Story – Brilliant and inimitable
- Vijaya Venkatesh
a Bharatanatyam duet by Srinidhi Raghavan and Sahasra Sambamoorthi took
place on February 16, 2008. This reinterpretation of the lives of four
women from Indian mythology was a sold-out program that premiered at the
prestigious Peter Norton Symphony Space: Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater in
Manhattan. The show captivated the audience from start to finish.
As the dancers
commenced the central piece, the unique elements of choreography instantly
became apparent as they mixed innovative story-telling and theatric techniques
with traditional dance in a phenomenally mature and novel production. Each
episode started with a brief introduction set to a swaram, which
specifically suited the respective character’s temperament; this introduction
was quickly followed by a complex jathi. The first jathi in trikala
was the most technically impressive of all and the audience burst into
a spontaneous applause right after the dancers went into their aridhi.
The dancers then proceeded to preface the actual story within each episode
with a “monologue” that described the events that were to take place within
the narrative. Hearing each protagonist’s "voice" tell her own story and
justify her actions to the audience not only added a dramatic effect visually
and acoustically, but also allowed the audience to appreciate the essence
of each character and her role within the show's overall theme. These monologues
were woven beautifully with the live music as the orchestra picked up where
each character's voice trailed off. Another point of interest was the use
of props in the episodes to signify each character's love. Kaikeyi's love
for Bharatha was symbolized by her obsession with the crown while Andal's
longing for Krishna was depicted by a beautiful garland; a bamboo flute
symbolized the only object that allowed Devaki to feel close to Krishna
as she lamented her separation from him while the silambu marked
Kannagi's rage at her husband's unjust death. The use of these props added
a subtle yet powerful symbolic element to each story and was yet another
testament to the distinctive choreography.
duet started with a Pushpanjali. At the very onset, it was apparent
that the dancers' coordination, lines and other technical elements were
precise as their nritta was defined and on point. The dancers then
proceeded with a slokam on Devi in Ragamalika, depicting
the eight emotions of the Goddess with respect to Lord Shiva. This invocation
set the mood for the theme of the program - that of a woman’s unconditional
the invocation was the central piece of the show where the dancers portrayed
the lives of Kaikeyi, Andal, Devaki and Kannagi in four distinct episodes.
Recounting pivotal moments in the lives of these women, the dancers explored
how these characters transformed the worlds they lived in through their
ability to love unconditionally. They described how history has judged
these protagonists - condemning, glorifying, questioning, and revering
these women for their actions; they then reinterpreted these conventional
perceptions and portrayed these epic personalities as women willing to
challenge the world for those they love. In each episode, while one dancer
remained the protagonist, the other would assume the role of the peripheral
characters. Srinidhi took on the roles of Kaikeyi and Devaki while Sahasra
portrayed Andal and Kannagi.
of the Kaikeyi episode with the description of Ayodhya set the mood for
the royal tone of the first story. Kaikeyi’s happiness, portrayed by Srinidhi,
as she watched the preparations for Rama’s coronation, established a celebratory
tone in the beginning and set the scene for what was to be a strong contrast
later in the narration. Manthara, portrayed by Sahasra, was the perfect
depiction of an antagonist. As both characters altercated in the scene
where Manthara tried to change Kaikeyi’s conviction about Rama, the audience
felt drawn into their regal world. Specifically noteworthy was Kaikeyi’s
and Manthara’s debate in the well choreographed 'Sivandha vaai Seethayum,'
where the dancers did justice to each woman’s contrasting opinion towards
the imminent coronation. As the argument culminated in Kaikeyi’s mind slowly
filling with doubt, the musical score beautifully matched her mixed emotions.
Finally, when Kaikeyi decided to challenge Dasaratha, the music rose in
a crescendo in the raga Vasantha, lending to an excellent musical and emotional
experience. Srinidhi’s assertion and conviction as Kaikeyi and Sahasra’s
portrayal of the scheming Manthara were delivered with such maturity that
the audience felt immersed in the Ramayana as they witnessed one of the
biggest turning points in the epic.
Next, it was Sahasra
as the protagonist depicting Andal's love for Krishna. The beginning scene
in which Periyalwar teaches little Andal the traditions of pooja
and bhajan as he inculcates bhakthi in her was a fine prelude
to his ironic laments later as he grieves over Andal’s obsession with Krishna.
