Tradition - now a trend 
Marga Festival 2004 
Text & photos: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai  

October 10, 2004   

For performing artists to make a crossover to becoming organizers, to channelise one’s creative energy into organizing and taking on what many would consider a thankless job, is not every performer’s cup of tea. But Bharatanatyam dancers Usha Vasant Kumar and Unnikrishnan have done just that.  In their annual Marga festival, they showcase something different from the usual, and introduce talents who have not been exposed to Chennai audiences. Through this, they aim to help the many artistes who need a platform, to get recognition. With these words, Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan inaugurated the festival.  

Guru V P Dhananjayan, an ardent supporter of Marga, reiterated what he had said at last year’s festival – that though there are a lot of organizations in Chennai, most of them lack professionalism. Madras (we still refer to Chennai as Madras. Old habits die hard!) has always been open to new experiences in the performing arts, but have the urban audiences somehow gotten used to getting their entertainment free of charge? A Rs.50 or Rs.100 ticket is but a tiny amount to pay to encourage emerging artists of caliber. Dananjayan lauded Marga in taking the bold step to make admission strictly by tickets. Both the gurus voiced their hope for a change in the Chennai mindset - that in the years to come, audiences would throng to ticketed shows featuring the classical arts.  

Individually commencing as solo performers, Usha Vasanthkumar and Unni Krishnan stepped into the field of duet presentations in traditional as well as contemporary topics, teaching and finally organizing festivals under the Marga banner. The program started 45 minutes behind schedule, but the ever-patient Chennai audience spent time catching up on the latest happenings, since this festival is perhaps the forerunner to the forthcoming famous Chennai season of dance and music.  

This year, Marga presented an interesting mix of traditional classical Bharatanatyam by Bangalore based Sathyanarayana Raju and Anjana Anand, contemporary dance by Bangalore based P Jayachandran and his Attakalari group, and street theatre of Tamilnadu by Purisai Duraisami Kannappa Thambiran Parambarai Theru-k-koothu Mandram on the concluding evening. ‘The oldest and the latest of beautiful art forms need to be protected and encouraged, so they can flourish,’ says Usha. 

Bangalore is known for its amazing number of talented dancers and musicians and the artistes of the evening lived up to that reputation. Supported by a highly accomplished orchestra comprising Pulikesi on nattuvangam, Srivatsa on vocal, Balakrishnan on mridangam and Sarvottam on flute, Satyanarayana Raju and Anjana Anand presented a selection of items on Shiva, Vishnu and Rama.  

The Pushpanjali was followed by Anjana performing to Shankara sri giri, a composition of Swati Tirunal, in Hamsanandi ragam, adi talam. The lyrics extol the dynamic beauty of Shiva as the cosmic dancer. The Varnam by Satya was a composition of Veenai Sesha Iyer. Shiva is glorified in all his dancing exuberance as Nataraja in Thillai, ending with a procession of devotees. Satya exhibited his skill in emoting when depicting the navarasas in this item. Anjana was the Devi preparing herself for her wedding in Devi jagat janani, composed by Vasudevacharya. Set in Purvikalyani ragam, misra chapu talam, the dancer paid obeisance to the Mahishasuramardini aspect of Devi, as the destroyer of evil. The duo presented Keertanam, set to music by Madhup Mudgal to verses from the Kumarasambhavam. From wearing his usual garb of animal skin, Shiva is transformed into a bridegroom. The piece concluded with the procession leaving the bride’s home. The next 2 items were on Krishna - Krishna interacting with the gopis in Neeraja sama neela Krishna followed by a bhajan Shaam tori in Shivaranjani ragam. A piece on Hanuman as the ideal devotee through narration of various episodes from the Ramayana and Thillana composed by T V Gopalakrishnan concluded the evening’s recital.  
It was a pleasure to watch the controlled abhinaya and effortless pace of the dancers who made good use of the stage space. But it was a bit disappointing to see only a handful of dancers in the audience. Satya as well as Anjana have performed previously in Chennai, but this was their first duet performance. Sathya felt that performing on a good stage and having great gurus in the audience was a memorable experience. “Dancers should open their eyes and minds and come to watch everybody’s performance. Attending a ticketed show should be viewed as a small gesture in helping promote Indian performing arts,” said Sathya. Anjana has been eager to perform in Chennai, where so much cultural activity is happening. She feels it may not be possible to attend all programs, but “it would be nice to see a new name and come and see what’s going on.”  

