A kaleidoscope of colourful dances
- A Seshan, Mumbai
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com
Photos: Archives of the National Centre for the Performing Arts

May 8, 2010

The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai observed the International Dance Day (IDD) falling on April 29, 2010 in a five-day programme called 'Mudra,' April 26 through 30. It was the second year of such celebration of the IDD and, going by its previous experience, the NCPA tweaked it by having a theme this time which was 'Stree' (Woman). It was presented through five major classical dances of India, viz., Manipuri, Nangiar Koothu (NK), Bharatanatyam (BN), Mohiniattam (MA) and Kathak reflecting the diversity of styles and the rich cultural heritage of different parts of the country. This writer was able to attend all the programmes with the exception of the one relating to Kathak.

Manipuri (April 26, 2010)
The well-known artiste presenting the programme was Bimbavati Devi, daughter and disciple of the legendary Guru Bipin Singh and Guru Kalavati Devi. As she said in an interview, "Manipuri dance has always been viewed as a very slow and monotonous form. But the style of Guru Bipin Singh is different. It is the result of his in-depth research, his vast knowledge of the shastras and the other performing art forms of Manipuri, especially the Natyasankirtana... Following my guru's footsteps, I try to create newer elements without deviating from the form. I'm keen on showing how tradition can be revised and made relevant to present times without endangering the essence." Darshana Jhaveri, the doyenne of Manipuri, gave an informative introduction to the programme and also offered commentaries before each item. She pointed out how the art form was 2000 years old and had gone through three stages in its evolution, viz., animism, tantric and martial arts and, in the last 300 years, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, inspired by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The art has been taken from temples to theatres.

Bimbavati Devi presented Nrityamalika incorporating Shivastuti, Kaliadaman, Dashavatar and Matrika. As a rasika, this reviewer had been exposed to Manipuri only once at a dance symposium on choreography in Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha on November 8, 2003 when Darshana Jhaveri presented an interesting lecture-demonstration on rhythm patterns in Manipuri. The occasion under review was thus his first exposure to a full-fledged Manipuri programme.

His overall impression was one of admiration for the lyricism of the dance form. Even though both lasya and tandava formed part of the repertoire, it was the former that was predominant so much so that he felt that even the latter was suffused with softness unlike what one sees in Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi. There was no fire and fury in those movements of Nataraja. This is not meant to be a criticism. By nature, the people of Manipur are soft and there is no place for any hardness or harshness in their lives or culture. The footsteps were gentle. There was no hard stamping on the floor that one observes in some other styles of dance. This writer feels that when there is footwork of the artiste, only the sound of the ghungroos should be heard and not the thud of the foot hitting the floor. The dance style is such that there is a minimalist approach to hastamudras and abhinaya. The latter is done through the movement of the whole body (sarvangabhinaya) that conveys the sentiments as well as any mukhajabhinaya would do. It is subdued in tune with the restrained and lyrical nature of the style and facial expressions of rasas are not pronounced as in, say, BN. Chali (the equivalent of chari in BN) involves the entire body. Jayadev's Dashavatar was interesting. This writer found the Narasimha avatar of absorbing interest; even the ferocity of the lion-man was subdued! Keeping in tune with the theme of the dance festival, Matrika was designed to be an impassioned invocation to the mother, the main Shakti. It certainly 'resonated' with the rasikas, as expected by her.

The presentation dispelled the popular image of Manipuri artistes dancing with billowing dresses. It is so only in Ras Leela. The programme under review incorporated costumes appropriate for the theme and they were colourful. For the aficionados of Carnatic music, who take pride in the complexity of tala in their system, the programme was an eye opener. In theory, the time measures range from 4 to 68 beats consisting of shuddha (pure), shalag (combination of two talas in the basic time cycle) and sankirna (combination of more than two talas in the basic time cycle). These rhythmic varieties were seen in abundance in the programme. To give one example, there was a tala with 20 beats and 7 stresses.

One should congratulate the NCPA for bringing Manipuri to Mumbai and giving it a pride of place in the dance week by making it the inaugural programme. Mumbaikars rarely, if ever, get to see this rich dance style. After seeing it, one could realise how much has been missed by not giving Manipuri its due place in the cultural life of the city. In fact Manipuri was discovered for the rest of the country by Rabindranath Tagore when he saw it for the first time in Tripura. So much was he impressed that he started training classes for it in Visva-Bharati. To date, only Manipuri and Kathakali are taught there.

