Follow us

Kāvyarasa 2017: An ode to Gita Govindam
- Veejay Sai
Images courtesy: Nrityantar

June 12, 2017

The 12th century magnum opus of poet Jayadeva Gita Govindam, is a favourite of many dancers. The twenty-four ashtapadis spread out over twelve cantos, the numerous poems interspersed in-between have been providing delightful rasaanubhava ever since they were written. No wonder the poem spread to far and wide corners of India, in a very short span of time. It reached Kerala in less than a hundred years after it was written, to be sung in the Sopanam style till date at the famous Guruvayur temple of Krishna. It reached Gujarat and Rajasthan. Guru Nanak had verses of it included in the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikh community. Down south it reached Tamil Nadu and several noted poet saints of Andhra like Tallapaka Annamacharya acknowledged being influenced by it. While there have been many commentaries and controversies that it was not meant to be a text for dance, one cannot deny the influence it has had on Indian classical dance forms. Glimpses of this were witnessed at the two day Kāvyarasa festival (May 27 and 28) organized by Odissi dancer Madhulita Mohapatra and her institute Nrityantar in Bangalore.

In two days, sixteen dancers were presented, eight on each day. The first day of the festival opened with a Kathak performance by Madhu Nataraj Kiran, the daughter/disciple of the late Kathak queen Dr. Maya Rao. It must be put on record that Maya Rao was instrumental in including the Gita Govindam into the Kathak repertoire. Before that, we have no trace of Kathak dancers ever performing this text, anywhere in history or practice. Having been the first disciple of the Lucknow Gharana stalwart Pt Shambhu Maharaj, Rao was the first to choreograph these ashtapadis with the help of her guru. She writes about it in detail in her autobiography. Madhu performed "Lalita lavanga lata" as choreographed by her mother. Dressed in colours that were inspired by the miniature paintings of Kangra and other schools of art that were flashed in the background, Madhu's subtle abhinaya reflected the beauty of Maya Rao's choreography.

The second performer was Gopika Varma in the Mohiniattam style. Dancing to "Chandana charchita" as the mugdha nayika, Gopika's abhinayam and choreography of the ashtapadi were graceful. Her interpretation of "Kaapi vilaasa vilola vilochana" described the love play between Radha and Krishna in a nuanced way. However, the recorded music Gopika performed to seemed to have been from an earlier live event. With uneven singing and musical accompaniment it ended up being a bit jarring in places.

Madhu Nataraj Kiran

Gopika Varma

Sandhya Kiran

Veena Murthy Vijay

Guru Sandhya Kiran's interpretation of "Kesi madana udaram" was yet another exercise in displaying the beauty of subtle abhinayam. Set to Saranga ragam and misra chapu talam, the ashtapadi was performed to a live orchestra. Instead of the regular mridangam, Sandhya chose to use the softer syllables of the ghatam to her graceful movements, which made a whole lot of difference to the effect of the performance. Mahesh Swamy's flute to the lines "Prathama samagama" was yet another melodic interlude. In the line "Chakita vilokita sakala disha" we have normally witnessed highly dramatic and jerky movements when performed by several in Odissi. Sandhya's use of her eyes to survey the area around matched the pain and agony of the nayika's longing.

A contrast from this was Veena Murthy Vijay's performance to "Radhika Krishna Radhika" in the Kuchipudi style. With a great hurry, Veena just ran through the entire ashtapadi. The viraha of the nayika was left untouched or unexplored by the dancer. Veena is capable of far better abhinayam in the Kuchipudi style, if she had a more pleasing physical appearance that suited the role of the nayika. This was clearly not one of her better performances. One saw the same hurry in the dance of Jyotsna Jagannathan. Presenting the ashtapadi "Dheera sameere Yamuna teere," Jyotsna began on a good note. However in the choreography of the piece, the abhisarika nayika was not seen. The romantic anticipation of the nayika here, clearly demanded the dancer to be slower in her abhinayam. Jyotsna's hurried dance and excitement overpowered the subtle emotions that the nayika was supposed to convey. In her costuming Jyotsna opted to wear a blue dupatta. While the idea was good and the choreographic possibilities of it were many, it remained underused and hence one questioned the need of it. If she plans to rework this piece, she must consider a slower tempo of performance.

