The triumph of choreography
– A. Seshan, Mumbai
November 25, 2011
Bharatakalanjali of VP Dhananjayan presented a couple of interesting programmes at the Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha, Mumbai, on November 13 and 14, 2011. It was Thyaagaraja Vaibhavam (The Glory of Tyagaraja) on the first day. It could very well have been titled Thyaagaraja Yoga Vaibhavam (The Yogic Glory of Tyagaraja) since the theme was the portrayal of the vaggeyakara as a Nada Yogi who was a prince among those who had renounced worldly desires and possessions. For him, devotion to Lord Rama was the only be-all and end-all of life. In reviewing the performance, one has to keep this in mind. The emphasis was on bhava and rasa. The scope for nritta or nritya was limited given the theme. Tyagaraja did not dance either in life or in the drama. Whatever dances were there by the BK group were in the nature of fillers that supplemented the main theme. I have seen many dance programmes devoted to the life of the saint composer. Each had its own approach. In one case (Sumati Tyagaraja) it was ekaharya (solo dancing of different characters). It was the right approach given the objective of the choreographer. In Dhananjayan’s presentation, besides Tyagaraja, the only characters were his brother, the villain of the piece who tormented the saint, and two messengers from the King of Thanjavur who brought gifts and invitation from the maharaja. The other members of the group were utilised for portraying certain episodes and events in the background.
The evening started with a rendering of “Jagadanandakaraka” (Nattai), the first of the pancharatnakritis by Tyagaraja. It created the right ambience recalling the Aradhana celebration in his memory in Thiruvaiyaru (Tamil Nadu) held in January every year. Dhananjayan’s choreographic skills were evident right from the beginning. He made a dramatic entry from the entrance to the auditorium walking in dancing steps along with his disciples through the aisle like a Bhagavata with the castanets in his hands and moving towards the dais even as the Sowrashtra kriti “Sri Ganapatini” was being sung there. He lived his role from then on. What followed was a full-fledged dance of Ganesha, which I saw for the first time. To some it might have looked folksy and cast in the mould of lokadharmi. But then Ganesha is the elephant god. The elephant is known for its majesty, massive weight and awesome size. You cannot expect Ganesha to dance gracefully like a slim-waisted maiden or the peacock. The kritis included in the dance drama were: Vaani Ninne - Kharaharapriya, Elanidaya - Atana, Tulasidalamulache – Mayamalavagowlai, Nagumomu - Abheri, Venugana - Kedaragowlai, Evarikai - Devamanohari, Nidhichalasukhama - Kalyani, Melukovayya -Bowli, Nenendu - Karnataka Behag, Evarimata - Kambhoji, Kanugontini - Bilahari, Nannuvidachi - Ritigowlai and Sitakalyana - Kurinji. The episodes associated with these songs were portrayed by Dhananjayan and artistes of Bharatakalanjali. The shadow plays in the background interpreted the songs to enable the audience to understand the story line and the episodes. Dhananjayan has acknowledged that this approach was a revival of what Uday Shankar had attempted in Mahamanav many decades ago. “Evarikai” was Ramayana in a capsule form even as Tyagaraja was seated in a corner before the idol of Rama wondering on the purpose of Ramavatara. The various episodes like Ahalya Vimochanam enacted in the background, not mentioned in the kriti, served the purpose of sanchari bhavas.
The highlights of the performance can be summed up. In the first place, as mentioned at the beginning of the review, the emphasis was on stayibhava and rasanubhava. As such, there was not much scope for nritta except for brief glimpses provided by the disciples. It was angikabhinaya – what a Westerner would call a mimetic show - with Dhananjayan at his best in portraying the various emotions of Tyagaraja as the occasion demanded. Appropriately enough, the music was in vilamba kala (slow tempo) or between vilamba and madhyama (medium pace) kalas. According to many musicians and musicologists they are ideal for portraying emotions. MD Ramanathan was a past master of this genre of rhythm and Dhananjayan has all along been his admirer. “Nagumomu” often receives a jet-speed treatment by musicians that expresses joie de vivre contrary to its undertone of sadness. I recollect one distinguished and popular violinist possessing technical virtuosity of a high order literally hacking the kriti to pieces like nobody’s business. With its manifold sangatis it provides immense scope for such slaughtering. But, in the performance under review, it was in a slow graceful tempo reflecting the frustration and distress of Tyagaraja on his inability to get a glimpse of the smiling face of his ishta devata. Dhananjayan and the music director should be congratulated for this true interpretation of the song that should have been an eye-opener for the audience.