Nangiar Koothu (April 27, 2010)
Kapila Nagavallikkunnel, the famous artiste from Kerala, presented an enchanting programme of NK, a branch of Koodiyattam, the only Sanskrit drama in the world. She narrated the story of Sita Parityagam (The Abandoning of Sita) based on Kalidasa's Raghuvamsa and following Attaprakaram (Acting Manual). Those who are familiar with the Ramayana know the story of Rama heartlessly asking a pregnant Sita to leave him after the Pattabhisheka (coronation) just because he had overheard some dhobi making derogatory remarks about her being in Lanka under Ravana's custody thus implicitly questioning her modesty. In the version seen, Rama sends her to the forest with Lakshmana with the ostensible purpose of enabling her to visit it as she loves nature. But he advises Lakshmana confidentially to abandon her there. Man's inhumanity to woman! She is shattered to know the reason for her being in the forest. Sage Valmiki takes her to his ashram and she delivers her twins there. A few years later, Rama sees the two boys singing the Ramayana story at his Ashwamedha Yaga. Out of curiosity he follows them to Valmiki's ashram where he comes to know who the children are. He pleads with Valmiki to ask Sita to go through the ordeal of entering the fire once again to prove her chastity and return to Ayodhya with him. Probably for Lord Rama, walking through fire is like taking a shower bath. Sita says 'enough is enough' and refuses to comply with Rama's desire having proven her virtue already. At her request, mother earth absorbs her and Rama returns to Ayodhya with his sons.

The artiste started the programme in a half-sitting position. It was fifty per cent similar to the araimandi of BN though not meant to be so; the position of the feet was not a la BN. But unlike the fleeting glances one has of araimandi in BN, Kapila maintained that position for a few minutes. This writer thought she was sitting on a chair. She was not. She repeated the position several times. It must have been quite taxing. It also indicated the intense training she must have undergone in the art form. It was Ekaharya (mono acting) at its best. Kapila portrayed the various roles and moods effortlessly. Of particular fascination to the reviewer was the manner in which she got up from a seated or squatted position effortlessly and stylistically in a split second without the support of the hand on the floor, something he cannot do! It was thoroughly professional. "Entranced" is the word to describe the response of the audience that sat through the 90-minute programme with absolute silence (no cell phone sounds!) and intense concentration on the stage. It was remarkable because there was no music and no words spoken except for a short time on two occasions. Netrabhinaya communicated more than what spoken words could have. There was only the sound of the two mizhavus, the percussion instruments, in the background.

The Chauraha discussion session following the programme was well attended unlike in many other instances in the past, indicative of audience interest. Kapila described her early training and the subtle implications of various movements. The percussionists were sitting in the back and had no opportunity to see her face. Still they modulated the sound with loud and light strokes on the mizhavus to portray the various moods thanks to their knowledge of the movements, training and experience in synchronisation. It was of particular interest to the audience. The nadais of percussion were so varied that there was no feeling of monotony. The cosmopolitan audience could appreciate the subtleties of the dance form thanks to the excellent choreography by G Venu and Kapila and its effective delivery by the latter. The maestros of mizhavu, Kalamandalam Rajeev and Kalamandalam Hariharan, deserve kudos for their thorough and tireless professionalism.

Bharatanatyam (April 28, 2010)
Lata Surendra, one of the top artistes of Mumbai and student of T S Kadirvelu Pillai, presented Amrutam (Nectar) in the BN format along with her group of students. It was an Andal-Meera combo that was blended seamlessly. The theme was well conceived and efficiently executed. It was appropriate given the common bond that united them to Lord Vishnu. Incidentally, while Meera and her bhajans are well known in the South thanks to the late M S Subbulakshmi, people even in the South outside Tamil Nadu have hardly heard of Andal. The one exception is the classic prabandhamu ("Amuktamalyada") in Telugu written by Krishna Deva Raya on the saint poetess where Andal is called Godadevi. Lata thus rendered a signal service by juxtaposing Meera and Andal and making the latter known to the cosmopolitan audience of South Mumbai.

The stories of Andal and Meera were recounted in six scenes in quick succession. There was not a dull moment. Lata was ingenious enough to incorporate the elements of Margam in a limited way in the dance drama. Thus there was varnam in Valaji and there was a tillana too. The sancharis and the utplavanas by Lata were well done but with restraint. The choreography provided plenty of scope for abhinaya, rati being the dominant stayibhava rubbing off bhakti shringara on the audience. The singing of Meera bhajans in the Carnatic ragas was a novelty. Meera belongs to the entire country and each region has its own melodic version of her bhajans Gujarati, Purabi, Rajasthani and even a Dhrupad one! So it was in order to have Carnatic music also in that list as long as the sahitya bhava was conveyed. In some scenes there was an alternate singing of Hindi and Tamil songs that was a new experience perfectly in tune with the development of the story. "Varanamayiram," one of the poems of Andal in Nachchiyar Tirumozhi, describes the dream in which she goes through the rituals of a Hindu wedding, which was enacted realistically. The climax of the programme was the marriage of Andal to Lord Ranganatha with a lot of sprinkling of akshadai (rice particles) on the divine couple by the dancers on the stage by way of blessing them. The make-up man doubled up as Perialwar, father of the poetess! He really had the personality of a Vaishnavite Brahmin. On the whole it was an enjoyable experience. The quality of the presentation was enhanced by the professional support of the orchestra comprising Shivaprasad (vocal), Chandran (mridangam), Balasubramaniam (violin), Alka Gulzar (sitar), Narayanan (flute), and Nambeesan (Edakka). Nagaswaram music recorded by E Sakthivel was played during the wedding ceremony. While music was composed by Shivaprasad, nattuvangam was by Lata and guru S P Srinivasan. Nandalal Rele, Suresh Pednekar and Ramanlal Darji provided sound effects, lights and costume. For future renditions of the same programme, this reviewer would like to make the following comments as a rasika.

