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Original way of looking at group Bharatanatyam

May 18, 2018

It was an original way of looking at Bharatanatyam, with Bengaluru's Vyuti Dance Company at the Shri Ram Centre presenting the Delhi premiere of Sakhi, a group production which sought to be, and was, different from the usual Bharatanatyam recital. As a disciple of Leela Samson, Vyuti's founder Aranyani Bhargav's Bharatanatyam commitment has been unquestionable. While strongly affirming her loyalty to the dance form and its margam repertoire, she would seem to find its format, given its stylised entirety, too minutely structured for individual experimentation. Considering the almost insurmountably daunting challenges of trying to be original and standing out, within the solo presentational canvas, Aranyani and a group of Bharatanatyam dancers have got together to explore fresh ideas for presenting group expressions. In the process, they have harnessed two devices which strictly speaking, are outside the time honoured Bharatanatyam technique ľone is the physical touch and contact, with two or even three dancers with arms linked performing as one unit. The single dancer's body even in interaction with more dancers on stage avoids physical contact in Bharatanatyam. Yet another device resorted to of lifts and elevations in the air saw a dancer being lofted off the floor. Negotiating between the group and solo, multiple and the singular, Sakhi contradictorily it would seem, aims at being different while not deviating from the prescribed Bharatanatyam technique.

Photo: Amitabh Bhattacharya

Sakhi as the traditional confidante and friend of the Nayika or heroine along with the unseen but oft discussed Nayaka, form the eternal love triangle in sringar themes in classical arts. The Nayika who unburdens all the pent up feelings of hope and despair in love to the friend, often persuades her to act as the love messenger helping remove misunderstandings and uniting the couple. This is particularly the pattern followed in the varnam which forms the climax of a Margam Bharatanatyam performance.

The group however started with the traditional nritta Natyarambha with Alarippu in misram. The musical team was headed by Sudha Raghuraman who working closely with Aranyani composed the well recorded music, with the rest of the team being G.Elangovan (nattuvangam), M.V. Chandrasekhar and Manohar Balatchandirane (mridangam) and G.Raghuraman (flute). The strains of raga Revati followed by Nattai with the Angikam Bhuvanam slokam, ushered in the presentation. Dancers Aranyani, Preeja Mahendran and Sanjana Prasad as one unit link arms in various ways (round the waist of the dancer/dancers beside, or arm hooked through the neighbours's arm held in a triangle with fingers pressed to the waist, or with outline of palms held at the side meeting to form the shape of a Kapotha mudra). The central dancer with both arms linked to dancers on either side moves in rhythm with her feet - the bloc of three bodies moving as one unit. The two dancers at the sides used the outer free hand in movements. So a stretch or a line or a diagonal is traced in the air, with one free hand of each of the dancers at the side, with all the three dancers moving as one unit. It was strange watching the 'dhititai dhiti tai' movements in unison, coming together or separating. One quality which stood out in this formation (the Alarippu being such a geometrical construct) was that every dancer being well trained from Kalakshetra or another reputed teacher had full respect for the geometry of lines in Bharatanatyam technique. Another aspect here was the dance profile rather than the dancer being highlighted in this type of format. With group formations, how the eye glances and head movements were worked out was very interesting.

Photo: VB Suresh

The central part of the recital was the Sakhi and Nayika bhed item, conceived in the form of a varnam with both nritta and interpretative dance. With dancers Aranyani, Atmika Reddy, Preeja Mahendran, Impana Kulkarni, Priya Kaul, Sanjana Prasad, Shruti Suresh and Tony Aloysius Pius performing, the pairs representing Nayika and Sakhi with the interactive tension between the pairs according to the Nayika's situation, made up the thematic content. The jatis providing nritta relief from mime had the entire group performing with dancers making quick exits and entrances.

The satisfied Swadhinapatika basking in the aftermath of fulfilled love with her beloved, is described as santosah kantaukulyam sakhi nayikayah sringara kautukum bhajate.The Nayika's joy and contentment are shared with the sakhi who rejoices in her friend's love. The music starting in Mayamalawagowla went on to Anandabhairavi in the singara kaustubham. The change from one type of Nayika to the next was swift and as the punctuation points, the jati teermanams provided the relief and space to move to the next interpretative section, with no jerks in the general progress of the item. The Virahotkhandita, Proshitabhartrika and Vipralabdha followed one after the other. In the first, the Nayika pining in expectation of the ever missing beloved exchanges with the sakhi her fears of his interests being engaged elsewhere, even imagining accidents keeping him away. As the Proshitabhartrika, she is endlessly waiting for the love who is away on work and hoping for his arrival each day, is expectantly dressed in the sari he loves. And after all this trial, the Nayika is informed that her loved one has left her and is not to return. She is now the Vipralabdha who throws tantrums and shows her anger and disappointment by discarding her jewels. Raga like Valachi was followed by raga Suratti for the Kalahantarita Nayika, who confesses to her sakhi about regretting the harsh words she has used while speaking to her lover. And the sakhi frankly tells the Nayika about having acted in haste and that she has only herself to blame.

In the next exchange the Nayika is the Khandita. To the strains of raga Mohanam, the Nayika is seen lambasting her beloved for his unfaithful ways. The next scene is of the Vasakasajjika wherein the Nayika adorns herself and the sakhi helps her as she gets ready for meeting her beloved. The music in Kalyani seemed just right to evoke the right ambience.

Photo: Sanket Patel

The melodious strains of raga Kamas usher in the mood of the lovelorn Abhisarika Nayika who sets out on her own, fearlessly braving societal criticism, to meet her beloved. Less dependent on sahitya, the sakhi/nayika interaction in places became mostly mime with facial expressions and hand movements. With frequently changing pairs and very smooth exits and entrances, the performance moved at a smooth clip. One was left to wonder if with this type of group exchanges with one hand being used most of the time, whether the dancers would feel strange moving two hands in identical ways on both sides which is the Bharatanatyam mode!

Photo: Ravishankar

The group expression of the Lalgudi Jayaraman Tillana in Revati was neatly performed. The wise choice of very simple costumes designed by Aloka D'Souza added to visual aesthetics and the subdued light designs by Sunitha MR too was a plus point. Next time, these dancers will have to think of another way for being different!

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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