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Ekaantha Seetha - a three in one dance drama
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
e-mail: lalvenkat@yahoo.com


September 13, 2006
To celebrate the completion of fifteen years of service to the arts, Cleveland Cultural Alliance premiered its latest production 'Ekaantha Seetha...A lonely furrow,' at the Music Academy, Chennai, on Sept 12, 2006. A special show was held on Sept 11 for a special audience, including select invitees, the physically disadvantaged and senior citizens.

Producer Uma Ganesan's choice of subject for Ekaantha Seetha was inspired by newspaper reports about women from small towns who cope with alcoholic husbands, struggle to educate their children and support themselves financially. It is a celebration of women of extraordinary courage and character from the epics, history and contemporary realities through dance and music. The production that runs to three hours has been choreographed by the Dhananjayans. It spans three different time zones - the first episode is based on Ramayana's Vaidehi as the "Veera Arya Kanya," the second on historic Rani Lakshmi Bai and the third on a modern day heroine Aparajita.

Starting with an opening song on Ganesha, an Abhang in Marathi, the dancers chanted and danced down the aisle, holding aloft Ganesha, and carried him up on to the stage.
Seetha (also known as Vaidehi) is rescued from Ravana but her husband's sense of morality and honor, forces her to undergo the test of fire to prove her purity and redeem herself of stigma if any. She emerges unscathed from the fire but when she's still not accepted, Seetha (played by Sreelatha Vinod) lives in exile in the forest under the protection of sage Valmiki. She delivers her twin sons Lava and Kusa and brings up the intelligent boys as warriors and future kings, whose valour exceeds that of their mighty uncles and their father Rama. Seetha triumphs in the role of a single mother. The segment started with lively Manipuri style drum dance movements. KB Madhusudhanan and Renjith Babu as Lava and Kusa were impressive. A lot of kalari movements were used to show their training in the various arts. A group of dancers clad in flaming red symbolized the fire into which Sita merges. A length of material into which Sita walks symbolized her disappearing into the earth. Props were simple, effective and tasteful, like the canopy with flowers to denote palace surroundings and the hut of bamboo screens. Lakshmi Krishnamurthy has designed the sets. This segment uses the Samskritam verses of Valmiki as well as those written by Prof. K Prashanth.

A brief 5 minute pause and the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (played by Sujatha Srinivasan) unfolded. At a time when widows were forced to jump into their husband's funeral pyre, the brave young queen went into war to fight for the freedom of her people, for her own life and that of her infant son. She died a heroic death and sowed the seed of the freedom movement. The language used in this segment is the Hindi of Subhadhra Kumari Chauhan. The young girl getting trained in war games and the fight scenes elicited appreciative applause, but somehow, the bravery of Lakshmi Bai did not quite come through.

After a 10 minute intermission, the last segment took off. After pages from the past, the scene swings to present times. The daughter Aparajitha wants to study more, but the mother says enough of studies and drags her off to get her married. Scenes from the market place as well as lives of other beings in society were portrayed. TK Thiruchelvam's drunken movements as an intoxicated husband received rapturous applause! L Narendra Kumar as the local bully and Madhusudhanan as the tea boy were natural. Ratna Kumar, who played the sutradhar along with Shanta Dhananjayan in the previous 2 episodes, plays the part of Aparajita's mother. Using Kathakali movements, Dhananjayan is the teacher who urges Aparajitha (played by Pavithra Srinivasan) to continue her education and enlighten repressed women to fight the shackles of society. The Tamil lyrics are by Subramania Barathi and Prof. S Raghuraman.

Music for the production has been scored by TV Gopalakrishnan. "Classicism is maintained throughout - Carnatic music for Vaidehi, Hindustani for Lakshmi Bai and a more contemporary mode and use of pentatonic ragas for Aparajita." The tastefully designed costumes are by Lakshmi Srinath and script conceptualization by Ranjitha Ashok.

The dancers include Suhasini Muthukrishnan, Seetha Karippath, Krishnakshi Sharma, Anusha Natarajan, Swarna Radhakrishnan, Gopukiran and M Venkatakrishnan.

Guru VP Dhananjayan plays the roles of Valmiki, Gul Mohammed and the teacher in the three episodes. Despite a tight schedule, he took time off to answer queries about the production.

How long did you take to choreograph Ekaantha Seetha?
From February to May...it took almost 4 months just to put everything together. It's like 3 separate productions, and each segment is like one production totally different from the other. But planning and discussions on the subject matter started way back from May 2005.