Sahasra, as young Andal and then as a grown woman seeing Krishna everywhere,
brought out the transition from childhood to youth very beautifully. What
was it that she did to make us feel that she was a five year old who followed
everything that her father Periyalwar did? Was it the way she sat,
was it the look in her eyes, was it her childlike movements that followed
her father’s movements? In Srinidhi’s portrayal as Periyalwar; the
audience was moved to tears as she depicted a distraught father who fears
for his daughter’s seemingly unhealthy and blasphemous fixation on Krishna.
As he realizes, however, towards the climax of the episode that his daughter
had in fact not sinned, there was a palpable amazement amongst the viewers.
Srinidhi’s eyes effectively conveyed Periyalwar’s amazement at the magnitude
of Vishnu who was to marry his little lovable and adorable Andal! The beginning
and ending of the episode with ‘Om Namo Narayana’ was yet again an amazing
musical and directorial decision..
In the third
episode the scene started with the protagonist Devaki (Srinidhi) in her
imaginary world with Krishna. It then moved on to Vasudeva and Devaki in
prison in flashback, where the heroine gives Krishna away to be taken to
Ayarpadi. 'Muzhudum Vennai' in Kapi was very appropriate for the
sanchari bhava of Krishna stealing butter. 'Aalai Neel Karumbu,'
a lullaby that followed where Devaki imagines herself singing to Krishna,
was movingly portrayed by Srinidhi. As she concluded 'Deiva nangai Yasodhai
petraley,' the depth of emotion she conveyed as she took on the
role of 'the mother that never was' struck an emotional chord. Srinidhi’s
eyes were now able to show the distance of Krishna's physical existence
from Devaki who, at the same time, felt His closeness right in her heart
all the time!
the episode of Kannagi with Sahasra as the protagonist. It was a powerful
portrayal of the contrast between the innocent Kannagi who, with all love
and care gives away her silambu to Kovalan and the raging Kannagi who challenges
the king on hearing about her husband's death. The concluding part in which,
as per Kannagi's wish, Agni burns Madurai was a fitting finale to this
grand episode. The jathi, with the raga Revathi in the background
complemented by the powerful choreography envisioning both dancers - one
as Agni and the other, Kannagi - are deserving of special mention.
proceeded with a padam and a javali as solos in order to contrast the enormous
sacrifices made by these legendary women with those of the average contemporary
woman who also expresses her unconditional love, albeit in a seemingly
petty manner - an excellent conceptual decision to convey a more worldly
portrayal of love! While Srinidhi described a possessive and jealous nayika
through Netrandi Nerattile in Huseni, Sahasra took on the role of
the proud and boastful wife in Smara Sundaranguni in Paras. Both
pieces were hits as the audience roared with laughter. Watching the same
spiritual girl who fell for the Lord a few minutes ago take on the role
of a worldly dame, proud of her husband, teasing all other women with lowly
husbands was delightful. This gentle transition from a heavy main piece
allowed the audience to ease subtly into the concluding piece for the show
- the Thillana in Revathi. The excellent formations and coordination
of movements were chiseled even in the fast paces.
for the concept and choreography of the whole show goes to the dancers,
that for the excellent artistic direction goes to Usha Raghavan, an acclaimed
dancer, choreographer, and director of Kalasagara, UK. Usha Raghavan was
also on the nattuvangam for the program. The outstanding musical
score was written by Sudharshana Arunkumar who, originally from Chennai,
now lives in Los Angeles; Sudharshana, who was also the vocalist for the
show, mesmerized the audience with her singing. Ganesh Ramanarayanan accompanied
the musicians on the mridangam while Suhas Rao was on the violin. The orchestra’s
coordination was remarkable and the artists served as wonderful accompanists
to the dancers. The tasteful lighting by Usha Sambamoorthi and sound by
Elizabeth Burke, added to the success of the show.
Venkatesh is the Founder Director of Sundararanga Cultural Academy. A connoisseur
of Indian music and dance, she has served Carnatic Music Association of
North America, Inc., as a trustee and vice-president for a number of years.
She has also supported several cultural organizations in various capacities
and continues to promote Indian Fine Arts in North America.