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Dance of the Enchantress is meditation in joy

Published : Nov 14, 2017, 2:26 am IST
Updated : Nov 14, 2017, 2:28 am IST

The film is so much more than a documentary; it is an aesthetic experience that evokes rasa through the music, dance and visuals.

French Mohiniattam exponent Brigitte Chataignier.
 French Mohiniattam exponent Brigitte Chataignier.

I have always loved the ephemeral nature of dance. The magic of the performance exists in the synergy of performer and audience in a particular moment in time and space. Entering the stage, the dancer offers one’s creative best available for the moment, not for posterity. Another day and the “same” dance may be exponentially different in performance. It always seemed to me that when a book was published or a painting displayed, the creator had made a statement of completion that I did not in dance. Of course, as I matured, it was clear that tangible arts are also “of the moment” in the creative process, yet dance is a poignant reminder of impermanence.

Because of this, we treasure filmed moments of dance in documentaries or archives knowing that they can provide only a tangential experience to being part of a live performance experience. For Indian classical dance, straight forward quality documentation is available from the Doordarshan Archives created by Kamalini Dutt.  Documentation by other government and autonomous bodies leaves too much to be desired.

Given that every artistic medium has its own abilities and parameters, a good film on dance can shift time and place to provide not only varying angles of the dance but also of the lives, context of the dance, gurus and dancers. A great film can shift energy and even our willingness and ability to perceive.

La Danse de l’enchanteresse (The dance of the Enchantress) by Adoor Gopalakrisnan and Bridget Chataignier is a great film. As everyone familiar with other films of this master, Adoor-ji chooses not to lean on a linear narrative to convey meaning. The viewer is respected as a Rasika to experience the rasa evoked. This is done through images of Mohiniattam performed in temples, palaces as well as classroom, contextualised in the Kerala environment.

When the renowned French Mohiniattam exponent, Brigitte Chataignier, a graduate of Kerala Kalamandalam was directed to Adoor Gopalakrishnan with her film concept, she discovered he had also been studying and considering Mohiniattam for decades without yet having decided on how to approach it in film. Bridget managed to secure funding, create a production house and together they co-scripted this exquisite film. The sensitivity and expansiveness of spirit in this virtually wordless depiction of the lush traditional ethos of Kerala is breathtaking.

DVD cover of The Dance of the EnchantressDVD cover of The Dance of the Enchantress

An exception to the rule of classical dancers making documentary films, Bridget did not feature herself or make even a transitory appearance, instead presenting accomplished performances by Smitha Rajan (daughter of Sreedevi Rajan), Dr Neena Prasad, Pallavi Krishnan and Usha Balaji. I was personally delighted to see included two Mohiniattam compositions that I had never seen before, Swati Tirunal’s Aliveni and the popular lullaby, Omanathinkal Kidavo in Mohiniattam, as I had performed these in Odissi in Kerala decades ago.

There are only two scenes with spoken dialogue. One finely crafted scene is in a bus as dancers and their musicians are returning from a performance. The vocalist is singing and a bus discussion reiterates the revival of Mohiniattam by the Maharaja Swati Tirunal (his over 400 classical compositions are the core of the repertoire since the first half of the 19th century) while another bus rider reminds that Vallathol Narayana who established Kerala Kalamandalam revived it in the early part of the last century.

The sole other scene with dialogue involves the guru asking why a student is not in class. The answer- she is getting married and her in-laws don’t approve of her continuing to dance. The guru declares that this is an outdated attitude. Meanwhile the images of the young girl, her betrothed, even the selection of wedding saris are dovetailed with the sringar of the dance and luxuriant Kerala landscapes.

Without dialogue, the sound landscape of birds and rain in nature, dance music and solkattu in class, courtyard and inner sanctum calms down our inner voices to rest in a more metaphysical serentity.

We see the bhava of the most revered and beloved gurus sharing with their shisyas in the classroom. These interactions with Kalamandalam Satyabhama, recently departed Guru Prof. Kalamandalam Leelamma,  Sreedevi Rajan (daughter of the ‘grandmother of Mohiniattam’, Kalyani Kuttiyamma) as well as Guru Kalamandalam Kshemavathi evoke the delicious flavor of learning to experience and share rasa.

The well chosen dance sequences were shot in temples and palaces associated with Maharaja Swati Tirunal and Mahakavi Vallathol, generations apart, who both revived Mohiniyattam and other Kerala art forms when they were fading into oblivion.

This film is so much more than a documentary; it is an aesthetic experience that evokes rasa through the music, dance and visuals. If you already appreciate Kerala or are uninitiated, immersing yourself in Brigitte and Adoor-ji’s Dance of the Enchantress will be a meditation in joy.

Tags: indian classical dance, brigitte chataignier, smitha rajan