The only kriti that was fast was “Kanugontini” that highlighted the joy of the saint on discovering the idol of Rama, which had been thrown into the river Kaveri by his brother in anger after Tyagaraja had declined to accept the presents sent by the King of Thanjavur and his invitation to the court. The solo violin play during the strenuous efforts of the saint in searching for the idol in the waters was well thought out. The success of a Bharatanatyam artiste lies in the transmission of his stayibhava to the audience in the form of rasanubhava. Dhananjayan achieved this as the audience broke into applause with joy when he discovered the idol and was at the height of ecstasy.
There are two broad schools in the West pertaining to the portrayal of characters in theatre: the Stanislavsky Method, or, simply, The Method, and the Brechtian approach. The former requires the actor to live his part in order to be realistic. The latter has two elements and takes the opposite view. The first, theatricalism, simply means members of the audience being made aware that they are in a theatre watching a play. Secondly, it takes the stand known as “distancing" or "alienation" effect in acting style with the same goal as the first one. Brecht wanted actors to strike a balance between "being" their character onstage and "showing the audience that the character is being performed." I have argued that Indian theatre foresaw the Stanislavsky method many centuries ago (See ‘The Dramatics of the Dhananjayans’ (2009) - http://www.narthaki.com/info/rev09/rev817.html). Dhananjayan identifies himself totally with the character he represents. This was seen in the story of Nandanar enacted in the Sabha two years ago and again in the programme under review.
There has been a controversy on the suitability of the kritis of the Trinity of Carnatic Music and other vaggeyakaras for inclusion in Bharatanatyam programmes on the ground that they were not designed or composed for dancing. In “Sogasuga” (Sriranjani), Tyagaraja talks about navarasas being one of the essential ingredients of a standard kriti. It is rasanubhava that links music, dance and theatre. Where there is rasa there is dance provided there is scope for displaying the other main features of the classical format. Syama Sastri’s swarajatis are rarely danced to. On an enquiry from me, one natyacharya told me that it was because there is not much scope therein for hasta mudras. So one has to be selective in choosing the kritis for a Bharatanatyam programme. Last year Natyarangam, the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, had a festival with the theme ‘Vaggeyabharatam’ and demonstrated successfully with the help of eminent dancers the possibilities of adapting select kritis of vaggeyakaras to Bharatanatyam.
Those who looked for Bharatanatyam were satisfied on the next day. The second day’s programme was “Poornathrayee – Mythology, History and the Present.” It started with “Erumayileri,” a Tiruppugazh song in Shanmukhapriya. Then followed the story of Dasavatara based on the kriti of Swati Tirunal (“Kamalajasya” in Ragamalikai). The group dancing was obviously well rehearsed as was evident from the coordination of the movements. The synchronisation of the movements of the limbs with the hands and feet displaying the same position in the group dance at any point of time was achieved fulfilling the requirement of hastakshetra, one of the essential elements of angasuddha, the hallmark of a perfect adavu.
Then followed the story of Ashoka being convinced by his daughter Meghaveni (who later became the Buddhist nun Sangamitra and took Buddhism to other lands) about the futility of acquiring wealth and fame through acts of violence. Dhananjayan played the role of Ashoka and Shantha that of Meghaveni. There was once again a masterly exposition of angikabhinaya by both the artistes. The Kathakali touch in mukhajabhinaya (example: the frequent raising of the eyebrows) was evident in Dhananjayan but it meshed well with the play. My only criticism is the repetition of Mohanam in the song. We had a surfeit of that raga earlier in the refrain of the song (pallavi) of the Swati Tirunal kriti on Dasavatara. Another repeated raga was Shanmukhapriya. There was a good display of nritta with the couple dancing to jatis. The last item of the evening was Nrittatarangini (Ripples in Rhythm), a Tillana in Behag. It was a tribute from Bharatakalanjali, the name being mentioned in the charanam. There was suddha nrittam incorporated for good measure. It was choreographed as a group tillana with sub-groups being formed once in a while.
The success of the two-day programme owed considerably to the excellent support from the following accompanying artistes under the overall guidance of Shanta Dhananjayan.
Dancers: Suresh Sridhar, Venkatakrishnan, Gopukiran, Umesh Bheemanna, Uttio Barua, Pavitra Srinivasan, Mahalakshmi Balaji, Keerthi Panikkar Bellal and Maya Vinayan
Musicians: Sasidaran (vocal), Nagarajan (mridangam and other instruments), Jayashankar (maddalam and other instruments), Sunil Kumar (flute) and Sunil Bhaskar (violin). The stage was set up tastefully by Ayyappan with the background providing a raised platform to act out the episodes being sung about.
That the audience was thoroughly satisfied with the two-day programme was evident when they greeted with a loud applause the announcement that the Dhananjayans were booked in advance for a performance next year to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Swati Tirunal. The composer was born in 1813 but it is a common practice to start the centennial celebrations one year in advance.
The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.