PILLAYAR ON THE ROAD 
by Mithran Devanesen, Chennai 
e-mail: mdevanesen@yahoo.com 

April 2002

Just back from a national tour of Gajaanana with Anita Ratnam and her troupe, covering New Delhi, Koltaka and Mumbai. No mean effort this as it involved zig-zagging around the country with a troupe of 17. 

 
For those of you who have not seen Gajaanana, it’s a modern presentation of some of the stories weaved around India’s best-loved God Ganesha. The performance combines traditional Bharatanatyam and not so traditional Bharatanatyam, Thapatam, Oyilattam, Silambu, the chanting of Vedic hymns and Harikatha. Perhaps for the first time, dancers are given a voice. The live orchestra provides a wonderful percussion based accompaniment led by the versatile N K Kesavan accompanied by Padamanabha Das (Edakka), Venkataraman (Vocals) and Subhashri (Nattuvangam). 

The performance starts dramatically by one of the dancers having a cloth tied around the head and face to emerge as a striking image of Pillayar. To those of us in the South used to Therukoothu tradition this may not be so new but to North Indian audiences it came as a surprise and was greeted by loud applause. Anita, playing Parvati from whose sweat, sandanam (sandalwood paste) and a bit of clay Lord Ganesha is born, holds the piece together using narrative, slokas and chants as a Harikatha performer would. 
 
Gajaanana ends with a joyful procession of Ganesh being carried to the sea. The troupe consisted of Yagna Prabha, Vidya Prabha, Anusuya, Dayalakshmi, Anusha Natarajan, Sangeeta Isvaran, Narendra Kumar, Madhusudhanan, Vasanth, Palani, N Srikanth and Thanjai Rangarajan, the acclaimed Thappattam drummer.  
Pillayar on the beach
What was unique about this tour was the cross section of audience we played to. In New Delhi we performed for the faculty and student body of Delhi University in a path breaking cultural event held for the first time at the university. It was a coming together of writers, painters and performers. Author Shobhaa De was in the audience as also Vice Chancellor Nayyar. 

Delhi University has been quite moribund and I read in the papers that the syllabus in some subjects like B.Com have not been revised in over 15 years!! So this event to broaden the ‘U’ horizons came like a breath of fresh air. 

Kolkata was a different kettle of fish. Gajaanana was showcased as part of the Uday Shankar Shatabdi Samaroh, the Sangeet Natak Akademi festival of contemporary dance. The 1,500 strong audience was made up of the cognoscenti of the city and many young and not so young dancers. Kolkata is a city with a soul, not found in the other metros and the City of Joy gave its heart to Gajaanana. At the end of the performance, the show was greeted with cries for more and Anita and the troupe were mobbed by autograph seekers and numerous young dancers who wanted to know if they could come to Chennai and be trained by Arangham Trust.  

The only sour point in getting to Kolkata from Delhi by train was the journey through Bihar where they have no respect for the words “reserved compartment” (IIA/c) and even tried to man handle some of the female dancers. Complaints to the police fell on deaf ears. Reaching Kolkata was a relief to the troupe, especially when we discovered that most taxis are electronically metered and they will hand you back change!! 
 
From Kolkata to Mumbai and a total switch of audience, Performance was at the Grand Maratha Sheraton, India’s only seven-star hotel and a private viewing for the bigwigs of Dow Chemicals and Dow executives from around the globe. Staged outdoors at the Royal Gardens, Gajaanana was quickly adapted for the business crowd and as always kept the audience on the edge of their seats. (In more ways than one. The lawn had been watered and the chairs kept sinking into the wet soil!) I had the luxury of flying from city to city and was a keen spectator of the security measures taken at each airport. Kolkata was the most thorough. All hand baggage and human beings were thoroughly checked. The most lax was Mumbai. Some passengers had their cigarette lighters taken away. Others were allowed through! Am glad to report that Chennai security has been beefed up.  
Pillayar in the train
And so after 10 days we headed back home. Gajaanana goes into its silver jubilee and the next time it comes around, catch it – you won’t be disappointed.   

 
The writer is a Chennai –based artistic director and a set designer.  
Courtesy: City Express, The Indian Express, March 21, 2002.