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The right ambience for young dancers to learn from
- Dr. S.D. Desai

June 25, 2017

Among the images of dancers at the three-day 'Understanding Bharatanatyam' festival at J G College of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad that linger in memory are those of Swarada and Poorva from Vaibhav Arekar's Sankhya Dance Creations (Mumbai). The festival featured dance groups based in Gujarat. These girls, just 20 plus, were welcome here by way of an illustration that even if the dancers are not South Indian and have a different mother tongue, with their dedication and their guru's insightful training, they can dance as beautifully, someone whispered, 'even better' at times!

In measured movement, with nuanced expression in their own range, in Shiv Namavali (Shivashankara, Neelakantha, Umapati...), Mallari (transporting viewers to the place of the devotional ritual) and in two Sakhis' conversation mocking Lord Shiva in a lighter vein ('Why is he wearing such a small moon?', 'Who asked him to dance on one foot?', 'Didn't find any other vaahana?'), they were refreshingly new and intelligible through their visual language. Watching them was to know how rich Bharatanatyam's nonverbal language is, how modern it can get and how delightful!


Art of Heart

At the symposium on the opening day, on screening an 11-minute clip of this year's Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar awardee for Bharatanatyam, Jyotsna Jagannathan's 2017 Khajuraho performance on Kalabhairava, I had an opportunity to stress how a dedicated approach, grace and dignity set apart a dancer and her dance performance. These values had a bearing on the three short performances - Mallari, Pushpanjali and Tillana - choreographed by a budding dancer-choreographer Manali Natali of Art of Heart (Surat). The six young dancers, oozing confidence, one indistinguishable from another in their group had had, it seemed a professional touch to their performance. The audience forgot to accord that honour to a couple of other groups later but to these nartakis, without hesitation, they gave a standing ovation!

In veteran dancer Mallika Sarabhai's choreography, it was no wonder that the dancers, including a young man, joyously performed with Darpana Academy's characteristic elegance and verve. With glimpses of Mrinalini Sarabhai's legacy, they brought a flavour of authentic traditional temple dances in an invocatory Om Namah Shivay, a short Navasandhi excerpt seeking to propitiate deities of the eight directions with Brahma in the centre, and in Ananda Tandava, manifesting Lord Shiva's joyous mood against the more widely known raudra one.

Preceding this, on the concluding day, was a dainty dance presentation by the hosts J G College of Performing Arts in the choreography by Bijoy Shivram, dependable for authenticity and clarity. It was in two parts. Nandi Chollu, an invocation - avaahana - to Lord Shiva by Nandi on delectable rhythmic syllables was followed by a kirthanam with dedication offered to Shiva as in the Chidambaram temple. A pretty quartet of budding dance learners created exhilarating neat formations.

It was a pleasure to see the traditional dance piece Mallari, carrying a specific deity ritualistically from a temple to a large open place for public view and worship, done by a couple of groups. Vaibhav and Manali's choreographies of it have been mentioned earlier. Another Mallari dance piece was seen in the very inaugural presentation made by Dolly Desai of Bharata Kalanjali. The girls, though slender of frame, with understanding and relative grace, did the piece set to pleasing appropriate music composed by her gurus, the Dhananjayans.

J G College

Dolly Desai's group

Chandan Thakore's group

Khamma Shah's student

Chandan Thakore (Nritya Bharati) has the knack of getting the technique applied to conjuring up recognizable deities and mythical devotional episodes with spectacular coordination of stance and movement, lighting playing an integral part to it. The well-trained dancing girls delightfully portrayed Lord Ganesh, Riddhi-Siddhi and Mushaka. They went on rather playfully to depict Govind Leela, replete with episodes familiar to the viewers.

Among agreeable surprises at the festival was a spirit of accommodation and collaboration shown by two senior dance teachers. Pushpanjali as part of the opening day's concluding performance would have looked inappropriate. So Smita Shastri's girls (Nartan) were let in first to offer Pushpanjali first. This was followed by Khamma Shah's dancers' (Nrityam) Ganesh Stuti (Balamuralikrishna) and Tillana, in their details both noteworthy. Smita Shastri's group came in again then to perform Shabdam and Tillana. The Shabdam Radhe chhoop gai laaj ki maari (Meera) found a sweet rendering in Hema Patel's voice and it being in a language she was familiar with, the dancer found it easier to relate to. So did the viewers.

A few dance groups even in Ahmedabad seem to be quietly working. Priya Nair for a change had in her padam, two Gopis fondly complaining about Krishna's pranks - pulling her hair, forcing her to sing, and pinching her till she cried. She also presented a short dance drama on Krishna episodes. The dancers made an endearing twosome. Two groups came all the way from Gandhidham (Kutch). The zestful students of Suma Mohan (Natyalaya) did Ramayan episodes besides a Swati Tirumal, refreshingly, in Hindi. Unlike the dancers in this group, those in the other from the same place, Dhara Shah's Margam group, had a small frame and one of them endearingly danced with understanding in Shri Ramachandra Krupalu... From Jamnagar came Heer Buch's Shakuntal dancers, quite good with mudras and footwork, with Shiva Shambhu kirthanam and Tillana.

Surat was represented by two other groups besides Manali's. Payal Ravi's (Nrityanjali) dancers looked hard-working and had varying skills. Priti Shah's dancers (Nrutyam), one felt, had a lot to learn from the exposure they had had at the festival. That abhinaya seeks a slender frame as its abode was evident in the kirthanam and ashtapadi, a well-trained dancer Divya Patel (M. S. University, Baroda) offered in Parul Shah's choreography. It was a good gesture by Jignesh Surani (Tandav Nartan, Rajkot) to use a Gujarati poem, Narsinh Mehta's Jalakamal chhandi jaane baala, for his modest dance drama. Humorous dimensions of its rendition in a South Indian voice - naaganu-n sisu (meaning shishu), kaapase (instead of kaapashe etc) - however were too distracting to be ignored.

In an effort to set the right goal, it was very thoughtful of the organizers to have screened a film on a legendary Bharatanatyam dancer initially every evening - Balasaraswati (Satyajit Ray), Rukmini Devi (Prakash Jha) and Mrinalini Sarabhai (put together by Bijoy). My review above follows the order neither of the presentation nor the merit of the performances. It follows the order of modest clusters that suited a thematic view.

Bringing as many Bharatanatyam dancers as possible from all over Gujarat by way of a festival is a welcome initiative taken by J G College of Performing Arts, the premier training institute in Ahmedabad. The college seems to have a generous patronage and just the right evolving young faculty - Disha Modi, Sonal Vyas and Rucha Anjaria in particular - on their toes all the while along with their enthusiastic leader.

Many more groups yet can be invited to this festival's sequel. The Symposium, at times carried on till late in the afternoon, proved a good source of learning for young dance students. They can be encouraged to stay on for all the days so that they can watch, listen and learn. The organizers can also think of having a session the following morning for interaction with the choreographer / teacher and participants of the groups who performed the previous evening.

Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts Critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti, Nartanam and Attendance. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.