The 8th edition of Nartaka Festival
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat

November 4, 2014

Dedicated to the male dancer, the eighth edition of the Nartaka Festival organized by Natyanjali Trust on Oct 30, Nov 1 and 2, 2014, took place at the newly renovated Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore, Chennai. There are now less number of seats and more space to move around. The stage décor was simple, with the organization banner on top, without marring the plain backdrop. 

After the prayer song by Shankari Subramaniam, the festival commenced with a duet recital by Christopher Gurusamy and B. Harikrishnan to ‘Roopamu joochi” in Todi ragam composed by Muthuswamy Dikshitar and choreographed by Rukmini Devi.  The dancers were quite well  coordinated. Christopher next presented a Sarangapani padam “Chittike vesite…” in Kalyani ragam (adi) choreographed by Bragha Bessell. When Krishna is scorned by a girl, he says he is Muvva Gopala and all he has to do is snap his fingers and a thousand young damsels will rush to his side. Christopher has a naturally pleasant face and his looks of scorn remained mild. B. Harikrishnan next presented “Yaaro ivar yaaro” in Bhairavi from Ramanatakam by Arunachala Kavirayar. In this Rama sees Sita as Vishnu would see Lakshmi in this avatar, how something seems familiar about her, as if he knows her from somewhere. The dancer could have been more expressive. The duo finished with a Thillana in Paras, a composition of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar. Though the dancers were quite in sync in the nritta segments, on the whole the spark was missing. The music ensemble included G Srikanth on vocal, Sruti Sagar on flute, M Girish on nattuvangam and Guru Bharadwaj on mridangam.

The next performance was by Ajith Bhaskaran Dass (Director, Suvarna Fine Arts) and his three disciples Vijay Chandran, Vijayan Veeryan and Parthiben Sethu from Malaysia. The group started with a neatly presented Suvarna Surya in Ragamalika composed by vocalist Hariprasad as a salutation to the sun god woven around an alarippu, revering Surya as Aditya, the inspirer, Suvarna, the golden hued one and Bhaskara, the resplendent one. This item was specially choreographed for the Nartaka Festival. Ajith was totally involved in his solo depiction of “Mohamana…” in ragam Bhairavi, a composition of the Thanjavur Quartet about the lovelorn nayika who yearns for her lord’s divine presence, her agony worsened by Manmatha’s arrows of love. The rhythmic compositions were set by mridangist Ramamurthy Ganesh. This was choreographed by Ajith himself based on his own interpretation. The final item “Engum Chidambaram ellam Siva mayam” was a lively number by the group in which each element of the pancha bhutas were visualized in Shiva’s dance. Ajith said that the Nartaka Festival had given him an opportunity to share his experimental work in the Bharatanatyam idiom. The other members of the orchestra who gave good support were L Subhasri on nattuvangam, Sruti Sagar on flute and Lakshmi Venkatramani on violin.

Having always seen Sai Santosh Radhakrishnan in group productions, it was a pleasure to see this talented disciple of Guru Adyar Lakshman present a polished solo recital. Despite his height, Sai Santosh is light on his feet. Clad in a pleasant costume in yellow and turquoise blue, he started with a mallari and then on to the main piece, the varnam “Enthaniney thelupudura” in Khamas (rupaka talam) by Subbarama Dikshitar choreographed by his guru. The nayika pleads with Thyagarajaswami that she has asked him umpteen times to be kind to her. She implores him to ignore what others say and respond to her love instead. Sai Santosh was at his most expressive, with gracefully precise movements in the moderately paced jathis that lent a soothing quality to the recital. Even the way he removed his errant silver poonal and dropped it on a stool by the wings during the varnam was graceful! Vocalist G Srikanth was clearly now in his element and sang soulfully. Easwar Ramakrishnan on violin, Sruti Sagar on flute, Nellai Kannan on mridangam and Aadith Narayan on nattuvangam visibly enjoyed their role and this joy transmitted itself to the audience. The third item was a soulful rendition in music and dance of the seventh ashtapadi of Jayadeva “Maameeyam Chalitha” in Hamir Kalyani choreographed by Bragha Bessell in which Krishna pines for Radha that there is no use of all the wealth and possessions when his Radha is angry with him. The sprightly thillana in Hindolam was a composition of Madurai N Krishnan and choreographed by Adyar Lakshman. The brief flute and violin interludes between items were much appreciated. 

