The prime movers and the artistes she chose then have not been replaced since by any other group in those forms.
Have you ever imagined what happens when titans unite? What happens when the world’s pre-eminent dancers of six very different classical dance forms of India share the stage? Is there is a storm, an earthquake or a tsunami? Well, you will know it soon, as in the coming month, a one of its kind show “Charishnu” will be showcased at the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, celebrating 50 years of service to the arts by NCPA.
The conception of Charishnu began over a decade back when in 2007, Padmashree Leela Samson was asked by the then ministry of tourism to create a production that would include several of India’s dance forms. It was for the opening of an India Tourism Office in Shanghai. She immediately thought of dancers whose work had created waves in their respective forms and who would be willing to participate in a joint production under her able guidance.
The prime movers and the artistes she chose then have not been replaced since by any other group in those forms. They are now like a family where the individual dancers and original choreographers in those styles are not bigger than the production itself. Charishnu — as they named the production — means “the desire to move”, and has since been performed at regular intervals both in India and abroad to huge appreciation. The best thing — the review about the show is that the audiences feel Charishnu is a show that makes them feel “proud to be Indian”.
This production consists of Priti Patel and her collaborator Imocha Singh for Manipuri and the martial art form, Thang-ta from Manipur, Aruna Mohanty for Odissi, Sadanam Balakrishnan for Kathakali and Mohiniattam, Aditi Mangaldas for Kathak, Mahesh Vinayakaram for the drum ensemble, and Bharatanatyam under the direction of Samson and light designed by Gyan Dev.
Speaking of Charishnu, Aditi Mangaldas says, “This is a dance production which has short vignettes of many dance styles from India as well as a percussion interlude.” Each dancer was requested to bring an abstract seven-minute piece that represents his/her form to the production. Priti Patel adds, “I was inspired to bring together two pieces. One is an excerpt from the Rasaleela of Krishna and the Gopis, which began with an excerpt from the Sankirtana tradition.” The second piece was more challenging. “It is a presentation of the pre-Vaishnavite tradition of Lai Haraoba and Thang-ta, the ancient martial art form of Manipur. Both are very different — one being soft and lyrical, and the other, strong and dynamic. While in the Rasaleela, the lyrics used are from Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda, the dance forms of Maibi and Thang-ta are accompanied by the sounds of drums and the pena — a string instrument,” she says. Everyone thought of original music for the production. Thereafter, Leela Samson knit the forms together,making them meet each other in a way that made for a seamless production.
There have been many collaborations by various artistes in the past and in the present too. In the past, it was exciting to see the coming together of Kelucharan Mohapatra and Birju Maharaj, and, on the odd occasion, Mohapatra and Kalanidhi Narayanan too. There were times when Yamini Krishnamurthy, Sonal Mansingh and Uma Sharma also made appearances together. Exposure to all the forms and a new familiarity with each other did exist, but each dancer was so preoccupied with the long training and performing of their own forms, that they had limited time for collaborations. There were times when some famous “jugalbandis” failed to impress audiences too both in the world of Hindustani and Carnatic music, as well as in different dance forms.
With Charishnu, however, things have been a bit different — the response of the audience has been very encouraging. Vinayakaram, son of the illustrious T.H. Vikku Vinayakaram says, “In my view, Charishnu is one of a kind. It is the ultimate portal of Indian dance and percussion, and has brought a certain oneness among the artistes.” Mangaldas feels the same way: “What Charishnu symbolises to me,” she says, “is unity in diversity — the hallmark of India. It does not try to iron out differences, but instead it celebrates the uniqueness of each style.”
This show is a sublime sangam — it has to be said that lighting and soundscape play an important part in presentations that have both live sound and pre-recorded sound. Sai Shravanam of the studio Resound India in Chennai is an “unfailing rock” who brings the different levels of music together in Charishnu, but it is working with the wonderful dancers that has brought the most pleasure to Leela Samson, who directed this magnificent show under her artistry. Each of the dancers carry the responsibilities of their own group choreographies independent of Charishnu, apart from the institutions that they individually run. But when they come together to perform in Charishnu, they bring with them their high sense of professionalism and discipline. And when they watch each other perform, they are inspired. Balakrishnan, who has practiced Kathakali all his life says, “Participating in Charishnu made me understand classical dance forms other than Kathakali. With this collaboration, I really admire and respect our great heritage in the varied dance forms of India. I can see the same feeling in dancers of other forms, and this, I think, has been the best outcome of Charishnu.” Mangaldas has, inadvertently, found ways to reinforce her own learning: “Besides presenting my own piece, I have stood in the wings and seen great artistry unfold, in a variety of forms — music, colour, structure and literature. I have been able to learn something from each and that has helped enhance my own dance,” she says.
