Concept to execution: ANEKA a clean winner
Photos courtesy: Natya Kala Conference
January 19, 2019
In both concept and execution of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha's 38th Natya Kala Conference titled Aneka, Dr. Srinidhi Chidambaram, convenor for the third successive year, has raised the bar of the event so high, that it is going to be a hard act to emulate for the successor who takes over the baton. Under three categories of Timeless, Transformative and Trending, Aneka became the umbrella covering in its daily deliberations, "the old and the new, the young and the old, the accepted and the problematic, the global and the local."
After conferring the 'Natya Kala Visaarada ha' on S. Janaki, Editor, Sruti, and Yagnaraman Award of Excellence on photographer Yoga, 'Timeless' began by taking us right back to the Natya Sastra with young Mahati Kannan, inheritor of the Padma Subrahmanyam legacy of scholarship and natyam, touching on 'Karanas Decoded'. After brief but precise introduction to the various components of a Karana, namely hastas, sthanaka and chari (with students of Nrityodaya demonstrating), Mahati pointed out how some of the Karanas could be seen in different dance forms even today like Lolita karana in Viparita Bhramari of Odissi, Janu Bhramari in Yakshagana, Ardharecitam in Mohiniattam etc. and above all the fact of how the Vrischika Karana and Kunchita Karana were part of dance in the South East Asian countries. She also mentioned that the Karanas found in the Java Prambanan temple were older than those found in Tanjavur. Mahati concluded on a note of excellent grace performing a solfa passage from Balamuralikrishna's varnam, the choreography comprising only Bhramaris as defined in the Natya Sastra.
Dr. Sunil Kothari's screening of the film after a brief introduction 'Mrinalini Sarabhai -The Artist and her Art' produced by Yadavan Chandran and Mallika Sarabhai formed the 'Timeless' segment on day two. Very thoughtfully put together, with Tom Alter as narrator, the film combines excerpts from Mallika's own speeches, performances by Darpana students and Sunil Kothari's brief interventions. The film is about the journey of a legacy inherited from traditional gurus like Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai carried forward to include in its thematic repertoire contemporary concerns like dowry deaths and violence against women, revealing the artist's dissent against all isms. In this long and eventful journey, Mallika boldly experimented with sollukattu-s narrating the whole story without words. She made use of Kathakali (in which she was trained) sans make-up and all its rich aharya, reducing the dance to a 'level of absurdity' as Mallika says in the film, to reveal the inherent strength of the form, harnessing her ideas to themes like Manushya built round the entire life cycle of human beings, Tasher Desh based on Tagore's work, Meru Prarthana, Triangle where Bhaskara's mathematical puzzle became the inspiration for a production.
The session on 'Timeless' also featured, Purva Dhanashree focussing on 'The Beauty and Legacy of Vilasini Natyam,' the name given to the art of the Devadasis of the Andhra region, who were variously called Vilasini, Bhogamvalu, Sani. Purva trained under Swapna Sundari whose deep research into the art of the traditional temple and court dancer of this region is well known. The time slot did not allow for anything more than brief introductory remarks followed in the demonstration by a nritta item in the form of a Pallavi in Shuddha Sarang (composed by Dr.Vasudevan, rhythm structure by I.V. Renuka Prasad) performed during the Bala Bhoga in the temple when the first 'naivedya' is offered to the deity. The sideways movement while moving forwards and backwards and the grace of hand sweeps tracing arched lines in space, quite different from the strict linear Bharatanatyam stretches, with the rhythmic combinations built into the main tala cycle reveal a tradition with its own identity.
Typical of the Devadasi tradition was the evocative abhinaya in the Kasturi Ranga padam in Sahana "Aaradaani Janma ettina phalam emi ativaru vyartham Amma." Addressing a confidante, the artist bewails 'the worthlessness of this woman's janma.' What came out, with the dancer in the seated position interpreting the lyric, was the variety and intensity in mukhabhinaya and elaborations built round the musical statements. Earning handsome applause, some animated responses from the audience may have followed but for questions being totally disallowed in this instance, due to time constraints.