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After a day’s break, the second day of the fest started with a recital by Bangalore based P Praveen Kumar wearing a nice costume in dark green with maroon border. After the Ganapati Vandana of Tulsidas in raag Kalavati (adi), composed and choreographed by his Guru CV Chandrasekhar, Praveen with his customary finesse presented varnam “Swami naan undhan adimai” of Papanasam Sivan in ragam Nattakurunji (adi) about the love of devotees for the lord of dance. Whether as the devotee delighting in chanting the name of Shiva, beseeching the lord for his darshan, or as Shiva himself freezing into sculpturesque dance poses, Praveen was in elegant form. The presentation was further enhanced by the clear pronunciation of the vocalist!  In the javali “Taaru maaru” by Moovalur Pattabhiramaiah in Nattakurunji, Praveen expressively portrayed the outraged drushta nayaka trying to woo the heroine but is rebuffed by his lady love who has seen through his errant ways. From the rejected lover of the javali, it was the turn of the doting father of little Krishna in the concluding item, a devarnama of Purandaradasa “Mane yolagado Govinda.” He urges little Krishna not to go out to play since the neighbours complained about him. He tries to bribe the child by offering butter and jewellery items to have him play at home. Dancing to recorded music, Praveen’s abhinaya was contained and he maintained a good energy level throughout.  

The next performer was Justin McCarthy from Delhi. So far, all the dancers have kept their announcements brief and to the point but the ultra briefest announcement for Justin was that the artiste would perform “Alarippu, varnam in Khamas, padam Payyada, javali Vagalaadi and thillana!” And the orchestra was also not introduced either during or end of recital.  It was unusual to see a male dancer with alta on the tips of his fingers. The varnam was “Samiyai azhaithu vaa.” He performed “Payyada” in a seated position and despite his naturally smiling face, he was quite emotive in this abhinaya intense piece. Justin’s presentation had the charm of the old tradition of Bharatanatyam.  He was accompanied by Sudha Raghuraman on vocal, Lokesh Bharadwaj on nattuvangam, Sriganesh on mridangam and Raghuraman on flute.

The last performer of the evening was Shankar Kandasamy, head of the dance department at the Temple of Fine Arts, Malaysia. He first presented a Saraswati kautvam as vandana that he penned himself in a moment of inspiration, followed by a verse from Sakalakalavalli Maalai of Kumaragurupara Swamigal. Shankar dedicated the popular Kalyani jatiswaram performed in Kalakshetra style (that he had learnt from visiting students) to Guru Subbaraya Pillai. As one who makes his annual pilgrimage to the Ganga every year and is lured by her transformative quality, Shankar penned lyrics on Ganga in English and this was translated by Prof. Shankar Rajaram into Sanskrit and composed by G Sridhar. The episodes include many stories of Ganga like the story of Bhagiratha, the origin of Ganga, Shiva catching Ganga in his matted locks, as the mother of Subramanya, how Vishnu is entranced on hearing Shiva playing the rudra veena and rides his garuda vahana to Himalayas to see him play etc. The explanation was rather lengthy and there were far too many stories involved but the vivid portrayal of these stories through interesting choreography interspersed with strong jathis composed by Prasanna earned Shankar many rounds of applause through the item. Since the piece was very long, the artiste had already overshot his time limit and should have ended his recital with that, but he went on to conclude with “Pitham Theliya” of Gopalkrishna Bharati on Nandanar, after another lengthy explanation. Shankar has a distinct body language and his passion for dance comes across in his presentation. It was sensitively performed but by now, he had exceeded by more than 40 minutes and this was truly vexing.  It was more like an evening of solo recital than an evening of shared performances. Nanda Kumar accompanied on vocal, Chandrasekhar on mridangam and Shashidar on flute.

