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Dance expressions built round manifestations of divinised female and male energies

November 16, 2021

While conceiving of male and female principles as two halves of one unified deified entity, in the form of Shiva/Shakti, Hindu pantheon has, in the midst of this ingrained principle of complementariness, visualised each half in independent manifestations of supreme power. Coincidentally, separate dance events during the week, brought out the polarities of the dynamic and the gross, the physical and metaphysical, the manifest and unmanifest qualities, each of the divinities male or female is symbolised in. The one in the many and vice versa, despite all the apparent differences, ultimately represents forms to meditate upon in the endless search for that state of perfect equanimity regarded as the highest goal in life.

Trust arts activist and fierce advocate for the rights of women, Dr. Anita Ratnam, founder and managing editor of, to conceive of dance built round the theme of the 'Devi'- as the ideal expression for Navaratri celebration. Curating Devi Diaries for Narthaki, Anita Ratnam was ably assisted by members of her crew, Lalitha Venkat (manager), Seher Noor Mehra (line producer) and Surya Rao (Editor). Narthaki's 'Devi Diaries' in its second season add up to a staggering variety of dance interpretations woven round the Devi - contributed by a selected group of dancers comprising established seniors and talented youngsters, male and female, pertaining to all dance forms, classical and modern, comprising contrasts representing the idealised and the realistic.

Revolving round Goddesses, nymphs and courtesans, Indian art, theology and literature abound in representations of the Goddess in more forms than one can imagine - as the giver of good and benign energy, as the strong vanquisher of evil, as one representing the epitome of harmony among plant, animal and human life, as the energiser of matter and as the symbol of fertility etc - all, as far from conventionally upheld images of the helpless, delicate female having to be rescued by the chivalrous male, as one can imagine! Real life, sadly, in the treatment of women, does not always reflect this attitude of veneration for the female.

From 20 minute presentations from the traditional repertoire by established names, to seven to ten minutes allotted to the less experienced, the most heartening feature of these projections, at this point of stifling Covid restrictions, lies in the joy of dance - away from the cabin fever of the formal stage with an audience of ghoulish masked figures - for (barring odd exceptions by choice) the presentations are all rendered amidst nature, in the open, under blue skies amidst luxuriant trees, open sea beaches and what have you.

In this staggering collective of Devis, Ramaa Bharadvaj's performed narrative 'Sapta Yogini', with its excellent coming together of science and religious mysticism, makes for an ideal starting point for the Devi celebration during Navaratri - aiming at demystifying the nine day worship with the recitation of the Lalita Sahasranamam (the 1000 names of the Devi). Ramaa in this projection, uses simple logic to unravel what is considered too esoteric and practiced more out of faith. The entire worship ritual ultimately underlines a process of reaching out to the Divinity residing within each one, as part of the consciousness - involving the mind/body of the worshipper - not forgetting, in this cycle of connections, the dancer's instrument which is the body (regarded as the devaalaya or abode housing the Almighty, in our pantheon ). Ramaa at one point ideally weaves in (with a change in music and percussive tone) Tamil poetry from Tirumular's Tirumandiram regarding the spirituality of the body.

To guard this body mansion in which Devi also resides, the Goddess Lalita manifests from within herself, the seven Yoginis who as attendants Dakini, Rakini, Lakini, Kakini, Sakini, Hakini, and Yakini guarding the seven energy centres located in the spinal cord of the body. The Goddess Lalita journeys through these energy centres from the base of the spine to the Sahasrara pinnacle. Starting from Mooladhara at the base of the spine (providing the feel of security) she proceeds to Swadhisttanam in the region below the belly button guarding spleen, intestine activities, and on to Manipuna above the belly button imparting confidence, ascending to Anahata in the heart region presiding over emotions, moving to Vishuddhi in the throat region presiding over power of speech and self expression, and on to Ajna in the centre of the brow guarding intuitive power, ending at Sahasrara located at the top representing the crowning centre of spiritual energy which is Kundalini Shakti - ultimate self realisation. The Lalita Sahasranamam, starting with a description of the Goddess, symbolises this journey through the various energy cycles (chakras) and the prasad or offerings to the deity, on each of the nine days of Navaratri comprise food items nourishing the various energy centres in the body - uniting religion, science, and Patanjali's Yogashastra, in the short video.

