been less prolonged, for it tended to destroy the punch line when Sita being abducted by Ravana s sees child Krishna suddenly rise up asking for his bow and arrow - the sudden blending of consciousness of two avatars astonishing both mother and audience. Altogether an exultant experience for those present! Among the local dancers showing great promise were Vishal Thakur, who would be well advised to curb obvious showmanship and Akshita Daiman, disciple of Ila Pandey who has a good foundation for growth. Dinesh Gupta is expressive but his stance shows an inner rigidity he must shed. And as a performer he should show rather than try to become a nayika.
The writer is an eminent dance critic