Dance dramas with philosophical overtones
- Satish Suri

April 25, 2017

The first week of April saw two dance features with philosophical overtones being presented on two iconic figures - the first one on the saint philosopher Sri Ramanuja directed by Seshadri Iyengar and the other on Saint Tyagaraja, the colossus of music, directed by Bhanumati.

Celebrating 1000 years of the Eternal Ramanuja
Photos: Aashrit Mallur

The narrative on Sri Ramanuja traced the life and journey of Saint Ramanuja from Sriperumbudur to Kancheepuram to Srirangam and to Melkote. The presentation was a distinct challenge considering the range of the subject and the quintessence of Ramanujacharya's doctrine, which drew the attention of the common people. The opening statement in the first scene describes him as an avatar Purusha in Kaliyuga. It shows a young Elai Alwar as named by his parents Kantimati and Keshava Perumal displaying his vast knowledge and intelligence. His early teaching was from his father and on his advice, he marries Thanjamambal. The second scene shows the family moving to Kanchipuram in search of a guru. He becomes a disciple of Yadavaprakasha on the advice of Kanchipurna, a noted devotee. Yadavaprakasha soon turns jealous of his disciple's erudition and scholarship and wants to get rid of Ramanuja on the pretext of going on a pilgrimage to take a holy dip in the river Ganga along with his disciples. Govinda, Ramunaja's cousin, comes to know of this plot and alerts Ramanujacharya who when returning, loses his way in the forest only to be saved by Kanchi Varada and Perundevi Thayar who come in disguise as a hunter couple. The magnanimity of Ramanuja to continue as a disciple is enacted though he soon leaves over arguments about the exposition of the Upanishads. Swami Alavandar of Srirangam wanted Ramanujacharya to be his successor, but before he could reach Srirangam, Alavandar had passed away with his three fingers folded. Ramanuja vows to complete his final three wishes and the three fingers miraculously open.

He returns to Kanchipuram and the incident involves his separation from his wife Thanjamambal who throws away everything and purifies the house because Kanchipurna, belonging to a lower caste had lunch with Ramanuja resulting in him adopting sanyasashrama and crowned with the title of Yatiraaja or king of sanyasis. The third scene describes Ramanuja becoming the successor of Swami Alavandar in Srirangam and the lord names him Udayavar. He moves around to see whether his teachings reach people. He meets some children who are building sand castles and offer him sand as prasadam which he graciously accepts and blesses the children. He visits Thirukottiyur to receive the moksha mantram from Gostipurna who tested him seventeen times before he received it on the condition that he should not share it with anyone. Ramanuja however, went to the temple tower and preached the mantram so that all could attain salvation. Gostipurna is furious with this, however, understands and names him Emberumanar. Ramanuja however had to flee from Srirangam to avoid arrest by the Chola king.

The scene four depicts Ramanuja arriving at Tondanur where King Bettideva was the ruler and had a daughter who was mentally ill. With the blessings of Ramunajacharya, she was cured and the king becomes his disciple with the title Vishnuvardana. Many developmental works took place and the lord appeared in his dream to guide him about the thiruman under an anthill. With the help of the local people, a temple was built and a local township was built called Thirunarayanapuram, the present Melkote.The lack of a utsavamoorthy worried Ramanuja and by divine guidance, he was informed that the utsavamoorthy was with the sultan of Delhi. So he set forth and found that it was in the possession of the sultan's daughter. Ramanujacharya called out "Cheluva pillai"and the moorthy landed in his lap. Without wasting time he returned to Thirunarayanapuram. The sultan's daughter followed him to Melkote and such was her devotion that she was given the title of Bibi Nachiyar. After a while, Ramanujacharya had to leave for Srirangam and he installed a vigraham, embraced it and empowered it to be capable of speaking when spoken to with great devotion for the benefit of his devotees.

Seshadri Iyengar who choreographed this dance feature must be complimented for the sterling effort of harnessing the resources of the dancers to provide a wholesome fare and justice to a great icon like Ramanujacharya. Nidhanga Karunad in the role of Ramanujacharya was a cut above the rest and maintained dignity and poise in essaying the role. The supporting cast comprising of Dr.Suresh Koushik, Sridhara, Tejesh, Sharat, Santhosh and Rohit along with Sukriti, Ramya Kadambi, Shraddha Nagaraj, Shruthy Ramamurthy, Yashaswini, Vidhyalakshmi, and master Manu contributed with well-portrayed movements and impactful abhinaya complementing the narrative with meaningful exploration.

