'He Did It - The Journey of a Master': Tribute in dance
- Vishva Samani & Jayasri Pillai
Photos: Sriram Sivasankaran
February 28, 2016
The life of Swami Chinmayananda was one of extraordinary spiritual strength, immeasurable love and tireless service. In less than half a century, he left behind a worldwide organisation, hundreds of institutions, and millions of devotees, whose single-pointed aim is discovering the Eternal within. 2016 marks 100 years since his birth, and as one of a series of events this year to mark the occasion, Chinmaya Mission UK collaborated with acclaimed dancer Usha Raghavan to stage a dance drama ‘He Did It! Journey of a Master,’ at the Beck Theatre, London, on 21st of February 2016.
The elevating musical and dance journey encompassed various scenes depicting the extraordinary life of Swami Chinmayananda, accompanied by engaging narration. It went on to illustrate scenes of his turbulent days as an Indian freedom fighter, followed by life as a journalist, culminating in his spiritual journey to the mighty Himalayas that ultimately spawned the creation of the Chinmaya Mission global movement.
Through this well scripted and wonderfully choreographed production, Usha captured the universal message of Vedanta without losing its essence. Straddling dance forms combining the folk and the classical, embracing both North and South Indian ragas, Usha managed successfully to convey the morals and eternal values of life as expounded by the sages, through the Sanskrit verses of the Chinmaya Mahima Stotram composed by Swami Tejomayananda. The different rhythmical formats chosen for each scene made for variety in the exposition of the verses. Not only was the mridangam used as an accompanying instrument but it also was a means to understanding the language of the varied rhythmic beats as the drumming was embellished by the use of konnakol. The use of the percussion was careful and selective in various scenes, for example, the conch was used to convey the beginning of the battle of Kurukshetra. The choice of colour top ups to the costumes enhancing the overall ambience of the scene being depicted was effective.
The interspersing of scenes with four character actors illustrating the various stages in the life of Swami Chinmayananda was a touch of brilliance as this was something that many in the audience could relate to, as devotees. The invocatory introduction which began with the chanting of OM was a splendid teaser for the visual and aural feast that was to follow. Stilled into silence, the audience was taken on a journey of the spiritual unfolding of Balan to Chinmayananda.
Precise and clear narration of the scenes being depicted in conjunction with demonstrations of mudras (hand gestures) by Usha, enabled a better understanding and enjoyment by the audience. The next segment opened with a traditional joyous folk dance of Kerala, the Kaikottikali. The life of Balan began to unfold verse by verse through a cadence of lyrical beauty, melodious music, colour and rhythm. The captivating precision of footwork and mudras with the accompanying bhava throughout the entire show was impressive. A riveting moment was the exposition of Om Namah Shivaya in which the 5 letters of this most sacred mantra (Shiva Panchakshara) was chanted and sung.
Incorporating the scriptural texts of Bhaja Govindam and the Bhagavad Gita, the choreography was able to showcase the eternal values contained in these sacred texts to life. In addition, Usha had thoughtfully selected ragas to evoke the mood of each scene, such as Vasantha (spring) to mark Swami Chinmayananda’s birth and Desh (patriotism) to portray the freedom struggle. Each raga managed to evoke the corresponding ethos and mood of the scene. The incorporation of Vande Mataram was a truly inspirational touch.
A highlight was the exposition of Bhaja Govindam. These verses of reflection on the meaning and purpose of life, composed by Adi Sankaracharya were deftly described by means of crisp and beautiful mudras and dance movements, highlighting the importance of sadhana and pure devotion to Govinda. Throughout, the dancers were well supported by the group of brilliant accompanying musicians.
Another powerful and evocative scene was the portrayal of the inspirational Mother Ganga as she flowed down the plains. The dancers, suitably arrayed in blue additions to their white costumes, gave a visual illustration of the Ganges flowing, waves rising and falling, and the audience could almost visualise Ganga as she churned and made her way downstream. The Ganga Arati was a fitting finale to this particular scene with a devotional ambience. Special credit is due to the young student dancers of Usha whose execution of synchronized dance sequences and seamless switching between a range of roles from angry freedom fighters to the flowing waters of Ganga was flawless.
One of Swami Chinmayananda’s greatest contributions to society has been inspiring countless people to live the Gita way of life. Among the most striking scenes performed by Usha and one of her students was the depiction of the transformation of Arjuna’s mental state in the Bhagavad Gita from dejected and disillusioned to a poised readiness to fight in the war. With clarity of form, motion, mudras and bhava, the holy Gita was dramatically brought to life on stage. Dancing to precise synchronisation, they majestically conveyed the essential theme – do your duty and live your life in surrender to the Supreme. The portrayal of Lord Krishna in his cosmic form, the Viswaroopa, was awe inspiring and it held the audience spellbound as Om Namo Narayana was chanted as the scene blacked out. The show ended with the dancers dancing exuberantly to the tune of an Abhang, a fitting finale to a special performance that provided a unique opportunity for the audience to connect with the transcendental through the journey of a Master.
This thematic production of the life of a spiritual Master would normally prove a challenge to many but Usha seemed to have effortlessly choreographed the whole script infusing it with the requisite emotional depth through the medium of dance and music. Credit and praise is due for the tremendous effort that Usha had put into understanding the life journey of Swamiji, in order to bring forth in dance, the subtle messages contained in spiritual texts in a way that even a lay person, not given to the nuances of dance is able to appreciate whilst being equally appealing to the cognoscenti.
‘He Did It! Journey of a Master’ was ultimately a loving tribute and offering to a great spiritual teacher of modern times by an accomplished artist and the entire supporting team. This unique and memorable show has set in motion a year of major events for Chinmaya Mission, which is marking the momentous birth centenary of its founder.
Vishva Samani is a freelance journalist and Jayasri Pillai is a dancer and choreographer.