Philadelphia experiences Pancha Maha Bhootham   
by Amalan, Philadelphia 

July 13, 2004   

This dance performance on Sunday, May 23 was one of the unique concerts of this year on a subject that is often encountered in Hinduism and related mythology. What made the performance unique was the way this age-old concept was presented. Shoba Sharma and the Naatya Ensemble presented a depiction of the five primordial elements with distinct sequences to articulate the characteristics of each element – water, fire, wind, earth and sky. Choreographed by the eminent dancer and guru Prof. C V Chandrasekhar, the entire performance was filled with pattern formations as the dancers wove in and out and across the stage in visually appealing sequences. There were several thaalas used in this production, including some non-standard ones. The most charming was the misra chapu, which produced a mesmerizing effect, prompting some in the audience to toe-tap along to the 7-beat cycle.  

One of the difficulties in presenting a group performance where patterns are constantly being formed and transformed is the coordination of the extent (or reach) of movements of the individual dancers with the movements’ perfect timing. Miss one or the other and you end up with unrecognizable geometrical shapes. Fortunately for most of the audience, the seats were on a suitable incline, which offered us the perspective necessary to enjoy the perfection of pattern formations. On some other occasions, I have noticed seating planes with sharp inclines, which are more suitable for watching sporting events and are not suitable for Bharatanatyam performances, because they take away the ability for most of the audience sitting at higher elevations to notice facial expressions or the fullness of dancers’ movements. The incline at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia seemed ideal for performances that specialize in geometric patterns, and as such, served the purpose well for Pancha Maha Bootham.  

The other enhancing aspect of the whole performance was the lighting. With a plain white backdrop, the effect of colored lighting during each sequence offered the necessary transformation in ambience for each of the element being depicted – the subtle changes in hues of blue for water, red for fire and so on added to the mesmerizing effect, underscoring the benefits of a good lighting director. The only downside to the lighting aspect during this performance had nothing to do with the decisions on which light to use and how much, but was with the overhead bulbs emitting the light; the numerous bulbs placed directly above the stage were exposed to the audience – the blue and orange bulbs looked like multiple moons shining at twilight, and were a bit distracting to the enjoyment of the subtle hues being brought to effect on stage at times. If those bulbs had been hidden, the mixture of light on stage would have been truly mesmerizing.  

The dancers’ movements to depict the various elements were enhanced by the use of pieces of cloth. This method worked very well, and in fact produced one of the most enjoyable moments in the entire performance. Water was depicted with a long blue cloth, which the dancers held at different points while maintaining the cloth horizontally in keeping with the direction of flow of rivers. Fire was depicted by each dancer handling a separate piece of red cloth held at one end in her hands, and the movements depicted the vertical direction of a fire’s rise. Wind was represented with pieces of yellow cloth held and moved in diagonal directions, and Earth was depicted with a single brown cloth that formed a band with no free ends. Such a band is then capable of taking any shape, thereby transferring the challenge of maintaining a square to the dancers, which was what led to one of the best dance sequences of the evening.  

Four dancers formed a square with the cloth by allowing the band to go around their waist, and the cloth was held in position purely by the gentle outward thrust provided by the relative positions of the dancers. The beauty of it all was that they continued to perform their dance steps, including hand movements, with no overt attempt to hold the cloth in place; the trick was to provide sufficient thrust to keep the band from falling but not too much thrust to strain the steps being performed. This worked so well that I wondered if the band of cloth was attached by clips to the dancers’ costumes because they had arrived on stage with the square already formed around them, and just as this thought was taking shape in my mind, the dancers made the next move of lifting the entire band over their heads! Some other appealing steps during the same sequence included the square held on a vertical plane, providing an elegant frame for a couple of dancers who appeared within, making it ‘picture perfect’.  

All these dance sequences were not only well coordinated and performed to perfect rhythm, but the use of available space itself was complete; and one couldn’t help but notice that even the last dancer exiting the stage after any of the sequences was purposefully performing the last steps too without merely rushing off to complete the exit. This is a very important aspect of thoroughness in professionalism and a joy to watch.  

The music score was composed by Professor C V Chandrasekhar who also recorded the nattuvangam. He had derived the verses from ancient texts such as Abhinava Bharati, which is Abhinava Gupta’s commentary on the Natya Shastra, and the Mahabharata. This presentation of Pancha Maha Bhootham was a well thought out choreographic effort, and the Naatya Ensemble provided ample professionalism in carrying out the ideas.