Saila Sudha presents Nritya Sangama
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
Photos: Ravi

September 18, 2011

For the fourth year in succession, Saila Sudha organized its annual festival for two days on September 3 and 4, 2011 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. This year being the 150th birth anniversary celebration of Rabindranath Tagore, Sailaja chose to dedicate this festival titled Nritya Sangama to Gurudev.
Narayana Vishwanath, PK Doraiswamy, Vikku Vinayak Ram, Michelle Zjhra ((Vice Consul, US Embassy, Chennai), Sailaja

Dr. Minoti Chatterjee and Averee Chaurey

One of the highlights of the morning function was the charming presentation ‘In search of Tagore through his prose and poetry’ by Averee Chaurey and Dr. Minoti Chatterjee. Starting with Bengali verses and gradually moving on to the English translation, Chaurey and Chatterjee then enacted the text interspersed with a little music. It has been so appreciated that there could well be a repeat performance in Chennai at a suitable fest. This was followed by a dance presentation in Bharatanatyam and Kuchpudi by foreign students of Saila Sudha academy.

The first performance of the evening was an offering in Bharatanatyam titled ‘Masterpieces of a Master’ by Roja Kannan. The items were all choreographies of her guru Adyar K Lakshman. The recital featured Nandi Chol and “Nithya Kalyani” followed by a Tagore song that blended into a Hindolam Thillana of Madurai N Krishnan. It was a happy ending since the verse tells people not to be immersed in one’s own misery but to take joy from the beauty around us. In order to get the correct Bengali pronunciation, Roja and the vocalist Radha Badri spent hours pausing the original song every few seconds and noting the way the words were pronounced! It was a pleasant performance and the orchestra provided good support with Sashidar on flute, Nellai D Kannan on mridangam, TK Padmanabhan on violin and TN Saranya on nattuvangam.                       

Roja Kannan
Gotipua dancers
Dancers of Dasabhuja Gotipua Odissi Nrutya Parisad founded in 1975 by Guru Maguni Das from Raghurajpur in Orissa presented Gotipua dance. Performed by young boys dressed up as girls this dance is what present day Odissi developed from. It has now become more precise and systematic and adapted to the modern proscenium.  Under the tutelage and direction of Guru Basant Kumar Pradhan, 7 young dancers had the audience spellbound with their lilting dance, flexibility, agility and gymnastics. The items included “Aahe neela saila” dedicated to Lord Jagannath, Dasavatar, a folk item about the beauty of Orissa (I could make out words like Bhubaneswar, Bindu Sagar and Khoraput!)  and concluded with Bandha Nritya. It was interesting to see the dice playing, Draupadi vastrapaharanam and the garuda vahana sequences. In one of the super pyramid formations, the head of the dancer on top actually touched the cloth panel above the stage! Most of the boys were of a particular height, except this little fellow and while most of them looked quite animated, 2 dancers were rather expressionless throughout. The sudden pyramid formations, body contortions and freezing into complicated poses had the audience enthralled and they burst into frequent applause. The music was wonderfully melodious. 

In the final program of the evening, Sailaja and students of Saila Sudha presented Tagore’s dance drama CHANDALIKA in Kuchipudi style, detailing the evils of the caste system, especially untouchability.  The opening scene had a white backdrop with a centrally hung Tagore’s portrait but all we could see was a glare, not Tagore’s face. Dancers emerged from one corner of the backdrop and set the introductory scene. The backdrop changed to a village scene with fields, cows and hens with a hut in the foreground and to instrumental music and alapana, Chandalika (played by Sailaja) stretches languorously as she wakes up, and then goes through her morning chores. Sumitha Menon, Bhavishya and Sree Swarna make their entry as the milk vendors with shiny copper pots on their heads and settle down to sell the pure white milk, sweet as nectar. An animated Chandalika asks them to sell her some milk but 2 high caste women (played by Sivapriya and Sivaramya) exhort the vendors not to commit sin by selling to a lower caste woman. All 5 of them sneer at the hurt and bewildered Chandalika and walk off.                           

