Galaxy of stars celebrate Bharatanatyam at Nritya Sangama
- Lalitha Venkat

October 4, 2013

To celebrate 25 years of her dance school Saila Sudha as well as to present her annual dance festival Nritya Sangama, Sailaja mounted an ambitious celebration of Bharatanatyam spread over 3 weekends of September at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. The programs featured the Bharatanatyam stalwarts as well as respected performers / teachers of the dance form.

The festival took off on Sept 14 with a presentation by senior as well as junior students of Saila Sudha. The seniors presented a pushpanjali with diyas and an item on Muruga in Nilambari raga, “Senthil mevum deva deva Siva bala.” The little girls were cute in the jathiswaram in Rasikapriya ragam as Sailaja guided them with her nattuvangam.  The group concluded with a thillana on Kanchi Kamakshi. Girija Ramaswamy (vocal), Shaktivel (mridangam), MS Kannan (violin) and Nataraj (flute) provided accompaniment.

Nrithya Pillai, the granddaughter of Swamimalai Rajaratnam Pillai, made a dramatic entry in her dark green and gold costume. “Kannan mana nilayai thangamey thangam” was the central piece followed by a javali on a khandita nayika, and a thillana that Vazhuvoor Samu Nattuvanar had composed overnight in the court of Mysore as ode to the Vazhuvoor bani. Nrithya acknowledged her brother Swamimalai Suresh’s guidance. Her accompanists were Jayashri Ramanathan (nattuvangam), Roshini Ganesh (vocal), Shaktivel (mridangam) and Vijayaraghavan (violin). Nrithya performed with great verve and confidence, with powerful expressions and sure footwork, but her choice of costume design (minus a drape covering the blouse) proved to be a distraction. When asked about it, she said, “This is a kacham costume and is very much in use. Only, the dancers who wear it are of a petite frame. If you look into the past you will see Yamini Krishnamurthy and her contemporaries have worn it.” She said candidly that having tried this as an experiment, she found that not many seemed to be in favor of it.

After this, the festival was formally inaugurated. The final program was Embracing Shiva by Ramli Ibrahim from Malaysia and Sailaja, in what was pointed out as being an international collaboration featured for the first time in Nritya Sangama. Nandi Chol in Vasanta ragam choreographed by Ramli’s guru Adyar Lakshman, varnam “Samiyai azhaithu vaa” in raag Khamas originally choreographed by Sailaja’s guru KJ Sarasa were presented by the duo. While both are individually acclaimed dancers, their collaboration just did not work out that evening, probably due to lack of sufficient rehearsal time together. They could have worked around it by presenting a solo each and then a duet. The music component was by Shanmugha Sundaram (nattuvangam), Preeti Mahesh (vocal), Nataraj (flute), Shaktivel (mridangam) and Jaya Shekar (veena).

The first program on the next evening was an elegant recital by Kavitha Ramu, a senior disciple of KJ Sarasa. The items she presented included “Muthai tharu pathi thiru nagai,” some pasurams from the Ezham Thirumozhi (Kavitha thanked dancer and Vaishnavite scholar Zakir Hussain for providing the intrinsic meanings) and “Jatadhara shankara deva deva,” a composition of Oothukaadu Venkata Subbaiyer. L Narendra Kumar’s nattuvangam was full of punch and matched by crisp footwork of the dancer. Kesavan on the percussion as usual provided his special effects. Kaushik and Saswathi Jagadeesan provided vocal support with Devaraj on flute.

Being the only dancer from outside Chennai, Geeta Chandran expressed her joy that she finally felt as if she belonged to the Chennai family. The main item she presented was a varnam “Saami enthani” of Subbarama Dikshitar in Suruti with jathi teermanams by Lalgudi Ganesh. Guru S Shankar on the nattuvangam was loud and clear and there were racy passages with fast footwork by Geeta, who was clad in a beautiful pink costume designed by Sandhya Raman. Geeta concluded with a sankirtan, ending her performance with a nice touch. Dancing at a leisured pace, Geeta established her authority as a mature and sensitive artiste. Lalgudi Ganesh on mridangam, K Venkateswaran on vocal, Dayakaran on violin provided able accompaniment. 