Under Margam, Bharatanatyam's Timeless legacy, the Varnam projected as the central point of a recital was looked at from the point of its varied treatment in different schools. 'One Varnam, Many Banis' saw established artists Meenakshi Chittaranjan, Narthaki Nataraj and Urmila Sathyanarayanan bring out salient aspects of the Pandanallur, the Tanjavur and the Vazhuvoor Banis respectively, through the same varnam"Saami nine kori naanu ra" in ragamalika. But different parts of the varnam were taken up. Meenakshi Chittaranjan in the very direct and sans-frills word to gesture translation (particularly in the pointed soochi finger at the deity in 'Ninne' (emphasising You and You alone are the object of my love), in a highly stylised, restrained expression, punctuated with crisp, short jathis, providing the impact (an experience in précis writing as she put it) - highlighted the qualities of the Pandanallur school.
"Prema meeraga Tanjapuri vasa" in Pantuvarali and "Biranana nannenu kori ra Sri Brhadeeswara" as presented by Narthaki Nataraj was replete with symbolic imagery as references to the Kosala, Nayak dynasties, while visualising the Lord as Tanjapuri housed in the temple at Tanjavur. And the evocative sringar interpretation excelling in subtlety in abhinaya could have had few equals. Those delicate shoulder and torso genuflexions, along with the Jathi portions so typical of Kittappa Pillai underlined the minutiae of expression and movement pertaining to this school, absorbed through years of 'gurukula vasam' by this artist.
Even weighed against the fast pace the charanam takes, and the fact that this varnam was choreographed for her by her guru K.J. Sarasa under T.S. Parthasarathy's guidance, one felt that Urmila Sathyanarayanan's rendition was too fast (though she was heard maintaining that she had only followed the kalapramanam already set) for nritta movements to be finished, smudging in the process, the full fledged Vazhuvoor identity from emerging.
Sooraj Nambiar's demonstration of 'Netrabhinaya in Kutiyattam' made the unreal seem absolutely real like the baby deer drinking from the breast of a tigress and the other of the snake licking a mongoose! No matter how often one may have witnessed it, to see how the eyes are trained in this tradition is always like watching a miracle. And as Sooraj demonstrated the oft rendered forest scene in both Kathakali and Kutiyattam of the mighty elephant attacked by a python and later a tiger and succumbing, the mizhavu accompaniment of the percussionist seated at the back of the actor following every move of the actor in the tone and rhythm of his percussion never ceases to amaze.
Timeless took us on the last day to Dr.Swarnamalya Ganesh throwing light on 'Traditions of Sadir, Music, Dance and Literature in Gondhali to Gujili.' Stressing on Sadir as an ebb and flow of many traditions subsumed and transformed, Swarnamalya mentioned Suddha Paddhatis and Vikrita Paddhatis and she stressed that just as Rechakas are what breathe life into a Karana movement, Desi lasyangas are very much a part of what we generally regard as Suddha Paddhati and Dasi Attam. Explaining its aspects like Sthapana, Dala Chali , Ulasa (which is much like the arudi), Rekha and Oyyara (with footwork) as also what we understand as manodharma, Swarnamalaya maintained that all these were features of Natyam by even the 13th century. Gondali, Suddha Paddhati Sadir in its pristine form had Desi lasyangas and an acrobatic element called Devaraya Jogi with Desi Karanas one can find represented in temple sculpture as in Vriddhachalam. Perini during the Nayak period had its solo representation with women performing. Swarnamalya's demonstration included the Daru Pada in Shankarabharanam, comprising arudi, sahitya, manodharma et al in its structure - was much like the Swarajati. In what was a very informative and regaling session, the literature part emphasised Gujili Literature called in Tamil as Muchhandi Ilakkiyam, covering a plethora of genres from Oppary, Kavadicindu, Javali to Kuravanji, Kirtanai Lavani, and Muslim books, in many languages, and on a host of contemporary happenings from the world of Politics, Medicine, Astrology, and socially relevant issues. Rev. Miron Winslow's reference to Gujili in 1862 is the earliest (according to the printed sheet - author is Saabjaan Avargal - Swarnamalya made available to all).
