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Celebrating the Nartaka
- Veejay Sai
Photos courtesy: Natyanjali Trust

November 6, 2017

Mr.Ramaswamy of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Justin McCarthy, Prema Reddy
It takes a great deal of courage and commitment to keep a brand going strong these days, be it a restaurant or in this case, a dance festival. One must congratulate Prema Reddy of Natyanjali Trust for presenting the eleventh edition of the Nartaka Festival. Over the last decade, this festival has become a sought after festival of the community of highly neglected male classical dancers.

The Nartaka Festival took place at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium in Mylapore, Chennai, on October 28 and 29, 2017. This year's Nartaka Award was presented to Delhi-based Bharatanatyam dancer Justin McCarthy. In his brief speech, Justin remembered his guru Subbaraya Pillai of Pandanallur with whom he trained in his years in Chennai. One wishes he had spoken more about his guru, their classes and training.

The evening opened with a solo performance by Kerala based Vidhun Vasudevan Pillai, a student of Guru V Mydhili. She is a student of Thanjavur A.R.R. Bhaskar in Bharatanatyam. She is also a graduate of Kerala Kalamandalam in Mohiniattam and trained in Kuchipudi at Vempati Chinna Satyam's Kuchipudi Academy in Chennai before returning to her roots in Kerala. She currently teaches Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi in her Mydhilalaya Dance Academy in Trivandrum. Vidhun is a part-time dancer training with her in this academy. The main piece of his performance was the Tanjore Quartet varnam "Sakhi ye, inda velayil, jaalam seyyade." Here the heroine pleads with her Sakhi to bring lord Rajagopala to her. In her pining she says how the arrows of cupid are tormenting her.

Vidhun took a while to warm up into his element. The first half of the varnam was slow. The nritta bits dragged on with unrefined dance sequences, including the trikaalajati. For the young and energetic dancer that Vidhun is, the nritta could have had more tempo. One could expect more precision and sharpness in theermanams and better finishing. The choreography of the piece didn't seem to convey the feelings of the nayika. It was only in the second half of the varnam that Vidhun seemed to warm up and his nritta got better. However, in the muktayi part of the sahityam "naagareeka mighavum sarasa vagaiyaai malaranamel anudinamum, arumaiyaaga sallaapa matiyodu nalla ullaasa villaasa kalaapa nilaavil kulaava," the choreography was lost in translation. It became an act of literal mime, word to word. Vidhun as a dancer needs to work on bringing more refinement into his movements and mukhajabhinayam.

In his presentation of Neelakanta Sivan's famous 'Navasiddhi petralum', the literally choreographic mime marred the sentiment of bhakti present in the composition. His performance ended with a mish-mash of a choreography. Taking a kriti 'Janaki Ramana Dasharatha Nandana' and crossing it with an abhang 'Balabhimaha Maruti', worked neither in its musicality nor in its dance output. It ended up being a jarring patchwork with neither the kriti nor the abhang rendered to its emotional fulfillment. Vidhun is a promising dancer, but he has to work on several aspects of his dance to go ahead. What was noteworthy was the excellent singing of Kaushik, the melodious flute by superstar Shruti Sagar and violin by Kalaiarasan.

Vidhun Vasudevan Pillai

Parshwanath Upadhye, Nidhaga Karunad, Aditya P.V.

The second half of the evening was a thematic performance 'Partha' by Bangalore based Parshwanath Upadhye, Aditya P.V. and Nidhaga Karunad, performing to recorded music directed by Rajkumar Bharati whose orchestral mixing of instruments like sitar and good vocals by G. Srikant added to the presentation. Knitting various episodes from the life of Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, the choreographic intent was fresh and engaging in parts. From Arjuna's Swayamvaram, by shooting the eye of the rotating fish as he sees its reflection in the water below, to taking his prized wife Draupadi to his mother, who without seeing orders the five sons to share his possession. Furthermore, before entering Agnathavaasam, the Pandava brothers tie their weapons like a dead body on a tree; Arjuna becomes Brihannala, the dance teacher. Parshwanath's choreographic intelligence took the better of him in making entry clapping like a eunuch to depict Brihannala. The series of episodes ends with Arjuna having the Vishwaroopa Darshanam of Krishna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

While the theme was good, several aspects of the presentation required thinking. The whole piece was relying heavily on the Sanskrit text and less on dance. The actual dance sequences were far and few. Cluttering too many episodes with a text heavy performance also seemed to slow down the energy of the presentation. If reworked, this production can achieve a better shape than what it is now.

