Bhoopaala Bharatham: History lesson, dance and mime (Part 1)
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat
August 7, 2013
The annual week long Bharatanatyam festival (July 28 to August 2) organized by Natyarangam, the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai, has been an educative one conveying so much knowledge to dancers and viewers alike through varied themes. Every year a new theme is chosen. This year, the 17th edition titled Bhoopaala Bharatham (Kings as protectors of the land and people) was about the chosen few rulers in Indian history who have been hailed for their good governance, doing good to the people, ensuring a peaceful kingdom and significant interventions as patrons of artistic talent in various fields. These kings were not only the protector and nurturer of the arts, they were themselves gifted dancers, musicians and poets of repute. One may not see grandiose palaces of these kings now but they left behind a precious legacy in the form of inscriptions, monuments like temples that stand to this day and many literary works. Before each evening’s performance, the concerned resource person spoke about the research into the subject followed by the performance by young as well as established artistes. It was like a history lesson interpreted through dance and mime.
Part two was an excerpt inspired by the study of the English translation by Srinivas Sistla of the scholarly Telugu poem Amuktamaalyada penned by the great ruler Krishnadeva Raya, a war hero, able statesman and administrator whose rule has been hailed as a golden period in our history. A scholar well versed in ancient literature and a socially conscious ruler, he had said back then that the government should not interfere in the workings of religious institutions. Krishnadeva Raya, a Kannadiga, was a singer of great repute. He went to Srikakulam to worship Andhra Vishnu, who in a dream commanded him to compose the story of the Tamil girl Godha Devi and the garland in Telugu. Vineet and Padma portrayed the role of Vishnuchitta/Vishnu and Godha respectively. Vineet’s simple quick change of head band served to distinguish different characters. Godha’s merging into Vishnu was depicted subtly. The story ended with a tasteful depiction of the distraught Vishnuchitta finding an illusory Godha and the marriage between Godha and Vishnu taking place at Srivilliputtur. On the whole, nice costumes, good music and a neat presentation of both stories, but one felt the younger female dancer would have been a better pair for the young Vineeth. Also, the white screen as backdrop served no purpose except to distract with loud colorful lighting. Compilation, music and choreography were by Padma Subrahmanyam. The wonderful music ensemble included Radhika Muthukrishnan and Mahati Kannan on vocal, mridangam by Thanjavur Senthil Kumar, veena by B Kannan, flute by Pathanjali.
Bhavajan Kumar and Divya Shiva Sundar started their recital by describing Kanchipuram during the reign of Mahendra Varman. Roads are decorated for the king’s entry, girls can be seen walking on the roads selling flowers to passersby, the bazaars are filled with citizens who sing, drink and dance, roads are filled with the sound of drums and music. Next was a description of the king from a poem Mahendra Varman wrote about himself in the beginning of his one act Sanskrit play Mattavilasa Prahasanam where he, the son of the valorous Simhavishnu Pallava, compares his might and power to that of Lord Indra and says if Kubera were to see his wealth he would bow his head in shame. After extolling the greatness of the king as a sculptor, wrestler, painter, connoisseur of the arts and a great warrior, his various titles such as Shatrumalla and Vichithrachitta, Bhavajan and Divya presented a humorous scene from Mattavilasa Prahasanam meaning “the farce of drunken sport” about the hypocrisy of some contemporary religious practices depicted in a light vein. The play is set in Kanchi and revolves around the drunken antics of a kapalika mendicant Satyasoma and his woman Devasoma. They enter the cemetery, begin to drink and make merry. The intoxicated kapalika begins to explain the beauty of his wife saying “the beads of sweat over your creeper like eyebrows resemble pearls from the ocean on your moon like face.” Instead of embracing his wife, the drunk Satyasoma ends up hugging a pole nearby and calls out for Somadeva instead of Devasoma. Hearing this, his wife is heartbroken and accuses him of cheating. To console her, he says it was a slip of his tongue under the influence of alcohol and promises not to touch alcohol hereafter. Devasoma falls at his feet and tells him his tapas will be ruined if he stops drinking and they will not attain moksha. Praising Lord Shiva, they continue to drink. Without overdoing it, the charming dramatization and delicate moves of inebriation delighted the audience.
In part two of the recital, Narasimha Varman goes to his father’s temples and draws inspiration to build his five rathas and wall relief of Arjuna’s Penance in Mahabalipuram. When Mahendra Varman was defeated by Pulakesi II at Vatapi (Badami), he lost his northern provinces to the Chalukyas and retreated to Kanchi, but was never the same again till he passed away. In 630AD, his son Narasimha Varman I decided to avenge his father’s defeat and conquered Pulakesi II at Vatapi, victoriously bringing the dwaja sthambam and the Vatapi Ganapathy to Kanchi, depicted on stage to strains of “Vatapi Ganapathim.” The Pallavas had an equally strong navy like their army. The Sinhalese prince Vanavarma helped Narasimha Varman in his war against Pulakesi II, and as a return favor, the Pallava king helps by sending his troops to Lanka but Vanavarma regains his kingdom only to lose it again. This time, Narasimha Varman himself goes to war and gets the kingdom back for Vanavarma, thus his victory in Lanka is compared to that of Rama. The recital ended with a passage from Mattavilasa Prahasanam that says the Pallavas emerged for the welfare of mankind. “As long as there is fire in this world, as long as cows give milk, and as long as the stars and moon exist, this world will be ruled by the great Pallavas.”
