Nrityakalya presents its second show: Bhaktha Baalas
- Priya Das

June 12, 2016 

Janani Narayanan, artistic director of Nrityakalya Dance Company, presented senior dancers and her students in a production called Bhaktha Baalas on May 21 in Santa Clara, California. This was a follow-on from the first in 2014, called Baalya. While both productions focused on child heroes, saints, and characters from Indian mythology, the goal of Bhaktha Baalas was to bring the quintessential Amar Chitra Katha stories to life to an audience: This was resoundingly met.

The opening Pushpanjali was a lineup of little girls dressed adorably in pastel skirt costumes with a teal hip-piece in contrast. Clean execution was evident even in ones so young, kudos to Janani. The support team must have had to work extra hard to get these kuttis looking so spiffy. Next came the youth, also looking like there wasn’t one hair out of place, and also dancing elegantly. The finale of this was all of them lining up, with arms intertwined to show the seven doors of a temple opening to reveal Narayana (Janani) and Lakshmi to the chant of Om Namo Narayana, leading to Sriman Narayana (originally choreographed by Kiran Subramanyam), which was superbly done.

What followed were vignettes of Vishnu-Lakshmi roopa, the senior dancers presenting Lakshmi within a lotus blossom, Narayana in his classic reclining-on-serpent pose, the Kamala itself being showcased in various formations. The item led up smoothly to the grand finale where the senior dancers lined up behind Narayana to take turns to show avataras ending in the cycle of creation and destruction. The idea of this universal cycle came across clearly, though the execution needs some tightening.

The orchestra seemed to be in the zone right from the very start - perhaps it was the appeal of the theme that brought out the gusto with which Ravindra Bharathy Sridharan drummed away, the sensitivity with which Ashwin Krishnakumar breathed into his flute and how caressingly Vikram Ragukumar played the violin. Singer Snigdha Venkataramani was at her best at this show. Chethana Sastry as the nattuvanaar delivered throughout the show. Kriti Iyer and Jyoti Shankar added to the vocals, at times as voiceover for the little Bhakthas.

A highlight of the program was that there was no MC; rather, the flow was punctuated by little skits. In the first one, a young boy and his dad talked about the omnipresence of God, the boy wearing a Star Wars T-shirt asking, “Oh, is that like the Force?” The skits certainly whet the appetite for the enactments to follow, well done.

First up was Prahlad, whose bhakti bhava was genuine. The scenes seemed like a replica of the Amar Chitra Katha storyboard. The specific feelings were etched correctly - the hangman’s agony, Prahlad’s complete submission, Narasimha’s ferocity, Hiranyakashipu’s fear. The “threshold” was very well depicted. However, Hiranyakashipu clapped the same way for a guard, the hangman, and to address his son, Prahlad. His arrogance could have been played up a bit. The costumes could do with less glitter.

Dhruva’s story was next, highlights included the scene where Sanskrit verses were chanted, the father’s preferential treatment of Uttama, the angika abhinaya by both queens was fitting, the sadness of Uttama as his brother leaves, and the passage of time as Dhruva does his meditation.

Namdev seemed the tidiest depiction, even though the story was not well known. The interaction between the child-like Vithala and Namdev especially held our attention. The indulgence of the parents, when they cannot believe that it was actually Vithala who ate the prasadam turning into astonishment that it was indeed the case, connected with the audience entirely.

After these Vishnu bhakthas, it was time to introduce the Shiva bhakthas. This segue was presented by Janani and the senior dancers through Shankara Sri Giri. With some divine vocals by nattuvanar Chethana Sastry, the piece seemed to reverberate with Shiva’s force. Janani’s physicality amplified the power of Nataraja’s swaying. The senior dancers were simply brilliant here, with each being Shiva’s hands, ornaments, or characters He touched with his benevolence or fury. The choreography (originally by Revathi Narasimhan) and execution shone here, like the jewel in the crown.

Markandeya, the Immortal, was next. The fight between Yama and Shiva was the highlight here, as well as the rapport between the parents as they wonder about Shiva’s strange boon of having their pious child live for only 12 years. Yama could have simply dressed all in black and a crown - that would have made for a more sinister effect, which would have elevated an already good performance.

The Chandeswara Nayanar storyboarding was vivid, the bhaktha was righteousness personified. A note to the director - instead of the emphasis on hastas for narrative, more angika abhinaya could have been used. For example, the cowherd could have whipped the cow using her full body rather than a hasta; a prop could have been used to show that this nayanar carried milk to pour on his mud Shiva Linga. This story needed to be propped, since there were not many characters to do it.

The piece that followed on Anaya Nayanar raised the bar on cuteness, with the kuttis coming on stage in bee, peacock, elephant, and other costumes. However, more could have been done with these creatures; the choreography missed an opportunity to extract more from the appeal. The enactment itself was light on details, perhaps because not much is known about this youthful Nayanar.

The Behag-adi thillana (music composed by Snigdha) presentation was kept fresh by keeping the formations and dancers ever-changing. It was simple when the youth were on stage and complex when the seniors joined in.

In terms for scope for improvement - there needs to be a balance in props between pieces, some had more, some less; those that aren’t integral to the story or mood should be done away with. Same for costumes and costume changes. Ideas that cannot be well executed should be queued for the next presentation, since a lack of clarity in presentation confuses and fatigues the audience. And especially since young children were the protagonists, to make their characters, actions, and expressions seem larger than life, more angika abhinaya should be used and varied ranges of motion must be explored, in addition to hastas.

A mention must be made about the enormous research and development that must have gone into this production. There was music culled from various saint/musicians such as Namdev, Purandara Dasa, Annamacharya as well as original compositions by Snigdha; the storylines needed to be established from larger tales; the jathis were inherited as well as originally composed by Sri Ganesh and Bharatanatyam performer Ganesh Vasudeva; shlokas/ hymns from original texts such as Yajur Veda and Thevaram were highlighted, guest (Shrividhya Srinivasan and Sharmila Gopinath), senior and junior dancers needed to be assimilated seamlessly. It showed.

As the last word: The hallmark of a good production is to have you look forward to the next one. Nrityakalya’s Bhaktha Baalas achieved this.

Priya Das is a writer based in San Francisco Bay Area, USA, covering extraordinary nuances of everyday life with a focus on the performing arts. She is a regular contributor to India Currents, a magazine reaching more than 170K readers on - and offline. Some of her writing is at