A loud applause welcomed the veteran Guru Bhanumati as she entered the stage to the line "Natha hare Jagannatha hare." Bhanumati is a student of Dandayudhapani Pillai and one of the senior most gurus in Bangalore. The beauty of Bhanumati's performance was the subtle way in which she expressed the ideas of viraham. Despite her age and her inability to move around much in terms of nritta, one saw a matured artistry. The saying that abhinayam comes with age could stand true in this case. Looking into the distance, Bhanumati's eyes expressed the viraham of Radha, effortlessly. In the lines "Vilapiti rodati," her portrayal of the vasakasajja nayika was aesthetic. At the end of her performance she gave a small speech where she said she learnt the piece from her student who in turn learnt it from Bragha Bessell. It takes great amount of magnanimity for a guru of Bhanumati's stature to confess this in public. Most gurus wouldn't do any of this, let alone being thankful for learning from a student.

Jyotsna Jagannathan

Guru Bhanumati

Aishwarya Nityananda

Vyjayanthi Kashi

This was followed by the dynamic performance of young Aishwarya Nityananda. Aishwarya has matured into a soloist of great merit over the years. A disciple of Guru Radha Sridhar, she performed to the ashtapadi "Yaami he" set to Revati ragam and khanda chapu talam. Choreographed by her guru, Aishwarya performed the ashtapadi with much energy. The grief of Radha who feels deceived by her Sakhi's words when Krishna doesn't arrive at the promised time, she says she would rather give up her life than suffer the pangs of separation. Guru Radha Sridhar's elaborate choreography was complimented by Aishwarya's excellent performance.

The first day ended with the performance of Vyjayanthi Kashi in Kuchipudi style. Presenting the 21st ashtapadi "Pravisha Radhe," Vyjayanthi was accompanied by a live orchestra with her daughter Prateeksha Kashi on the cymbals. A shrill singer kept going off-pitch as she stared into the lyrics that she sang off a handful of papers. While the choreography was a bit lengthy, the vibrancy of Vyjayanthi's Kuchipudi was unmissable.

The second day had a younger set of more energetic dancers. The evening opened on a high note with the performance of Parshwanath Upadhye. Taking the ashtapadi "Maamiyam chalita vilokya," Parshwanath displayed the grief of Krishna at a loss of words in separation from Radha. Opening with the sloka 'Kansari api sansari' as a prelude to the ashtapadi, we saw the lament of Krishna. The idea of madhura-bhakti is a complex one. Both the sentiments of bhakti and shringara are two sides of the same coin. Both are non-ignorable components of the human psyche. To think of Krishna lamenting at the loss of Radha is to reverse roles. God also misses a true bhakta. In the context of Gita Govindam, Radha was and is considered the epitome of Vaishnava bhakti. Parshwanath's portrayal of the ashtapadi was short and yet well executed.

This was contrasted in nature in the ashtapadi "Nindati chandanam" that followed, choreographed by Padma Subrahmanyam and performed by Anuradha Vikranth. The lines that spell the various degrees of grief "Vilapati, rodati, hasati…" hardly came through. Anuradha danced, as if by-hearting the movements rather than internalizing the sahityam. The organizer of the festival Madhulita Mohapatra danced to "Ramate Yamuna pulinavane," choreographed by her Guru Aruna Mohanty. One must commend Aruna for thinking through such beautiful choreography. In the lines "Charana kishalaye, kamala nilaye," the nayika scatters flowers along the path Krishna is to walk and her heart breaks when she sees him walking on the path, but towards the other nayika. This subtle sentiment of Radha's viraham was well expressed by Madhulita's eyes and movements. Having watched her perform many years ago on the same stage, this critic was rather impressed in the great deal of improvement Madhulita displayed in her performance.