This is yet another challenge for Shanta and me from CCA and its dynamic producer Uma Ganesan. It is only on her insistence we undertook this project, which otherwise should have been handled by youngsters. From the day one of CCA, we have been associated with it and we flagged off CCA fifteen years ago with our Bharatanaatyam duo performance.

What were the challenges you faced in the choreography?
Past is the foundation for the present to build a future. As a three in one venture, Ekaantha Seetha is a challenging concept to handle evolution of epic, history and modern time revolutionary thinking. It revolves round not only the human psychology and behavior but also the evolution of the performing arts itself.

An epic story - classic story and classic language of Samskritam, a very recent history in Jhansi with folk songs in Hindi and a contemporary scene with a simple story of a small town situation, today's scenario, not only in human behavior and environment, but an atmosphere of confused culture, where old values are followed, yet the modernity creeps in. So, I had to be very judicious in selecting the mode of music and movements. The three episodes fall in the category of Uttama, Madhyama and Adhama or Satwa, Rajas and Tamus. The biggest challenge was composing passages without any basic line of music first. A music composer who is really interested in Naatya and its finer nuances, and who could spend time while we choreograph the mood and movements, would have helped reduce the challenges.

It is easy to have composed music before commencing the choreography. Fortunately or unfortunately, all my collaborative and successful dance creations have been the other way. On one hand, it is very challenging to create moods and movements like painting on a blank canvas; on the other, we have the freedom to sculpt the body and mind as the imagination wanders. We have worked with Pt. Ravi Shanker, Pt. Vijayaraghava Rao, D Pasupathi, and several other versatile musicians who were totally involved while we choreographed and also sat through rehearsals to do finer tuning. Here the music composer had to meet the challenge of tuning to the twist and turns of the choreography. Genius that he is, TV Gopalakrishnan took up the challenge with gusto to create music for the moods and movements by watching the video of the rehearsal. I would still have preferred the music composer sitting through the choreography like Pt. Ravishankar or Pt. Vijaya Raghava Rao.

Do you think people have the patience to sit through 3 hours?
You are absolutely right. But this production is mainly catering to the American and Canadian audience, who demand not less than a 3 hour show. Those audiences really sit through unlike the Madras audience. Yesterday's show started at 7pm, supposed to be a sold out show, but after 2 episodes, many people hurried home. Many others did not turn up for the show and their seats went empty. Those high flying industrial CEOs and families bought ticket for CCI, but were not interested in Naatya.

The inspiration behind certain movements… like Kathakali for the teacher role…
Having an all Indian connoisseur audience in mind, I wanted to bring in an all India perspective. We have used three languages, common to all, plus, the universal language of music. Taking the international audience into consideration, we have used minimal lyrics in Samskritam, Hindi and Tamizh. Our main thrust has been body language with facial expressions, which is the vital power of 'Bharata naatya' or theatre of Bhaarata (India).

I thought the Kathakali technique is suitable for a mature person like a Guru, where I can employ Naatya Dharmi to keep up the dignity. Bharatanaatyam, somehow when we do not have much rhythmical passages, becomes a bit lokadharmi, which is alright for other modern characters. My role as a Guru should stand out from the others, which I think people realized. And I also had in mind that a bit of Kathakali would please the Keralite audience too.

Was the last segment choreographed by you and did the dancers contribute to it?
Basically the choreographed pieces (classical sequences) are by us, but I did give freedom to the artistes to organize the factory scene, assembly line and Tappaattam for celebration of a small town. All those casual street scenes are the contribution of the artistes. The drunk - jathi is composed by me and choreographed by Thiruchelvam who did the role.

I must acknowledge the contributions of our senior disciple Sreelatha Vinod who is an unparalleled Bharatanaatyam artiste. She has helped us during choreography, music recording and rehearsals and was a great source of help to us throughout this production. Each of the brilliant artistes/dancers has contributed to the choreography. Though many of them are our students and disciples we do recognize and value their suggestions and brilliant ideas given wherever called for.

Are you looking forward to your US trip as part of a big production?
This really is a big production to be staged in almost 30 major cities. We have performances for both Indian and American organizations and universities. Yes, we are looking forward to the tour and having toured all these places abroad, with our Sanghamitra, Sitaraama Katha, Mahaabhaarata, Jungle Book etc and our duo Bharatanaatyam performances, of course, we are eager to know the reaction to this different kind of concept from us - the Dhananjayans. Definitely there will be mixed opinions but as you know, we are always open to criticism.

Ekaantha Seetha is dedicated to S Manjubhashini, freedom fighter and founder of Bala Mandir, a children's home in Chennai, in this her centenary year. The production tours North America from September 18 to November 20, 2006. The US premiere is in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 22, 2006 at the Tri - C Metro Campus Auditorium.