A scene from Chandalika
The backdrop changed for the next scene – a village street with houses and fields. The bangle sellers (Aarti Jeyaraj, Aarthi Vasudevan and Sivapriya) dance in with dangling colorful bangles. Chandalika smiles in anticipation of adorning herself with the pretty bangles but again those 2 snooty high class women enter and spoil things for her. Rejected for a second time, now by the bangle sellers. The backdrop changed to a vista of fields with a well in the forefront. The flower sellers Revathi Chandini and Varsheeni dance in with their baskets of flowers. Chandalika coaxes them to sell her flowers for worship but the entry of the high caste women prompts the sellers to shun Chandalika. How much rejection can one take? Chandalika now gets angry at her low birth. Sailaja’s show of anger was restrained without lapsing into theatric laments.

Enter the monks. Ananda requests for some water but she refuses as she is of low caste. The monk convinces her about the equality of human beings and drinks the water given by her. After the monk leaves, she dances with joy at the beauty of nature, the fields, dancing peacock, prancing deer…The scene now shifts and we had a forest backdrop that did not quite fall in place properly. Chandalika now starts longing for Ananda, asks her mother Maya to use her tantric powers to get her Ananda and despite her warning that it would not be pleasant, is insistent.  Nandini Navnith as Maya invokes the spirits with a skull and bone in hand and the spirits clad in long black robes with red sashes and wild hair dance in wild abandon. The backdrop had now changed to white and the tantric mood was conveyed under artistic lighting but shifting now and again to flat lights took away from the mysterious effect. This section was rather long and could be edited. Back in the forest scene, Chandalika sees the image of the tortured monk in the magic mirror that Maya gives her and realizing her error, sends away Maya and her spirits. She refuses to give water from her tainted hands to Ananda, but obliges after his gentle encouragement that repentance itself cleanses one’s sins, and light of happiness and peace beam across her face. She removes her jewellery, wears saffron robes and follows him down the path of Buddha dharma. 

The entry of the caste women urging the sellers of different wares to shun Chandalika and all of them ganging up on the poor girl was effective but volume control for the instrumental music would have been much appreciated. Sailaja’s facial expressions of wonder and anticipation, the pain of rejection, her incomprehension at being treated as an outcaste were portrayed very well. Costumes were colorful, but why did Sailaja tie the tape of the green fan of her costume outside her sari at the back, making it look like an apron. The painted backdrops were pretty (like the sets of a Tamil stage play) but more finesse is needed when changing them. Sailaja choreographed the entire 2 hour production, a good attempt, but it could be edited to make the presentation more compact.  The script in Sanskrit is by Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao and music composed by SR Veeraraghavan who sang for the male dancers. Randhini and Roshini sang for the female dancers. The rest of the orchestra comprised of Srilatha on nattuvangam, Nagai Sriram on mridangam, Muruganandam on keyboard, PV Ramana on flute, N Sundar on tabla, Sai Krishna on ghatam/ganjira.

Anita Ratnam

The morning of the second day started with the presentation of ‘AVANI: A handful of dust’ as a tribute to Gurudev by Anita Ratnam, who recently premiered the production at the Happenings Tagore Festival in Kolkata. She presented 2 excerpts from the full length work, two of them being from the iconic poetry collection, Gitanjali.  The first was poem number 18, “Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens…” The stage design by one of Anita's long term collaborators Rex was a terrace with clotheslines and a few transparent clothes - in off white and white - hanging including a transparent piece of material with the silhouette of Tagore painted on it – a classy touch. It could be anybody’s backyard. The heroine looks at the dark clouds in the sky and thinks longingly of her love. The original Bengali song “Megher pore” is sung hauntingly by Pubali Debnath, a well known Rabindra Sangeet singer of Kolkata. 

