Witnessing young Anannya Chatterjee, a disciple of Jayalakshmi Eshwar of the Abhinaya Centre for Bharatnatyam, in a solo margam recital at Tamil Sangam’s Thiruvalluvar Auditorium, one wondered why such an accomplished dancer had not caught the eye of impresarios and festival curators so far. Rising above some detracting aspects of the evening, the artiste in the dancer triumphed. While the Tamil Sangam merits congratulations for locating and sponsoring this highly deserving dancer, one would like to suggest that the backdrop with the Sangam logo carrying the picture of the legendary Thiruvalluvar (one fully appreciates the strong feelings behind this) is somewhat overwhelming — making the dancer’s performance space akin to an already painted canvas on which painting of new lines by the performer will not show. During performances, why not draw the back curtain (provided), while retaining the strong Tamil focus with a fully garlanded really well made statue or portrait placed on one side of the stage along with Nataraja and the lighted lamp, leaving a major part of the performing area free for the dance imagery?
The percussion mridangam support by no less than Talamani Vetri Bhoopathi known for his enthusiastic drumming, with a mic enhancing the decibel level of what is a naturally powerful instrument, took away the melody from rhythm, hurting the ears. The promising vocalist, Vinay Kummar Kannol, needs to be more conscious of shruti or microtonal alignment. Perhaps a tanpura drone or shrutipetti would be a good idea. Melody had its best representative in the violinist Sridhar — whose interventions as in the alaap prelude in maand were delightful.
Kudos to Jayalakshi Eshwar for her grooming of Anannya and even though her neat nattuvangam at many moments went unheard with the overloud mridangam, her choice of items and choreography stood out. The Ragamalika Devi Todayamangam set to ragams Bhoopalam, Sree and Durga where manifestations of Narayani as Saraswati, as Lakshmi and as Durga showing contrasting roles of benevolence and destruction made a wonderful starting point for all round ability, which was straight away projected by Anannya catching the goddesses presiding over knowledge and the arts, aishwarya or wealth and shakti or power. The araimandi central concern of technique, full hand stretches sideways, forwards and backwards, clear toe-heel (tattumettu) movements spoke of the guru’s clean Kalakshetra style. This opening was followed by the Indra Kavuvam, part of the Navasandi Kavutvam which has a history with the natya connection. Part of the danced temple ritual by the devadasis in the Saivite temples of Tamilnadu, Navasandhi Kavutvam in Tamil verses, is dedicated to the Ashtadikpalaka deities guarding the eight directions of the shrine with Brahma in the centre, thus making it nava or 9. The Navasandi Kavutvam verses, attributed to the Tanjore Quartette, have been inferred by some scholars, as belonging to the pre-Quartette Shaivite natya period. With the Devadasi abolition, these ritualistic hymns were no longer rendered till Guru Kittappa Pillai of Tanjore, despite the religiosity ascribed to these Kavutvams, revived many, for proscenium presentation, by teaching some disciples. Indra guarding the eastern direction is evoked in the Kavutvam describing him with the thunderbolt or Vajra as his weapon, accompanied by consort Indrani, seated on his vehicle of Airawat the elephant. As the ruler over the world of gods, he is represented by all his symbols of unending wealth and prosperity and success like the Kalpavriksha , Kamadhenu and the special jewel Chintamani. This Kavutvam is set to Raga Vasantha. Anannya’s rendition in its clean imagery was laced with devotional conviction.
The Varnam centerpiece set to Ragam Latangi was woven round Bhakti sringar, with the nayka in this instance addressing Lord Kartikeya Shiva’s younger son. “Nee manam irangi vandarul vai Neela mayil Vahanane (Have compassion and grace me with your presence, you rider of the peacock).” Annanya’s interpretation left no doubts about her in-depth understanding of the Tamil literature. With her very mobile facial expressions, and excellent feel for timing shown even through the clearly etched arudis and teermanam links (Nattuvangam by Jayalakshmi) facets of Muruga’s life contained in the dance visualisation suffered no low points in the long drawn presentation. The complicated myth of Kartikeya’s unique birth was very well communicated. Intruding the Shiva/Parvati intimacy, Agni, finding the smuggled reproductive fluid of Shiva too hot even for him to handle, casts it into the flowing Ganga whose waters deposit it in the forest. Six sons born of this are guarded by six divine Kritikas, till Parvati’s eyes fall on them leading to her embracing all six within her arms, resulting in the six heads on the single body of Muruga or Kartikeya. How the place of birth and the mango tree led to the peacock regarded as a symbol of virtue becoming Muruga’s vahana, the adult Kartikeya’s wooing of Valli in the forest, enticing her to his side pretending to be an old man in the throes of near death needing help, Kartikeya as the embodiment of knowledge (he opens even Shiva’s mind to the glory of the sound “Om”) and also as an ocean of compassion and the ritualistic pilgrimage of Kartikeya or Subramanya devotees, travelling along distances with the kavadi on their shoulders were all part of the choreographic concerns. “Wedded to two happy consorts, Valli and Devayani, can you not grant me the joy of your love?” Evocative of all moods, the dancer did full justice to the varnam.