The vibrant battle scenes were enacted with attractive choreography and vigour by the dancers. Incorporating some of the story elements in a thillana sequence, Bhavajan and Divya held the audience attention with their engaging and energetic performance. The music ensemble was Krithika Arvind on vocal, Shobana Bhalchandra on nattuvangam, Vedakrishnan on mridangam, Sruti Sagar on flute and Kalaiarasan on violin. The beautiful music was composed by Rajkumar Bharati.
What were the challenges in working on this theme? Says Bhavajan, “Choreography for this production was not easy. We had to figure out a way to make the production interesting and not become only a history lesson. Also, we had very limited amount of literature we could use. All the sahithyams used in our show were not written past the 7th century. Thanks to the guidance of our resource person Chitra Madhavan, we got inscriptions found on the temple walls built by Mahendra Varman, also the episode about the king’s conversion were taken from Thevarams. Personally, this has made me look at temples in a completely new light. I’ve been to Kanchipuram many times, but after this work started, I went to the Varadharaja Perumal temple there, which was built by a much later Pallava, but nonetheless, I was unconsciously paying attention to the finer details.
I think what we enjoyed most in this production was the Mattavilasa Prahasanam. Choreography for this was not exactly set. We just took things as they came according to how we felt at that moment. Only the number of times was set for the musicians but the dancing was mostly manodharma. Narasimha Varman’s episode was the most difficult because unlike his father, this king did not write any literature and had only one inscription about his victory of Lanka and Vatapi. Whatever else we had was his titles. Overall, working on this was deeply gratifying to know this land of India has seen such great rulers. I’m still mind boggled at the fact of how they could have even done most of these things with the limited amount of technology they had back then. Even today with the massive equipment we have, can someone build what we see today in Mahabalipuram from a single large block of stone? I doubt it. We thank Natyarangam for giving us this chance to explore and present the greatness of these Pallava rulers.”
A Lakshman and Divyasena commenced their recital with a summary of Raja Raja’s accomplishments like the Cauvery River irrigation system, laws of equality, and conquest of neighbouring kingdoms. The birth of Raja Raja Chozha was narrated, followed by the entry of Lakshman as Raja Raja with big moustache and hairpiece topped by a flashy crown, showing his admiration of beauty by generously giving a beautiful dancing girl a necklace. The girl falls in love with him and pines away. When royal processions passed by, the elders used to lock up love struck girls inside so that they did not bring shame to the family. This sringara episode was followed by deeds of valour on the warfront. Raja Raja's army swept through the Chera kingdom like a thunderstorm across a plain. He destroyed towers, mountains, and crossed the sea into the northern part of Sri Lanka and defeated the king. This was depicted with dheem taka dheem taka dheem sequence. Raja Raja’s building activity was shown using the Mallari for construction of the Brihadeeswara Temple, the outer prakarams with the nandi statues, the gopurams, etc.
After the rather lengthy part one that made the audience restless, the part two was ultra brief, perhaps because Rajendra Chozha, the son of Raja Raja, was more a warrior. He expanded the Chola empire all the way until Cambodia through a series of wars. He further developed the Chola navy, and they became extremely powerful. The Chola empire prospered through trade and military conquest under Rajendra's rule. Primarily known as a warrior more than a patron of the arts, he built his own smaller version of the Brihadeeswara Temple in Gangaikondachola-puram. The recital ended with a thillana summarizing Raja Raja and Rajendra Chozha.
The interpretation of such a grand story somehow was fragmented and did not get through to the audience, aided in part by the crashing of the laptop that was to project slides during the performance, so the white screen with garish color projected on it was superfluous and only served as a distraction. The accompanying musicians were Padma Seshadri sisters and TH Thyagarajan on vocal, Sasidaran on flute, Nellai D Kannan on mridangam (who started off on a loud note and fortunately tapered down the volume to normal decibel level as the recital progressed), Haribabu on nattuvangam, Kalaiarasan on violin and Saravanan on special effects.
A Lakshman talks about the difficulty in working on his theme. “When I saw the title Raja Raja Chozhan, all I could imagine was the film starring Shivaji Ganesan in the title role. I had no idea how to go about it, whether I should present it like a margam or a dance drama. I was told strictly by the organizers that we had to depict the story of Raja Raja Chozhan but we could not write any lyrics on him, and had to take only from the original stone inscriptions. Those are very difficult to understand, so I had to contact many scholars, one of whom told me that it is difficult to perform a dance recital based on stone inscriptions alone. Divyasena and I are not comfortable with pure Tamil, so we approached Prof Raghuraman for guidance. He first explained the story of Raja Raja and then advised us on what songs we could use to portray the greatness of the king. Raja Raja has promoted devadasi dancers and musicians in court but he has not written any songs for dance. Only his greatness in war and his temple building prowess have been described in song but not about his connection with dance. Raja Raja was a Shiva bhakta, so we took the story of the Panniru Thirumurai and added some jathis, swarams, mallari and thillana to bring in dance about Raja Raja. It would have been easier to depict the story of Raja Raja as theatre than dance, that’s why it was such a challenge to perform the story in dance form. Kudos to Sujatha Vijayaraghavan for coming up with such challenging themes.”
Link to part 2
Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of www.narthaki.com