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Mitra: A report and dialogue with Ramaa Bharadvaj
- Bhavanvitha Venkatesh

August 19, 2012

"When God is your friend what is not possible"

On the 24th of June 2012, Visakha Music Academy in Visakhapatnam presented Ramaa Bharadvaj in a solo Bharatanatyam entitled 'Mitra - Dance Hymn to Friendship' at Kalabharathi auditorium. Mitra was based on a "celebration of amity, friendship and the divinity of life" with its core theme centered around the concept of "When God is your friend what is not possible." This concept was depicted in ekaharya by Ramaa through an episode about Sudhama from Srimad Bhagavatham.

Mitra begins with the introduction of Sudhama, about his family experiencing the rigors of life in abject poverty. Sudhama and his wife see hope as they contemplate approaching childhood friend Krishna. But then, how could you go and visit a friend with nothing to offer? They realize that the best they can offer to their dear friend is just a few fistfuls of puffed rice; even that borrowed. Sudhama embarks on his journey. On reaching the palace however, he feels small in the presence of the other visitors carrying rich offerings.., but then he gets to visit his friend. Krishna's affectionate welcome, happiness at the offering of the puffed rice, and the return of Sudhama to his residence now transformed into an astonishing grand manor are the incidents that happen before our eyes. Mitra ends with Sudhama walking towards divine light. With a friend like Lord Krishna, moksha is inevitable.

The entire story unraveled as Ramaa played different roles. Here, the scope of ekaharya is enriched by the way a dancer is able to relate not just to the role and the narrative, but also to the "connect" established with the audience. The process is a creative challenge, perfect for a seasoned dancer like Ramaa to take up. Her approach is laudable. Along with the demanding practice and the details of the movements, the maturity of the dancer matters the most in making a lasting impression in the mind of the rasika. Ramaa transitioned into multiple roles complete with the natural and inherent characteristics of the roles, within a few seconds thus producing the perfect illusion of seeing all the characters in live interaction. For example, during Ramaa's depiction of Sudhama's children approaching their mother for food, and then as the mother in her helpless situation, all these characters looked as if they were on stage at the same time.

The dance narrative turns out to be "actual happening" - be it the peacock dancing in all its glory in the forest, or the poetically symbolic depiction of a single feather to remind the audience of Lord Krishna, or the trepidation, anxiety and possible embarrassment in case his friend fails to recognize him, or the joy at the friendly welcome from Krishna, and the swift introduction of humour as Lord Krishna finds about the many children of his friend. The power of dance brought the audience to transcend the feeling of a performance and experience all that happened to Sudhama, first hand. Such was Ramaa's performance! It was as if we had met the different people, we journeyed through many days all in an hour, experienced different rasas. Complete artistry!

Talking to Ramaa is like talking to many experts. Her views are relevant not just to dance; there is also learning on many day-to-day issues. Her tips on work are applicable to all professions and careers. A few years back, I viewed a video of hers on the net, titled 'Jwala.' I was impressed and wrote a poem to her and sent it by mail. She was in the USA, and though I visit US professionally, there was a remote possibility of meeting her. Mitra provided an opportunity to meet her and see her work in Visakha.

To make Mitra a dance hymn, it was quite evident Ramaa had to plan everything in detail. This needs vision and consummate work. The details include selection of the lyrics chosen from five languages, music composition, dance composition and flawless execution of nritta, her abhinaya, and her gestures that signify concepts relating to friendship. I talked to Ramaa and asked her to share some of her choreographic processes in creating 'Mitra.'

Mitra is a wonderful production about friendship. We generally see Lord Krishna depicted in sringara aspect to a large extent in classical dances. But here you projected him as a king of Dwaraka and as a friend. Please explain the multiple role approach, that is the ekaharya.
Any of our solo dance forms offer opportunity for the portrayal of multiple characters by one single dancer. While group dances have the charm of utilizing spatial patterns and variation in costuming, solo story telling requires a very different kind of strength and expertise. If a dancer is capable it is extremely rewarding for both the dancer and the audience because it awakens the imagination in the viewer. That kind of aesthetic experience is always cherished highly by the audience. I basically love telling stories and this story had so many characters that I could introduce. So although it was a simple story, it offered scope to explore, to build and expand!

Quite a change from the regular dance productions, you chose different lyrics from different authors, multiple languages, five of them but seamless in their transition. So what made you do that?
Even back in 1993 (19 years ago) when I created my 'Panchatantra Animal Fables of India,' I used multilingual lyrics. So for me that trend started long time ago. Lyrical arrangement is an art in itself. Dancers must pay a lot of attention to it. For 31 years, I lived and grew as a dance artiste in the US. The majority of my audiences did not know the language in which the lyrics of the songs were written. Personally also I am not very good in picking up languages. So I have developed an extra sensitivity towards lyrics and languages. I find words to be more than a communication tool with meaning. Poetry has an innate meter and words in certain combinations have sound vibrations. I am interested in finding the tonal and mood quality of words. If one learns to play with them one can create all the effects of the underlying meaning that they carry even for people who don't understand the particular language. When arranged with care and set to appropriate music, the poetry is more than just a vehicle on which the dancer rides. It becomes an additional limb of the dancer's body.

For Mitra specifically, Swami Tejomayananda and his musical discourse on friendship was my inspiration. So I basically began with two of the songs that he had selected which happened to be in Hindi and Avadhi. And then it grew from there. During my research for Mitra, I found that the Sudhama story has been poetically rendered in so many languages in so many regions of India. Krishna belonged to the world, this story belonged to the world, and the concept of friendship belonged to the world. So, as the story progressed, characters from different regions of India kept merging into one another bringing their language and poetry. It was quite magical for me. What better way of talking about a theme on friendship than effecting a blend of multiple languages. In real life, languages separate people but on stage they don't have to.