Speaking from the heart Samson said, “The dancers within each group have, over the years, changed, but what is important is that the work has an original conviction that is special and remains constant. Conviction and discipline can be infectious.” She further adds, “This infection spreads through everyone who is a participant, one sees a new face in each group from time to time, but they catch the import of the others and raise their game for the presentation. This is what makes my Charishnu special.”
This year is very special for the National Centre for the Performing Arts as it celebrates 50 years of service to the arts. The NCPA is a unique arts centre nurturing the dreams of artistes across five genres — Western and international music, Indian music, theatre, photography and dance. It is home to one of the finest professional international symphony orchestras of the country and has been a temple of good quality arts for decades. This year the NCPA celebrates 50 years with some exceptional performances such as Charishnu. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the NCPA’s long-time collaborator, the Sahachari Foundation. Together they bring back this mega Indian classical dance production. Speaking about this extraordinary show, renowned Odissi exponent, Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, head-dance programming at NCPA, said, “What makes Charishnu unique is the constellation of icons who have collaborated with the legend Leela Samson. This production is an iconic group work, where Leelaji has woven Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kathak along with live drumming and the martial arts Thangta.” Adding more, Dasgupta said, “This one of a kind grand production with nearly 50 people was conceived over a decade back when multi-dance style collaborations were very rare. The most fascinating part of Charishnu is that even after a decade it has been able to retain the same collaborating dancers who are some of the biggest names in their fields.”
Bharatnatyam by Padmashree awardee Leela Samson, who was also the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Censor Board of India. Odissi led by Padmashree Aruna Mohanty — a Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) awardee. Kathak led by Aditi Mangaldas — one of the finest Kathak dancers of our times. Kathakali and Mohiniattam led by Sadanam Balakrishnan — SNA awardee and master of Kathakali. Manipuri classical dance and Thangta led by SNA awardee Priti Patel and martial arts expert Imocha Singh.
This year is a milestone for the Sahachari Foundation. As it celebrates a decade of service to society, promoting the arts and culture through some 45 original, eclectically curated, cultural programs staged in collaboration with the NCPA. Backed by the heartening personal involvement of the Sahachari ladies, its revenue lends support to more than 20 NGOs in diverse fields, from the education of children, to healthcare, socio-economic upliftment and animal welfare, also bringing the arts to schools serving underprivileged children. Speaking of Charishnu, Nilima Kilachand of the Sahachari Foundation said, “Back in 2009, our opening event was Charishnu — the desire to move. Since then, over the years, Sahachari has consistently and boldly forged forward to deliver on its opening promise. This spirit of Sahachari, always walking together, emphasising the confluence of divergent streams in the arts, underlies everything that Sahachari does. This journey has been rewarding for the ladies walking together, and impactful for all those whom the Sahacharis have touched. But the journey is not complete, the desire still moves on.”
The vital link between art organisations and the artiste cannot be undermined. In most Western countries, the theatres of the city decide the type of artiste they will host over the year. They receive public funding to implement their vision. It is the organisation, after all, that has a finger on the pulse of the viewers around them, who are drawn to their shows. It is only right that they give much thought to the solo, group or large ensembles of music, dance or drama that they will host. For it is in the choices they make that the cultural life of the city is defined. In India too, sabhas and most cultural organisations work in much the same way.
This production, Charishnu, is very close to Leela Samson, speaking of the forthcoming show, the celebrated danseuse said, “Sahachari is celebrating their 10th year and I am thrilled that they chose to present ‘Charishnu’ — a production we had done for them a decade ago for their first year celebrations! They went alone that first time, but as we congratulate and celebrate the respective anniversaries of these two organistions, it might be prudent to acknowledge the new collaboration that they have sought to work with this time around. That NGOs and philanthropic organisations choose to support the arts is defining in itself, but the fact that they are collaborating with the NCPA is a win-win situation for all. I hope many more small and big organisations consider this option.”
In this show, the dancers of the different dance forms move in the varying rhythms, each in their own stylised way, each of them reveling in their respective languages of expression, the strength and the beauty of each of these dances styles is captured individually, so that viewers can savour each, yet appreciate the differences between them. All of them are given their due creative space as they present themselves in their distinctive costumes with their unique percussive support in all the grandeur and the precision that are their hallmark.
Through this not to be missed production, that does not try to iron out differences, but instead it celebrates the uniqueness of each style — let us celebrate the iconic National Centre for the Performing Arts — their commitment and service to the art scene of Mumbai and the great performances that have been held on their platforms over the past 50 years! Congratulations to all their staff, present and past, who make things happen and the sensitive minds that guided the institution from above. Let us also acknowledge Sahachari in their quest to do their work while acknowledging and supporting the arts.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore, is a World Book Record holder, a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with three National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org