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Voices: Art and beauty in transmission
- Eliane Beranger

April 28, 2019

For her first Bharatanatyam solo recital in France, Srinidhi Raghavan came to Mandapa, in Paris. This is the very same stage and place where some years ago her mother, Usha Ramaswamy-Raghavan, performed and taught. For Srinidhi's performance on March 31, 2019 Usha was present again, this time in the audience, welcomed by her own public who were happy to see her, greedy to discover her daughter and disciple, and charmed by the music she composed to sustain the fully personal choreographies created by Srinidhi.

A rare and amazing program indeed, sensitive, keenly and subtly composed - six items displayed the large richness of this style and the deep talent of Srinidhi Raghavan. At the very beginning, during the pushpanjali, the devotional spirit carried away the entire audience, where, besides well-informed connoisseurs, we could find new spectators who were impressed, as they told us afterwards. Then Srinidhi offered us strong and deep references from Indian culture, using lesser known events, giving them life with a new angle.

From the Ramayana, Srinidhi selected the last moments of Dasaratha's life in an original piece that she researched and choreographed herself. Lamenting to his wife, Dasaratha remembers his own fault (the killing of the young son of a blind couple). This is the moment from where the whole story of the Ramayana is born. Srinidhi's triple interpretation of the interwoven sufferings of the youth in despair, of the young hunting prince becoming conscious of his responsibility and that of the old king facing the huge consequences of his grave mistake, was simply "a must watch".

From the Mahabharata, she took the Kunti character and followed her throughout her life, again in an original work she choreographed herself. We could successively observe Kunti as a young playful girl, as a nice and devoted princess serving an irascible Sage, as a devotee conscious of the greatest boon she had received, as a joyful young lady greedy to test her power, then overwhelmed by the darshan of the Sun God, and finally as a woman oppressed by the fight within her between the loving mother in despair and the social duty of an Indian princess. Then with a simple and clever detail in the costume, Srinidhi became an older woman facing all her responsibilities as a mother, despairing in the terrible destiny of her whole family. Believe me when I say this - I saw several people in the audience silently was palpable.

The next piece was one of humor describing Krishna and his games with a gopi in the padam Thottuthottu pesa varan in the ragam Behag. Once again Srinidhi did not approach this in a straightforward way but instead she organized the story in an original and subtle manner, fitting with her style. We then turned to the everyday human in the next piece, Adhuvum solluval in the ragam Sourashtram, depicting a woman gossiping about a girl next door. This was really an innovative portrayal of a rather well-known story. As expected, the Thillana in the ragam Hamsanandhi was a purely delightful series of moments.

The whole audience experienced so much that night. But for an expert, a Sahrdaya, we could enjoy much more. Due to her rich double culture - born in Chennai, raised in London and living in the United States - taught by her mother and her aunt (Malathy Thothadri in Madras/Chennai) in the most traditional style, Srinidhi is deeply impregnated by two ways of life, both Eastern and Western. Therefore, she can strengthen the originality of the selected themes by treating them in an intelligent, subtle and rich manner. Her mudras and abhinaya are fully traditional with the right nuanced but decisive shift which leads the rasa for a modern audience, Indian or not. I guess only well-trained spectators could note it, but for sure everybody was happy to be so clearly in sync with one another and with the dancer when age-old stories and the eternal state of human nature were brought to life on stage.

I still have to reveal one more thing, again for an informed audience: when the different pieces were performed together, we could experience the whole range of the navarasa, reflecting the greatness of this Indian art. As I wrote in the last line of my notes on the performance that evening on the spot: it was "just perfect".

Eliane Beranger has been working with Indian dance since 1976. A Bharatanatyam dancer herself, she is also a member of Centre Mandapa (a premier institution in France dedicated to promoting arts and culture), and several other cultural organizations. As a scholar and as a dance anthropologist, Eliane considers all the traditional performing arts still alive in the world as pure temporary forms.