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O Friend, This Waiting!
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos courtesy: Justin McCarthy

July 23, 2014

O Friend, This Waiting! is a film on Kshetrayya's padams by Bharatanatyam exponent Justin McCarthy and Sandhya Kumar. Made in 2012, it won an award in art film category at the 63rd Film Festival. It is an unusual film weaving in poetic sensibilities of both the film makers and exquisite visuals by cameraman Amit Mahanti.

The film of 32 minutes duration is unusual in the sense that with the padams of the Telugu poet Kshetrayya, one expects that there will be more of abhinaya performed by a dancer. However, the script writers Justin and Sandhya have focused on evoking a mood through brief words about devadasis: sacred and profane, a maid of gods and prostitute, her disappearance. The poems she danced portrayed intense love for gods, then for Kings, patrons, her social status commented upon with exquisite visuals of the river, the palace, the flowers, the lotus leaf, a garland, two feet with ankle bells, green leaves, interiors of the palace, old mansion with stained glasses, school children running in a building with old architecture- a cascade of images, often breathtaking which linger long in memory after the film is over.

The temple entrance, door, devotees entering, the river, old palace, a woman dressed in green silk, on a swing, just showing hastas (hand gestures), keeping time string with palm, face not shown, creating curiosity to see her full figure, cut to the gun, palace in Madurai, words fleeting from devadasi: My King in court and God in temple.

Beautiful visuals of courtesans, frescoes displaying sensuous figures of women decorated with ornaments, with lovers in embrace, physical union, old photos of groups of devadasis with talasaamaan, moon and sun, the string of pearls dividing hair in centre, nose rings, earrings, bangles, the way they wore sarees, flowers in hair, visuals evoking nostalgia, past glory, the venues of their dance, the court of Tanjore, statue of the King, camera capturing the past.

Poet Kshetrayya wrote padams in mid 17th century. He hailed form village Muvva in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, close to the Kuchipudi village. He wrote often as Muvva Gopala. Muvva is the name of the place and also means Krishna. The poet apparently visited Madurai, though no substantial proof is available for anything, under Thirumalai Nayak's rule, Thanjavur under Vijayaraghava Nayaka's rule and Golconda under Badshah of Golconda's rule.

His songs became popular. Musicians sang them and dancers performed to those padams - poignant, heart rending, intense, full of agony of nayika's separation from the lover, awaiting and not knowing if he would turn up, mirroring emotions in unforgettable imageries, in ragas rendered which melt one's heart.

Legendary Veena Dhanam played his songs on veena and created special music on the instrument, the legacy of which T. Muktha carried on. The film shows old photographs of veena Dhanam, and in the background is played old recordings of veena Dhanam. Also interview with Rama Devi following that tradition and her explanation and how these padams are sung slow to evoke the emotions. In the end, young dancer Bharathi Penneswaren is shown enacting abhinaya to a padam. That leaves one to want to see more of the abhinaya as Kshetrayya's songs are also known for dance.

The film was screened at the recent National Film Festival at the Siri Fort Auditorium. It was again screened on 10th July at India International Centre and was followed by lec-dem and performances of few padams by Justin and a young disciple of his, to the singing of padams by Sudha Raghuraman to the accompaniment of a tanpura only. Justin's explanations were complimentary to the screening of the film and enhanced the enjoyment of visuals captured. It also revealed the treasure trove of Kshetrayya's compositions.

Justin McCarthy

Bharathi Penneswaren
Photos: Avinash Pasricha

The following padams were sung by Sudha Raghuraman and performed solo by the dancer and once by Justin and last by two of them together. Since the first stanza of each padam presented was explained in English, the gist of it, emotions, agony, anxiety, intensity were reflected in its exposition. Bereft of any razzle dazzle, the abhinaya and dance transported one to old times when abhinaya was performed at such leisurely pace. These songs and meanings given in brief are provided by Justin and Sudha Raghuraman which show the range of emotions.

Sripati sutubariki: in Anandabhairavi raga and adi tala

Son of Lakshmi and Vishnu, the god of love, Oh Muvva Gopala, I cannot bear the onslaught of love's arrows! Is it right for you to show anger when I beseech you to protect me?

Valapudachanerane OBhaama ne variveeri valane: in ragam Varali and misrachapu tala

O friend! I cannot hide this love /desire like others do...

Payyeda: in Nadanamakriya set to tisratriputa talam

The most well known padam in which the nayika laments about how her lover who when sun would set and before it would become dark, used to ask the servant to bring the lamp, so that when darkness descended he could still see her face. So intense was his love for her, and now see in what state I am when he has left me.

Vadarakapopove vadela vachchina vaddu ravaddanave: in Kamboji raga set to tisratriputa

Don't babble, go away! Why will he come? Tell him not to come. That was long ago, this is another birth now. O friend, who is he and who am I? My lips are dry from intense sighing. How many flaming moonlit nights have I endured? Do not babble; go away, he won't come now.

Sudha Raghuraman and Justin McCarthy
Photo: Avinash Pasricha

With live music and serene explanations, Justin said that because Kshetrayya used to write several padams with 'rara' he was challenged to compose a padam with words 'popo' and he did it. None could challenge him. Kshetrayya was upset at the jealousy of other poets and went on a pilgrimage. The devotees understood and it is said that the poets who challenged him fell at his feet and begged his forgiveness.

Seeing the film and its complementing enactment of abhinaya, I realised how much is lost without explanation, if the language is not known, even when one knows the language of hastas and expressions registered on the face. I asked Justin, who is so much a part of the Delhi dance scene, teaching Bharatanatyam at Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, to provide more information on how the film was conceived and how long it took to complete it. He said that it took one and half years. It was financed by India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), Bangalore, with a grant of Rs. 5 lakh and remaining financial assistance was given by late Francis Wacziarg of Neemrana hotel chain.

Sandhya Kumar is an independent documentary film maker working out of Bangalore. She is a graduate from Jamia Milia in Mass Communication and has earned her Masters' degree in film from San Francisco Art Institute. For visuals, he owes to MV Bhaskar from Chennai. Bhaskar believes in free dissemination of information and offered the photographs of frescoes and found the recordings of veena Dhanam's playing veena and singing.

And of course Sudha Raghuraman, Raghuraman and Chandrasekaran provided the vocal and instrumental music. Says Justin, "We wanted to bring out the amazing evocative power of Kshetrayya's poems through various visuals, recreating past gone, but to capture it poetically through camera and our understanding of why we wanted to make this film as we have done." Indeed, it is an unusual film.

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 12 years.

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