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Nalanda's 'A-Neeti': a unique dance experience
- Vasanth Kiran

April 15, 2016

Recently, on a professional visit to Mumbai, I had a gratifying opportunity to witness an impressive dance presentation 'A-Neeti' (Social Injustice). The production is a part of the Golden Jubilee celebration of Nalanda Dance Research Centre, the famous premier dance institution founded by renowned dancer-scholar Dr. Kanak Rele. To Kanak Rele goes the credit of two pioneering achievements in the realm of Indian classical dance, that of reviving, researching and rejuvenating the almost extinct lyrical dance style of Kerala Mohiniattam and successfully introducing high academics in the field of Dance Education, which stands as a benchmark to several other academic institutions of our country. It is at her instance that the University of Mumbai in 1966 introduced the Bachelor's, Master's and Ph.D. degrees in Classical Dance. Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, the world famous exclusive college of classical dances which is affiliated to the University of Mumbai and recognized by U.G.C. is her creation. The college has produced brilliant performers who are also proficient academics.

Apart from her distinguished achievements as a scholar and exponent, Kanak Rele is also one of the leading choreographers of the country. Her production 'A-Neeti' is proof of her mastery over choreographic elements. It was a treat to the eyes of rasikas to witness this production, which was led by Kanak herself as a sutradhara (narrator), stealing the show with her inimitable mukhaja abhinaya. Her will power, professionalism, approach to academics, and mentoring the next generation dancers makes this octogenarian a great visionary. 'A-Neeti' production also makes Dr Kanak, a regisseur par excellence. The other dancers (also disciples) of the evening in the production were Deepak Mazumdar (Nandanar), Vaibhav Arekar (Ekalavya), Madhuri Deshmukh (Gandhari), Megha Mohad (Draupadi) and Saji Menon (Amba).

Some excerpts from an interview I had with Dr. Kanak Rele after the performance of 'A-Neeti.'

It was a revelation to see you on the stage, seated on a stool and successfully narrate the episode and the main character involved in it. What made you opt to enact the role of the sutradhara (narrator) just sitting on a stool rather than actually dance?
It was a matter of exigency. A month before the premier show, I had a surgery done on my right foot and was confined to a wheelchair. As soon as I could, I started rehearsals in my home. Very fortunately all the performers are my students who had spent years learning from me even after clearing post-graduation at Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya. They are all now, senior distinguished performers so the effort was not wasted. Also they have all participated in my earlier dance-drama productions so they precisely know how my flow of mind works. They are very well acquainted with my technique.

As you know I am deeply entrenched in the Kerala theatrical tradition which excels in mukhaja abhinaya. So it was no severe challenge to my dancing abilities; the challenge was to conquer the pain in my foot. I used the device of the stool so very prevalent in Kerala performing arts, sat on it. (I hid my heavily bandaged foot under another table) and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Why the title 'A-Neeti'?
This entire social problem which infests our society even today started invading my conscience some decades ago. Wherever I looked there was social injustice; the downtrodden were being more and more victimized; the lot of women was pitiable, their freedom sanctioned by the Constitution of the country a mere paper myth.

I wanted to give concrete shape to the anguish that I felt. There is no other medium as powerful as theatre and dance both of which are audio-visuals arts. We say "seeing is believing," so I used that one supreme art which I know the most - my dance. Following Bharata's edicts, I eschewed current burning social issues and took recourse of our hoary traditions. Just look back not only centuries but millennia and you see the same horrible social conditions. I think we Indians are, in a way, incapable of breaking away from social roots. So we had Draupadi who was sought to be humiliated, even stripped by the people who had overpowered her (so called) brave husbands. We have many Draupadis right in our society. Or take the plight of Nandanar, a true 'bhakta' who could make a mridangam which was to be played in the temple but could not enter the temple. I have seen this phenomenon in many temples. Ekalavya gave his unstinted loyalty to a person whom he worshipped as 'guru' but had to give away the thumb of his right hand as 'gurudakshina'. Ekalavya was a nishada (forest dweller) outcast by the society. Amba was cheated by fate and cast away like an ill-fitting garment. Even today there are thousands of Ambas. Gandhari was married off to an 'inadequate' man but she was forced to be his wife. I am sure we have thousands of such Gandharis all over our country forced into unfulfilled marriages, our social norms not accepting the concept of a woman discarding a husband; but a husband can always discard his wife claiming some flaw in her being.

Are you planning any further choreographic pieces in this direction?
Yes! Very much so. In the present production I used three languages - Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit. Now I want to include lyrics in other languages, dealing with other such tormented people. The task is very challenging and will require a lot of reading and also help from other scholars. But the tremendous appreciation that is being showered encourages me to go ahead in my quest. And yes I will now continue to sit on a stool, wear a non-committal sari and be a 'narrator.'

Dr. Vasanth Kiran is a practitioner of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi forms. He is currently Head of Department, Department of Performing Arts, Alliance University, Bengaluru.


Thanks to Ranak Rele madam and Vasanth for a good interview. We got the opportunity to visualize the dance theme.
- Radhika Ranjini (April 17, 2016)

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