Priyadarsini Govind commenced with invocation to Garuda. In both abhinaya pieces, a padam by Kshetrayya and a javali in ragam Kapi, the protagonists were the sakhis and Priya portrayed the stories with her customary ease.  In the javali, the sakhi tells the heroine, “I told you the day we met him not to encourage his advances. He never speaks the truth and is not to be trusted, but you did not listen!” Priya concluded with a rather relaxed thillana in Purvi interspersed with frozen poses followed by an abhang as sung by the devotees on way to Pandarpur. Orchestral support came with soulful singing by Vasudha Ravi (Her proud husband in the next seat apologized that his cell phone activity was because his wife was singing!), Balakrishnan (nattuvangam), Sikhamani (violin) and Shaktivel (mridangam). Having looked forward to seeing something different being presented for a change, many dancers / rasikas in the audience felt a bit disappointed.   

The finale was the much awaited performance of Chitra Visweswaran as she is not seen much on the stage nowadays. A Dikshitar kriti “Ardhanareeshwaram” in Kumudakriya ragam saw a simply attired Chitra in a sari costume and chutti give an inspired performance. The beautiful lighting bathing one side of her in red and the other side in blue was dramatic and earned applause. Vasant ritu composed by R Visweswaran was about how different the season is for those who are together and for those who are separated from each other. Her long time favorite piece “Jagadodharana” that she performed with deep feeling seated on a low stool, was a show stealer, leaving her students in the audience starry eyed.   

Shanmugha Sundaram is a devoted student of KJ Sarasa. After her demise, he is keeping her flag flying high by running her school Sarasalaya in Chennai. Shanmugham was the first artiste of Sept 21 evening, starting with “Kunitha Puruvamum” on lord Nataraja, followed by a varnam “Engum niraindha paramporulay” of Madurai N Krishnan in Pantuvarali choreographed by his guru. His sincerity to his art shone through the recital. However, the half a dozen sculptural poses at the end looked a bit contrived. He got good support from L Narendra Kumar on nattuvangam, Girija Ramaswamy on vocal, Srinivasan on violin and Mayuram Viswanathan on mridangam. “It was a good feeling to perform in this festival because of the festive atmosphere with so many artistes coming together and the feeling of camaraderie. This feeling is very different from performing for a sabha,” says Shanmugham.

The stage was set with brass lamps hanging on the front right side, little green parrot figures (for the item on Andal) arranged on pedestals on the left and pink lotuses in glass vases at the back with more lotuses surrounding them. As the conch blew and the vaishnavite namam was projected on the left side of the backdrop, the auditorium filled with verses and songs celebrating Vaishnavism in the voices of Pradeep Chakravarthy, Revathi Sankkaran and Sikkil Gurucharan. Keeping in mind that this festival was in celebration of Bharatanatyam, Dr. Anita Ratnam clad in a beautiful turquoise blue costume designed by Rex, presented her reworked choreography of   her acclaimed production ‘Neelam’ to recorded music. Mudras from Arayer Sevai, now and then a line of song, or utterance of a reproachful word, using a garland to denote many different things set this presentation apart. “I have seen Neelam in its varied hues and loved the myriad of colours Anita akka gives it every time. The interpretations for Ezham Thirumozhi, the conversation with the conch intermingled with inquisitiveness, plea, curiosity, mild anger, milder indifference and chivalric devotion seeped in deep love... the Andal kavuthuvam, Rangapuravihara.... the overlapping verses, the innovative use of the garland.... everything about the show was awe inspiring and struck a chord with us,” says dancer Kavitha Ramu. Excellent lighting by Victor Paulraj enhanced the presentation. 

Lavanya Ananth presented an item on Shiva, a kirtanam of Periasamy Thooran in Dvijavanthi ragam, a nrittam composition and Shiva Thandava Stotram. Though the dancer showed her technical prowess in her movements, her dance did not communicate to the audience. Murali Parthasarathy on vocal, Kalaiarasan on violin, Neela Sukanya on nattuvangam and MS Sukhi on mridangam was the music ensemble.

