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Akademi awardees prove mettle
Photos courtesy: Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi

October 23, 2016

With such cataclysmic changes in the entire Sangeet Natak Akademi hierarchy, one did not know what to expect of the annual awards festival, after the conferring of the awards at the Rashtrapati Bhavan by the President of India. But I guess certain things do not change, and so it was this year too. For what has become, over the years, an increasingly in-house event, attracting a small interested niche audience, the intimate spaces of the Meghdoot I and II and III theatres provide just the right venue.

To start on a favourable note, SNA's fellowship awarded to Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar was a laudable choice and a decision the Akademi can be proud of. And this 81 year old gave a performance that will not be easily forgotten. To choose a varnam like Papanasam Sivan's Nattakuranji composition "Saami naan undan adimai enru ulagamellam ariyume" and present it without compromising on the araimandi stance or on the daunting double speed in the charanam part, is a very demanding proposition for even a young dancer - and in the case of an artist so senior, clichéd words of praise describing the performance seem inadequate. Starting with the famous hymn in praise of Nataraja, every aspect like the twinkling arudi-s executed to perfection, the excellent jati-s with 'sarukkai' movements done with such finish, and the image of the dancing Lord with the devotee's thirst for a glimpse of the same and ecstasy at being able to feast his eyes on Him in the garbhagriha, were all brought out with Sudha Raghuraman providing deeply felt, tuneful vocal support, adding up to a never to be forgotten experience. The seasoned accompanists Jaya Chandrasekhar (nattuvangam), G. Raghuraman (flute) and M.V. Chandrasekhar (mridangam) added to the totality.

Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar

Mandakini Trivedi

The very senior awardee in the Bharatanatyam category Ranganayaki Jayaraman, Director of Sri Saraswati Gana Nilayam, presented her disciples. Instead of an item from the traditional repertoire, she chose one of her own creations Navarasa Nayaki, portraying Shakti in all the main rasas. Much like a high school or college dance drama, the dancers, some of whom were a little awkward in maintaining perfect balance in the more difficult poses, had faces which emoted - but without subtlety in the abhinaya or aharya. The group images were in the predictable calendar prints style, with very little creative imagination and the female dancer in the role of Shiva with prominently draped snake round the neck and tiger skin print for the top coat, lacked the bearing and presence for such a role. And since when have SNA awardee presentations been to taped music? Is such an average presentation with nothing unusual to recommend it, sufficient as an awards presentation?

Mandakini Trivedi's 'Kalkeeyavadham' excerpt presented in Mohiniattam form was in some aspects reminiscent of her Guru Kanak Rele's dance - which stemming from one who first qualified in Kathakali before going on to Mohiniattam, (while not a derivative) carries the inevitable Kathakali flavour in Mohiniattam. But in tone, Mandakini's muted abhinaya is characterized by inner tranquility with internalized emotions. Mandakini's dance movements are without the marked torso sway of Mohiniattam, or the visible changing of levels by the dancer moving between flat footed araimandi centred movements and dancing on toes. The chosen episode was from a Kathakali play. Arjuna who rejects the advances of Urvashi who falls for him, is cursed by her to be born on earth as a eunuch. Urvashi's seduction attempts with the music in Shankarabharanam and Kamboji sung by N.N. Sivaprasad, Arjuna's contemptuous rejection likening it to a mating between elephant and the deer, adding that Urvashi is more like his mother for him, and Urvashi's stinging rebuke about mother Kunti being a lowly woman who has sons sired by so many males and then showing off her womanly organs pointing out that they are meant for giving birth and for providing life giving succor to babies, were all interpreted with restraint. K.N.P. Nambisan provided both maddalam and edaka percussion, representing the aggressive and the soft.

Much earlier, Kuchipudi dancer Padmaja Reddy's choice for the award had earned the Akademi much flak. And the programof Swami Dayanand Saraswati's composition "Bho Shambho" in Revati, Bhama Kalapam excerpts and the Mohanam "Okkade Sarveshwarudu" finale did nothing to redeem the awardee's position as being a fit candidate for the unwarranted recognition. Over clad, with a profusion of jewellery, neither pure dance nor interpretative fare rose beyond mediocrity.

Sharodi Saikia's Sattriya in its aesthetic simplicity has that mellow reposeful quality, which is what the art form is in its pure Sattra origin. Her invocation with Krishna Vandana with the dancer's homage accompanied by two each of khol and cymbal players Dhemali fashion, was very effective. Gitor Naach comprised lyrics from Ankia Nat compositions. From Madhavdeva's 'Pimpara Gochua' the episode portrays Krishna caught with his hand in the milk pot, by Yashoda. When accosted the child's excuse is that he was picking out ants found in the milk pot. When I can give him all the milk he wants, why does he have to go stealthily to the houses of the other Gopis, wonders Yashoda. The mother's rebuke, the pretended innocence of Krishna as if butter would not melt in his mouth, were all visualized without artifice.

