by Lada Guruden Singh, Chennai 

August 2002

At the recent Ashley Lobo presentation in Delhi, sweaty bodies squatted on the floor, took air splits and indulged in adroit muscle twists that snatched the breath away. Moments later... a yawn eclipsed all of it! 
At the end, it wasn't a great experience.  

Latin dancers are always better and nothing can beat Salsa. Jazz, Hip-Hop are popular in that order when it comes to body-talking. Let the body speak- is the new age mantra. But lets not have our body talk bawdy! It grows worse when dancers belonging to the dance productions such as mentioned above claim to fuse Bharatanatyam with their dance styles and fail to emote at all!  

At any given time, a gymnast would be better. In the recent past, one has noticed a perceptible shift in the way dance productions have been presented. The body has become the centre of gravity. The finer aspects of dancing, the abhinaya in east and mime in west, seem to have been cornered. Even as this aspect is restricted to the modern dancing, there is a recurring danger of even classical dance getting affected by the same. Till the time we awake to the importance of inner satvika and not sthirtha alone, we cannot say for sure, where we are headed - as dancers and dance lovers. 

This approach towards “body-dancers” and “body-dancing” is the result of witnessing the first day of Rasa Bharatam, a six-day thematic dance festival, dedicated to the navarasas or the nine emotions that channelise the human energies, organised by Natyarangam, the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha Trust at Sathguru Gnanananda Hall. Currently on, the festival started on August 29th with seasoned actress and Bharatanatyam dancer Vyjayanthimala Bali enthralling the audience with her performance.  

What caught the immediate attention of this writer was the stage setting. The nine colours in the form of coloured pleated fans were attached to the wings and the backdrop of the stage. The colours- blue, black, green, grey, yellow, golden yellow, red, white and light peach symbolized the nine rasas- beebhatsam, bhayam, sringaram, karuna, adbhutam, veeram, raudram, haasyam and shantam. A prominent feature of the setting was the face mask that adorned the top of each coloured fan. Perhaps, somewhere the stage director wanted to give the feel of each colour being an integral part of life. 

The hallmark of Vyjayanthimala's recital was her ability to lose herself in the mood of each piece. Whether she portrayed a devotee who has fallen in love with the honeyed lips of her Lord (Sringaram) or a Khandita Nayika, who mocks and ridicules the false promises of her lover (Haasyam), it showed the range of abhinaya of the dancer who is known for her expressive face in the film industry. Her performance had the rare enthusiasm and freshness of a beginner that was not lost in the rather struggling portions of nritta where more often than not, the nattuvanar's (Indira Rajan) heavy voice shadowed the dance sequences.  

Vyjayanthimala began her recital with Sringaralahari for sringaram rasa. A Neelambari kriti in Adi talam, it was strikingly dissimilar in its entire execution. Sringaram was a slow start to the evening's recital and one wondered if it would have been better for her to start with another rasa and then build up to sringaram before ending it with shantam. Karuna and bhayam were emoted superbly by the dancer. For Bhayam, a Gopalakrishna Bharati composition Varugalamo, centered round the eternal desire and fear of the untouchable Nandanar to get near his Lord's holy sanctum. 

If one may add, the importance given to the entire issue of caste hierarchy is simultaneously traditional and contemporary and time and again, dancers have depicted portions such as these. Neer angum naan ingum irundhalum for Adbhuta rasa in Kalyani ragam was dedicated to Lord Sarangapani in which the nayika remarks, “Where will I go and find someone as wonderful as you?” The astonishment and surprise was realistic in its feel, which however was diluted when the war episode was showcased in the Veeram rasa. Strangely and surprisingly, this rasa did not involve much body movement! The action was rather contained.  

The music for Raudram was composed by Vyjayantimala herself and was delineated with greater precision. Beebhatsam, for its utter notion of revulsion and disgust was perhaps, received best by the rasikas.  
The use of dance space of the stage is an interesting feature to notice the dancer's agility and ability at the same time. However, when it comes to a predominantly abhinaya item, there is a tendency to tone the movement. Thus the challenge before the dancer during an abhinaya number is to use the space in such a way that the stage looks balanced and the dance is not limited to a particular block. Vyjayanthimala's mastery over the craft could be gauged from this very fact. Even as she interspersed her recital with nritta numbers, she was conscious to move freely while depicting the navarasas. One immediately recalled a performance given by Yamini Krishnamurthy last year at New Delhi, where the alertness of the dancer was extremely impressive. One could feel, the same for Vyjayanthimala's neat recital that ended with Shanthamulekha for the Shantam rasa, depicting episodes related to Lord Rama.  

A danger that most dancer-actors and dancer-actresses face is a constant need to protect their dance from becoming merely decorative. Gopi Krishna, Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini are some dancers who have met with success in both the professions. However, even as Vyjayanthimala's captivating recital won applause hands down, it just stopped short of being outstanding.  

Rasa Bharatam was inaugurated by S Rajaram, Director, Kalakshetra .The opening ceremony was presided over by R Krishnamoorthy, President of Narada Gana Sabha. On this occasion Guru K J Sarasa was honored for her lifelong service to the world of dance. The festival concludes on 3rd September 2002. 

Lada Singh is a Bharatanatyam dancer, presently doing a course in journalism in Chennai.