The curtain-raiser at 9 am had over a hundred enthusiastic dancers participating in the Body and Movement workshop conducted by Santosh Nair.
A magic wand seemed to have been waved over the International Dance Festival celebrations of Natya Vriksha, at the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi. The curtain-raiser at 9 am had over a hundred enthusiastic dancers participating in the Body and Movement workshop conducted by artistic director and Contemporary Dance specialist of Sadhya, Santosh Nair, the exercise accommodating a spirited interaction. The next morning, Geeta Chandran’s workshop with Mridangam artist Manohar Balachandirane on Rhythm and Dance elicited similar enthusiasm.
Triggering spirited questioning was the highlight of a thought-provoking talk by former diplomat Pavan K. Varma on “Culture and Innovation — the Indian Story”. Referring to the glory of Indian culture in terms of its antiquity and continuity, going back to years before the birth of Christ, “when people had not come down from trees” Bharata’s Natyasastra had already been compiled, contemplating on the nature of the aesthetic experience (rasa). That third eye of creativity in its search for aesthetics, had in Ellora carved a temple out of a mountain! The university at Nalanda (Harvard of Asia is how a scholar called it), which attracted scholars from as far as Japan, had a library so vast that when brutally torched by Bhaktiyar Khilji, the fire kept burning for six months!
The Indian mind’s dialogue for ultimate truth sought not divinity in the conventional sense as much as redemption by truth. As legatees of such a glorious heritage, we face challenges today. Apart from ignorance and the absence of curiosity to be informed about our culture, the danger is in a derivative culture signifying mimicry sans authenticity. Repetitiveness and inability to go beyond the predictable with no new metaphors emerging from the matrix of our heritage show an absence of inspirational fire. The neglect of our culture — enabling institutions, including the state of our museums, when viewed against the likes of the Louvre and the crowds that visit them, or the way China and the UAE spend on their institutions, speak of culture occupying a low priority in the scheme of the country’s concerns. Our forefathers took our culture to so many places in Southeast Asia! Above all is a worrying absence of evaluation — for culture merits no prime space in any daily or journal. Sadly, instead of reflective space expressing open and free thinking is arrogant illiteracy.
The Young Dancers’ Festival, the mainstay of Natya Vriksha’s two-day proceedings, began with Odissi dancer Rajashri Praharaj, disciple of Ratikant Mohapatra (also Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra for a short duration). With a fine and involved team of musicians led by Ratikant Mohapatra’s mardal, Jatin Kumar Sahu’s vocal support, Srinivas Satpathy (flute) and Agnimitra Behera (violin), Rajashri began with the Hamsadhwani Pallavi. Her technique was flawless, though she appeared somewhat self-conscious, warming up in the second half of the Pallavi. But in the centrepiece Sita Haran from the Ram Charit Manas, she was in her element, evoking a standing ovation for what was one of the finest expositions of Natya in Odissi, taking on, in turns, the roles of Rama, Lakshmana, Sita (central to the theme), Maricha, Ravana and Jatayu. One admired afresh the choreography of the great Guru Kelucharan and Raghunath Panigrahi’s music — first performed by the late Sanjukta Panigrahi in the early 1980s.
Rupangshi Kashyap, a Kathak disciple of Guru Kumudini Lakhia of Kadamb, danced like a veteran. The invocation comprising Ganesh addressing his Mother Bhavani Mata (music in Purvadhanashree set to Ektali) began with a spirited kavit in praise of Devi Durge Bhavani, variously addressed as “Jagadheeshwari”, “Jagat Janani” and “Narayani”. The teental extravaganza was a true celebration set to musical background in raga Gara. Most impressive was Joby Joy’s sensitive tabla playing, never having to resort to deafening decibel levels, playing with a highly aesthetic feel for rhythm. One experienced the same ease of execution with a smiling dancer who played with the tala — the Upaj section and thereafter showing that nritta posed few challenges for her. Along with foot-contact rhythm using just the left foot (which working with Vijayashankar during his Kadamb stay, had instilled in the students), was originality in every phase, from the uthan, to the khanda, tisra, chatushra bandishes in madhya laya, and the tihai. The brief abhinaya section set to raga Brindavani Sarang “Ban ban dhoonde jaoon, kit mo chhipagay Krishna Murari” — searching for the hiding Krishna, with the “sheshamukut aur kaana kundal” charm, merged into the drut nritta section where again the clarity of footwork spoke of the excellent grooming received under her Guru. Altogether, a superbly finished performance and competent musicians!
Curator Geeta Chandran’s unerring selection treated the audience to a Bharatanatyam surprise in Rema Srikanth of Kalasri in Baroda, whose lecture/demonstration on her personal dance journey put the accent on excerpts from her compositions, presented by her group of students. The entire manner of harnessing the Bharatanatyam technique for unusual themes revealed a uniquely refreshing perspective of creativity. One of several daughters of the dancing couple Krishna Panikkar and Gauri Pannikar of the Ellora Centre for Performing Arts at Vadodara, Rama’s father as a Kathakali and Bharatanatyam dancer had a many-sided career as a leading Chenda percussionist of Kerala’s royal house, Bharatanatyam grooming under Tanjavur Bani’s great Guru Kittappa Pillai and back in Bombay he served in Madam Menaka’s Dance Institute. In 1943 at Khandela he married Gauri, Rema’s mother, trained in Kathakali Stree Vesham under Asan Nanu Pillai and Mohiniattam with Kalyanikutty Amma. The couple gave many concerts under Guru Kittappa Pillai’s baton, acquiring his inimitable madhya laya teermanams with the intricate arithmetic and time/space arrangement where the tala beat and foot contact never synchronised till both ended in perfect togetherness on the “sama”. Trained by her mother, when the family moved to Baroda in 1975, Rema came under Guru C.V. Chandrashekhar’s tutelage for 17 years.
