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Dancing on rivers

May 23, 2018

Dance built round rivers and also numbers has claimed audience attention lately in the performance scene in the capital. River as a theme, down the ages has inspired poets, writers, painters, musicians and even philosophers. The rivers of India have nurtured cultures, while their unpredictability has also caused destruction from time to time. A dance enthusiast, Churchill Pandian’s latest favourite concept is what he calls Connecting Rivers Through Dance. If rivers flowing through areas causing endless political friction today could so easily be made to change track through dance to foster unity, life would indeed be easy! Ganga to Kaveri presented at Habitat Centre’s Stein auditorium, was however based more on myth with research work by Chitra Madhavan and Praveen Rao of Bengaluru providing the music. The producer’s earlier efforts with this theme, featuring individual groups representing different dance forms working out their own music, had met with patchy results. So he now came to the capital armed with the music. The theme with the top names of Delhi dancers associated with the presentation certainly drew a large audience – many enthusiastic hopeful viewers having to be turned away thanks to the packed Stein auditorium. The performer groups, only worked at the choreography - though one would have thought that the days of dancing to ‘Churchill’s tunes’ as it was humorously  said, were well and truly  over!

All rivers


Praveen D. Rao is a versatile musician at home with ragas from the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions. But the track while ideal for some groups, proved somewhat more challenging for some others, more used to their own music. But the results were commendable. River Yamuna as theme for the Kuchipudi disciples of Raja, Radha and Kaushalya Reddy, led by daughter Bhavana Reddy, would seem to have found the music absolutely made for the dance, with all the Kuchipudi ingredients of rhythmic flair, Tarangam, finding what looked like natural space in the movement flow. Bhavana as the personified river Yamuna nadi nenu in the manner of a sensuous nayika in a Yakshagana Patra Pravesha Daru introduces herself, speaking of her great good fortune in having had on her banks the joy of the Radha/Krishna sringar playing out. A couplet from the Gita Govindam Dheera sameere Yamuna teere makes a fleeting appearance in the music too. Yamuna’s waters causing death, poisoned by serpent Kaliya had young Krishna come to the rescue - Balagopaludi nanna rakshinchu. Apart from the brief plate dance, the conclusion going into an Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer’s Kalinga Narthanam in Nattai, with dance full of flair as executed by Bhavana, made this so fitting. Along with excellent group discipline in dancing and evenly matched, aesthetically costumed dancers, this session stood out.

Kathak by disciples of Gitanjali Lal led by Vibha Lal caught the flow of the river Ganga beautifully in the dance. It started with Ganga emerging from the locks of Shiva, her waters along with Akash, Vayu, Prithvi, Agni representing the five elements symbolised in Shiva. The five dancers while using the virtuosity of footwork and rhythm in Kathak, whether circling or moving up and down, or leaping and rolling, or moving backward and forwards, always kept alive the feel of a river in flow whether performing to 12 matras or another rhythmic count. The suggestion of birth and death and life in all its serenity and suffering finding expression in action around and in these waters came out very well in Gitanjali’s intelligent choreography. When it concluded with Om Jaya inity Gange Mata one felt that Devi Sureshwari Bhagavati Gange had truly been well represented in the dance.



Yet another sequence which flowed with the music without a hitch, given the advantage of being on familiar territory, was on river Kaveri presented in the Bharatanatyam idiom by Saroja Vaidyanathan’s students – all uniformly trained. Different Hindu gods and goddesses are worshipped in various cities the Kaveri flows through. In Tiruvaiyaru, the temple deity is Panchanadiswarar.  The famous city of Tanjavur has its great Shiva temples. Srirangam is a great Vishnu kshetra, with the God in a reclining Anantashayana posture and the music so conveniently bringing in the Mohanam, “Yen pallikkondeer Aiya Sriranganatha?” Why this supine position? Has hard work of destroying enemies in the other manifestations made you too tired? The dance followed tones set by the music in Durga, followed by devotees carrying the Kaavadi, the music revelling in Kaavadichindu rhythm and tune - suitable for Murugan worship. The jatis spun in by Saroja Vaidyanathan, with the spirited dancing of the students were marked by laudable group coordination.    

Less conveniently placed, though the music was very imaginative was the segment on the Brahmaputra (fathered by Brahma) the only male river, represented by, of all forms, Odissi. Guru Ranjana Gauhar perhaps impelled by the more manly tones of the river felt it imperative to include a male dancer who was rather ill matched with the rest of the female dancers.  Parasurama, a Brahmin, committed maatruhatya (killed his own mother) and his blood stained axe stuck in the mountains, made the waters of the Brahmaputra flowing between the mountains, acquire a reddish tinge. This region is known for the Kamakhya Shakti peeth, one of the places where Sati’s body parts fell as agonised Shiva walked around with her body after her self-immolation in the sacrificial fire of Daksha’s Yagna. Brahmaputra, which has nourished plant and human life, also has a violent side which destroys. The ‘taritajham, tanumtajham’ mnemonics, the Yoni mudra for the shakti peeth, the Bihu tunes with movements having a similar feel, visuals of the animal and vegetable life etc. were all part of the choreography, which however could have done with more group coordination and dancers of even standard.



Holy Narmada evoked through yet another sequence of Bharatanatyam was conceived by Geeta Chandran, though the music was not in the custom made Bharatanatyam mode. But disciples of Geeta, while of varying heights, performed convincingly this segment with a maximum share of myth - the dance narrative revolving round different images and characters. Shiva’s copious sweat while he meditated formed, according to myth, the tank called Shankari (meaning Shankara’s daughter), another name for river Narmada. The less known mythology surrounding this bhukti mukti pradayini has even Ganga in the form of a cow going for the Narmada dip to purify herself! More importantly, worshipping this longest river, the lifeline of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, is believed to protect one from the fear of snakes. The story is that Purukutsa armed with Vishnu’s might, was taken by Narmada (given to him as charity) to the Naga home in Rasatala, the lower regions of the Universe to destroy the Gandharvas who were exterminating the Nagas. So Purukutsa was blessed for saving the Nagas and remembering this good deed of Narmada, is believed to remove the fear of snakes from devotees. When Shiva’s Pinakastra destroys the Tripuras, fragments falling into the river, thanks to the river’s life force, get rejuvenated to polished Banalingas, and every pebble in the riverbed is believed to be shaped like a Shivalinga. The dance at the end pays homage to the remover of paapa and taapa.

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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