Tropical Ruislip!  
-Richard Turner reviews Usha Raghavan and students in Vande Vasudevam 

September 18, 2004   

A late summer Sunday, and we journey to the outer suburbs of northwest London, where the city meets the country and the cosmopolitan meets the contemplative. For Vande Vasudevam, with its deep roots in devotion, is still Bharatnatyam on the edge.  

The concept, by Malathy Thothadri, marks Shri Krishna Janmashtami with a programme of dance pieces illustrating episodes from the mythology that has developed around Him.  
Choreographer and teacher Usha Raghavan could hardly have chosen a more incongruous venue. The very name of the Winston Churchill Hall recalls a time when relations between India and England were at their worst, not least because of Churchill’s racism. Perhaps we may look upon this event as another nail in the coffin for that narrow mindset. Here in Ruislip (‘rice-lip’), sixty years on, Indians are part and parcel of a modern, outward-looking nation.  

The road becomes a lane that winds through meadows, picturesque in the sunset. Behind a screen of trees the Hall – a great, redbrick aircraft hangar of a building - is surrounded by a car park. It is full.  

Mistress of Ceremonies Neeta Bhagat introduces the musicians (of whom more later) and the first item, Pushpanjali and Shlokam. There is an expectant pause while KS Bhavani Shankar picks this late moment to tune his mridangam. Once they get going, the band is lively. Usha’s students enter as an ensemble. They are impressive in professional-looking costumes and do well, but they could smile. As the girls depart, Usha makes a smooth, overlapping entrance. Her solo is superb, with clear gestures and illuminated by her smile. The difference in experience is obvious. 

The birth of Krishna is movingly portrayed in the next item. Janany Harrichandran and Darshini Kumaranayakam join Usha to illustrate the contrast between ‘before and after’. Despair and anxiety give way to joy as mother Darshini displays the newborn. Choreography here is extremely subtle and it is difficult to understand Usha’s role at first. Adopting the character of Krishna, she is shadowed by Janany’s protective serpent.  

The more familiar dice game and attempted rape episode from the Mahabharata is dominated by the performance of Ahalya Pushparajah. She’s a noble Draupadi, having a near-perfect command of facial expression. You feel her icy and heart-stopping terror. The ensemble as a whole is excellent, with strong support from Nirmita Amin and Janany, and impressive co-ordination with the musicians.  

Usha is confident, even relaxed in her sustained solo Chinna Chinna Padam. This is a good-humoured recounting of Krishna’s defeat of the evil serpent Kalinga, in which he celebrates his victory by dancing on the snake’s head. Usha’s own steps are as light and as supple as the sung text describes: ‘Oh Krishna; Come to me on those tiny, tiny feet you danced with on the head of Kalinga.’ 

There is a long pause before Usha returns to give us Varanam, depicting the jealous competition between Krishna’s female admirers. The plot is very complicated, but may be summarised as: A tulsi leaf given in the spirit of true devotion is worth more than gold to Krishna, so only devotion can win his love. Perhaps Usha could have made the point equally directly, without attempting to include the entire surrounding narrative and its tendency to obscure. What works as oral tradition may not always succeed as a solo dance performance.  

Nevertheless, the piece is rewarding at the musical level. Balu Raghuraman delivers his usual neat, crisp phrasing on violin, and Usha easily rises to the challenge of some complex cross-rhythms from KS Bhavani Shankar.  

The first half concludes with a Kirtana, Brahman O Kathay, the text courageously opposing the caste system. This features all eight students and the girls have really tightened up since I saw them in rehearsal. Again, the costumes help, but the performance is smooth and the mood joyous.  

During a long interval, we get to hear a recorded veena recital. With the MC’s mike left open backstage, we also hear the students’ laughter, fragments of conversation and the sound of ankle bells. The steady and disconcerting traffic of parents and other relatives through the stage door during the performance becomes a stream. A professional director would discourage such indiscipline.  

Opening a shorter second half, the famous ‘stealing butter’ story is dramatised from the perspective of Yasoda. Usha’s wide eyes are reminiscent of Hema Malini’s here! The wonder at seeing the Three Worlds in Krishna’s mouth is enhanced by the powerful effect of cutting VA Aravindakshan’s vocal and allowing Raghavaraman’s flute to express what cannot be told in words. An inspired arrangement.  

Ahalya Pushparajah again demonstrates her outstanding precision and mastery of expression in a solo piece portraying Krishna as the Divine Groom. I am quite sure this young artist has a bright future at professional level. 

Reshma Patel is a surprise soloist as Meerabai. She brings enchanting life to a Meera bhajan in Hindi, depicting the pleasures of Radha and Krishna in Vrindavan. As is common with Carnatic vocalists, Aravindakshan’s Hindi pronunciation is a little unclear, but it is impossible not to be charmed by Reshma’s depiction of Holi fun and frolics. 

Usha is gracious in giving a vote of thanks to her ‘very dedicated’ students, her musicians (‘I forget to dance,’ she says of Balu), Neeta Bhagat and others.  

The show concludes with Shlokam, Thillana and Mangalam. The girls display excellent posture and technique in their performance of Usha’s glorious choreography (developed, she tells me, from a solo by Adyar Lakshman). But there are still too many worried looks of concentration amongst the students. This problem will only be ironed out by more stage experience. 

Based in London, Richard Turner, the Editor of veena Indian Arts Review.