Parshwanath Upadhye

Anuradha Vikranth

Madhulita Mohapatra

Sharmila Mukerjee

Following this was the famous khandita nayika performing the ashtapadi "Yahi Madhava Yahi Keshava." This was performed by Sharmila Mukerjee, a student of Poushali Mukherjee who also trained with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Set to ragam Bhairavi and jati taal, Sharmila's attempt in re-interpreting Kelubabu's choreography didn't come across. When Radha asks Krishna "Maa vada kai tama vaadam," one couldn't see the pathos in Sharmila's mukhaja abhinayam nor did it show in the dance movements. To re-interpret the impeccable choreography by Kelubabu, it would require the dancer to be more involved in the piece. One wishes she can rework on this better as she is undoubtedly a good dancer.

The Krishna who came to plead with his beloved singing "Priye charusheele" was Bharatanatyam dancer Mithun Shyam. While some of the ideas in his choreography were good, most of the piece was performed in a hurry. For "Vadasi yadi kinchidapi danta ruchi kaumudi," the literal mime made it feel as if Krishna was a dentist extracting a tooth from an angry Radha. Sanskrit is an extremely sensitive language and one line can be interpreted in multiple ways. Added to this was the totally off-pitch and mispronounced singing of Karthik Hebbar. Towards the end of the ashtapadi, Mithun hurriedly showed us how Radha seemed to have come into Krishna's arms in an act of lovemaking. Wonder where this idea of the choreography came from? If one sees the sequence of events in the chronology of the whole text, this was most misplaced. Mithun needs to rework his choreographic ideas and find more depth in this work.

Anjali Raj Urs's performance of "Virachita chaatu vachana" where the Sakhi tells Radha to give up her pride and surrender to Krishna was a graceful attempt. Choreographed by Meera Dash, the ashtapadi has been through various musical patterns in the past. In the refrain "Anusara Radhike" we find the voice of the pleading Sakhi. Anjali's dance, with all the innocence of a youngster was true to the idea the sahityam conveyed. "Kshana madhuna Narayanam" performed in Kathak style by Smitha Srinivasan fell flat of any abhinaya. For once, Smitha with her big frame and out of shape physique didn't fit into the coy nayika's role. The ashtapadi narrates the emotions of Radha who is pining for Krishna's love and wants to get a glimpse of his smile even as she is tormented by cupid's arrows. None of this came through in Smitha's dance. What we saw instead were the chakkars of Kathak that were choreographically misplaced.

Mithun Shyam

Anjali Raj Urs

Smitha Srinivasan

Kavitha Ramu

The last ashtapadi for the festival was by Bharatanatyam dancer Kavitha Ramu, a student of Guru K.J. Sarasa, from Chennai. Performing to "Kuru yadu nandana," Kavitha's dance had its good moments. However, the Radha here is confessing after a nightlong affair of lovemaking with Krishna. The nayika here is not a proudha. The nritta element also seemed out of place when the situation didn't demand so. For her aharya, Kavitha chose a rather flashy costume, once again contrasting the mood and subtlety the sthayi of the nayika demanded. Kavitha is a good dancer with strong grounding in nritta. If she could rework the choreography of this piece, edit the unnecessary elements, she could present this better.

What was good about curating of the festival was there were no repeat performances of the same ashtapadis. With five different classical dance forms (Bharatanatyam, Odishi, Kathak, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam), fourteen different Radhas of all age groups, sizes and shapes, two Krishnas, sixteen different choreographic approaches to sixteen ashtapadis, Kāvyarasa was a great festival to put together. On both the days, the Seva Sadan hall in Bangalore was spilling out of its seams with rasikas who thronged, despite the heavy rains that lashed the city. Kudos to Madhulita and her efficient team for thinking up this unique festival and encouraging the participation of local dancers!

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic. He is the author of 'Drama Queens - Women Who Created History On Stage', published by Roli Books.