In the first place, the small stage in the Godrej auditorium was somewhat crowded with the live orchestra and 17 dancers (including children) at one stage. Although each member of the team moved well without coming in the way of anyone else, it created a problem in the coordination of the movements, especially of the arms, that could be seen by the audience (unlike footwork). It is always an aesthetic experience to see the arms moving in a uniform and synchronised way. This reviewer believes it comes under the criterion of hastakshetra, an important constituent of anga shuddha (or purity) of adavus. It was disconcerting to see the arms of the various artistes flailing in different positions or directions at any point of time. I have seen this perfection achieved in the case of some other dance dramas. Also the hastamudras of some of the children left much to be desired. Probably Lata wanted to give an exposure to the young members of the team in a prestigious auditorium. Secondly, the introductory commentaries were somewhat long. There was an excellent programme sheet which gave full details of each scene. There was thus no need for a further lengthy elaboration by way of an oral commentary. There is one last suggestion that is seriously made. To facilitate audience participation, perhaps the akshadai could be distributed among the spectators, if the auditorium is small as was the case with the venue, so that they could also go near the stage and bless the couple in the last wedding scene by sprinkling it on them!

Mohiniattam (April 29, 2010)
From the lyricism of the north-east to that of the south-west of India, was a smooth transition. Neena Prasad, a name to reckon with in MA, presented her recital on the story of Amrapali, the courtesan and patriot of Vaisali, who turned to Buddhism for peace and solace after her bitter experience with war. She was in love with prince Ajatashatru of Magadha, but was disillusioned after seeing the aftermath of the armed conflict between the two countries mentioned above and became a Buddhist nun. Prior to the main story, Neena presented an invocation followed by "Mahadeva Sambho" in Revati that had a reference to Markandeya Purana. It was characterised by good sancharis on the line "Sahasrakoti." Clad in the traditional costume of kasavu in white with a gold border, Neena fascinated the audience with her ati bhanga or the swaying circular movement of the torso from side to side ('chuzhipu') that is the hallmark of the dance form. This as well as the quivering of the eyebrows reminded one of the swaying of the coconut trees and the palm leaves in the breeze. The fluidity of her movements and quicksilver changes of facial expressions were noteworthy. Although shringara is the dominant rasa in MA, there were opportunities in the story for other rasas like bhayanaka and karuna. Like in Manipuri, there was no heavy stamping of the feet on the floor - only gentle tapping with the toes in contrast to the heel in BN. This all goes well with the utterly graceful spirit of the dance form. The role of hastamudras is limited unlike in BN as the emphasis is on the torso in movements. The hand movements were rounded and semi-circular. Like other Kerala dances, MA follows the Hastalakshana Deepika, and not Bharata's Natya Sastra, in mudras. The continuity of adavus with one dissolving into another was a highlight of the presentation.

"Amrapali" had a bagful of evocative Carnatic ragas like Hamsadhwani, Mukhari, Nattaikurinji, Bilahari, Todi, Madhyamavati, Saveri, Andholika, Revati and Desh. The selection of ragas was done carefully to suit the scenes. For example, the scene depicting Amrapali treating a wounded and unknown warrior (Ajatashatru) at her home had Mukhari for background music. The courtesan becoming a Buddhist nun was symbolically portrayed by Neena putting on a saffron shawl and moving to the exit on the stage to the chants of "Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dhammam Saranam Gacchami, Sangam Saranam Gacchami" with the Doppler Effect of the singer (fading of the sound of music as its source goes further and further away). It was good choreography. The orchestra was excellent with Madhavan Namboodiri (vocal), Mangalam Vaidyanathan (violin), Satish (mridangam) and Nambeesan (edakka). Madhavan has a resonant voice and can articulate the sahityas well. Mangalam gave good alapanas for some of the ragas.

Empowerment of Woman
Although obviously there was no prior consultation among the artistes, it seems that instinctively they all hit on a common theme of the New Indian Woman self-assured, confident, proud and fearless to throw away the shackles of the past - though couched in ancient stories and mythologies. It was a case of the empowerment of Stree. There was Shakti, the mother goddess presiding over the destinies of men and women, a Sita who could say "enough is enough" to Lord Rama and prefer to go to her mother's home rather than return to his palace and wait for another humiliating experience, an Andal and a Meera who aspired for higher values in life and did not believe in the convention of a housewife condemned to kitchen and bearing children and an Amrapali who could realise that there was an alternative to matrimony and a single woman could survive in this world on the strength of her will power. NCPA should be congratulated for selecting a theme in tune with the spirit of the 21st century.

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.