Kavita Thirumalai’s Margam and Sapta Dhara
- Priya Das
e-mail: priyafeatures@gmail.com

April 29, 2017

It is rare for an up and coming artiste to stage 2 different shows within a year, and yet, that is what Kavita Thirumalai did. To the audience, it presented an opportunity to evaluate her skills in nritta and abhinaya more minutely; especially given that the first, Sapta Dhara (Oct 2016), was choreographed by her, the second, Margam (Mar 2017), was an execution of pieces that she learnt from various gurus. In a sense, it was a reverse trajectory, one usually sees dancers do it the other way around. Kavita was more at ease with Margam; she was performing to the audience more here than in Sapta Dhara, where was foremost, a presentation of engaging, well-researched ideas. Let us continue to compare and contrast the two.

Kavita in Sapta Dhara
Kavita commenced Margam with one of her guru’s (Poornima Ashok) Pushpanjali. It seemed as though the artist and orchestra had some trouble getting in sync, though it was soon remedied. We could see that Kavita was a strong dancer, with neat lines and a disciplined approach to technique. The araimandi was effortless and upper body movements were crisp. It was a familiar piece, and one could pay attention to these angika things.

In contrast, Sapta Dhara’s beginning piece was a tisra triputa Pushpanjali followed by Saptashva, a treatise on the seven horses of Surya. One was drawn to how Kavita’s mind worked; the arrangement of the piece itself was engrossing. Each horse had a different gait/ gallop along with a distinctive look. One had his ears up, while the other had blinkers on. One urged humans to surrender while another extolled the virtues of staying focused. It was a beautiful piece and the proof of Kavita’s attention to detail was in the fact that each horse followed a different path, literally and figuratively. However, Kavita must attempt to not do a strict padartha for all; it would be simpler for example, to execute sancharis that elaborated perhaps the lead up or aftermath of what happens if one say, is not focused.                                                            

The bulwark of the Margam was Swathi Thirunal’s “Sumasayaka,” which has the sakhi in a strong but unenviable position of watching her friend suffer and appeal to Padmanabha to meet her.  Kavita’s portrayal of the sakhi was nuanced; the sthayibhava there was loyalty to her friend. She describes and enacts each of Kamadeva’s five arrows tormenting her friend, making you believe that she will not rest till she sees the lovebirds together. A. Lakshmanaswamy’s choreography here was brilliant; each arrow had a personality of its own. The part where Lord Padmanabha finally walks to his beloved and when the sakhi looks on in a self-congratulatory and satisfied expression was well done.

The piece-de-resistance in Sapta Dhara was the Saptakshetra. Kavita had chosen seven cities, each featured in their own thalam. Unlike Sumasayaka, which was an emotional drama, this was an intellectual journey into the instinctive place each of these cities - Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Varanasi, Avantika, Kanchipuram, Dwaraka - hold in our spiritual lives. Some of these stories were descriptive and that rendered the piece uni-dimensional at times and heavy.

Margam’s two padams were “Chinanchirukiliye” and the ashtapadi “Yahi Madhava” choreographed by Kavita herself and Vidhya Subramanian respectively. The pieces themselves are oft-performed, but having them back-to-back is not often seen. Kavita’s choreography was wonderfully contemporary, any modern mother would identify with it. The mark of a good “Yahi Madhava” rendition is how the dancer portrays Radha, is it nuanced or a straight-forward khandita? Going by how Vidhya Subramanian herself performs any character, it is a given that her choreography of an ashtapadi would be very nuanced. So the question here was whether Kavita had the smarts and deep recesses of emotion to pull it off. For what presumably was her first time in performing this piece, Kavita did justice to it. Radha was disturbed at Krishna’s absence, yet happy that he had returned and then has her feelings curbed by the telltale marks. Her Radha ridicules Krishna for losing control with the other woman, because she is in control always, even when she dramatically imagines them together and asks him to leave. The choreographic intent of systematically discovering the telltale signs of lovemaking and switching seamlessly between Radha and her imagination of the other woman was brilliant. Kavita needs to give her Radha a deeper back story though; here is a woman who probably struggles with the many boundaries she has re-drawn: married woman having an affair, neglecting her family, opening herself to gossip, and all for what - for Krishna to not even give her exclusive rights?

Kavita in Margam
The ashtapadi was in divergence with Sapta Dhara’s Saptapadi, which turned out to be the real centerpiece. It was sensitively treated, where Kavita had strewn together the classic “Eppadi manam” with the Saptapadi. The premise was, Seeta reminds Rama of their seven vows: when they are meant to traverse life together as one, how can he just  leave her behind? Just as in Saptashva, where Kavita maintained a path for each horse, here she made sure that each pada of the Saptapadi signified the immense promise that one makes to the spouse. One can argue that all the other items were intellectual explorations; this was an explosion of a single long, emotional moment in Rama-Sita’s life. It made one think that indeed, Sita’s argument must have been so compelling that Rama had to step aside and let her join him in exile. What’s more compelling than the vows sanctified by the holy fire? Kudos to Kavita for lovingly thinking about this episode, having the courage to veneer “Eppadi manam” differently, and yet bring home the message of Hindu marriage vows in a subtle fashion.

A. Lakshmanaswamy’s thillana in Margam was all that his choreography promises: energy and clean lines. Sapta Dhara’s thillana was like finding a secret map to a maze. The music by Subhapriya Srivatsan mapped the Graha Bhedam, where a note from a raga changes shruti to transform into another raga. It seemed as though Kavita never lost stamina and maintained her lines.                                          

When viewing Kavita’s Bharatanatyam through the lens of these two performances, the single area of improvement that emerges is the Art of it all. Kavita has the science of Bharatanatyam down brilliantly and has shown remarkable artistry in exploring ideas and execution. It is a joy to see strong upper body movements especially in a female dancer. Kavita must dedicate herself, as must any dancer, to the art of rasika-aakarshana (captivating the audience, forgive the Sanskrit). One wants to always show up for her performances, there will always be fine dancing and she will always present well-researched ideas. But if she surrenders herself on stage more, the audience will be able to join her in experiencing the sublime together.

On the whole, it is extremely heartening to see independent artists such as Kavita bring so much discipline and dedication to Bharatanatyam. Kudos to the orchestra teams as well. Margam had Snigdha Venkatramani (vocal), Chethana Sastry (nattuvangam), Amit Ranganathan (mridangam), and Vikram Raghukumar (violin). Sapta Dhara had Subhapriya Srivatsan (vocal), Chethana Sastry (nattuvangam), Ravindra Bharathy (mridangam), Mohanarangam (flute), and Vikram Raghukumar (violin).

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. Some of her writing is at www.priyafeatures.com