Exploratory performances at 'Re-rooted: The Contemporary Dance Festival'
- Dr. S.D. Desai
February 9, 2019
On Day One of 'Re-rooted: The Contemporary Dance Festival' (two nights, four shows) at Natarani on Jan 26, 2019, Revanta Sarabhai and Pooja Purohit (Ahmedabad) presented Out of Bounds and Anuradha Venkatraman (Bengaluru) Six Feet Land and Us with her four-dancer team. All six are firmly rooted in the traditional Bharatanatyam. In their re-rooting exploratory process, the first team modifies modes of visual expression, mudras and movement in particular. The second without taking major liberties with the form roots it in a serious contemporary context.
The young dancing pair Revanta and Pooja in plain black modern outfit on an empty stage walk, come face to face, walk past each other, sit, stand one behind the other, come close, stare, move bodies unconventionally for the dance form without uttering a word, without the traditional vocal or instrumental music, to bols and rhythmic sounds at times, though at times to soft western strains. Both look visually pleasing and intellectually engaging.
Though they perform with utmost seriousness and dignity, the performance has underneath it a playful irreverence to the codes of spiritual considerations. What is paramount is the desire to challenge the structure - here it happens at the basic level - followed for centuries. In the process, there are gleams of meaning relating to relationships. The stance, movement and glances of the Nayak and Nayika give faint glimpses of a past. When she is doing shringar in front of a mirror - and here is a bit of abhinaya - psychologically, from behind her he seems to be prompting her choice. Interesting and promising.
With its thematic contemporariness, Anuradha Venkatraman's Six Feet touchingly created awareness about extreme discrimination against the deprived in a world dominated by the power of the affluent. If at all she takes liberty with her classical dance form, it is minimal and within the parameters of aesthetics of her work. In a narrative visually presented, she has a mute and almost motionless - motionless in the sense a character is portrayed in a dance piece - marginalized and miserable woman as the Nayika in this work. Anuradha herself is this Nayika, a mother with a child dead in her hands. She goes from place to place, all alone significantly, her face numbed, searching for a small burial space for her child which is denied to her. Near her modest dwelling space in a city, on the land nearby, near a river, in the forest, in a field, lust for ownership has not left this much space for the woman even to bury her dead child. The inhuman stony face of the affluent and the powerful is played by four well-trained dancers, led by Deepa Raghavan.
The tragic irony is accentuated with well-enunciated lines from the Bhoomi Sookta of the Atharva Veda. Mother earth is said to sustain all lives dwelling in her. Who gave right of ownership to one, denying even the bare necessity to any other? The creator of the dance piece has lines of a poem by Kerala's celebrated poet O.N.V. Kurup on 'nature losing balance' clearly recited at crucial points during its presentation. Even with traditional dance beats and musical strains from the flute and the like accompanying visuals of denial, one feels piercing silence in the air all through. The lights when used for effect get integral to the theme. Such was the impact of the performance and such the insensitivity we have come to live with, collectively, in the name of development. With empathy Six Feet Land and Us sharply focusses on the bipolar division of affluence and social deprivation.
Even as it sharpens creative thinking, art extends horizons of empathy. On hearing of a calamity in which four women of a family - the eldest woman, her daughter and two daughters-in-law - becoming widows within the span of a year, Namaha Mazoomdar, a senior disciple of Daksha Mashruwala thought of creating the dance theatre piece Hark (Hey, listen!) for Kaishiki Nrityabhasha, a Mumbai-based Odissi dance institute. It was staged on Day Two (Jan 27) as part of the 'Re-rooted Contemporary Dance Festival' at Natarani.
In absolute silence in dimmed light (Ramasamy), three of them (Anuradha, Siddhi, Namrata) enter one after another clad in white and black. Silence doesn't break as the fourth Namaha enters right from amongst the viewers walking down the steps. Taken aback, the eldest, the mother now the viewers know, looks at her, eyes held wide open. It was appropriate, they later realize, to have a young member of the family, the daughter, enter like this from a familiar surrounding.
A soft stroke on the sarod (Hriday) now, now a gentle percussion sound (Vaibhav), accentuates the uncomfortable silence. Slow motion movements, eyes downcast, palms holding the face, a hand touching own hair, a finger gently wiping a tear, without a word spoken for long, help viewers understand the tragic situation that has made them numb with distress. The performers are all Odissi dancers, one recalls. Yes, and to have the viewers get a feel of the tragedy they resort to the theatre of a special kind. Director-choreographer of Hark, Namaha, who has done a special course in movement theatre, casts the performers, including herself, in its mould. Scarcely are a few words used for communication. Instead, their body language - slow and measured movement on feet, minimal facial expression and occasional hand gestures, music - speaks. Silence predominates. The widows' emotions get communicated, and felt. The emotions stop short of getting poignant though.
There seems scope for further development. One young widow opens the window and looks out of it. She is asked, Kaun thaa? Another stands in front of a mirror. Slowly and gradually they shed physical inhibitions. They come together, interact, smile. Inertia gives way to animation. They turn to the medium of a joyous expression, the dance form, they know. They seem ready to begin with the beginning in Odissi. They form the Chaukh. They look forward. They know they need to communicate, and go on.
In the second contemporary dance piece Who?, there is a square wooden box on the stage, in which, for a change atop it for a while, Ronita Mookerji performs. And what a performance! Within its small space, so small she may barely stand on her knees in it, with full elasticity of body scantily clothed, in extremely dimmed light with a lantern in hand or by her side, she does all kinds of bewildering convulsive movements, contorting her face, hair dishevelled. She does a near shirshasan, is in the pranayam position, stretches her legs upward, spins the body, raises one leg and puts it behind the neck, and so on, at breath-holding pace.
She looked the empress of her small world. A boy, Prashant, from time to time performs in and out of the box, also on the stage, in near darkness. Viewers were all praise for Ronita's physical prowess and desire to think out of the box while performing within a box. Is it possible to spell out a coherent meaning? At times one sees a split personality being projected. At times you feel she is a claustrophile (one who has the condition of claustrophilia, a love of closed-in spaces). She certainly seems to be in an introspective mood. The boy seems intended to represent the other kind of energy, male energy, in her. Who? explores identity through a baffling contemporary medium.
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.