An evening bazaar, Gujili Bazar also called the China Bazar (area round the Central Railway Station surrounding the Kandasami koil in Madras) sold everything from textiles to perfume, and a lot of popular reading material on cheap quality paper was also sold here by chapmen singing taeppu in the cross roads. This area was close to George Town where many of the Devadasis lived. And gradually the elite began to look down upon Gujili literature. But subsuming from what was subaltern was common and even composers like Subramania Bharati's Kummi songs, and Kutrala Kuravanji of the Vazhuvoor school (from Gujili literature) as also Kunnakkudi Mastan Sahib's music and a whole lot of javalis in Parsi, Tamil, Telugu not excluding those of Dharmapuri Subbarayar carry the Gujili influence. Unfortunately barring those preserved in the Veena Dhanammal family, most javalis are lost today.
Visitors entering the Krishna Gana Sabha caught glimpses amidst the crowd, of a troupe of dancers performing in the verandah, the dancing based on an example from Gujili literature comprising vazhinadaichindu like a travelogue. And as a vivacious example of Parsi Javali by Narayanasaamy, Swarnamalya herself presented 'Ayi Sarasasayi' using the Tajukistan mettu. Even in the few examples of Parsi Javali available, the mettu in which they were sung is lost. V.A.K Ranga Rao, after the presentation, remarked that all the devadasis he had seen performing Parsi Javalis used Desadi Matyadi talam.
Under this group, the Conference featured several sessions. Kathak dancer Sanjukta Wagh's gradual discovery of habit being a great deadener, made her unhappy as a soloist going through the accepted Kathak format. Laban study and Ragadari music had alerted her to improvisation and she decided to chart her own dance journey where she allowed space around her to play a part, with her becoming the dance rather than dancer telling a story with rhythm. Examples of Makarand Deshpande's music, of Nirguni approach where no form exists and dance itself becomes a paradox, of the music of Kumar Gandharwa and the poetry of Kabir made her wonder, "Could I find my shadja in Kathak?" by breaking pre-determined hierarchies by discovering 'movement in stillness and stillness in movement'.
She demonstrated through an impactful glimpse, from her retelling of the Mahabharat from Gandhari's point of view. Using a very well known line of poetry, "Aja savary tuhe garwa lagaloon riske bhare tore naina." Eyes shining with expectation, Gandhari enters as a bride, only to be told that the man she is being wedded to is blind. Playing around with footwork in 12 matras, she becomes the Empress with the Blindfold, herself having to come to terms with not just fate, but her own self-inflicted sightlessness. It was a power packed glimpse, Sanjukta's own lusty voiced singing in spurts, with a guitarist providing instrumental support - the entire performance unstructured, full of manodharma spontaneity - the individualistic presentation flowing from the Kathak trained body using footwork and chakkars different from the classical framework, to express her story.
Aravinth Kumaraswamy, Artistic Director of Apsaras Arts, dilating on 'the Modern Dance Ensemble' stressed the need for new narratives and contemporary themes (like the Refugee) shown through multiple bodies with artists adding their own language. In a pin-pointed, well organised session, he underlined the importance of collaboration in fields of dance and music and the use of a dramaturge (whose contribution is never transparent) for ensemble productions taken to global audiences and how technology could be harnessed to enhance a production without disturbing the traditional language of movement. Technology came in handy for stage design, props (like having life-sized, carved pillars which dancers could easily wheel from one part of the stage to another).
His productions commissioned dancers from outside Singapore, like Chennai based Bharatanatyam artiste Priyadarsini Govind. Through film snippets and slide projections from productions like Nirmanika, Angkor, Anjaneyam, Ramapriya he substantiated his mention with visuals on how a concept of viswaroopam could be suggested, how 3D projections could help and how one could play with orchestra sound or how in Ravana's court a scene of Lanka burning was projected. It showed making the most of whatever resources one could command.
From what one saw of it, Shilpika Bordoloi's 'Manipuri for Modern Times' was more Contemporary Dance than Manipuri. Hailing from Jorhat in Assam, her training stints are under many gurus of Manipuri and Bharatanatyam and even Martial Arts of Kalaripayattu under Guru Lokendra Singh, the Jhaveri sisters and Bipin Singh, Indira P.P. Bora and also Leela Samson. She briefly spoke on how body and mind doing the story telling where she could express herself on ecological issues, in a non-linear fashion was what led her to create Brahmaputra Katha Yatra with the help of a dramaturge. Man interacts with the river and his journey is somewhat like the river. An excerpt was screened.