Sharodi Saikia

Aloka Kanungo

The greatest quality about Odissi dancer Aloka Kanungo's recital was its totally Odishan identity. Now beginning to pen her own verses for dance Gurjari style, Mangalacharan in the sruti part commenced with a trikhandi pranam or threefold salutation to Devata, Guru and Sabhajana, with the dancer's verses in the typical regional Gurjari Brutta Nabakshyari Chhanda, or Bhagavat Chhanda setting the mood, further reinstated in the Kamodi Pallavi, a composition of Ramahari, set in a fresh tala-malika of khemta and jhoola, composed by Dhaneswar Swain. The abhinaya piece in Misra Khamaj (music by Dhiraj Mohapatra) in taal khemta "Mo Krishna Pari" composed by poet Lokanath, was again a not often seen item, with the rhythmic inputs by Sachidananda Das. Yasodha trying to feed recalcitrant Krishna points out the Moon, plaits his hair and says he will dance to the syllables "Ta thei tata thei tata thei", she tempts him by saying that after eating he can join Sudhama waiting at the door for play. But when the child refuses to budge, she has to force feed him. The concluding Dasa-Mahavidya excerpts, because of time constraints dealt only with the manifestations of Devi as Kali, Chinnamasta, Sodashi and Bagalamukhi and to round it off was a homage to all the ten Mahavidyas - Kali, Tara, Sodashi, Bhubaneswari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumabati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala in a ragamalika and talamalika. Himamshu Swain sang melodiously with excellently involved pakhawaj by Budhanath Swain with young Viswanath Mangaraj on the manjeera. Ramesh Chandra Das on violin and Soumya Rajan on flute were the instrumentalists. Altogether a recital worthy of the occasion!

Moirang-sha (tragic story of a royal elephant) in Manipuri directed and choreographed by awardee W. Lokendrajit Singh was one of the highlights of the week. One of the most creative performer/teachers, this artist in his dance drama, based on the tragic Manipuri story of the elephant born in the wilds attracted the attention of the King who made him the chief of the royal herd. But his special position roused the envy of other elephants who plotted his end. It is difficult to realize that dancers with no other camouflage barring costumes in elephant grey, with aesthetic jewellery to match, can, just through movement and general attitude create an optical illusion where the viewer sees only a herd of elephants - the human faces and identities forgotten. The kartals held in the hand with their long tassels became the tusks, and rarely has one seen a more tender love scene than that between Moirang and his beloved, with the tassels moving feelingly over each other's body - like two humans caressing each other. For the tribal scenes, the red and black Naga type of costumes with the Thang Ta type of light footed jumping movements with weapons in hand were most fitting. The elegant grey turbans all the dancers sported and the slow but majestic gait with the head gently swaying, showed masterly innovative ability while never swaying from the classical form. The music was equally well thought out.

Lokendrajit Singh

Sadashiva Pradhan

Chhau by awardee Sadashiva Pradhan in the 'Pancha Tatva' or five truths of Lord Shiva, was not at his best, what with lack of balance in being able to hold the one legged stances, and the fire of Shiva in the 'Pralaya' scene was missing. Unlike what late Hari Nayak created in this composition, what was presented seemed very tame. The 18 minute Chakravyuha production was done with greater finesse, the youngsters showing a definite aptitude for this dance form. While the dhumsa drum played by Jeevan Patra and the chad chadi wielded by Baidyanath Ghunia were the main anchors for the Chhau music with shehnai (Vikas Babu) and flute (Pritiranjan Swain) having replaced the mohuri (old piped instrument for Chhau).

Shrikrishna-charitam by Sarojini Nangiar amma gave a rare peep into the very old form practised in the temples of Kerala in the kootambalam. A rare episode of the birth of Kamsa to Sauraseni who in a Ahalya type of story is duped by a demon masquerading as her husband Ugrasena, and a later child Devaki, the performance with just hand gestures visualizing the entire narrative pegged on to Sanskrit verses, and of course the mizhavu drum, was too culture specific in identity to succeed in communicating with the audience, and not strangely there were just about twenty- five persons seated in the Meghdoot theatre trying to understand what was being done on stage.

One wishes that some of the professional comperes whose services are being used for such events by the SNA, would take the trouble of getting the right pronunciation of proper names, before coming out with gaffes like "Raga, Malika". One cannot accept this from an organization like the Sangeet Natak Akademi. And all too often, terms one is expected to be familiar with are mispronounced.

Many discerning scholars gave high marks to the vibrant Lavani by Chhaya and Maya Khutegaonkar. By shifting folk arts to other venues like the Kathak Kendra at Chanakyapuri, the sheer logistics of travel from one place to another made many miss events one would have liked to see.

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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