Brilliant new choreography premiered in Seattle
- Vidya Chandra Sekhar
Photo: Siamak Poursabahian

November 19, 2013

Arpan of Seattle, brainchild of the innovative, yet traditionally rooted Dr. Joyce K Paul-Siamak, presented Nivedita Potrapragada in a vividly composed new varnam on a strong female theme as the summer came to a close in 2013. The weather was welcoming, as were the beautifully dressed young girls, sweetly offering traditional manjal and sandalwood paste at the entrance, aromatically enticing us into a world of wonder that Dr. Paul presented artfully. Nivedita is a very young, yet budding dance artiste, yet in her youthful dance, was a maturity and a seasoned understanding of the ancestral heroines of the arts which she brought alive in her teacher's new choreographic works. Accompanied by established musicians in an orchestra boasting of performers Jyotishmathi Sheejith Krishna on vocal, Sheejith Krishna on mridangam, Murali Pavithran on violin and Joyce herself as nattuvanaar, any dancer could have appeared slightly intimidated, but Nivedita owned her stage brilliantly.

Beyond the firm nritta, sweet abhinaya, and good synchronization, one must tip the hat to the expert mastery with which she wove a tale bringing alive the essence of the mysteries of Belur and Halebid in the specially composed varnam, the heart of this brilliant performance. With new theme-inspired jathis knitted into the texture of an original composition of Dr. Meera Krishna, with lyrics by Nagashree Yagati and Dr. Gayathri Ashok, great research and care was put into the choreography. "Kinkini jhananoopuralayagati, dhwanikita narthana ghunghuroo jhana" began the thrikaalajathi, bringing the audience into the virtual surroundings of sculpturesque walls of the temples in their days of greatness, as the dancer completed her arudhi and entered into abhinaya engaging viewers in the majestic tales of the legendary Shantala Devi. Reminiscent of Goddess Meenakshi, the abhinaya sanchaaris choreographed delicately by Joyce, spoke of a young warrior princess in a Jain family, whose strengths were natural in music, dance, literature and painting, as her skills were developed in the arts of battle and strategy. She grows to marry King Vishnuvardhana, becoming the crown queen of the Hoysala dynasty, winning the heart of a king whose vow to never marry was overcome with the joy she brings him. He, immersed in concern for war widows and the post-battle scars of his kingdom, finds solace in his soulmate. In Belur, back then, known as Velapuri, an architect is commissioned by the King to develop the Sri Chennakeshava temple, yet the architect is depressed in his repeated failures to create the sculpture of Lord Vishnu to his high quality standards. Nivedita was particularly vivid in her portrayal of this episode, where she showed the architect energized each time to make attempts to rectify his sculpture, only to fall into despair and frustration, as he also feels failure in creating proper designs for the outer walls of the temple. Queen Shantala Devi happens to visit during this time, and in pure abandon she begins to dance with joy at the resplendent inner sanctum statue she finds beyond beautiful. Joyce’s dance direction of Nivedita filled the dancer with such delight and emotion as she entered into this episode as Shantala Devi, overwhelmed with love for Lord Vishnu's visage in the sculpture and the rapture dance she explodes into.

The architect is awoken from his despair from the music he hears and when he sees the Queen dancing, he is inspired by her dance and quickly sculpts pose after pose from her live dancing, which are immortalized as the madanikas or salabhanjikas in dance poses all over the Belur and Halebid temples. Following this, the final major episode in this varnam focused on a pair of Nandi statues, too heavy to transport once they were carved. Lord Bahubali, a Jain god, it is said brought the bulls to life to herd them into town. During this time, Queen Shantala is inspired to perform an endless ritual dance, until she collapses. The entire town comes to a standstill, reminiscent of the Sleeping Beauty legend, until she arises again and comes out of the temple. The charanam deepens the richness of our picture of the Queen, who grows more spiritual until the end, a most unusually choreographed varnam ending, extremely chilling, as Nivedita as Shantala Devi, literally backbends into her giving up of all her material belongings and life itself, to merge with the eternal soul. Dramatically performed by this young artist, the varnam in Purvikalyani was inspiring. It is of merit that a dancer of Joyce's choreographic capability supported the idea of bringing to life the dream of this varnam, which was a seed of hope from Nivedita’s mother, one of the lyricists. Such choreographic works are badly needed in an age where strong women of great art, spirit, affection and courage are lost in the wave of popular portrayals of women as objects.

The dancer also presented the audience with Adi Sankara's Guru Ashtakam, a very mature philosophical work, uninterrupted with the kind of typical distractions of changing ragams and talams that modern choreographers prefer, more focused divinely on the actual lyrical questions raised by this great composition. The importance of the guru in context of family, friends, recognition, wealth, power, body, even one's mind, was clearly and vividly raised in the choreography, lovingly rendered by the shishya. Here, Joyce transcended the traditional, to uplift viewers of the dance, challenging us to wonder about our own intentions and place in the world, and our devotion to teachers who have helped each of us grow. A great piece, again one which is an example of what we need to see more of, in our world, overpopulated with obsession over technique, and enslaved by popular opinions on costuming, music and all the distractions. Nivedita performed this difficult piece with sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

One could not possibly end a review of a dance program without some discussion of the thillana. Nivedita's thillana was also a departure from the traditional mindset, with the thillana's sanchari being the Malayalam version of ‘Hail Mary’ prayers on Mother Mary, drawing on Joyce's Orthodox Syrian Christian faith. The nritta in this thillana was beautifully stylized, Nivedita's attention to detail extraordinarily rendered. But when the Hail Mary sanchari began, the devotion and love in the expression of this prayer was so personal, it drew tears on many faces, as if the Mother was present, blessing the sacred stage.

Yavanika, Joyce's upcoming choreographic full-length work will be featured at the Kirkland Performing Arts Center in Washington in the first quarter of 2014.

Vidya Chandra Sekhar, commonly known as Diya, is a 2-time world record holder for longest Bharatanatyam performance (24 and 48 hours), having studied under the legendary Guru TK Mahalingam Pillai, his father, the celebrated Thiruvadamaradur Kuppiah Pillai, and the other equally renowned teachers of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir. She is the daughter / disciple of Sudha (Doraiswamy) Chandra Sekhar. Diya teaches Bharatanatyam live and online for advanced performers and teachers, in addition to performing nattuvangam and vocals for the Vidyanjali Orchestra which supports dancers across North America.