Pavitra Bhat's presentation of 'Bhakti Re-imagined' took the shape of themes based on Tukaram's Abhang, Nandanar Charitram, Pasuram (Alwar's Divya Prabandham) and Hanuman Chalisa, the last which he has set in the form of a long varnam like presentation (his demonstration was restricted to two dohas, set to Hindolam). The dancer referred to bhakti as the silent connection between 'you and the one above' which had to be communicated to the audience. After a brief reference to the nine types of bhakti in his introduction, Pavitra's visualisation of the Dasya relationship of devotee with the power above revolved round the character of Vasuki. His own creation was the Manmatha trikala Jathi, in his visualisation of the keertanam "Sri Ranga Puravihara" (in Brindavana Saranga) as homage to Narayana in the reclining anantashayanam posture. Pavitra Bhat has stage presence and is a good dancer to watch, though what was meant by 're-imagined bhakti' was difficult to fathom.
The session on 'Millennial Adavus' by Apoorva Jayaraman and Shweta Prachande, students of Priyadarsini Govind, in clarity and lucid articulation struck me as one of the best sessions in the conference. In intent, innovation and inspiration what the twosome have in mind in their variations to adavus went far beyond investing them with more colour or crowding them with more movements. As they claimed, the serene classicism had to be maintained, while fashioning changes to the conventional adavus investing them with a new personality. From an adi talam trikala jathi to a trikala jathi in rupakam, just playing with the speed (with total tala adherence), changing a frontal movement to a four sided one, or a 360 degree turn, highlighting the beauty of the music through an adavu in a Daru varnam instead of making the adavu a pure rhythmic link between interpretative passages, inserting a clap or attami movement at the right fractional interval of the tala cycle, the imagination of the two young dancers to play with movement polarities, levels, pauses, accentuating a syllable in the adavu through a movement and creating an ebb and flow through the accenting of some sollus, the myriad possibilities opened up by these thinking dancers showed innovation guided by logic and above all a sense of aesthetics.
There were understandably, very negative comments from some senior dancers that the very alphabet of Bharatanatyam was sought to be changed by these innovative interventions. "For me when I use a certain rhythmic phrase, it automatically suggests a certain movement pattern and that is what gives to Bharatanatyam its identity. None of this would I teach my students." Would the adavu training also become different with this? "No," said one of the seniors seated by my side, "for it is within the patterning of the traditional adavus alone that alternative ways of dealing with them can be tried - and if the orthodox adavu training were absent, these ideas and interventions too would not apply." I personally am very happy that instead of just the desire to be different, the younger brigade of performers is led by higher considerations, even going into aspects like 'creating a muscle memory' in the body.
The session on 'Evolving Complexities in Laya' featured Madurai Muralidharan and Kavya Muralidharan with Muralidharan speaking on composition of jathis and talas, on difference between lakshya jathi and lakshana jathi and Poorvangam and Uttarangam. Laya today has been used in a variety of ways - with the navarasas too woven into it.
'Bhav in Kathak: Juxtaposition of Artistry and Re-imagined History' was the subject Madhu Nataraj dealt with. The history part could not have been given to a better person than the daughter of late veteran Maya Rao, one of the earliest disciples of Guru Shambhu Maharaj, teaching at Bharatiya Kala Kendra when the institution was set up by Sumitra Charatram. Maya Rao's thirst for delving deeper into what the Guru taught her sent her seeking archival material in the libraries, and she read about the Kushalavas, the Kathaks, Kathakars, Dhrupad/Dhamar compositions and what have you - all linked with Kathak history. Linking practice to Sastra, Maya's findings had even Guru Shambhu Maharaj, who purely followed an inherited tradition passed on orally, surprised. Madhu Nataraj mentioned how Maya's request to the Guru that she be trained for abhinaya earned the response that this would not fetch her claps from the audience.