The second piece was the very first poem from Gitanjali that goes “You make me endless, such is your pleasure.” The choreography works on dualities, male-female, longing-separation, joy of memory-pain of loss, individual and divine, with soft lines of the poem intercepting the kinetics of Bharatanatyam. Tagore’s poetry is juxtaposed with poetry of Tamil poet Kalki Krishnamoorthy, “Poonkuyil koovum pooncholayil….” sung beautifully by Bindu Malini. When Tagore visited Chennai, he heard Muthuswami Dikshitar’s “Meenakshi meimudham …” and on return to Shantiniketan, it inspired him to create “Basonti Mohani Bhubana” on the beauty of Basonti.  Basanti could be the name of a person or spring. The iconography of Goddess Meenakshi is invoked and the composition infused with the idea of rebirth and reawakening of nature that gives joy to the people. The final segment saw Anita seated on a black stool, with a basket of flowers and emoting to the beautiful strains of music that had Bengali verse seamlessly alternating with Tamil lyrics.
The presentation scored high on aesthetics, the wonderful recorded music and refined articulation where Bharatanatyam was not foot stamping strong, but used softly and sparingly to keep in tune with the soft style of Rabindra Sangeet. Guru CV Chandrasekhar, who attended the performance, said he has done many programs on Tagore but never has he seen such a beautiful synthesis of Bengali and Tamil verse and interpreted in such a manner. Indeed high praise from the master himself. The original full length production in which the dancer on stage is part of the images and verses projected on the backdrop, will be staged in a few months in Chennai.
One can say it happens only in Chennai, or should we say, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The state of backstage professionalism or the lack of it was glaringly apparent at a moment when Anita was engrossed in her performance. Suddenly we saw a rope drop down from the stage ceiling, dangling tantalizingly on the left side of the stage like a hangman’s noose. We thought this was perhaps part of her stage set, but 10 minutes later, it was mysteriously pulled up and disappeared! Every time Anita was elaborating on a piece (or announcements were being made during the competitions that was the next program), we heard the strains of Carnatic music sung by beginners in an adjoining music class, wafting into the auditorium. The hall clearly needs better acoustics!    

Instead of having speeches like in morning sessions of earlier festivals, Sailaja opted to hold a dance competition on Tagore verse. Three dancers performed in full Bharatanatyam costume and one in full Mohiniattam costume, while others chose to stay true to Bengali style.  VG Divya and Nikita performed in solo junior category; S Raghavi, Saikripa Prasanna, Subashini, Ritvika Ghosh and Anamika competed in the solo senior category; 2 teams contested in the group category – Group from Kripa Centre for Fine Arts, duet by Jayanti Rajasekaran and Balachander. Only 2 performers had live music, others used recorded music. Undoubtedly it was a great pleasure to listen to the beautiful songs. All performers gave a very neat and concise introduction to their items. The judges were Roja Kannan, Averee Chaurey and Dr. Minoti Chatterjee. Roja Kannan hailed the hard work done by all the performers in trying to find the right song and working on the choreography. She said every time there’s a competition, it is followed by controversy and that has become the norm nowadays. So, Averee Chaurey explained about how they arrived at their choice of winners. Being familiar with Tagore dance and verse, she found the interpretation different here. Language seemed to be a problem and showed when poetry was being read, or the movements were in variance with the meaning. The song selection was good but the meaning did not emerge from the dance. In one song, there was a mix of 3 numbers that did not go well together. In the live music, the pronunciation was not right and as such the meaning also changes! Referring to the costumes, she said when doing a particular choreography one must also pay attention to the costume to go with it. The results were: Nikita (solo jr), Saikripa Prasanna (solo sr) and the team from Kripa Centre for Fine Arts who gave a very coordinated presentation. The judges were not happy with Saikripa’s Bharatanatyam costume but said she was the only one who was very expressive in bringing out the real content of what Gurudev said in his verse. It was strange that there were quite a few accessories malfunction in this festival! 