The finale of the evening was a stellar performance by the Dhananjayans and their senior disciple Sreelatha Vinod in the famous scene from Ramayana where Manthara urges Kaikeyi to ask Dasaratha for the long promised 2 boons - to make her son Bharata the king and send Rama to the forest for 14 years in exile. As the crafty hunch backed Manthara, Shanta excelled with her expressive cunning glances and persuasive scheming words. Sreelatha’s facial expressions were most evocative, be it happiness, confusion, sadness, or throwing wifely tantrums. Dhananjayan as Dasaratha shone even as he collapsed to the ground in shock after hearing Kaikeyi’s demands. Passages of silence punctuated only by Dasaratha’s mime had the spellbound audience sitting in engrossed stillness.  No wonder the presentation received a standing ovation. 

The first artiste of next evening was Aarthi Vasudevan, a disciple of Sailaja. The items she presented included “Sakhiye indha velayil” and “Nee thaan mechikolla vendum,” a padam of Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer in Sriranjani. Wearing a beautiful turquoise costume, Aarthi started in a rather self conscious manner as if too eager to get it all right but as the first item progressed, she warmed up and became more relaxed in her presentation. It was refreshing to see the youngster portray the gopikas complaining to Yashoda about the antics of her son Krishna with bubbling enthusiasm. Aarti was supported by Girija Ramaswamy (vocal), Sailaja (nattuvangam), Nataraj (flute) and MS Kannan (violin). 

Some detailed announcements were made for the recital of duo Narasimhachari and  Vasanthalakshmi by their student Aarabhi Venkataraghavan. They commenced with a pushpanjali from Abhinaya Darpanam. “Paravasam tharum kalai’ written by the poet Isai Amudan, was about the 11 aspects that form the basis of Natya Sastra presented in a nutshell, including the rasas, the bhavas, vibhavas, different types of abhinaya etc. This piece had been choreographed in the early 1970s. One could easily follow the lines being interpreted and it was admirable to see Narasimhachari holding his poses steadily.  This item was dedicated to the festival. The lyrics for their concluding item “Vandanamu” in Bowli ragam was by Vasanthalakshmi with choreography by Narasimhachari and gave a spiritual finish to their recital. The presentation by the Charis was very different from the usual fare of a Bharatanatyam recital and appealed greatly to the rasikas. 
Revathi Ramachandran announced that September 22 is Rose Day and she dedicated her program to her mother who had succumbed to cancer. She presented a graceful recital with a sloka from Shyamala Dandakam, “Amma Anandadayini” in gambiranattai that featured the Mahishasuramardini episode. In this item, she did the Bharatantayam version of chakkars, twirling in ecstasy. With only MS Sukhi’s mridangam as accompaniment, she presented Suddha Nrittam as learnt from her guru Mangudi Dorairaj Iyer. There are no jati utterances, cymbals or tala measurement with the hand. The only sounds in Suddha Nrittam are that of the mridangam and the rhythmic sound of ankle bells. Full of verve and vigour, it was refreshing to see a different style and the item thrilled the audience. Next was a charming choreography set to “Deena karunakarane” written by Papanasam Sivan. The final number rendered in abhang style presented in delightfully choreographed moves brought her enjoyable recital to a close.  Fine accompaniment by Preeti Mahesh (vocal), Veeramani (violin), Sruti Sagar (flute) and Dharini Sridharan (nattuvangam) enhanced the presentation.

The grand finale was an awe inspiring recital by guru CV Chandrasekhar marked by wonderful aesthetics and excellence. He said, “I have not done anything innovative but I think differently. I love doing old items because they are long forgotten. This varnam in Dhanyasi is a jewel from the past and addressed to Maharaja Krishna Rajendra of Mysore.” Keeping his age in mind, there was no compromise in stances, bends, araimandis or poses that require balance. The audience was transfixed watching the poise and finesse of one of the most revered Bharatanatyam performers and gurus in the field. Even the costume was in fine taste. “Hariprasad loves singing it and I love dancing to it,” said CVC as he went on to pour out his love, sorrow, anguish and remorse for a Jayadeva ashtapadi. A good evening of dance and music.  

On Sept 28, the last weekend of Nritya Sangama featured Divya and Keerthi in the first slot followed by Urmila Sathyanarayanan who presented the varnam “Nathanai” of Thiruveezhimizhalai Nataraja Sundaram Pillai in Kambodhi followed by a Dandayudhapani Pillai padam “Yaar adi indha vaasalil” in Shanmugapriya in which her expressions were subtle but expressive. Her off white costume was attractive too. Swamimalai Suresh’s singing was clear and one could actually understand the lyrics beautifully! 