Kavits like "Srinandananda nachata sugandha," the Gat Nikas and Gat Bhav in Kathak are compositions calling for abhinaya. The ekapatra (solo actor) used the palta (pirouette to suggest a change of character) while narrating a story. Amir Khusro ghazals, Kitabe Nawaras, and much later Wajid Ali Shah's Rahas ("Jane Alam Rahas Mubarak" was how he was welcomed) and his famous Indra -Sabha fantasising on the royal court in heaven with the four Apsaras (Paris) were all precursors of present day Kathak . The destroyed Poti Prakash is said to have contained details of 400 gats! Brindavan and its Krishna romance ushered in the thumri with compositions like "Mohe chedo na dekhe sab nari." Aside from the neat demonstration, Madhu pointed out how abhinaya in Kathak uses associated imagery and movement and not literal imagery. For instance dark cloud of the sky could be shown by pointing to the surma in the eyes. The tika on the forehead could mean vishwaroopam, or the colour red, finger tracing the parting in the hair could mean the gulley or alley and so on, as in Shambhu Maharaj's specialty Thumri "Kaun gali gayo Shyam."
Under the same transformative slot was also a session by Rukmini Vijayakumar on 'Choreography for a Mobile Generation'. Very eloquent in her explanations, Rukmini's argument was that gestures which the present generation could readily understand had to be introduced in Bharatanatyam to make communication with the contemporary audience easier. While screened video excerpts of her group choreography revealed her high aesthetic feel for ensemble presentations, having witnessed some of her earlier solo varnam presentations with gestures patently lokadharmi, one wonders if the high sense of protocol which one associates with the varnam, was not being compromised in a desire to reach the audience. How far does one go? How much did the foreign audiences know of Bharatanatyam when Bala floored them with her brilliance? Does every gesture have to be understood? It is an overall uplifting experience transcending the mundane which needs to be communicated. Should art accommodate the audience, or does one try to elevate the audience? Instead of tinkering with the gestural vocabulary of age old compositions, a dancer can always have new items composed, catering to the viewpoint one advocates? But in putting forth her point of view, one must admit that Rukmini is most persuasive. And one cannot also deny that the dancer is performing for an audience.
'Jathis - the Long and the Short of it' with Priya Murle as moderator had Guru Bharadwaj, V.Balagurunathan, Meenakshi Srinivasan, Swamimalai Suresh and Pavithra Srinivasan discuss the present trend of long jathis, emerging generally from strong mridangam artists. Guru Bharadwaj made the point that with the vallinam and mellinum clearly brought out in short jathis, there was no need for sollus in nattuvangam to be recited at a high decibel level. Like the Tihai in Kathak, the teermanam in Bharatanatyam has been crisp and short, its inbuilt arithmetic with some syllables accented bringing out the impact. It was also mentioned that Tavil sorkettus have been used in Bharatanatyam. Konakkol as a separate art, and the difference between the Tavil and the Mridangam sollus came in for mention and it was pointed out that the kitatakatadhingginattom phrase so close to Bharatanatyam has come from the mridangam vocabulary. The Morsing influence was also touched upon.
Meenakshi mentioned how interred in a jathi is musicality which can translate into visual aesthetics in movement with the jathi's tonal character also conveying inner feeling or bhavam. For her an adavu has to include all these elements. She likes a jathi to suit the context in which it is used in a composition. She called the jathi "beauty without cruelty." Balagurunathan from the Kalakshetra school mentioned that for 'Athai', and for gurus like Chokkalingam Pillai and Dandayudapani Pillai, the jathi had to be crisp and short - just two or three avartans. The same jathi in different Banis could have different take-off points (eduppu). Swamimalai Suresh felt that the inheritance from different Banis could not be judged or changed. Vazhuvoor's introduction and treatment of takanangitonga was also mentioned. It was surprising that the consensus at the end of the session, with the audience also showing its preferences was for shorter jathis instead of longer creations.
One of the very significant topics on which there seems to be very little knowhow was "The crux of Copyright in the Performing Arts", featured Dr. Anita Ratnam in conversation with IPR Attorney Gladys Daniel, resulting in one of the most informative, forthright and crystal clear exchanges, very important for an arts community of a country notorious for the highest privacy and copyright infringement. Dr.Srinidhi Chidambaram in her introductory remarks pointed out how the 'Taritajham' phrase and movement by Rajaratnam Pillai was being used freely by Bharatanatyam performers without anybody acknowledging the author. Absolutely to the point Gladys Daniel surprised many when she said that the copyright for a live performance or broadcast rests not with the creator/designer of the show but with the one who commissions and pays for the event. Unless one has a special contract with the producer, the latter has the copyright.