The music ensemble added value and richness to the production with Srivatsa (vocals), Prasanna Kumar (nattuvangam and rhythm pad), Srihari (mridangam), Narasimhamurty (flute) and Shubha Santosh (veena).

Tyaga Brahma Loka Charitram

The life and accomplishments of the saint composer Tyagaraja is a familiar one but it had a refreshing take when presented as a dance feature. Beginning with an invocatory Ganesh Stuthi "Sri Ganapatini" in raga Saurashtram followed by another composition "Vidulaku mrokkeda sangita ko" where salutations are offered to Samaveda deities, sages and musicologists like Shankara, Kamala, Gowri, Vageeshwari, Narada, Garudadhwaja, Anjaneya, Nandikeshwara, Someshwara, Bharatha, Sarangadeva, etc, intrinsically associated with music.

The main feature begins in Thiruvarur. Ramabrahmam and his wife Shanta Devi are blessed with a son whom they name Tyagaraja, the presiding deity of Thiruvarur. The child prodigy's interest in music prompts the family to move to Thiruvayyaru on the banks of the river Cauvery. He is taken to Sonti Venkatramana to pursue his passion for music. After initial derision of music composers, Sonti Venkatramamana on hearing the composition "Namo Namo Raghavayya" is convinced that the child has great potential and accepts him as his pupil and the joy is captured in the composition "Gurulekha yetuvanti." Tygaraja's devotion to Rama and study of music continue with several compositions "Shobillu saptaswara," "Brochevarevarura," "Tolinechesina," "Nagumomu" interpreted through mime and abhinaya by the artists. The restlessness of Tyagaraja results in a visitation in his dream by sage Narada who gave him a book ‘Swaraarnavam' which proved to be a reality when someone hands over the book to Tyagaraja's delight expressed through the composition "Vara Narada Narayana smaranananda."

Tyagaraja's fame spreads far and wide and the visit of Govind Marar from Travancore results in the classic composition "Endaro mahanu bhavulu andariki vandanamulu" forming part of the Pancharatna Kritis sung every year at Thiruvayyaru. Tyagaraja yearned for a darshan of Lord Rama after completing the chanting of 100 crore Rama Nama, and the event of the darshan of Rama, Seetha, Lakshmana and Hanuman which enraptures him was evocatively captured on stage.

Tyagaraja rejects the invitation from the king to come to court to sing and asks "Nidhi chala sukhama Ramuni sannidhi sukhama" which enrages his brother who then decides that the idol of Rama is at fault. The loss of the idol through an indiscretion on the part of his brother and the anguish of Tygaraja were vividly and explicitly presented through the compositions "Nenendu vedakudura," "Nannu vidichi kadalaku" and "Kannukontine." The joy of recovering the idol and the final surrender of the brother through the cure effected to his paralytic hand by the grace of Rama were noteworthy and Tyagaraja consoles the repentant brother with the composition "Rama bhakti samrajyamu."

Subhada Prabhakar as the young Tyagaraja, Sheela Chandrasekhar as the middle aged Tyagaraja and Bhanumati in her usual charismatic self, essayed the role of Tyagaraja with poignancy. The other dancers Preeti Bharadwaj, Ishwarya Chaitanya, Sneha Harish, Manaswini, Josephine Savitha, Rashmita Nair and Mekhala Bharadwaj added flair and aesthetic appeal to the presentation switching roles and enriching it with mime, nritta and abhinaya to set up a seamless flow of the story line. The only male member Devaraj had his role cut out as Sonti Venkatramana and later on as Tyagaraja's brother and distinguished himself by his presence.

The stagecraft, choreography and dramatisation of the narrative by Bhanumati and Sheela Chandrasekhar embellished with select compositions of Tyagaraja and interlaced with the local flavour of Kannada sahitya provided for an absorbing tale of events encapsulating Tyagaraja's musical excellence, intense devotion and literary talent. The music ensemble was led by Srivatsa whose vocalisation provided the lyrical splendour, emotional intensity and pathos of the compositions that enriched the dance presentation carrying the momentum to its final destination. He was ably supported by Prasanna Kumar (rhythm pads), Shankar Raman (veena), Narasimhamurty (flute) and Narayanaswamy (mridangam).

The program concluded with the composition "Seetha kalyana vaibhogame" to mark the celebration of the 250th birth anniversary of Tyagaraja.

Bangalore based Satish Suri is an avid dance rasika besides being a life member of the Music and Arts Society.