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MahaMaya: The Grand Illusion
- Satya Brata Das
Photos: Marc J Chalifoux

June 11, 2017

Bharatanatya dance drama with live orchestra was performed by Natyam Ensemble, choreographed by Malavika Venkatsubbaiah, at Thousand Faces Festival on May 26 and 27, Alberta Avenue Community Centre, Edmonton, Canada.

In the iAge of iPhones and iPads and iEverything, it is deeply satisfying to be reminded that iHumans are connected by more than technology. As the Hindu tradition has it, we are part of an animating force that we cannot imagine, yet which enables us to imagine; the force we cannot see, yet which enables us to see; the force which gives us the capacity to move beyond the limits of ego to a deeper connection with the mystery of our own creation.

Hindu philosophy names this force Shakti (empowerment), the primordial cosmic energy that animates everything, the energy behind the cycle of destruction, creation and sustenance. Reflected in many human traditions as the Divine Mother, Feminine Power, the Mother Goddess; as Diana, Isis, Guan-yin, Tara, Venus, Athena, the Virgin Mary; the Hindu concept of Shakti is a feminine energy that takes all that is inanimate and brings it to life: Maha Devi (the Great Goddess) who gives both agency and purpose to the Triune of Creator-Sustainer-Dissolver (Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva).

In the fourth canto of Hymns in Praise of the Goddess (Devi Mahatma), the Maha Devi is described as the impelling spirit within every atom, who spreads the universe before her and pervades it (sarvasrayaakhilam idam jagadangsabhutam / avyakrita hi parama prakritistvamaadyaa).Yet she remains illusory, beyond the understanding of even the gods of the Triune, hence she is MahaMaya, or the Grand Illusion. The allegory is that the human life of the iWorld is itself an illusion; in the ferocious cosmic swirl, I-ness and ego are the fixed point of reference which enables us to ground ourselves in the belief of autonomous individual existence. To rise beyond to achieve a greater understanding of who we are and why we are, the Devi's shakti enables us to overcome the demons of our own nature, the demons within us all, to seek a higher calling. Thus, the Maha Devi becomes the vessel and the refuge for our journey across life's difficult ocean.

In Natyam Dance Academy's MahaMaya, artistic director Malavika Venkatsubbaiah leavens this dense philosophy in a dazzling swirl of colour and movement, imbued with power and grace, tableaux lasting an instant before dissolving into the next, in a skilled ensemble of seven that dances as one.

MahaMaya is a spellbinding work, in which one enters with senses awakened, being in the moment without ever wanting to leave it. It brings alive the potential for the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatya to be presented as a swift yet evanescent spectacle, breathtaking images that fade so swiftly even as they remain in the mind's eye.The rhythmic slapping of feet on the hard floor to the beat of the drum- energetic and intricate mridanga by talented Curtis Andrews, a particularly lyrical violin by Kaushik Shivaramakrishnan, and the hypnotic hymns of the orchestra's soulful vocalist Maha Narasimhan and nattuvanga by Dr. Kanchana Sivalingam, all bring a full engagement of the senses.

As practised so ably by Malavika in her career as a solo dancer, Bharatanatya has a particular grace dictated by its prescribed postures and gestures, a strict lyricism, and a pace that allows the audience to remark on the subtlety of facial expression and hand gestures. Performed in a dance drama format in a swiftly paced ensemble, the effects become amplified and multiplied, until one stops watching and simply surrenders to the experience. The two narrative themes of MahaMaya were the killing of the demons Raktabija (blood-seed, the self-perpetuating monster that is an allegory for insatiable desire) and Mahishasura (the Great Demon, an allegory for the human ego and the illusion of attachment to material objects).

It is testament of Malavika's evolution as a dancer that her mastery of facial expressions and hand gestures seems completely effortless; she evokes the presence of the great goddess in both benign and terrifying forms, radiating ferocity then transforming to serenity; with a particularly compelling evocation of the goddess vanquishing the stream of desires by lapping up the blood of Raktabija, and liberating Mahishasura with a decisive spear thrust to release his captive soul from its buffalo-headed body.

There is a particular grace and fluidity in the ensemble's rendition of the Hymn to the Cosmic Dance of the Goddess (Durga Tandava Stotram), in which the slayer of the demon Mahisha strides supreme across the universe. The expressions of the ensemble remain serenely blissful even as they move with sweat-inducing energy through a dizzying array of steps and formations, without any sign of breaking a sweat. This is where Malavika's skills as a choreographer truly shine. Among the exceptional performances of a talented and flawlessly united ensemble, Abigail Seewald's expression of the serene face (saumya-badana) of the goddess is worthy of kudos. The talented ensemble consisted of Abigail Seewald, Visesha Murthy, Hasha Sasitharan, Jacqueline Karatha as Raktabija, Shivangi Nagarajan as Mahisha, Malavika Venkatsubbaiah as MahaMaya.

MahaMaya takes Bharatanatya to a new dimension, blending lyrical beauty with a breathtaking athleticism, offering both a meditation and a blessing. It is Malavika Venkatsubbaiah's most polished and evocative work to date, transcending the particularity of its origins to present a vivid and deeply moving evocation of the forces that bind us.

Satya Brata Das is a writer and community volunteer, who most recently served as Chair of the Edmonton Heritage Council.