Once a show is on the internet, Google, Youtube, and others who are 'facilitators' one comes across a lot of grey areas, not made clear by law - particularly when it comes to once only contracts. The answers touched on joint authorships, on rights to adaptation, on photographs, on what is allowed as extension used in a teaching environment, and important aspects about the commercial codes act, titles and Trade Marks. In the short time span allowed, Anita firing questions, with equally prompt razor sharp answers made for one of the spirited exchanges with clarity as its hallmark. One point was crystal clear - and that is that dancers, wanting to protect their creations have to spare time and energy and be willing to go through myriad signed contracts with various commercial houses, and private parties they deal with, to safeguard their work.
Panel discussions pertained to a variety of topics. Moderated by Chitra Sundaram was one on 'The Imperativeness of Artistic Legacy.' While thinking of Contribution, Continuity, Tradition, Responsibility, 'Weight and Wait', Chitra Sundaram observed that Pericles, an army general, was the one who said that legacy is not what is carved on stone, but what is interwoven with lives. While speaking of plagiarism and content duplication and archiving, one needs to think of what one inherits, and what one takes forward. "You cannot mimic what you represent." Aniruddha Knight felt that he represented a school of Balamma, Kandappa Pillai and Jayamma (each of them made significant contributions) which he had to repossess as a legacy so that he could speak it in his own way. For him core values and what you do as a person are important. He believed his guru was his Mother since Balamma did not teach him. And he felt it was not right to compare him with what Balamma did. He also felt that he could not dismiss the music tradition of his Bani. And in a sense foreigners who learnt it presented it in a distilled form. Collectively, the legacy needs to survive. Malavika Sarukkai referred to the shifts in tradition. While she has in her training inherited the margam which she sees as a path, she wonders whether she is happy with a male centric world she was given with the way woman stood in that society. She thinks in terms of moving into other areas, not just sringar.
Hema Rajagopalan mentioned how living in America, Bharatanatyam had made her think in terms of space, gravity, acceleration, using asymmetrical movements unlike orthodox Bharatanatyam etc. She lived in a world where the jeevatma/paramatma explanations were not accepted. Roja Kannan said that her legacy was what she got from Adyar Lakshman. And even when he was there, the freedom to do one's own thing was given though the guru was firm that with his own compositions what he had created with a lot of 'thought' could not be interfered with. "Don't mess up with my adavu and what I have done" So the question came up "Are the students of a bani its real legatees?"
A particularly energetic discussion on 'Caste, Gender, Privilege and their roles in Bharatanatyam' had the redoubtable V.Sriram moderating. Akhila Krishnamurthy, S. Janaki, Nrithya Pillai and Tulsi Badrinath were the participants. The complaint about male dancers having fewer opportunities is a bit outdated today when several male dancers are at the top of the performance ladder. Janaki dwelt on her specific advice to young dancers to meet Sabha members but never without the mother in tow! A past master at posing the right question to the right person, V. Sriram's own interventions had an element of double entendre. As he concluded "Nabrooyat satyam apriyam" that various types of influences operate in the field of the performance scene cannot be doubted and in art where patronage is the life breath of existence, the dancer will have to face the reality of having to deal with strings attached to support. While one has been witness to a great deal of unfairness in what is unfortunately not a transparent process in this country, I must admit that caste at least in Delhi circles I have known, has never played a part.
But in all this, one is sad to see Nrithya Pillai spewing anger and bitterness about people from the 'traditional' hierarchy being denied opportunities. Representing the Bharatanatyam tradition in all its essence was Balasaraswati whose grandson Aniruddha, despite all that the family may rightly be bitter about, shows a maturity in trying to come to terms with changing times, working at finding his own place in the scheme of things. Yes, heredity does bestow on the artist, authenticity. But quoting it as an entitlement for performance space does not always work. Expertise in how that legacy is expressed in terms of a performer today is what counts. By the same token, Birju Maharaj's sons can demand a lion's share in the performance scene. But it is not so. In the meanwhile, such corrosive bitterness could stand in the way of artistic growth of the person concerned. There are others, with no clout or backing of any type political or otherwise, but who are excellent dancers, relegated for some unknown reason to the back-burner of the selection process. While one has known feelings of disappointment, such caustic feelings have never been expressed. Nrithya Pillai would be well advised to develop a more healthy attitude which will not stunt her own growth as an artist.