The last day of the festival saw a full hall. Guru VP Dhananjayan presented 8 of his senior male disciples who are professionals and also on the Bharatakalanjali faculty in Nartaka Nartanam. He said, “It’s very rare to have on stage, an all male ensemble, especially since it is difficult to get everyone together. There are many wonderful male Bharatanatyam dancers today and many who have chosen to make dance as a career.” The first item Nataraja Anjali composed by Bhagavatula Seetharama Sharma from the Periya Puranam saw all 8 dancers storm the stage in collective energy. Nritta Swaravali – pure dance sequence set to musical notes – was composed in ragam Mohanam by TV Gopalakrishnan in 1978 when on a train journey in Europe. It was further embellished by Dhananjayan and the choreography set then “is still like a fresh piece since it has innovative postures, movements and structure, almost like contemporary modern patterns. It has been set as solo, duet as well as on varied number of dancers.” 4 dancers performed this piece and the next Swati Thirunal keertanam “Shankara sri giri” in Hamsanandi ragam replete with Nataraja poses. The finale was Nritta Angaharam in Behag composed by Thurayur Rajagopala Sharma. It was composed and choreographed in 1969 and has been a favorite in the Bharatakalanjali repertoire through the years. With a quick change of costume, 6 dancers treated us to a scintillating display of nartaka natanam. Dhananjayan’s  ‘ashtanayakas’ were Anand Sachidanand, Shafeekuddin, Shivadas, Venkatakrishnan, Suresh Sridar, Sarveshan, Uttio Baruah and Gopu Kiran. The supportive music ensemble had Shanta Dhananjayan on nattuvangam, Rajesh on vocal, TK Padmanabhan on violin, Ramesh Babu on mridangam and Sunil Kumar on flute.

It was then time for speeches by Guru CV Chandrasekhar reminiscing about times at Kalakshetra, how this festival is dedicated to not only Subbaraya Pillai but the Pandanallur school and all its masters too. Mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman as chief guest conferred this year’s Nartaka Award (that carries a purse of Rs.25,000) on Guru VP Dhananjayan, who revealed that he had actually attended a few mridangam classes at Sivaraman’s school many years back!

The grand finale of the fest was an outstanding recital by Guru CV Chandrasekar. His costume in off-white with maroon border was striking. He commenced with a Thyagaraja kriti “Sri Ganapathini sevimparare” in Saurashtram. The Tamil varnam in Kambodi “Naadanai azhaithu vaa sakhiye,” a composition of Nataraja Pillai, had everyone glued to their seats. The nritta portions were performed with gusto with the energy of a youngster with no compromise on the movements, be it araimandi, full squat, sliding to the floor or getting up with ease. He went through all the emotional upheavals of the heroine, his subtle expressions a lesson in abhinaya for the dancers watching him with awe. The final item was a poem from Muthukumaraswamy Pillai Thamizh written by Kumaragurupara about the childhood pranks of little Muruga with his mother and father, a total change from the lovelorn nayika of the previous item pining for Kumara. It is no wonder he got a standing ovation. He was accompanied by Jaya Chandrasekhar on nattuvangam, K Hariprasad on vocal, Sashidhar on flute, Nagarajan on mridangam and Eswar Ramakrishnan on violin. CV Chandrasekar is the brain behind the Nartaka Festival as well as the first recipient of the Nartaka award.

Prema Satish of Natyanjali, herself a disciple of Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai, had interacted with him from the time she was 6 till he passed away in 2008, even training in his home at Pandanallur for a few years. She celebrated the memory of her guru with the Nartaka Festival, this year being his birth centenary, and the focus was the Bharatantayam style. The homage to her guru continues in Natyanjali’s Natya Utsav for women dancers from Nov 7 to 9 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Chennai.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of