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The flavors of a festival
- Padma Jayaraj

November 23, 2017

The Soorya Thalam Festival 2017, a week-long program (7 to 12 Nov 2017) in Harisri Vidyanidhi Auditorium, Thrissur, was a period of cultural education for its students and a gala time for the public. Of the many events, the Odissi dance by upcoming dancer Abhayalakshmi was both beautiful and inspiring. She proved a role model for the students. She started her career as an engineer in a multinational company in Bangalore, but came across her guru Sharmila Mukerjee and fell in love with Odissi dance. From then on commenced a passionate involvement with the dance form. She dared to follow her heart and quit her job. Such a young dancer attested the need for individual choice for young students under many pressures, both parental and social.

The dance recital was traditional in every sense. She began with the customary Mangalacharan at the feet of Lord Jagannath offering flowers. After salutation to Mother Earth, she went on to perform to a fifth century sloka by Kalidasa. "Manikya veenam upalaalayantheem...." praises Devi who plays on her jewel studded veena. The veena, archetypal and divine, is almost a being; from the beaming lotus face, melody flows delicate and languid. Goddess Saraswathi, the patron of music with her veena in tribhangi created a hallowed evening. Mangalacharan concluded with the three-fold salutation to god, to guru and to the audience. Choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in raag Khamaj and talamalika, it was a perfect beginning.

The Pallavi choreographed by her guru Sharmila Mukerjee, based on raga Yaman rendered into music by Debashish Sircar proved a beautiful presentation of lasya reflected in nature. Like a creeper growing, climbing up, melody and rhythm intertwined in nritta and sculptural poses unique to Odissi. The piece was a display of grace and lure in youthful charm. The abhinaya piece showcased Radha's memory of Krishna and her longing to be with her lover, to be united in love. One of the well known ashtapadis of Jayadeva's Geeta Govinda (raag Mishra Pahari, taal jathi), the oft-repeated traditional piece suited the pattern. The sensuous depiction of a lovelorn young maiden in a confessional mode of presentation to a friend connotes the secret joys of love and romance ever present, ever young in human mind.

The dancer moved on with another abhinaya piece painting the glory of Hari. Hari bedecked resting on Sri's breast as conceived by Jayadeva in Geeta Govinda. The key scenes of Hari's incarnations delightfully depicted flit past: Kaliyamardhana, Sita swayamvaram, the slaying of Ravana. Both pieces were choreographed by Kelucharan Mohapatra with music by Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra. Moksha was the concluding item. In a soaring crescendo of thrilling nritta, in ever new designs and patterns, poised on the wings of music and rhythm the dance liberated itself in aesthetic delight. The dance and the dancer merged blessing the world with Shanthi mantra, an exquisite piece choreographed by Kelubabu in raag Bhairavi, taal ektaali.


Divya Unni

Divya Unni adopted the role of a dancer-teacher for the students. Little anecdotes that children love, were strung together for a Bharatanatyam recital. It is a teacher's way to lead students from the days of the Panchatantra in Indian traditions. Divya Unni has acted in south Indian films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. As dancer she started with Bharatanatyam and moved on to Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi. She has promoted dance in stage shows, in films, on mini screen, and through her dance school. For advancing Indian classical dance abroad, she has established Sreepaadam School of Dance in Houston.

Her dance recital began with Devi Stuthi. Devi in Bharatanatyam format presided as Devi, the Mother; Devi, the consort of Siva; Maha Kaali, the awesome; Sarsawathi, the patron of arts; Annapoorneswari, the blessed plenty; and Raja-Rajeswari, the supreme deity. The dancer sculpted the familiar icons and legends from India's cultural ocean. Ragamalika and talamalika rendered perfect frame to the dance piece. Sankara stuti, a Swati Thirunal kriti introduced another anecdote. On the lap of a celestial setting, Parvati was trying to wake up Siva from a meditative mood. In a playful gesture, she closed the eyes of Siva with her palms. From unease, his third eye unleashed a torrential flow of a vibratory force that spiraled all created things in disharmony. Awed, she deeply regretted her thoughtless action. After a terrible fleeting moment, a smiling Siva restored harmony. The burst of nritta ending in yogic pose, her apt choreography visually created the calm after a storm in divine dimension in Hamsadhwani.

Varnam followed, which was basically a Ganapathy stuti. Presented as a mother's longing for a child that led her to create her baby from her own physical attributes gives a parallel to how any created being is a combination of panchabhuta, Nature herself. As a follow up, Divya dramatized the lore of Vinayaka Chathurti. Her choreography painted the story laced with humor, sarcasm, anger, fear, and finally the peace of acceptance. The poor mouse carrying his heavy master with his huge belly after a sumptuous feast, the scared mouse running away from a venomous hooded serpent, the moon bursting into laughter seeing the fallen posture of Ganapathy....all human emotions beautifully presented brought out the actor in the dancer.

Padam proved yet another superb abhinaya piece in ragam Kaapi. The familiar piece of the soul uniting intimacy of mother-child theme epitomized in "Enna thavam seithanai Yashoda..." is the Indian concept of motherhood untarnished by time. The mud episode, short and simple, is a marvel. The child covered in mud is given a bath and in turn the child bathes the mother by splashing water on her. The naughty one yields to the love of his mother in making him up: the classic hair-do, fresh sandal paste on the forehead, and to the crowning of his charm with a warm kiss. And, the moment she turns her back, he eats a handful of sand, far sweeter than sugar. She rushes back horrified, 'open your mouth...,' the plea of all exasperated mothers in human history rebounds. But Yashoda, Krishna's mother, is struck with the ultimate revelation. The human and the divine blur.... to create real awareness. Thillana was a burst of nritta; music and dance in the abstract, coalesced in beauty. And the piece ended with the tableaux of Ananthasayana and Lakshmi as if to imprint the iconic image in the mind of the audience. A marvelous presentation of traditional glory was mesmerizing without exaggeration.

Naga dance

The Harisri Vidyanidhi School staged a group item that won the first prize in this year's State Cultural Meet. Reviving the forgotten snake dance into a group dance incorporating serpent lore connected with the ritual practice unique to Kerala, the dance highlights the need for conservation and ecological balance where all animated beings are part of a sacred thread in Nature. As a fusion dance, it was a conglomeration of contemporary numbers, use of tableaux, in exceptional costume. Yet, the essential swaying movements of the ethnic feature, the soul of snake dance was missing.

Some of the folk pieces presented by the parents of Harisri Vidyanidhi School in connection with the festival were innovative renderings of fusion dance, celebrating vigor. Now mothers of school children, they were dancers in their prime. Although life keeps them away from stage, the cultural programs connected with the school gave them a chance to come together to vent their emotional need for cultural expressions. One of their stunning folk items rendered was the famous Thrissur Pooram. It was innovative and unique. The pioneering piece was choreographed by Sabita, a parent who runs her own dance school. The elephant carrying the deity with accompanying ritual paraphernalia, elephants enjoying Kerala's unique percussion, chenda melam (the focal point of pooram celebrations) remains etched as a montage. It is as if Siva, known in this part of the world as Vadakkunnadhan, is poised in tranquility while the people go mad in the thrill of a lived life. All feats of dance movements known are strung together in disparate musical strains to create a stunning presentation. We find ethnic dances of Kerala mingling with the cat-walk of fashion parade, contemporary dance numbers, and acrobatics incorporating folk songs, boat song, English musicals with its drum beats to create the visual treat that is Thrissur pooram where fantasy is sanity.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts and a regular contributor to