A Report 

Dance mania in December  

Malathi Iyengar and the Rangoli Dance Company 
- December 22, 2004 at Indira Nagar Youth Hostel, Chennai  
Text & photos: Lalitha Venkat 

December 26, 2004

For the third year in succession, Malathi Iyengar from California with members of her Rangoli Dance Company and guest artistes from India, were performing at the NRI Festival of Dance and Music conducted by Hamsadwani.  The evening started with an invocation item dedicated to Goddess Rajarajeswari in the Bharatanatyam style by Lakshmi Iyengar, Hema Iyer, Kirti Ramgopal, Padmini Upadhaya, and Deepa Narayan. This was followed by prayers to Nataraja and Krishna in Kathak style performed by Murali Mohan from Bangalore. The costumes were all in shades of red / maroon, and unfortunately, so was the faded and shabby maroon backdrop. Murali Mohan’s costume was also in a maroon shade!  
Punyakoti, a Bharatanatyam dance theatre presentation by Malathi Iyengar and group formed the second half of the evening. Designed specially for families and children, it is inspired by a folk tale called ‘Govina Haadu' (The song of the cow), from Karnataka. The music composed by Rajkumar Bharathi has been pre-recorded along with the narrative.  

In the first scene, the cowherd is seen with his cows. The cows even have names, and one of them is Punyakoti, played by Malati Iyengar. When the tiger Arbuta catches Punyakoti, she begs him for a few minutes leave to bid farewell to her son before he made a meal of her. Renjith Babu showed imagination and energy in portraying the menacing strides of the evil Arbuta. The next scene shows the mother and son (Fayil Bikmouline) bidding tearful farewells, with the other cows watching in sorrow. Arbuta cannot believe his eyes when Punyakoti returns and thus keeps her word. Punyakoti’s lament was well portrayed by Malathi. The last, soul-searching moments of a penitent Arbuta, how he lopes to a nearby cliff (a small stool covered in black cloth), and jumps to the ground in shame, rolling across the stage before collapsing in a heap, was beautifully performed by Renjith. How he managed to do that on the hard stage floor and not get hurt is a miracle in itself!!  

Since the story revolves around Punyakoti and the tiger, Malathi and Renjith have the prominent roles. Fortunately, the simple white saris with red border worn by the dancers who portrayed the cows, stood out against the maroon backdrop. As a production, the appeal is more for a younger age group, especially the explanation preceding every scene.  
Once the identity of the ‘cows’ has been established, more variety in movements should be brought in to avoid monotony setting in, to give the dancers a better visibility instead of being relegated to the background and also to appeal to a wider audience.  

When a festival like this has become a yearly feature, the organizers would do well to first provide a decent, basic stage décor – a plain black or dark blue backdrop and neat side wings is a must. It hurt to see side wings of varied shades as well as benches and chairs stacked on the sides! Sometimes, a shabby stage décor could make even a good production appear mediocre.  

After the performance, Malathi presented a copy of her book “Dance and Devotion” to Bharatanatyam guru V P Dhananjayan. It was heartening to note that quite a few, including some prominent dance gurus, had turned up for the performance though the venue is a little out of the way. (The location is however good for rasikas who live in this part of Chennai). A visibly touched Malathi spoke of the difficulties involved for artistes who travel across the world in order to share their creativity. 

What is the inspiration behind this theme? 
The feelings of a mother, of nurturing, are universal.  

How do you feel about performing here in the Chennai season? 
We have no home in Chennai, and have to stay in hotels and coordinate our shows. But I feel wonderful, because I have slowly gained trust and faith and friends.  I don’t have any family members here, but it feels like a large family. I feel happy that people who are conscious of dance, music and art were here this evening. It did not matter where we performed. What mattered was, we were surrounded by people who cared.  

This is called the NRI (Non Resident Indian) Dance and Music Festival, presented every year by Hamsadwani. Are you happy that there is such a festival?  
The NRI tag is like a stigma and I hope it will go away soon, so people will begin to look at art for arts sake, look at our work with an open mind and not feel that, “Some NRI is performing.”  

We are also Indians; we were born here. It’s our land. Only thing is, right now we are far away from India, thousands of miles away. There are lots of artistes outside India who are genuinely already doing good work with sincerity and integrity, or want to learn to do better. We will feel more welcome, if our work is accepted with a little bit more open mindedness. Good or mediocre, I think the work of Indians from overseas needs to be looked at and to be taken seriously, because a lot of research, expense, hard work and physical labor go into it. 

What about facilities available to you here? 
We definitely need a decent stage, and some basic sound and lighting, for which I had to coordinate everything here. We need some sort of support system to let people know about our work, some communication. It is very hard for us to not only rehearse and run errands, but also to call people – many expect to be invited personally.  

Actually, we have had no prior information about who is performing at this NRI festival. One has to see the paper daily for details. 
I had sent information long ago, almost 2 months ago, but nothing ever came. Ever since I sent it, it appeared immediately only in narthaki. I saw it in Kutcheri Buzz and this morning, it appeared in The Hindu. We definitely need help for people to find out about our work. Coming from somewhere else, it’s exhausting to do all this publicity here by ourselves. But we will do as much as possible as long as we can! I suppose this is a part of creativity, the sense of achievement…we can’t give up.  

What about the production and travel expenses? 
We bear all the expenses – music composition, travel, hotels, paying the dancers, getting costumes made… If you are an NRI, the expectations are more. I have absolutely no support…for anything.  

But you will still come to Chennai for the next season and maybe perform?  
It may not be just the season. What is important for me is to show and share my work in India. This seems to be a slightly comfortable time to visit because of the holidays there and so much is going on here. We get to see other people perform and I like to see other people’s work too. It will be heartening for me to know that what I am working on has some legitimacy, some substance, something that matters…I want to feel accepted by a, b, c, d, e…by people here, who are part of this culture.  

It is easy to get compliments. A compliment comes and goes. But I get a good feedback here, and it helps me to see what else I can do to better myself. That matters more to me. That’s why I like to come here!   

(Presented by Hamsadhwani as part of the 10th NRI Dance and Music Festival).