The mind boggling variety has many examples where no concessions are made to the virtual medium, by forgoing or altering proscenium presentation conventions. Case in point is Geeta Chandran's rendition of Ponniah Pillai's varnam Amba Nilambari, in the unhurried, absorbed depiction invoking Goddess Brihannayaki or Anandasagari - the interpretative passages linked with immaculately rendered, crisp teermanams - with the recorded musical support, comprising Geeta's own nattuvangam expertise and vocal support by Venkatesh, whose involved, slow singing preserves the soothing quality of raga Neelambari. Again similar in not departing from proscenium conventions, was Priya Murle's Bharatanatyam homage 'Eekshana' (meaning sight in Sanskrit - referring to looking, perceiving and caring for) based on carefully selected excerpts of Devi homage from Muthuswami Dikshitar's compositions, aesthetically spun into one work, dedicated to fish-like beautiful, all-seeing and caring eyes of Madurai Meenakshi, Kanchi Kamakshi and Kashi Visalakshi. With the music in Purvi Kalyani, Kamala Manohari and Kashi Gamakakriya, Priya Murle's stately abhinaya, emerging from an inner serenity, blended conviction with movement grace.

Also not straying from the traditional Kathakali streevesham format, was Prabal Gupta's tribute to Goddess Chuzhaliswari, with base textual format composed by his Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan. With Sadanam Shivadas' soulful singing in Sopanam style in ragas Nattai, Mohanam, and Bageshwari, the dancer brought out facets of the benign Goddess, described as Chitswaroopi, Kamala Lochani, Kaantendu Sundaramukhi, Mohana swaroopam, with Karuna netre (epitomising consciousness in her benign beauty and kindness reflected in her lotus eyes).

Bringing out the understated artistry of Manipuri dance tradition, Priti Patel, aesthetically costumed as is her mode, accompanied by the throbbing fervour of the vocalist singing the song in Meitei Lon, performs inside a four pillared mandapa erected in an open green garden, the musical rhythm played on the pung adding to the lilt evoking Devi as Medini, Savitri, Gauri, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga.

Dancing by the sea, on beach sands invoking Goddess Matangi , based on verses from the Shyamala Dandakam set to raga Mohanam, Aniruddha Knight's performance shifts to green lawns of Balasaraswati's Institute of Performing Arts with picturesque tall coconut palms in the hinterland, as the music also changes to raga Surutti. It is in the fitness of things that Aniruddha, a direct descendent of Bala's clan should have selected a Sabdam, now almost obliterated from the performance repertoire of the present day Bharatanatyam dancers, in praise of Kalpagambal, the family deity. The Devi is visualised as a peahen roaming the mangroves in search of her Lord, the blue throated one - Na,Ma.Shi.Va.Ya. The accompanying music in the Bala mode, comprised vocalist Thiruvarur Girish, nattuvangam by Ravi Subramaniyam and mridangam by Adyar Gopinath.

Devi Diaries
Collage by Seher Noor Mehra

Aswathy V. Nair's Mohiniattam dedicated to Bhagavathi Tiruvattatukavu of Attingal, through the composition "Paradevate Ambe" in Todi (the Goddess as remover of illness, seemed pertinent at this Covid time), acquired added conviction from the performance space - comprising selected spots in the temple courtyard, after starting from the front of the Dhwajastambha with the tall Kerala lamps on either side.

Turned out in a simple white saree with border, sans the Koodiyattam headgear or makeup, Kapila Venu's presentation of Mahishasuravadham, begins with the female deity rising out of the fire, through the collective prayers of Vishnu and the Devas, to destroy evil Mahishasura - bequeathing on her weapons for each of her eighteen arms. With Rajeev V. and Hariharan on the mizhavu, the host of moods with the Devi rising out of the lamp fire, acquiring the various weapons, changes next to Mahishasura, madly in love, pursuing the beauteous Goddess, leading to the finale of his bloody end at the Devi's hands. While short of the fire and high passion one associates with Kapila's performances, what stood out was the expertise in wielding that mobile expressive face, and perfection of technique, with the relaxed body stance - rock firm in holding the plie - from start to finish.

A variety of performance spaces were used. Conceived and choreographed by Odissi dancer Madhulita Mohapatra, based on Nityananda Misra's script, one found the group of five well matched dancers performing on the rocky terrain of a hillock overlooking orchards and trees, very interesting. Dedicated to three manifestations of Devi - Maa Manekshwari of Kalahandi, Chamundeshwari and Durgeshwari, the fine dance formations and freezes, not to speak of the sprightly rhythmic interludes composed by Dhaneshwar Swain rendered in perfect balance on the uneven dance platform, was creditable.

