- Navya Maitri Konda
Photo: Manoje Pandalam
June 12, 2019
Often, the most poignant calls to action do not surface from direct declarations on the issues at hand. Instead, they stem from show not tell approaches, build an emotional quality that in turn evokes a deep sense of responsibility in the audience to think and to act upon issues. The preview of Samudra Dance Creation's Earth Speaks - staged at the San Francisco International Arts Festival on May 25, 2019 - did just this. A conglomeration of Jyotsna Vaidee's script, direction, and choreography, Snigdha Venkataramani's musical score, and Alyssa Ninan Nickell's spoken word poetry, the presentation left audience members inspired and emotionally charged.
Personifying the Earth as a woman, the production centers around the synonymous nature between the Earth and the Self and the journey of self-discovery required to appreciate the interconnectedness and to build upon Earth's roots. Consequently, Jyotsna Vaidee (who played Mother Earth) wore red, symbolizing the source of this Earthen bloodline, while the other dancers wore red blouses on white costumes to highlight the undeniable presence of the bloodline in all forms of creation. Indeed, the 3 chapters of Earth Speaks presented at the festival highlighted the creation, preservation, and (impending) evolution of the Earth, in so doing illuminating this journey of discovery further.
Part 1: The Birth
The first chapter illustrated the creation of the Earth 4.563 billion years ago; at a time when modern conceptions including time and direction did not exist, newborn Earth was forced to eventually reconcile these notions and to understand its inherent characteristics through which it perpetuates the elements, seasons, and circle of life. Likewise, the chapter began with a spoken word depicting the Earth in the womb and choreographically featuring a rotating upper body movement until she is birthed. Mother Earth then danced with abandon with large movements and ample stage coverage, until she began to recognize the confines of directions, elements, and seasons. At this juncture, the other dancers joined Mother Earth on stage, and the choreography featured Mother Earth performing smaller movements while encapsulated by the 4 other dancers. The 4 dancers then portrayed various living forms, with the musical score featuring the repeated verse, "Matah Bhumi Putroh Aham Pruthiviyah" ("I am the child of Mother Earth"), these living beings realized their inherent connection with Mother Earth. In so doing, the significance of the spoken word verse, "We are the Earth. I am she" came to life.
Part 2: The Preservation
This next section of the story shed light on those who worked to preserve Earth's magnificence, particularly the village women involved in the Chipko movement; however, instead of illustrating every detail of the movement directly, Jyotsna Vaidee chose to construct a similar yet parallel narrative, giving audience members the agency to envision and to connect with the movement from there. In accordance to the foundations of this movement in North India, this section featured a musical score of all Hindustani ragas. With numerous characters involved in this chapter, the versatile usage of red scarves not only signified transitions but also alluded to the idea that all living things are cut from the same cloth.
The section began with the growth of a tree and how individuals empathize with the tree as they grow as well. While episodes including hide-and-seek and napping and waking to falling fruit were showcased, the resemblances to the universal children's book, Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, and the usage of the "akkad bakkad" clapping game evoked a sense of familiarity in the audience. The story went on to introduce village women, with the scarves being used as the doughnut-shaped potholders; later, these same scarves were used to wrap around the trees. At this juncture, an alarippu was employed to show the development and literal flowering of a tree; it was immediately juxtaposed with the sharp sollukattu and movements of the loggers. The preview of the chapter concluded with the loggers destructing the forest and left the audience—in the midst of the gut-wrenching cello and powerful djembe—contemplating the spoken word verse introduced prior, "But I will rise for I am the Earth still, and I will stand with those who remember that they are the Earth still."
Part 3: The (Impending) Evolution
Perhaps the most masterful chapter of the production was the concluding section of the preview. Strategically devised to ignite thought about Earth's future, this section did not directly address the current state of affairs. Instead, it propagated thought about climate change by doing quite the opposite, celebrating the Earth for its present magnificence. Set to a seamless track featuring the Sufi poem, "Kinaray Kinaray", and a tarana, the dancers danced with candles, to symbolize the unwavering hope to keep the Earth alive. This ironic yet heartwarming celebration carried with it a deeply emotional and empowering quality that left few dry eyes in the audience. The prominence of mei adavus and other circular movements and formations also alluded to the audience's ability to keep the Earth rotating and healthy.
Overall, it is the seamless musical track masterfully composed by Snigdha Venkataramani and executed by Ravindra Bharathy Sridharan (percussions), Chethana Sastry and Jyotsna Vaidee (nattuvangam), Vikram Raghukumar (violin), Ashwin Krishnakumar (flute), Misha (cello), and Arun Vishwanathan (djembe), that paved this journey of self-discovery, while the spoken word verses by Alyssa Ninan Nickell punctuated the stillness of the Bharatanatyam medium and added scope for reflection. Jyotsna Vaidee's powerful choreography- which prominently featured rounded and rotating movements to allude to Earth's constant revolutions - was brilliantly performed by Kaavya Ram, Shreya Iyer, Surya Ravi, Yashoda Patankar, and Jyotsna herself, with the impeccable lighting design by Danielle Ferguson augmenting the message. Ultimately however, it was the poignant connection made between the Earth and the Self coupled with the show not tell methods by which the message of Earth Speaks was delivered that left the audience eager to see the full-length production. Jyotsna Vaidee and Samudra Dance Creations plan on presenting the full-length production of Earth Speaks later this year.
Navya Maitri Konda is a senior disciple of Deepa Mahadevan (Tiruchitrambalam School of Dance in Union City, California). She is currently a 4th year undergraduate student at Stanford University.