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Reaching for the skies prematurely

September 13, 2018

The desire to explore new terrain among young dancers must be encouraged. But one has to realize that there are no short cuts to fame, even when one has the good fortune to command facilities and chances not easily available to most upcoming dancers. Watching the collaborative endeavour at the India International Centre, between Sikkil Gurucharan, the eminent young Carnatic vocalist, and Bharatanatyam dancer Aranyani Bhargav, who for some time now has veered away from the Margam into new areas, the first thought that occurred to me was of the imponderables on which this event was built. First was taking Annamacharya's Adhyaatma Sankeertanas for interpretation through dance. Even under normal circumstances, Annamacharya is not an easy poet/musician to understand and his metaphysical poems which are more in the nature of an expression of a stream of consciousness, by their abstract nature almost defy translation into a language of gesture and expressions. As for the two artists, while the ability to interact is all to the good (though one wonders if Gurucharan would agree to sing even for other established senior dancers) , the dancer must be brave to think that having a singer like him will not overwhelm the performance taking attention away from the dance.

Troubled by the impermanence of everything in life and the inevitability of drawbacks which are part of the human body and cannot be wished away, Annamacharya's writings which were neither for fame, money nor pleasing anybody, have a biting forthrightness. The questions dogging his mind are relevant even today. With a scholar like Professor David Shulman for explaining and translating the poet's Telugu words into English, the very first Padam set to raga Shanmukhapriya by Sikkil Gurucharan, "Kadalunipi neerudaga..." poses the question, "Is there an end to the endless mind?" Like the incessant waves where the up and own movement is a continuous process (one reaching the shore and another taking over), what does it mean to say that one will bathe once the waves cease? As long as this body lasts, thirst, longings will never cease and if one is waiting for all joy after all this ceases, when will it be? It is like saying you will forget the past once you know what lies ahead! Trying to bind these thoughts into structured hand symbols and movements is not easy - perhaps taking recourse to manodharma improvisation with ideas and attitudes on the spot flowing as the singer sings could be one way. What Aranyani did using the movement of the waves as the main metaphor on which to build the dance interpretation became repetitive and while Gurucharan's singing had an easy flow, the very structured dance movements lacked the same quality. The musicians were seated in a three cornered geometry on three small platforms with the singer in the centre of the stage flanked on two sides of the stage by the sarangi artist Juned Khan on one side, and the mridangist Sumesh Narayan on the opposite side. And right from the invocatory prelude alaap on sarangi before starting with the next raga Shanmukhapriya, the musicians sounded in sync. The solfa passages woven into the Padam singing gave some nritta relief from interpretative dance but the rhythm of five beats with little rhythmic phrase flourishes like 'taka takita' or whatever brought by the mridangist did not find expression in the dance.

The next selection, more hard hitting, borders on cynicism, mocking belief in things which do not last like romance and friendship. Just as lightning which does not linger in the monsoon sky, so is a woman's embrace and you see shining gold in dreams to wake up and realize that the glitter is no longer there. The choice of raga in which it was set, Revati, was I felt a bit strange but it had a peppy tone, which again did not come out in the dance interpretation with the dancer stuck in the space between singer and mridangist and the mukhabhinaya too needed greater variety.

"Kim karishyami kim karomi," the last in Darbari Kanada had the right melancholic tone of one who is in a rut- very involved with his body while knowing that this attitude will never lead to a higher state of consciousness where he becomes aware of the Lord. The music was haunting, with hint of tanam towards the end. Again the restless agitation of knowing you are on the wrong course but unable to change, needed to be conveyed in the abhinaya more convincingly, as the dancer made her way out from the stage on to the aisle of the auditorium making her exit. Gurucharan concluded with a segment of Swati Tirunal's Tillana in Dhanashri.

The package deal had an exotic quality in the nature of the program , arrangement of the musicians, aesthetically turned out comely dancer and above all Gurucharan's singing - all of which evoked audience applause (to the extent of asking for another item because what was shown was too short). But for many the idea of music and dance interacting to touch the hearts of the people did not quite materialize. Aranyani needs to sharpen her understanding and depth of abhinaya (the most challenging part of Bharatanatyam) before attempting such collaborations.

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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