Through the competition, I saw a young girl sit a seat away from me, gazing raptly at the performances. She gave me a friendly smile and sat down next to me. Is she learning dance? “Yes, Bharatanatyam.”  From whom? “Sailaja miss, because my mother had heard that it is a good school.”  Did she see Sailaja’s Chandalika the earlier evening? What did she think of it? “Her expressions were very good.” What about the Gotipua dancers? “They did a lot of gymnastics.” How were the dancers in the competition? “They danced well.” Mehaa’s parents encourage her to pursue dance. Does she not want to become an engineer or something else? “I want to become a doctor but I also want to be a dancer.” Surely she could be a doctor and a dancer too? “I must think but I surely want to make dance my career. I love dance. I was learning from another teacher when I was small, I then had to discontinue. Now I am learning with Sailaja miss for past 2 years.” With so much school work, where does she have time to practice? “My father makes me practice every morning and evening. I also practice whenever I am free. Even when talking to someone, I make dance movements. At school also, we have dance class. But I know that teacher’s style is different from my teacher’s!” What a joy it was chatting with little Mehaa, who is all of 10 years old!

Sailaja and Guru Kumudini Lakhia
Sailaja and Guru Rhadha
Fortunately for the evening performance, the backdrop was kept plain. The evening started with the honouring of artistes: Kathak guru Kumudini Lakhia, Gotipua guru Basant Kumar Pradhan, Bharatanatyam gurus Adyar K Lakshman, Ranganayaki Jayaraman and Rhadha, mridangist Sikkil R Vadivel Pillai, violinist Tanjore S Natarajan, yoga master Dr. H Balachandar, makeup artiste Gayathri and Murugan for lights. This was followed by two performances. Clad in a white and gold costume, Neena Prasad presented a Mohiniattam recital with the central item being a pada varnam in Surutti ragam, adi talam, on dancer Madhavi from Silappadikaram. She is a natana latika Madhavi, has many admirers but her heart has been given to Kovalan. She remembers the time their glances met when he first saw her dance. Madhavi is drenched as much in her dance and music as in her love for Kovalan. Choreography was by her guru Kalamandalam Suganthi.  Another item was from Gita Govindam in which all three characters feature, Krishna, Radha and the sakhi. Composed in Ragamalika and Talamalika, the item describes Radha surrounded by flowers and bees in a beautiful garden but she is agonized at the thought of Krishna making love to another woman.  Neena Prasad concluded with a thillana in ragam Amritavarshini. She was supported by Changancherry Madhavan Nampoothiri on vocal, Eswar Ramakrishnan on violin, Bhavani Prasad on veena, Subramanion on edakka and Ramesh Babu on mridangam.

Neena Prasad
Atah Kim
Kadamb School of Dance and Music was founded in 1967 by Kumudini Lakhia in Ahmedabad. The grand finale of the festival was a charged performance by 6 female and one male dancer. They presented the highly acclaimed ATAH KIM (where do we go from here?) in Kathak style “where the traditional vocabulary has been placed in a time and space factor.” Atah Kim was a collage of six pieces. The first was Aarambh where the dancers prepare for the forthcoming items.  Upaj was a duet with a male and female dancer. Suverna was premiered in Sao Paulo to celebrate 50 years of India’s independence.  That’s why it is titled Suverna (for gold anniversary!). Yugal means duet and the movements were choreographed to create a mood of sensuality. A ghazal “naina re naina, kaise beethi raina, piya bin mujhko aaye nahi chaina…” was rendered vocally first by the artiste, her beautiful voice filling the auditorium. She then danced to this number as an abhinaya item. The tarana in rag Darbari brought the spectacular presentation to a close. There was no story line as such, all the numbers had combinations of typical Kathak movements woven into languid, gracefully slow sequences giving an almost ballet like quality, interesting line formations, the fast chakkars, and foot rhythms, which made us all realize how strong their feet must be to stamp continuously on stage in tune with the tabla beats. The music by Atul Desai was melodious, the dancers looked gorgeous in their aesthetic costumes, the lighting directed by Kumiben was superb and the choreography held the audience in a thrall. The frequent bursts of applause culminated in a standing ovation. It would have been eminently appreciable if only these wonderful artistes had been introduced to the audience.

Sailaja is to be congratulated for striving to come up with interesting themes and selection of artistes each year. Her aim is to invite artistes of all dance forms to Chennai, especially those who have dedicated their lives to dance.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of