Presented as tribute to friend and co-worker Shaoni Misra, Sharmila Biswas' homage to Mundamalini, Bhadrakali, trinetri Durga, is evocative in minimalism, the start with accent on the dancer's anklet clad feet slowly walking with sound of the Dhak and Ghanta, changing to the dancer taking a seated position invoking the Goddess. The magic setup by Neelay Sengupta in the studio of hibiscus, smoke and incense, auspicious pot and bright red columns of hanging sarees with Sharmila's meditative attitude, does the rest.

An example of cross influences in art, and the highest point of total involvement in the dance, was Himanshu Srivastava's Bharatanatyam dedicated to Radhika, based on a lyric in Braj Bhasha written by the dancer himself! The venue of Delhi's Zorba-the Buddha, with spacious thatched enclosure, and forest like greenery all round make an ideal setting for Radha, who epitomises sringar- reflected in collection of Prakrit poems Gatha Saptashadi and Jayadeva's Gita Govinda in Sanskrit. Described variously Radha is close to Nature and deemed as representing the link of Jeetvatma to Paramatma, or as the voice of Vrindavan where she along with the Gopis frolicked with Krishna, and much else. The divine love bonding Gopi, gopikas and Krishna makes Radha an ultimate embodiment of Krishna himself .Well crafted, the dancer's Bharatanatyam proficiency and grace, with teermanams cleanly executed on green terrain, accompanied by evocative singing and Dr. Sridhar Vasudevan's artistic inputs make for a riveting performance.

In a typical case of thinking out of the box, Kathak dancer Sangita Chatterjee's rendition of "Ya Devi Sarvabhooteshu" paying homage to Devi in myriad moods, avoided traditional Kathak footwork wizardry. Devi's gracious moods like 'Matra roopa' were expressed in soft stances with the dancer's Thata like freezes. Only when Devi as Durga destroys demons like Shumbha / Nishumba, did the dance take on a ferocity with some 'peir ka kaam'. The accompanying singing, in moments, lacked sur control.

In the unalloyed Guru Kittappa Pillai bani, combining the interpretative passages punctuated by teermanams, and taking one back to the days of Sangam literature and Tolkappiyam, is Narthaki Nataraj's Bharatanayam homage to the Goddess of War, Kottravai, based on a Silappadikaram passage "Vettuva Vari" from the scene when Kannagi and Kovalan on way to Madurai witness tribals worshipping the warrior Goddess.

A strongly expressed, unusual aspect of these Devi Diaries comprises weaving dance round some Grama devikas, or village deities like invoking of Yellamma as portrayed by Prathama Prasad Rao. Moving in a repetitive circling to the song in Kannada, sprinkling yellow powder holding the ektaari or one stringed tanpura like instrument, performing Jogathi Nritya traditionally rendered by the Jogathi community, the dance venue with a well and a snake pit close by evoke the typical Karnataka rural flavour.

Also unusual, is Kuchipudi dancer Karthika Madhavi's invoking of Kerala's Palakkad region's Kodungaloor Bhagavati - performing to lyric in a mixed Malayalam/Tamil of this region - the projection of clean movements with expression, alternating with hair open, head rolling, possessed worshipper in a trance.

Performing in the conventional Kuchipudi mode, on the cemented area of a garden, bounded by a verandah of a home on one side and potted plants on the other, is a neatly performed Durga Tarangam by Reddi Lakshmi - the traditional sahitya from Narayana Teertha's text, set to dance by Reddi's guru Jaya Rama Rao whose nattuvangam leads the musical team with fine vocal support by Venkatesh.

Based entirely on bhavabhinaya, Bindu Rajendren's homage to Mookambika Devi has the camera entirely focussed on just the dancer's torso, with a highly expressive face with eloquent eyes. The soft illumination on the mobile facial muscles and eye movements, with the glow from the two burning lamps on either side add a touch of magic to the abhinaya, which has the typical Kerala flavour.

In what appears to be an attempt to show combined proficiency in both singing and dancing, Parur M.S. Ananthashree's Devi prayer, has her vocal rendition of Tyagaraja's kriti in Devagandhari "Thulasamma ma .Ö" alternating with snatches of her dancing.

Devi Saraswati was visualised in a variety of ways. K.N.Navyashree 's very graceful, and poised Bharatanatyam was to Saraswati as Shrungapuradheeshwari Sharade, protector of the world and mother of sruti and laya residing in Sringeri, rendered to a lyric penned by Padmacharan set to Kalyani ragam, adi talam.

