Tradition juxtaposed with innovation 
- Kamakshi Mallikarjun 
 

August 7, 2007 

Vandana Rao, who just graduated from Wissahickon High School in Pennsylvania, USA and is a student of Viji Rao at the Three Aksha Institute of Performing Arts, had her arangetram on the distinctive day of 7/7/07. 

As I reflect on the performance where tradition was juxtaposed with innovation, the words of Alarmel Valli come to mind. Valli says "Sampradaya, in Sanskrit, means tradition, which undergoes continuous change. It is a misinterpretation to think of tradition as static. To give you a beautiful analogy that I read somewhere, tradition may be thought of as the banks of a river that give direction to the flow of water." 

As the evening unfolded, we were able to experience the evolution from the choreography of Rukmini Devi Arundale in the Chalamela Varnam (Nattaikurinji) to that of Viji's gurus Anuradha and Sridhar in the Javali Yeerana Swami (Mysore Vasudevacharya's composition in Khamas) to that of Viji's in the new compositions Ashtadikpalaka Vandanam, Manikya Veena, and Hindolam Thillana. In the new pieces, one could see Viji's exploration into new facets of curvilinear geometry with the emphasis on the neatness of lines and clarity of gestures that are a hallmark of the Kalakshetra style. 

Knowing how incredibly flexible and nimble Viji herself is and the importance she places on initial stretching before dance class starts, I thought starting the performance with the Surya Namaskaram was a nice touch! (Surya Namaskar - A salutation to the sun "links together twelve asanas in a dynamically performed series. These asanas are ordered so that they alternately stretch the spine backwards and forwards.") 

This was followed by an Ashtadikpalaka Vandanam - an invocation to the guardians of the 8 different directions (Kubera - North, Yama - South, Indra- East, Varuna -West, Isana - Northeast, Agni Southeast, Vayu - Northwest, Nirti - Southwest), a creative and thoughtful incorporation given the importance of geometric lines and directions to dance. The music for this piece was composed by Praveen D Rao and contained the ragas Hamsadhwani, Sama, Bhouli, Saramathi, Amrithavarshini, Valachi, and Pantuvarali. 

I am always glad when Alarippu is part of an arangetram, since it is very rarely seen in dance performances these days. It is a physically challenging piece that proves the mettle of the dancer. Vandana executed it with aplomb, unfazed by the introduction of the challenging pancha nadais into the various sections. Her beautiful natya ramba that was maintained through the entire piece was noteworthy as well. This was followed by a Jatiswaram in the lilting raga Nalinakanti that suited the rhythmic cadences of the jatis. 

The Chalamela Varnam with its unhurried pace was the piece de resistance of the evening. It was done to Rukmini Devi's original choreography with adherence down to the detail of how the anga sudha was maintained when doing the mudras for the abhinaya. The theermanams sparkled (different speeds, a variety of adavus including the mandi adavu, something rarely seen in korvais today); they were a duo of theermanams that perfectly complemented each other for every line of the varnam. Vandana demonstrated her innate ability with the finesse with which she executed the challenging varnam in both the nritta and abhinaya aspects. She has an expressive face and she depicted the emotions naturally. In this varnam, the nayika pleads with Lord Ranganatha and asks him why he who rushes to the protection of Gajendra (the elephant king) and Draupadi, seems to be so indifferent to her prayers. 

This was followed by Manikya Veena, an imaginative piece that was created just for this arangetram. Interspersed with complex jatis, verses from Kalidasa's Shyamala Dandakam were linked with other verses on Devi to offer contrasting glimpses of her as Saraswati and Durga, the Lasya (feminine, soft) vs the Roudra (militant, angry) aspects. The contrasts were accentuated with Viji and Prasanna Kumar saying the jatis alternately. The tune was by Prakash D Rao and the ragas in this composition were Saramathi, Vasanthi, Dharmavathi, Kalyani, Lavangi (a raga by Balamurali Krishna that has just 4 notes S R1 M1 D1) and Sindhubhairavi. 

Next came two abhinaya items - the javali in Khamas and then a Meera Bhajan in Raga Behag. The choreography for the Meera Bhajan was by Bragha Bessell. The ethereal blue of Vandana's costume, the stage lighting combined with the aural effects via the multitude of instruments Prakash D Rao was playing (tabla, keyboard etc), vividly created the riverbank of Yamuna before our eyes, with Meera almost imagining herself as Radha, yearning for Krishna and the sounds of his melodic flute. 

The final Thillana was a composition of Prakash D Rao's in Hindolam, choreographed by Viji - another piece created just for the arangetram. Vandana gracefully executed the intricate and ornate sequences that usually repeat in a thillana. Vandana has participated in many dance dramas and that experience was evident in her overall poise and ease with she traversed the stage in the various items. 

Roja Kannan was the chief guest. Roja gave a short elegant speech that resonated with me. Roja said that Vandana is very blessed; blessed to have the intrinsic ability for dance that she was able to see when she taught Vandana during a summer camp; blessed with parents who have supported her as she learnt this great art form and most of all, blessed to have such a good teacher as Viji who has brought out the best of her potential. Roja applauded Viji for the meticulous selection of items that were matched so well to Vandana's age and level of maturity in dance and said she knows first hand the amount of effort a teacher needs to put in to enable the student to have such a successful arangetram. 

Roja also congratulated the orchestra for their able support of the dancer. The members of the orchestra were: Viji (nattuvangam), Pusthakam Ramaa (vocal), Balamma Puttanna Haribabu (mridangam), Prakash D Rao (tabla and additional instruments), Ramakrishna Ragunandan (flute), D V Prasannakumar (morsing and kanjira). It is the first time I have seen morsing and kanjira as part of a dance orchestra and both were a robust boost to the rhythmic effects. 

As Vandana embarks on the study of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania later this year, I hope her long term and fruitful association with Bharatanatyam continues. 

Kamakshi Mallikarjun is a classical music and dance enthusiast. She owes her interest in and appreciation of dance to her aunt Anandhi Ramachandran, who was a member of the faculty of Kalakshetra.