The all abhinaya focus based on Muttutandavar’s age old padam, “Teruvil varano” in Kamas, portrayed the nayika expressing, in the wonderment of her desire for Shiva, a wistful hope. While his procession to and from temple, crossed her street, if only Nataraja would once turn his head and cast a glance her way! The dancer treated the lyric with the sensitivity deserved.
Lalgudi Jayaraman’s thillana in mand ushered in the concluding moments of the well-rounded performance. Anannya’s costume did not drape well round the hip and waist.
It was a disappointingly thin audience for the monthly double bill concert at the India International Centre (office-goers deterred by the 6 pm start on a week day). The first dancer Arunima Sengupta, a Kathak disciple of Luna Poddar of Kolkata and Vijayashankar, with some training also under the Jaipur gharana guru Rajendra Gangani, showed a refreshing approach, speaking of a thinking dancer, not afraid to give the dance individuality, without tampering with time-honoured technique. Starting with an exhortation for liberation, the invocation on Rama represented for the dancer, a fight for values – moral, and spiritual with qualities of leadership. The Teental Vilambit also began with a silent sans-music or rhythm prelude, dancer gracefully entering hands swirling to convey the binding force of universal rhythm — in the sky, the flowing rivers, the vegetation — in fact the entire universe with the dancer’s own nritta a part of an unending dance. And then to a slow lehra, the dance began. Every intra-form had the look of freshness. The upaj start with improvisations woven round the tala cycle was followed by the stillness and concentrated meditative quality in both thhat and uthan. Her guruji’s Amad composition starting at one point, expanding and concluding by getting merged again in the starting point, was very unusual. So were two tihai sequences one with only Natwari bols (soon complemented on the tabla by Amitamshu Brahmoh with a tihai built round “dha, dha, dhakita” with two dha(s) unlike the single dha, Paran with 32 spins and later in the drut section with 54 chakkars — all executed perfectly was for the audience which prefers acrobatic skill to aesthetics. For abhinaya, one had the gat bhav sequences, especially some fine chal(s) in the Sringar Gat. With Ghulam Mohammad on Sarangi the music was neat. And what an evocative bit of Thumri singing (recorded music) by Joita Pande “Mora saiyan bulave aadhi raat.” The ever-expectant Nayika hoping for the return of her loved one while involved in the daily grind of domestic chores, suddenly lights up with a message that the loved one was calling out for her to meet him in the middle of the night. But alas a river in spate to be crossed with an old boat and an unwilling boatman force the realisation of having to be the proverbial “patience on a monument”. Without needless histrionics, the dancer showed a feel for the mood.
The second half of Bharatnatyam by identical twins Archana and Chetna, made for an uncanny experience, for never have I seen, like two peas in a pod, sisters look so confusingly the same and perform like toys wound up with a key — presenting identical smiles, showing the same neat row of teeth, a carbon copy of each other even in a head turn and eye glance! While one is in two minds of how much uniformity or individuality needs to be promoted in identical siblings, the circumstances of their upbringing from the age of three in what is known as SOS Children’s Village, where they were left by their grandmother, their prowess in education with both engineers in computer science, settling down (strangely) to a life of dancing Bharatnatyam and teaching (trained under gurus Bhanumathy and Sheela Chandasekhar), reads more like a story! The twins with their copybook sameness began with “Yen pallikondeer ayya?” in ragam(s) Mohanam and Kapi. This nindastuti in a light banter directed against God Vishnu querying if the tremendous exertions of his previous manifestations as Rama and then Krishna has made him so fatigued that he is forced to take the reclining posture of Ranganatha. A slower tempo would have brought out the central teasing mood, taking away from the very mechanised feel of the dance rendition, which recorded music also contributed to.
Like most pada varnam composed by musicians in Bengaluru, the choice of the sisters, set to Raga Kamas addressed Krishna as “bhvana sundarane”, reveling in episodes from of the Krishna myth. His beauty of form, the devotee’s unshaken faith in Him as the only saviour (“Neene gati nera nammi” visualised through Krishna’s rescue of Draupadi and Gajendra,) Krishna’s childhood escapades like sucking out Pootana’s life and dancing as “Nartana Gopala” on the hood of the subdued serpent Kalinga) and Krishna as flute player with all the images of romance in the kunja to the delight of the Gopis arduously courting “rasa keli Krishna”, are all part of this episodic rather than the interpretative treatment. In an all Krishna emphasis, Purandara Dasa’s “Kedagora tarenna chinnave” in Yamuna Kalyani showing Yashoda trying to keep her mischievous son from creating problems was presented by Archana singly followed by another solo by Chetna who presented the Yashoda/Krishna banter, based on the well-known Surdas Pad “Maiyya more mein nahi makhan khayo”. Even while the sisters danced singly one failed to make out one from the other! Instead of the unusual nature of this computerised sameness which has its appeal, these very talented and intelligent (computer degrees do not grow on trees) dancers have to evolve as individual artists, which the gurus too should encourage. The taped music had Srivatsa Goswami’s vocal support with Sheela Unnikrishnan’s nattuvangam, mridangam by Narayanan and Mahesh Swamy on flute.
The writer is an eminent dance critic