Used to the polished seamless performances structured to the last detail by our Bharatanatyam performers, it was a bold and adventurous move to try and see how good they were, at spontaneous impromptu performances depending entirely on manodharma. And this session turned out to be one of the best. Dancers had to pick at random from a basket of folded bits of paper, each of which contained a phrase, and whatever each picked up was the theme for an impromptu 3 to 4 minute performance. The added dimension was the improvised spontaneity of the music with the versatile dancer/musician/composer /teacher Sridhar Vasudevan as vocalist with Guru Bharadwaj on mridangam and Raghavendra, a disciple trained by Chakrapani on the violin. Sudharma Vaithiyanathan, the young talented disciple of Guru A. Lakshman picked up the phrase Journey which in her interpretation became the journey of a flower, from its budding to flowering resulting in its use for religious and decorative purposes till it dies and goes back to the earth from which it arrived. The manner in which music (with the singer's impromptu sahitya with pushpam, alankrita and Upacharani samarpayami to the prompt words sung with feeling when it withers away and embraces the earth once again visarjita, punarjeevita) and natya came together was almost unbelievable.
Dakshina Vaidyanathan, disciple of Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan and Rama Vaidyanathan, picked up the phrase rainy evening and linked it with the Kerala floods which spelt the evening of life for the people - an example of how rain which is celebrated can have its very dark side. One very evocative image was when she showed Krishna lifting the Govardhan as the symbol of the saviour for the Keralites, who emerged from this destructive period with great courage. The way the raga singing and mridangam and even violin seemed to be in total synch with the performer in what was totally spontaneous, was wonderful to watch.
K. Sarveshan elaborating on the theme If I were the Sun started his rendition with images of the Sun as life giver. The bounty of Nature and blooming life changed in tone when the Sun looking down from his perch in the sky was totally disenchanted with what Man had done to planet Earth. And along with his rendition was Vasudevan singing in Bilahari "Japa kusuma sankasham" changing in the next part to Saveri as "Prithviyaam peeditham" made him the Prachanda Surya. How promptly Vasudevan found even sahitya set to ragas to match each move of the dancer was nothing short of a miracle. Indu and Nidheesh found themselves with the phrase Kid's play and they went back to their childhood days with her building sand castles which he promptly stamped on, and they even went through the mock child marriage with the singing coming out with the words iruvarodu malaiyai marrikkondu till fearing discovery they stopped the play.
Very different in pulling off the comic element, was Meera Sreenarayanan whose enactment of the swayamvaram scene with the boastful suitor who utterly failed, showed a performer totally without a consciousness of self or any feelings of wanting to be pretty. She was the dance. Volunteering from the audience and rising to the challenge was Pavithra Srinivasan who picked up the phrase 'New Beginnings.' She started with the Bharatanatyam beginner struggling with the araimandi with the ungainly posture of body bending forward and bottom sticking out (very familiar to dancers of this form) changing to one of joy with mastery over technique, and the singer as a beginner struggling with exercise in solfa passages (with the vocalist adding to the mood build-up by singing a few besura notes) transforming to meditative bliss experienced by the mature singer. Finally came the shiny eyed entry into marriage (with gauri kalyanam et al. contributed by the music) only to be saddled with domestic drudgery and bringing up of children. Though spilling beyond the time allowed, Pavithra's sporting gesture had to be admired.
The Conference had other events held in different venues - on the Landscape of Healing: a psychological primer on handling sexual conduct in a talk by Dr.Sabiha Sultana, a clinical neuropsychologist at Apollo Hospitals, Elaboration and Abstraction in Bharatanatyam: The journey from Dancer to Artiste by Geeta Chandran held at the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram and a workshop on Health, Fitness and Well Being conducted by Dr. Sheela Nambiar and Srinidhi Chidambaram. The icing on the cake was Dance Quotient: A quiz on Dance. At the end of such a marathon offer of events, if one did not have a brain fag, it was surprising.
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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