Seetha: monumental Indian theatrical venture
- Roopa Shyamasundar, MI
October 24, 2006
'Ekaantha Seetha - the lonely furrow' is a much talked about magnum opus produced by Cleveland Cultural Alliance commemorating their fifteenth anniversary. After its premier show at Music Academy (Chennai), the CCA group is traveling in the US and Canada presenting it in almost 30 cities during fall 2006. It was presented at Detroit for the fundraiser of Swamy Dayananda Saraswathi's pet project AIM for SEVA. A large number of enthusiastic connoisseurs and commoners filled the hall on 24th September at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, Dearborn, MI.
The dance drama opened up surprise after surprise with interesting and different approaches. The opening Sri Ganesa procession through the audience was breathtaking and refreshing. An air of divinity pervaded the auditorium, well suited to the Indian heritage of Bhakti maarga. Totally unprepared for this, the mixed audience of Indians and Americans were transported to a different world. This set the mood for an educative, elevating and entertaining evening.
The Vaidehi episode moved the audience, especially the elderly people. The sensitive choreography and Sreelatha Vinod's in depth emotions touched the hearts. The entry of Urmila (effectively played by Anusha) was very picturesque with a see-through veil in front of her. Her swaying movements aptly indicated her as a painter. The scene of Seetha's 'agni pareeksha' is a master stroke from the Dhananjayans – an unforgettable scene. Nambu Kumar's lighting was superb throughout the production, especially for this fire scene. The scene where Seetha teaches archery to her sons (brilliantly executed by Ranjit and Madhusudhanan), the complicated rhythmic syllables for the Aswametha horse fight between Lakshmana and Lava-Kusa and finally the earth splitting and Seetha vanishing through, are examples of choreographic marvel. Two male dancers acting the role of horse Aswametha caught the attention of the audience with their majestic galloping steps in intricate rhythm. The technique of Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and some martial art elements were used appropriately in the Vaidehi episode.
Surprise sprang in when a bard (Dhananjayan) sang the glory of Jhansi Rani to Hindi poems in folk tunes, followed by drum dance and Manjeera dance. Total transformation from an epic classicism to rustic era of history. The music and dance movements were totally different from the earlier one. Choreography changes from the angular and symmetric Bharatanatyam mode to more lucid, swinging and swaying movements. There is no set dialogue between characters; it was more like tabloid narration of the story line. Simple Hindi lyrics intermittently sung in Hindustani ragas, set the background music without directly gesticulating or interpreting the words. The expression through body movements and postures communicated the situations vividly. It was easy for the non-Indian audience to follow the story line, since musical expression is more universal than unfamiliar words.
There were unpredictable sequences of master touches in the entrance of the mature Jhansi Rani (brilliantly portrayed by Sujatha Srinivasan). The tillana music and the Kathak like steps lend itself to the region of the story. The character of Jhansi as a valiant woman of feminine charm, her interest in educating men and women alike, supporting the art and artisans, were imaginatively woven. At the end of it the entrance of the British officer - Hugh Rose (excellently portrayed by Thiruchelvam) was a striking contrast switching from the music of the Hindustani raga to British band music. This change of mood indicated the foreign invasion into the dance idiom also. The British emissary's steps are akin to Ballet walk, yet keeping the dignity of an army officer. Hats off to the choreographer for thoughts of those minute details – it impressed the discerning audience. Announcing the child's death is yet another masterly stroke in the canvas of motionless emotion.
The war scenes reflected a different texture with original sound track of sounds of guns and clattering of swords and galloping horses. This is a contrast to the epic war sounds of musical instruments in Vaidehi. Jhansi's departure may evoke controversy in the historic facts, but visually the last scene is very touching. Carrying her body against hues of the setting sun on the back curtain was poignant.
Aparajitha threw yet another surprise from the Dhananjayans, whose name and fame goes synonymous with classicism in the field of performing arts. One may wonder how a present day small town scene in Tamilnadu could be depicted in Bharatanatyam. The master craftsman takes the audience through a typical Tamil marriage, with a comical Nadaswaram party, intruding photographer, ceremonies. A street scene with hawkers, water truck, ladies fighting for drinking water, a drunkard, a bully intimidating the shop owners etc, all these in casual miming and simple drum beats kept the children and adults (8 to 80) glued to their seats, laughing away in nostalgic memories of their childhood days in their respective village or town. Aparajitha (very sensitively portrayed by Pavitra Srinivasan) segment is a commoners' delight with brilliant patches of pure classical Bharatanatyam, folk elements, contemporary music and movements.
The success of this dance theater production can be attributed to the talent of the participating artistes. Every one of them seems well trained and experienced. It looks like the dancers have a free hand and their bubbling energy comes through free movements of contemporary nature.
The music by maestro TV Gopalakrishnan (having known him as mridanga vidwan) is monumental and in handling three types of musical composition (Carnatic, Hindustani and fusion music), TVG has beautifully matched the choreography of the Dhananjayans.
The aesthetically designed costumes and ornaments blended very well with the period of the story. The designer Laskhmi Srinath deserves all praise. The simple and suggestive stage settings by Lakshmi Krishnamurthy are imaginative without intruding into the dance. The concept and script by Ranjitha Ashok effectively bring the strength of these heroines, but Aparajitha is a weak storyline to be understood by the audience in general, since Vaidehi and Jhansi has the embedded plot to follow.
Kudos to Ratna Kumar and Shanta Dhananjayan for their excellent narratives with gesticulations. Everyone in the audience liked the comments made by these bards, especially Ratna Kumar's pungent remarks in Aparajitha hits the audience straight.
Having made all the positive comments, there are also a few points of criticism to be made. The main disappointment is that the Dhananjayans' participation in the dance is very minimal. People expected to see the veterans perform a little more than what they witnessed. Dhananjayan's histrionic abilities did not come through the small roles he portrayed.
Three different episodes in a row for an evening is rather tiring. And the connections between them are not established. Each one stands as a lonely furrow. Individually they are great pieces, but collectively, the presentation sags towards the end. Though the fight scenes are interestingly and differently choreographed in each episode, connoisseurs of Bharatanatyam do not have the patience to witness repeated fights.
Expectations were more for song and rhythmic sequences. That way the Dhananjayans disappointed the rasikas. The music for Vaidehi in patches is exquisite, but using of synthesizer brings down the classicism. The orchestration in Jhansi Rani is brilliant but at times very noisy. Aparajitha music is cacophonic in patches. Some voices with shrill notes are not palatable and the recording quality could have been better.
Though the title 'Ekaantha Seetha' misleads the people initially, the attempt on the part of CCA to create novel presentations in the Indian context is highly creditable. On the whole, this monumental Indian theatrical venture is certainly a valuable experience for any one to cherish.
Roopa Shyamasundar is the director of Nrityollasa.