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Naattumozhi: The mystique of the vernacular
- Padma Jayaraj
Photos courtesy: Kishore

May 20, 2019

Sila Performing Arts Festival hosted a four day cultural event (April 28 to May 1, 2019) in Regional Theatre, Thrissur. One unique piece staged was Nattumozhi by Rajashree Warrier. Popular in many venues she is exceptional in many ways and is noted for her research as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Rajashree presented a two hour program. It included the customary Guruvandana, a short piece based on the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan's poem "Nee mattume en nenjil" presented as padam music by Arunprakash in Kapi, an item on Andal and "Manasa sancharare." What stood out was her stand-alone item Nattumozhi.

Naattumozhi is an experimental dance recital, a departure from the familiar tenets of Bharatanatyam. She goes back to the roots of Bharatanatyam mode of the devadasi repertoire to highlight a narrative that resonates with folk experience. The lyrics and singing style is cast as Bhagothi Chindu, a parallel to Kavadi Chindu popular in Tamilnadu. The entire work is born of her creativity. She has composed both the lyrics and music for her choreography. Lighting creates a lyrical charm, highlights its mystical aura adding depth and dimension to the recital. The three components work in harmony radiating an enchantment. According to Rajashree, "Naattumozhi explores the ethnic self of the cultural fabric of India manifested in its songs and spoken word. The myriad art forms around me have inspired my dance but strictly within the structure of Bharatanatyam."

Bhagothi Chindu tells the tale of Bhagothi, the primordial Mother Goddess worshipped by the hill tribes of the Ghat regions of Kerala. The nuances of the language and the rhythmic beats give it a folk touch. Here is the tale that spreads in the village. Naattumozhi evolves from a rumor that stirs the rural heartland of southern India. The episode is an incident that spans a day and night. Occurring in a village, the rumour is a riddle to begin with, that 'someone, is missing...' and the search begins... 'who is it?' And it goes on 'Ankeyirike...,Inkeyirike...'

The dancer builds up a village, its terrain and its local colors in a charming sequence of visuals rare in Bharatanatyam performance. The music and the rhythm based on chindu gives it life and its ethnic self. Rooted in ritualistic moorings, an Indian village is sculpted in all its simplicity. As the news travels, the tale of a run-away maiden, the traditional heartland of India emerges centre stage. Music, beats from mridangam punctuated by the refrain 'She is gone...she is gone' countless times, deepens the mystery. The folk get excited, mystified, and enthralled. The mystique becomes magical in the tribal settlement.

Life in its infinite variety is cast like a ritual in a sequence of visuals. Rural rhythms punctuate the day and its activities starting from early morning, the streaming light showing the break of dawn, when a woman wakes up yawning, tying up her hair ready for workaday world. She takes a pot and moves towards a well, draws water, smiles at one carrying a pot on her head and another on her waist swaggers home. Then she bathes her children, feeds them, runs after a toddler with a plate in hand and soon hurries out as if speaking to companions.

The women are the work force. Brimming with life-sustaining activities, the farming community at work is presented through planting, threshing etc. A jathi with a specific mudra segregates each sector. The coconut palms give work, produce, and protection. The fish seller is a beautiful visual. A woman carrying a basket load of fish on her head, smells her arms, wrinkles her nose indicating the fishy smell, but moves on listening to the gossip, for we can hear the refrain "ponaal...ponaal.." in the background. They relax gossiping as they work. They enjoy playing games. Even life's angst is captured. The most telling picture is that of a woman seated stretching her palm (presumably in front of a fortune-teller). As the refrain "ponaal... ponaal..." resounds she draws her hand as if afraid to know the truth about her angst; maybe the runaway maiden is the cause.

By now the search gathers momentum of its own exploring the mystical. Lighting casts a spell creating the appropriate aura for a magical realism close to revelation. The search explores the haunt of the wild: the green canopy, the home of birds and animals. Lo, she is veiled in green; hidden in Nature, immanent in rain, streams, and rivers. Green melts away to flood the dancing figure in red. She attains womanhood; she gives birth to her baby; She remains the Mother who sustains the land and all its beings. The streaming red evokes the color of blood, birth pangs and the red dress of the Goddess. The word 'green' is repeated like a chant; 'Green' emerges as the leitmotif in a symphony. She is Mother Earth, Mother Nature, the ethnic self of rural India glorified in the vernacular, in its songs and stories as old as the stones under trees in our tribal clusters.

The ecological and spiritual dimension of the lost world is captured in the concept of the missing woman. The plant world is devoid of its pristine glory. The missing entity is the soul of Nature. Bhagothi Chindu brings back memories lost to the modern world, elevating the feminine in our consciousness. Bharatanatyam format uplifts the folk and liberates them spiritually. Performed to misra chapu the presentation is a testimony to the dancer's histrionic talent, her dance a perfect balance between nritta and nritya. Geometrically choreographed adavus were executed to jathis with a specific mudra to segregate and unite episodes.

Music breathes life into the dance recital with Nilamperoor Suresh Kumar on the nattuvangam, Kalamandalam Sreerang on the mridangam, and V Soundrarajan on the veena. Since the lyrics are minimal, rhythm and short-paced tunes play a vital role to sustain the performance. The veena is subdued, but pervading divinity. Lighting by Sivan Venkitangu is remarkable in enhancing the nuances. It indicates the passage of time. The shades of green create its ecological dimension. The streaming red that highlights womanhood, motherhood and the deified Mother is highly evocative. And it reminds of the pain of creation, that there is pain when beauty is born. The use of pools of light with the dancer in the middle shows what lighting can do to elevate and suggest. Sivan is a promise for the future in this less explored field, especially in Kerala.

I remained awake far into the night. The dance transported me to a childhood memory of a small village shrine in Maruthamalai near Coimbatore. I remember the flickering lights around the deity, her devotees, mostly women and children on a hillock, rhythmic beasts on a rustic drum, in gathering dusk. Those days the Bhagothi resided in the woods, in nature, but then it was once upon a time.

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