The second day of Nartaka Festival opened with a solo performance by Lokesh Raj, a graduate of Kalakshetra who is currently teaching in the institution. After an alarippu, Lokesh presented the Tanjore Quartet varnam "Sami ninne kori" as his main piece. From what it looked like, Lokesh is not a regular dancer. Or he hasn't been dancing too often and is out of practice. His presentation was lackluster and low on energy. The nritta sequences were repetitive making it feel his knowledge of nritta might have been limited. The choreography of the varnam was slower than usual and Lokesh's lack of any facial expressions added to this, robbed the presentation of interest. 'Prema Meeraga Thanjapurivaasa' saw Lokesh running about the stage as if he was searching for a lost button from his shirt or something. Didn't the dancer think of the grandeur of the big temple in Thanjavur in whose honour this composition was written? The gopuram of the temple is seen miles away! The dance choreography showed the nayika scurrying about the stage and finally 'discovering' the temple, like it was in a little corner of the village! A total mismatch between the sahityam, the bhaavam and the choreography! Even in the second half of the varnam, the energy of the dancer remained static. The relieving factor was the brilliant orchestra on stage. With excellent nattuvangam by Rakesh K.P, vocals by Murali Parthasarathy, veena by N. Ananthanarayanan, mridangam by Vedakrishnaram and flute by Sujith Naik, Lokesh's dance remained low-keyish!

Lokesh concluded his performance with a Sarangapani padam 'Chittike vesite' in ragam Kalyani. Murali's wrong pronunciation missing the 'Prasa' of the second line distorted the meaning. The second line begins with 'Mittukulaadi', and the Aadiprasa matches with the first lines 'Chittike vesite'. The last item was a thillana.

Lokesh Raj

Mohanapriyan Thavaraja

The second performance for the evening was by Singapore based Mohanapriyan Thavaraja. Alas! Yet another disappointing performance it was! Mohanapriyan was out of shape and added to that was his jarring costume which didn't do justice to whatever dance he was presenting. He opened his performance with the famous 'Shambu Natanam' before his main piece, the Tanjore Quartet varnam "Mohamana." The choreographic ideas fell short in his presentation. With repetitive sequences and exaggerated abhinaya, the varnam was not dealt with the finesse it holds. O.S. Arun's vocal rendering of the varnam was not in the least complimentary to the original version and what it must sound like for Bharatanatyam. He concluded his performance with a piece 'Anantham-Anandam' set to ragam Desh. Mohanapriyan is capable of putting up a better show.

Praveen Kumar

The grand finale of the Nartaka Festival was a solo by Bangalore based Praveen Kumar. The star-studded orchestra had his guru C.V. Chandrasekhar on the nattuvangam supported by his daughter Manjari, vocals brilliantly rendered by G. Srikanth and mridangam by the ever-alert Lingaraju. Praveen's main piece was the Tanjore Quartet swarajathi "Sarojakshiro" in ragamYadukula Kamboji and rupaka talam.

The subtlety of CVC's choreography was noteworthy. Using his eyes to portray the yearning of the nayika for lord Brihadeeswara, to the powerful theermanams, utilizing a rather complex set of adavus, one could imagine the brilliant choreographic mind of Guru CVC and how it was executed well by his shishya Praveen. In sancharis for 'Thummedalu' you could see the realism of the nayika trying to ward off buzzing bees around her. To go into the details of the entire choreography would require a separate essay on its own. For now we can say how CVC's interpretation of this varnam stands a class apart from many others. Praveen's performance was the only redeeming factor for that evening. The orchestra enhanced the performance further.

After the performance, on request, Guru CVC told the packed hall how he was instrumental in beginning this festival. It was on his suggestion that Prema Reddy decided to start the Nartaka Festival as an exclusive space that presents male dancers, year after year. Before anyone knew, a whole decade has flown by making it a significant event in the classical dance calendar in India.

Over the last decade, the Nartaka Festival has made a permanent mark for itself as a brand to reckon with, thanks to the untiring efforts of Prema Reddy of Natyanjali Trust. However, giving a good platform and a good audience (both the days had a good turnout of audience) ensures the performers also put in more hard work and give better performances. On one side we have many dancers who crib about the lack of opportunities, and on the other side when such exclusive festivals are curated for them, there are those who take it for granted. When organizations like Natyanjali put in their resources, time and effort to make this exclusive space for male dancers, the dancers must also aspire to present their best. Wishing many more decades of success to the Nartaka Festival to support the world of much neglected male dancers.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.