The third performer Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala commenced with an Oothukaadu Venkata Subbaiyer composition “Ananda nartana Ganapathy” followed by Dikshitar’s “Kanchadalayadakshi” on Kanchi Kamakshi in ragam Kamalamanohari. It was a well paced, neat rendition without unnecessary speed or contrived poses. In the story of Krishna and Sudama in “Smarathinumam sadayam” from Swati Tirunal’s Kuchelopakhyanam, Sudama’s wonder at seeing Krishna’s grand abode, his reminiscences and apprehensions as to whether his childhood friend would recognize him and accept his gift were suitably emoted.  The final item on nature was on the panchabootas to a Bharatiyar song “Dikkugal ettum sidari” where the natural phenomena of pouring rain, thunder, lightning and strong winds were depicted. The dancing peacock and rejoicing animals heralding the rain brought the pleasing recital to a close. Girija Ramaswamy (vocal), Murugashankari (nattuvangam), Guru Bharawaj (mridangam), Sruti Sagar (flute), KP Nandini (violin) accompanied the artiste.

The final presentation for the evening was an evocative recital by Narthaki Nataraj, a devoted disciple of Kittappa Pillai. The traditional tisra nadai chollukettu was followed by a description of Soundaryavalli Thayar. The main item choreographed by Narthaki was a varnam “Ninainthodi vandhen Vimalane”, a Tanjore Quartet composition (According to Narthaki, it could have been written by Ponniah Pillai) where 7 ragams and 7 talams are used in the saptatala ragamalika. The names of the ragams and talams figure in the lyrics. The first in chatusra dhruva tala and Todi ragam is about Shiva’s majesty; the second in mattiyam tala and Purvikalyani  is about Periyanayaki’s beauty; the third in chatusra rupakam tala and Bhairavi ragam is about Mahishasuramardanam; the fourth in misra jambai tala and Kalyani ragam is on Ardhanariswaram; the fifth in tisra thriputa tala and Kambodhi ragam is about Lankeswara playing beautiful music on his veena; the sixth in kanda jaati in ata talam and Mukhari ragam is about the nayika asking Lord Brihadiswara when he will redeem her from this cycle of births; the seventh in chaturasra ekam and Varali ragam is about the nayika asking when the Lord will redeem her faith just as he did in the case of bhakta Markandeya.

“In a varnam, use of swaram, jathi and sahityam is normal. In this varnam, I have used the attami, thattumettu, arudi karvai, but same arudi for all 7 talams. Another beauty of this varnam is only first jathi is in trikala jathi, other jathis are based on Kittappa Pillai’s jathis in two avarthanams. No extra neravals are used for the sanchari; everything is in natya dharmi sanchari, with no loka dharmi.  The whole item flows continuously like something held delicately on a string. There is no scope for resting or relaxing through the 40 minute varnam,” says Narthaki about the choreographic process.  Narthaki glowed as she performed her elaborate choreography as homage to her guru in his centenary year (a briefer version was presented in Cleveland earlier in 2012). After this fine piece, Narthaki concluded with Thottikalai Subramanya Munivar’s thiruviruttam “Kanneru vaaraadhu” and paid obeisance in a touching gesture to the photo of guru Kittappa Pillai placed below the Nataraja idol before exiting the stage.

Narthaki was ably accompanied by KP Nandini (vocal), Neela Sukanya (nattuvangam), Sruti Sagar (flute), Nagai Narayanan (mridangam) and Satish Kumar (flute). The only thing that was a bit distracting was Narthaki’s extremely tight blouse because every time she showed her side or back to the audience, we could see three pronounced ‘tyres’ straining against the blouse! It would be a good idea for artistes to perhaps try their costumes first before planning on wearing it for a recital.  Narthaki commended the overall coordination by Shakti Bhaskar for the specially designed items for this fest. She also said it was laudable for Sailaja to invite so many of her co-artistes to perform in her fest and share the joy of watching them on stage with other dance rasikas.