In yet another interesting Bharatanatyam projection, this time by Shambhavi Jagdish, one has an example of the liberties we take with our Gods and Goddesses, visualising them in domestic situations of daily life! In this version, Saraswati is addressed as Sri Lakshmi Marumagale as the daughter-in-law of Mahalakshmi based on a composition of Sri Ganapathy Sachhidananda Swami, set to raga Keeravani. The argument is that since Brahma, Saraswati's husband rose from the navel of Vishnu, he is the son of Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife, and his wife Saraswati becomes the daughter-in-law!

Amidst a magical setting in the British countryside of verdant greenery with a stream running by, dancing to Bharatanatyam guru Madurai R. Muralidharan's composition, daughter/disciple Kavya Muralidharan, in neatly profiled, rhythmically perfect movements begins with Mahalakshmi stotram in Sanskrit, moving on to Mahalakshmi Kavutvam"Tirumagalai pottri" set to Sri ragam in tala sankeerna rupakam.

Bewildering variety in Narthakiís Devi Diaries continues

Photos: Sejas Mistry

Coincidentally, with this ongoing celebration of divinity in the feminine aspect, alongside came its complementary opposite of male divinity in Facets of Shiva, a group offer by Sankhya Dance Company from Mumbai, in Bharatanatyam, presented at the India International Centre's Fountain Lawns, as part of this year's IIC festival celebration. Choreographer Vaibhav Arekar's approach to group presentation, no matter how oft treated the subject, always has a unique quality. Shiva as supreme divinity, presiding over the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution, represents entire cosmic activity, and as Ananda Coomaraswamy said, "like the latent heat in firewood, diffuses his power in mind and matter and makes them dance." Vaibhav's understanding of theatre imparts his dance productions with that extra dimension and this quality was straight away evident from the voice-overs - in Viraj Adane's deep voiced, one-line introductions to each aspect of Shiva. Along with the effects in the accompanying light designs by Sushant Jadhav, the dramatic impact was palpable. Shankaracharya's Shiva Panchaakshara Stotram and Shivashtakam, with music composition of Arun Gopinath, establishes the Omnipresent supreme male energy - which, moving through water, fire, wind, sets in motion cosmic movement and for this critic, the small circle of dancers slowly moving to just the 'Tam Dhit Tam, Tai Dhit tai' syllables used in the Alaripu (the commencement of a margam) in its wordless rhythm was like a metaphor of the universe set in motion by a formless force - in this case Shiva. Sudha Raghuraman's own lyrical creation with score Shambho Mahadeva with the Dhrupad like touch in the music, deserves kudos.

Facets of Shiva

Creation needs the union of male and female principles coming together and what better than Shiva as Ardhanariswara embodying in one entity both male/female complimenting contrasts? Vaibhav's solo interpretation of Muthuswami Dikshitar's 'Ardhanariswara' kriti in the ragam Kumudakriya was uniquely minimalistic, without rhythmic fireworks. But one wishes the male singer's voice had shown more authentic classical understanding of the raga with better voice control in the higher reaches. The music by Sudha Raghuraman with her score in Basant Bahar and Hindol for the lyric "Bhola Khele Masana Mai Holi" written by Himamshu Srivastava, portraying the rare scene of Shiva on a high, dancing on the crematorium grounds with his gnomes to the accompaniment of specially deep rhythmic sounds produced on what sounded like pakhawaj percussion was unique. Shiva covers two ends of a pole - as both supreme lover and saint, but what of the devotee's attitude to this God?

Facets of Shiva

Sringar yearning for Shiva, the bedrock of abhinaya compositions of Padams in Bharatanatyam, was caught, with some clever lighting, highlighting facial expressions with scenes in quick moving flashes catching expressional interpretations of nayikas, reacting to just the pallavi of well known Padams (sung by Sudha Raghuraman), comprising Muthu Tandavar's 'Teruvil Varano' in Kamas, "Mughathai kaatiya deivam" by Papanasa Mudaliar in Bhairavi, and Swati Tirunal's "Chalo mana Kashi" - the last, after the love struck nayikas, representing the need for inner quietude, diverting the mind from worldly involvements. The pure rhythm of Tillana in Poorvi, a composition by Tirugokkaranam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, again was unusual in treatment - the lighting made images recede and dissolve into nothingness and silence with an empty stage. An aspect crossing the mind was that in this imaginative vision, what one missed (though referred to in passing, in the introductions) was a more articulated treatment of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of dance - surely the most significant motif in Indian mythology!

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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