Tat Tvam Asi: A rare treat
- Anandhi Kannan & Chinmayi Bettadapur
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November 27, 2018
When art, social justice, spirituality, and story-telling come together as a beautifully woven tapestry of music and dance, the audience is left with a stillness, wanting more. This was what we felt at Tat Tvam Asi, a thematic Bharatanatyam production depicting the life of Swami Chinmayananda and the birth of the Chinmaya Mission, presented at Ohlone College (California) and Manhattan Movement & Arts Center (New York) in October 2018. Having premiered in London, it was fortunate that the production made its way across the waters and was presented on both coasts in the US - a stunning depiction of a Vedanta teacher's journey that is now a global movement. The two hour production was conceived and choreographed by Usha Raghavan, acclaimed Bharatanatyam artiste, teacher and choreographer from London, UK.
Tat Tvam Asi translating to “Thou Art That” is the central tenet in Vedanta philosophy and refers to the relationship between the individual and the absolute. Bringing to life such an abstract concept is no easy feat, and Usha Raghavan has done that with powerful music to support her. The sequence of seven scenes depicting Swami Chinmayananda's life and mission opened with the brilliantly coordinated 'Pushpanjali', captivating the audience and setting the stage for a mesmerizing evening. The carefully researched narration introduced each scene in a clear and concise manner, highlighting introspective moments and accentuating the experience. Dancers immediately followed the narration in solos and duets, acting as transitions between the scenes and tying together the entire production. They took us to Kerala to describe the Swami's birth, described his early influences as Shiva's ardent devotee, showed him fighting for India's independence, and depicted scenes along the river Ganges and from the Bhagavad Gita.
There was incredible variety with regard to dance, music, lyrics, language and theme as the story evolved. The blend of nritta with the Carnatic ragas to depict the moods of the story was brilliant. Ragas like Desh for the Freedom struggle, Neelambari for the celebration of the birth of Balakrishnan and Revathi for Shiva Panchakshara were apt. Rendering of jathis only on konnakol and mridangam heightened the rasanubhava in Shiva Panchakshara and the description of Ganga Mata. One of the key aspects of this dance performance was a clever orchestration of story-telling with splendid exhibition of complex emotions such as love, devotion, bravery, anger, fear, joy and surprise.
The scene when the hubristic young Balakrishnan (Sharanyaa Ganesan) debates the calm and composed guru Swami Shivananda (Vinita Venkatesh) was poignant. Both dancers had clearly internalised the characters. The transformation of the atheist Balakrishnan to Swami Chinmayananda, a significant turning point in the story, was powerfully portrayed by both the dancers. The best scene by far, from both an aesthetic and choreography perspective, was the Shiva Panchakshara - a duet between Shiva (Srinidhi Raghavan) and Sophia Salingaros (Shakti). The fantastic nritta with unique Shiva-Parvati poses woven in-between left the audience swooning in rhythmical resonance.
Particularly moving was an elaborate episode on the Bhagavad Gita performed by Srinidhi Raghavan (Arjuna) and Sharanyaa Ganesan (Krishna). Seeing a valorous Arjuna simply shattered to pieces as he entered the Kurukshetra war zone was truly a moving experience as Srinidhi brought Arjuna to life. With every glance, every gesture, and her warrior-like gait she painted a vivid picture of one of the most important scenes in the Hindu epic. Sharanyaa was majestic in her portrayal of Krishna as Parthasarathy, aptly supported by lighting that brought the Vishwaswaroopa to life. The Kurukshetra battle that followed was portrayed imaginatively. The background konnakol and percussions enlivened the creative fight choreography, where a soldier was shooting arrows down from a majestic elephant, attacking the retaliating foot soldiers who have surrounded them, making for a powerful war scene.
The intermittent group dances like Kaikotti Kali, description of the Himalayas, Ganga Arathi and the Abhang by the vibrant dancers gave a graceful and breezy touch along the way. The 10 dancers: Vinita Venkatesh, Yatrika Ajaya, Sahana Sridhar, Madhumeeta Sanam, Shruti Vinjamur, Sophia Salingaros, Samyukta Rao, Vasudha Narasimha, Sharanyaa Ganesan and Srinidhi Raghavan, all from various parts of the United States, practiced the nritta intensive production virtually before coming together physically just 2 days prior to the first presentation in California. The choreography demanded uniformity from the dancers, who come from varied backgrounds and styles of Bharatanatyam. Yet it seemed like they were all Usha Raghavan's senior students, speaking volumes of their experience and the effort that all performers and the choreographer put in.
The concluding Thillana was breathtaking. The interesting formation of dynamically changing patterns and movements by dancers was awe-inspiring. Srinidhi Raghavan deserves a special credit for choreographing this Thillana in her inimitable style. The aesthetically designed costumes stood out as well.
This performance was a testament to the amazing strength and flexibility of the dancers, who clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves, as did the full-house audience on both coasts. A scintillating experience, Tat Tvam Asi, produced under the global umbrella of Kalasagara UK, was indeed a rare treat for the audience in New York and in California.
Anandhi Kannan is a dance connoisseur and arts enthusiast based in New Jersey. Chinmayi Bettadapur is a dancer and artist based in California.