Composing dance to a dance-hymn, a dance narrative, to a visual celebration of amity, friendship and divinity, how was it?
It is like a writer writing a book. Some days you crumple and throw page after page of written sheets in the trash and some days it flows fluently. What emerges while I am moving in a dance space is spontaneous. And when you choreograph with honesty and from your own creative instincts without resorting to copying from youtube dance videos, or other choreographers' works, that ability to recognize the 'Eureka' moment develops. You intuitively learn how to identify it and trust it. Of course I do refine those movements for presentation. But it is not a calculated process at all. It is an organic process it grows by itself, it is unpredictable, and it is a combination of intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual inspiration.

The dance composition with harmony and balance of abhinaya and nritta and also their coming together in a creative joy of the peacock in Mitra needs a mention here. Nritta is very thoughtful and without interfering with sensitive portrayal of characters and with story. Could you share your insights on these two?
This type of work requires judicious use of nritta. For example, if the norm is that the entry of every main character is to be accompanied by rhythmic dance movements what sense would it make to have a sage or an elderly king enter the stage performing a rhythmic jathi? It would be comical to say the least. So it cannot be nritta for nritta's sake. Eventually, the aesthetics should not be marred. The story of Sudhama opens with a sollukattu that I composed by simply using Sanskrit verses from Bhagavatam. Again this is a result of my fascination with words and their sound and mood quality. I composed it on my train ride to Chennai when I was going to meet my music composer. He loved it so much it became the opening of that piece.

Actually there is no such episode mentioned in any of the Sudhama Charitram stories that I have read. That scene emerged from my imagination (peacock dance). In life, when one is plagued by doubt one starts looking for omens and reassurances sometimes that's what keeps one moving on a journey without giving up. I had chosen one line from Bhagavatam "how can I aspire to have Krishna's darshan" and had used it recurringly as a punch line to introduce the connection between Krishna and several other characters. It is that line that triggered that whole sequence in my imagination of the Brahmin's encounters in the forest, which appear as his reassurances. It also helps develop the character of Sudhama and highlight his devoted love for his childhood friend. Only when you love someone can you see your beloved in everything and everywhere.

At one point you have used a peacock feather and we felt Krishna's presence...
That's symbolism. A dancer needs to be a poet in spirit and not feel compelled to make everything literal. Dance is not show and tell. When you are able to stir the imagination of the audience they become a participant and creator as well. They are not watching what I dance and show them but they are creating along with me. I create the symbol of Krishna and their mind creates the rest of Krishna. How exciting is that!

Your work can be cited as an example as to how classical dance production can be made to appeal to every section of the audience. You must have set yourself an objective that it should be so. What is your advice or suggestion to young dance composers, choreographers on how to gain universal appeal, and about the elements that brought about a consummate work in Mitra?

Research: Research is important. So many dimensions have to open within the choreographer before we can even attempt to crystallize it into something simple. And the simplest ones are the ones in which actually a lot of thought process has gone in. It's like cooking. You can't throw in all the spices in equal amounts and expect to create a tasty dish. But my uncle who was a renowned chef and owned restaurants used to say that in a balanced meal all six tastes will have to be represented. That applies to creating a good evening of dance as well it has to be balanced in presenting all the bhavas without losing track of what the stable determinant mood for the production is. The fun of reaching the destination lies in all the side trips without getting lost in them. So among other skills, editing skills will have to be honed for a choreographer to successfully direct a concept towards dance.

Music: Next is the quality of music that accompanies the dance. Music is the heartbeat. Otherwise you will bury your face in your hand and weep for a week. I have experienced what mediocre effort from the orchestra can do to your work. But Mitra's music has been created and recorded with exceptional care and I have to thank Rajkumar Bharathi for working so meticulously with me on that. G Srikanth and Krithika Arvind have given soul to it all with the remarkable characterization they have created with their voices and so have all the accompanists who have shared their talent.

Lighting: Finally when you perform on stage the lighting is a really important component. It adds a layer that colors the stage and creates isolations for people's eyes to focus on. Having an expert like Sai Venkatesh on hand for Mitra was a great blessing.

About Ramaa Bharadvaj:
Ramaa Bharadvaj is a Lester Horton Award winning dancer & choreographer. She had her training from Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and Kamala (Bharatanatyam) and Vempati Chinna Satyam (Kuchipudi). Ramaa lived in the United States for 31 years and was the founder-director of Angahara Dance Ensemble, an award winning Indian dance company.

Her works have been nationally telecast in the US by PBS. She was the first Indian dancer in over 45 years to be featured on the cover of the prestigious Dance Magazine and was honored with the Directors Award from California Arts Council for her contributions to the Arts in the State of California. She was selected as one of 21 exceptional South Asian women living in the US, whose lives and stories were presented in the book 'Spices in the Melting Pot' released in 2005. She served on the dance faculty of Pomona College and Orange Coast College and was visiting professor of dance at several Universities in the US. Ramaa's 'Panchatantra - Animal Fables of India' has received international acclaim for its humor and originality. In 2009, Ramaa returned permanently to India and at the invitation of Swami Tejomayananda joined Chinmaya Naada Bindu, the Gurukul for Performing Arts, Kolwan, Pune, as its dance director.

Ramaa Bharadvaj can be contacted at:

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