The final evening of Nritya Sangama first saw a scintillating recital by Uma Sathyanarayanan who presented the brilliant choreography of her guru Chitra Visweswaran.  The first item was a Swati Tirunal kriti “Bhavaye gopabalam” in Pushpalathika extolling the virtues of baby Krishna. In the varnam “Sakhiye nee solladi” by Geetapriyan, the nayika tells her sakhi to convey her love to the lord who vanquished Kaliya’s ego. Uma charmingly portrayed the nayika cajoling the sakhi not to delay any more as she could no longer suffer the pangs of separation. The joy with which Uma performed transmitted itself to the audience. The delicate nuances of expression even during the jathi sequences, the dynamic pure dance sequences with crisp footwork and firm body movements were delightful. Uma finished with a Madhurashtakam intertwined with a thillana in Brindavanasaranga, a composition of R Visweswaran. The music ensemble included Murali Parthasarathy (vocal), Sukanya Ravinder (nattuvangam), Venkatasubramanian (mridangam) and Atul Kumar (flute).

The second presentation by Priya Murle was followed by Sailaja’s recital featuring only one item, the long Husseini swarajati, a composition of Samu Nattuvanar, choreographed by her guru KJ Sarasa. Instead of the usual long plait, Sailaja chose to wear her hair all combed into a bun. Happy with how the festival has been going, Sailaja’s face shone with happiness as she gave it her all in doing full justice to her guru’s brilliant choreography through her vivacious performance. It must be her Kuchipudi training that through the recital, Sailaja was lip synching to the lyrics. It was announced that vocalist Girija Ramaswamy (The gentleman seated in the next seat said proudly that he was her father-in-law!) has sung for the most number of performers in this fest. Nagai Sriram, Shanmugha Sundaram and MS Kannan supported on the mridangam, nattuvangam and violin respectively.

The finale of the festival featuring Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam had high expectations from the hall full of rasikas. Every sentence of the bio read out by the compere was greeted with applause. In the Purandaradasa kriti, the story of Madhavacharya saving a ship from being wrecked by waving his saffron cloth, being offered riches in return, his turning that down in favor of the sandal paste from Dwaraka that ultimately took shape of Krishna idol that is still being worshipped at Udupi, was portrayed. The main item was “Pannagendra shayana” of Swati Tirunal in which Padma was joined by 5 young dancers of Nrityodaya (Mahati, Anugraha, Samudyata, Samanvita and Vidya) who beautifully represented the movement style of Bharata Nrityam while Padma performed the abhinaya segments. The program ended on a philosophical note with Padma performing to some translated Tamil verses of Bhaja Govindam (composed by Adi Shankaracharya during his famous pilgrimage to Kashi) about philosophy of life that found appreciation in the audience who clapped for the profound thoughts of the verses as well as Padma’s abhinaya. For the “bhaja govindam” refrain, Padma encouraged the audience to clap in rhythm and some of them did respond. The orchestral support came from Gaytari Kannan (vocal and nattuvangam), B Kannan (veena), Nagai Sriram (mridangam) and Patanjali (flute).

The Nritya Sangama festival was a treat of music and dance with some superb music by the accompanying artistes.  It was admirable that all artistes stuck to their time limit and the change of artistes took place in super quick efficient manner.  However, listening to lengthy bios being read out for every artiste along with titles was a torture. Another torture was the English announcer constantly referring to the organizer as ‘Kalaimamani Sailaja’ umpteen times through every evening which would almost make one believe that Kalaimamani was her first name! Also, she could have checked up on some of the pronunciations (Bharath naatyam, Apaarajita, Aarayer) with the artistes first before her announcements. A simple “Photography and videography are strictly forbidden” would have sufficed but attached to it came the threat that any person doing so would be asked to leave the venue. This announcement was made before the performance of every single artiste. Strangely, ringing of cell phones did not seem to pose much of a threat as that hardly figured in the overall instructions to the audience.

The venue is being renovated over the months and as luck would have it, the high humidity outside worsened inside with non -functional or part functional air conditioners. If it was bad for us in the audience, imagine the plight of artistes performing under those lights!  It was a reasonably well attended festival and Sailaja must be commended for mounting such an   impressive line-up of artistes. She said during the festival that her aim was to attract young dancers so they could learn from watching the performances of seasoned and acclaimed artistes who over the three weekends, presented such a wide variety of items in different banis of Bharatanatyam.  

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of