In Bombay, young Rema sometimes performed with Hema Malini and at the age of 18 married Srikanth, the son of Vazhengadu Kunji Nayyar, the first principal of Kerala Kalamandalam. Drawn to the dance-drama genre, Rema’s creative imagination had been shaped by the dramatic vigour of Kathakali, the grace of Mohiniattam, the nritta of Bharatanatyam and the general aesthetic eye acquired under Guru Chandrasekhar. Her chorographic accent has been on ways of visualising Hinduism’s esoteric concepts through the dance medium. The first excerpt from her unusual composition Mooladharamoorti delved into texts like Subhashitam, Vamana puranam, Shivapuranam and Soundarya Lahari. With a teermanam comprising movements of the “mooshika” (Ganesh’s vahana, the mouse) the theme concerned the Pranava mantra “Om” with dormant energy circuits of the body getting activated with the Kundalini chakra finally awakening. The music by Geeta Kalyanaraman was in ragam Nagaswaravali. Next came an equally rare sequence on Nadam (called “Humming of the Cosmic Echo”) based on the Saptawaras, Sa re ga ma pa dha ni, each rendered to music in a suitable mode, some very rare. Each note was represented by one of nature’s creatures inspiring the swara, (according to the Naradiya Shiksha). While covering all the notes, the abridged version presented, concentrated on Shadjam (Sa) representing the call of the peacock, rendered to music in Karaharapriya and Sri ragam, Rishabham (Re — Call of the Bull rendered to raga Rishabhabpriya), Madhyama (ma) represented by the Kraunchapaksha (in raga Simhendramadhyamam), Deivatam (dha), the neigh of the horse set to raga Devi, and Ni (Nishadham), characterising the call of the deer set to raga Nishadha. The other notes were Ga (set to Devagandhari), characterising the cry of the goat, Pa (Pancham), resembling the call of the cuckoo. The group performing with fine discipline had movements for each section inspired by the bird or animal whose call characterised the note.
Sri Chakram, another abstract concept taken from ritual in Kerala temples, had Geeta Kalyanaraman’s score in the typical temple music style of Kerala Sopanam, with Rema’s younger sister Ambika Viswanathan providing vocal support. Expressing the very abstract tantric representation of Devi worship, the choreography cleverly used the geometry of the inverted triangle, in eye-catching dance formations — created with stretchable ribbons held in hand and very colourful group arrangements reminiscent of temple ritual with parasols held over the imagined elephant hooda, dancers in graceful elephantine gait, flaunting decorative embellishment with fly whisks, etc — great visual imagery indeed!
The dancer’s creation of the short work Maya, the great cosmic unknown (for Shankaracharya the entire cosmos was an illusion with the Brahman the only truth), for which lyrics were by Shanti Jain with music by Smita Roy Chowdhury, according to the dancer led to inexplicable incidents, making the entire group wary!
While the nayika in many situations is the given in the Bharatanatyam repertoire, the nayaka (hero) bhed as theme, is rare. Krishna rejoicing with the Gopis (Dhiralalita) with music in Pantuvarali, Buddha as the Dhirasanta Nayaka (set to raga Sama), the warrior qualities of Dhirodatta Rama tempered by firmness and justice, had music in Kapi, and Dhiroddhatta projected a passionately ambitious Ravana through an excerpt in Mohanam from Arunachala Kavirayar’s Rama Natakam — making for neat, fleeting character cameos. Trishti Tandavam, wherein Lord Shiva’s dance creates consciousness and the cosmos, was a zippy Ragamalika/Talamaka expression.
The pick of the renditions, for this critic was Sangrama Jati, where attacking the enemy was expressed in the seated position using only the upper part of the body with neck, hands and eye movements! To create that high-vaulting activity of the warrior sans the leaps and masterful strides of the body, was a true testimony to out-of-the-box creativity. Ritu Raj made the perfect ending in Kumbharati from a composition comparing Bharatanatyam with its earlier avatar, Sadir Natyam.
Another young Bharatanatyam dancer from Chennai was Manasvini Ramachandran (currently studying for Masters in Conservation). Enthused by a fine set of musicians (Sridevi Jayakrishnan’s excellent Nattuvangam, K. Venkateswaran’s soulfully melodic, moving vocal support never upstaging the dancer, Bhardwaj’s Mridangam intricacies spun into Arudis with the dancer more than a match, and violin and flute by Anantakrishnan and Surjit Nair respectively), Manasvini’s performance was a credit to her Guru/mother, currently director of Kalakshetra. Ponniah Pillai’s vintage Varnam in Bhairavi “Mohamana en meedu” emerged as a persuasive version of the nayika’s longing, cajoling the Lord of Tiruvarur to shun his indifference to her (Mody seyyalamo) unrequited ardour where even cool sandal paste, moonbeam and breezes seemed to scotch. “Bhoga tyagesa anubhogam seyya vaa”, the nayika says, offering herself — not to Shiva the mendicant but to the Epicure of Sringar, Tyagesa. The punctuating teermanams were rendered with precision and abandon. The polished recital ended with Shuddha Nritta — her Guru’s Mangudi Dorairajan legacy. With bubbling interest and a crackling atmosphere, this was a charged festival.
The writer is an eminent dance critic