Samskriti Foundation's joyful program ‘Ananda’
- Anu Samrat

December 21, 2011

How does Yanni's music feature in an Indian classical dance program, I wondered, when I read the program brochure on a cold November evening in Chicago. I was at the Centerstage auditorium to attend Samskriti Foundation's recital titled ‘Ananda – new and vintage choreography in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi.’

I'll admit that I have not heard much of Yanni's music and all I knew was that it was totally not the type of music traditionally used for either dance form. My interest was definitely piqued but this was going to be the last item of the show, so I had to wait.

The Samskriti Ensemble, lead by dancer Shoba Natarajan, consisted of Jalaja Hemanth, Janaki Nair, Anjali Nandan, Sailaja Kambhammettu, Vinod Menon, Srilekha Sama, Lakshmi Thirumani and Swetha Vijayaraghavan.

The evening began with a beautiful mallari, which was followed by an alarippu. A mallari is the song  which is played (usually on the nadaswaram) when the utsava murti of a temple is taken out in procession, so the music is grand as it has to grab everyone's attention. This mallari was choreographed to match the music and was riveting.

Such an oft-repeated item like an alarippu was given a fresh look with imaginative choreography. It was split into three sections of tishram, khandam and mishram, with 3 dancers for the first section and 5 for the second. Logically there must have been 7 for the third section, then or at least that must have been the plan, but things don't always go according to plan, so there were a total of 5. What made the alarippu look different was that none of the dancers were facing the audience all the time (which, I realized after watching this one, usually makes it appear like a class room session).

The second item was "Gayiye Ganapati" in Kuchipudi style. Here the four Kuchipudi dancers did a fine job with typical Kuchipudi adavus and movement and the program got off to a great start, with these two items in the two different styles.

The third piece was a varnam “Swami nan undan adimai” in raga Natakurinji, adi talam, a composition of Papanasam Sivan. Shoba Natarajan and Vinod Menon presented this and they decided to interpret the lines in two different ways, covering both the anthar bhakti (inner devotion) and bahir shringaram (outer love). The idea to portray it this way - in parallel, was different and interesting. From the notes I took down when this item was announced, some of the lines depicted were:

“The world knows I am yours” begins the lyric. It is interpreted as:
“The world knows I have always been in love with you” and also interpreted as
“The world knows I have always worshipped you.”

“Do not delay, come to me right away” – says the lover.
“By singing your name, I cross the ocean of worldly life”– says the devotee.

“When will I see your dancing feet in Chidambaram?” – questions the devotee.
“When will those dancing feet of yours ever find me?” – wonders the lover.

The jathis for the varnam were limited, were not long and were not designed only to display their nritta skills and that was good, because the bhava of the varnam was not lost throughout.

After this came the ‘Shivashtakam’ in Kuchipudi. This consists of 8 couplets in praise of Lord Shiva. Like the first item in Bharatanatyam, this one too had musical notes that were repetitive (though with sahitya in Sanskrit), but the choreography was brisk and thoughtfully done. In particular, I liked the portion where one dancer (Shoba) was doing the abhinaya as if she was playing one percussion instrument after the other, while the other dancers did the jathis.

Then it was a thillana in Bharatanatyam, in the popular Kapi ragam. Here, again, Shoba's talent as a choreographer shone through the intricate and interesting nritta patterns. Anjali and Swetha, in particular, seemed to be enjoying their dancing. (Anjali is the founder of and Swetha, a disciple of Guru Adyar Lakshman, runs her own dance school Pragati). The penultimate item for the evening was a dhrupad in Kuchipudi in raga Purvi.  Kuchipudi style was totally suited to this and the audience was treated to wonderful nritta combinations.

Finally came the long-awaited piece of dance in Kuchipudi with music by Yanni (‘Nostalgia’).
With only music and no words and no set rhythmic patterns commonly found in Indian compositions, the item opened up lots of possibilities. The dancers portrayed a lovely garden and rounded it off with joyful dancing. I think it was a good idea to include this in the recital mainly to make it known to more people that Indian classical dance can be choreographed to any music. It is not just for purists to attend a program (they will, anyway) – we need more laymen to attend such recitals and this was a good item to attract the interest of anyone new to our dances.

Attention to detail was evident everywhere – from the simple yet elegant stage décor, the lovely online invitation, the high standard of music used for the dance, the costumes of the dancers and the overall recital planning. One discordant note was that the person announcing/introducing each item made several mistakes while pronouncing the names, composers and ragas of the items.  And perhaps it would have been good to have added one or two more abhinaya items as the varnam was the sole abhinaya-heavy piece in the entire program

Overall, the entire recital was elegant, imaginative and refreshing.

Anu Samrat, disciple of Smitha Rajan, is a Mohiniattam dancer who lives in St.Louis.