The 2nd day featured contemporary dance group Attakalari, under the direction of Jayachandran, who did not perform himself. The dancers have trained in Bharatanatyam, yoga, Indian folk forms, martial art Kalari, and modern dance. The items presented were choreographed by Jayachandran as well as by senior members of the group. The evening took off with an excerpt from a full-length production Transavatar (presented in March 2003 at Music Academy), choreographed by Jayachandran. It was a multi-media presentation with integrated sound by Joseph Hyde and digital design by Christian Ziegler. Digital images were projected on a see-through gauze placed in front of the stage and the dancers’ graceful movements behind it were highlighted by the imaginative lighting design of Helen Cain. Nitin Sawhney has composed the music for the 2nd piece Psalm. Sakhi was choreographed and performed by two female dancers. The piece explored the intricacies of relationship. No Way Out was choreographed and performed by N Abhilash and K S Deepak. The movements depicted ‘the conflict between what is and what could be: the struggle between the world of reality and that of individual dreams.’ 

The final piece Reflections, choreographed by Jayachandran, was an excerpt from a full-length production featured at the opening of the Attakalari Biennial in Feb 2004. It was a well-attended show. Energetic applause and loud cries of appreciation from the predominantly young crowd, greeted every piece. Na Muthusamy, director of theater group Koothu-P-Pattarai, called it, “a beautiful show. Like modern poetry has broken away from the shackles of grammar, I am happy that modern dance has also broken free from the shadow of Bharatanatyam. I don’t mean anything adverse by that, just that one needs to have a modern sensibility.” Jayachandran on his part was touched by the enthusiastic reaction of the audience. “They may not be very articulate in dance terms, but the reaction of all the people in the audience, especially the young, has been fantastic.”  

Street theatre is a popular art form in Tamilnadu and the audience for it is mainly in the villages where plays are staged for the better part of the night. A mixture of music, spoken words and dance, the episodes are mainly taken from the Mahabaratha and sometimes from the Ramayana. Condensing the Draupadi Vastrabaranam episode from the Mahabaratha to 3 hours, members of the Purisai Duraisamy Kannappa Thambiran Paramparai Theru-k-koothu Mandram under the direction of Purisai K Sambandan, gave an energetic and entertaining presentation – to a sparse audience. The simple folk I met after the show bore little resemblance to the vibrant characters on stage. They were totally transformed into the jealous and arrogant Duryodana, scheming Sakuni, the vain and vengeful Dushasana, and the compulsive gambler Dharma. Arjuna and Bhima had only marginal roles. The female roles of Draupadi and Kanthari - mother of Kauravas - were played by men.  

Simple and effective street theatre techniques were used to denote props and accessories.  A cloth held aloft by 5 invited members of the audience, signified a palace and the reams of material that Dushasana pulls as he disrobes Draupadi, half hidden behind the tirashila (screen), were effective. The long string tied to Draupadi’s hair signified her long tresses that Dushasana pulls to subdue her. The costumes were bright and colorful without the gaudiness sometimes associated with street theatre. The colorful faces of the lead male characters were painted with intricate patterns - green (Arjuna), red, black & ochre (Duryodana and Dushasana), black (Bhima), shades of ochre (Dharma and Sakuni). The crisp dialogues and lyrics, interspersed with simple steps combined with energetic twirling around the stage for effect, were eminently watchable and enjoyable. The orchestra, an integral part of the performance, was seated at the back of the stage.  

Sambandan belongs to the 6th generation of koothu artistes. Though he generally portrays the lead characters, he did not perform actively in the play because of health problems. He feels that in cities like Chennai, people are not very aware of the traditional arts. So through festivals such as this, the present generation in cities can be exposed to traditional forms, and thus help the form survive.  

“Art is a solution, which gives promise in a world of dishonesty, influence and crime. It involves the heart and so it is true and sincere,” says Unni. Into its third year now, the Marga Festival is still in its infancy. The attendance at this year’s festival has been better than last year’s. Perhaps, the Chennai audience, which has been much touted as discerning, will live up to its reputation and make it at least a near full house next year!  

The Marga Festival took place at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai, on Sept 30, Oct 1 & 2, 2004.

Lalitha Venkat is the editor of