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Playing with tradition and making it resonate for today
- Rajika Puri

May 30, 2017

I have of late noticed how many well-trained (and 'thinking') dancers respond to members of a younger dance public's wish to see choreography that expresses concerns of 'today' (as opposed to that of classic varnams and padams of the 18th C works we all revere). Compositions belonging to margam ('path') will, I hope, always guide those learning the form as well as those who make their first forays into 'composition' (I hesitate to call all of what they do 'choreography'). Meanwhile, great dancers will continue to show us how that 'margam' looks to them, as they enter the journey and express its trajectory through the 21st C.

Once dancers are seasoned in solo shows that follow that 'path', I do laud their efforts to express 'who' and 'what' they are today. Their vision, concerns, and embrace of elements that are outside a tradition of over 200 years, express an energy that 'takes us forward', keeps the 'tradition' alive! Some dancers like Ghirija Jayarraj in her Shastram, and Shyamjith Kiran in his Mudivil Oru Aarmabam express the preoccupations of a current generation of dancers. Many 'play' with music not strictly 'traditional'.

Anuradha Nehru's Kuchipudi Kalanidhi in Lalla Roukh

Janaki Patrik interpreting a Mirza Ghalib 'sher'

Pt Ramesh Misra
Many choreographers work with 'new Carnatic' composers (myself, since 2007, included); others experiment with Hindustani music, and with the music of other cultures. Anuradha Nehru's work with opera music - part of her brief as choreographer of two fascinating French operas: Lalla-Roukh (by Félicien David, 18C French composer about the marriage of Aurangzeb's daughter!) and Rameau's Les Fetes... (both by Washington DC's Opera Lafayette) was hailed as one of the best aspects of those productions - by reviewers in New York as well as America's capital city.

Last weekend, at New York's exciting La Mama Moves festival (at which Astad Deboo performed his Eternal Embrace), Malini Srinivasan produced Remembering Pandit Ramesh Misra. Janaki Patrik, doyenne of Indian dance in New York, was her guest artist/choreographer. The programme featured recordings by the person being remembered: the sarangi maestro whom we lost this March. Samarth Nagarkar was composer and singer of the evening's major works.

The evening began with the elegant Janaki Patrik reading a thoughtful – and informative –remembrance of Pandit Ramesh Misra. Her description of how sarangi was learned - and the pain involved in the process, - was particularly poignant. As she sank to the ground, we heard a recitation by Pandit Misra himself of a Mirza Ghalib ‘sher’ that segued into a sung version by Mitali Bhawmik, which Janaki then expressed through gesture and abhinaya. Magic!

Then came Malini Srinivasan's part of the evening, she whom path-breaking opera director, Yuval Sharon (director, also of my Conversations with Shiva) featured above me in my show! In 2007, Yuval, with Israeli parents and steeped in western opera, immediately recognized her ability to express pure sringara. Malini is even more luminous today after she has become a mother. Her long solo set to a composition in Darbari will no doubt be enriched over time. Meanwhile she is to be commended for the innovative movements - and energy - with which she infuses the underlying text behind a wordless rendering of "Oh god, to whom can I express my heart's suffering?"

Malini Srinivasan in her solo 'Night'

Malini Srinivasan and Dancers in 'Dawn'
Photos: Rajika Puri

Similarly, her Niratata Dhang in Lalit - that shows us gopis entranced by Krishna dancing along the banks of the Yamuna – might, of course, benefit (as a colleague pointed out) from dancer arrangements that reference the many Gita Govinda we all know so well.  I myself, however, had no difficulty seeing ‘his’ image as expressed in their eyes.  For me, cliché became a palpably enjoyable reality.

All in all, a very satisfying evening - with promise of things yet to come.

Rajika Puri is a shishya of Sikkil Ramaswamy Pillai and of the Deba Prasad Gurukul of Odissi, now known after her participation in several theatre productions, and for her Sutradhari Natyam (Danced Storytelling), in which she narrates a text in English, and sings in Sanskrit, as she dances stories from myth.