Samrachana: Choreography Festival of Dance
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos courtesy: Odisha Tourism
March 11, 2012
Celebrating Platinum Jubilee of the formation of Swatantra Odisha Pradesh, Odisha Tourism presented Samrachana: Choreography Festival of Dance, organized by Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi in collaboration with Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India, Dept of Tourism and Culture Govt. of Odisha, Srjan Kelucharan Mohapatra Nrityabasa and GKCM Odissi Research Centre, from 1st till 5th March 2012, showcasing in all ten choreographic works, each day one work based on Odissi technique, followed by choreographic work in other classical technique like Kathak, Kuchipudi, Contemporary, Manipuri and Bharatanatyam, at Rabindra Mandap, Bhubanswar. A two day seminar in the morning of March 2nd and 5th was also organized to take stock of the development of choreography after witnessing ten choreographic works. A sumptuous fare.
The initiative taken by young Odissi exponent, choreographer, guru and Vice President of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, Aruna Mohanty, was a runaway success.
Organized for the first time, it brought to Bhubaneswar a cross-section of choreographic works by the seasoned choreographers from the younger generation and also a few senior dancers/choreographers. Indeed it was a feast for the eyes and ears. The idea to expose the Odissi exponents of Odisha and local Odissi gurus and choreographers to the choreographic works of other classical and contemporary techniques was most welcome. With the passage of time, Odissi has come of age and has won worldwide recognition as a major classical dance form, being practiced by an international community of dancers.
It is true that since November last year, a series of national and international Odissi events have taken place in Bhubaneswar with the well established Konark Dance Festival, International Odissi festival, Mukteshwar Festival, late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s Konark Festival, Dhauli Festival, and additional Gotipua dance festival, Guru Deba Prasad Das Memorial Festival and several others, there has been tremendous activity in Odissi. Even the Guinness book record added to the extremely busy calendar.
At one point I began to feel that I was staying in Bhubaneswar and visiting New Delhi occasionally!! Odisha has become my second home. Not that I have not been visiting Bhubaneswar – I have been coming to Odisha since 1958, when I was working on my Marg book on Odissi with photographer Dhiraj Chawda and later with Avinash Pasricha. Staying at Babulal Doshi’s residence at Cuttack, at Kala Vikash Kendra, I almost grew up with the development of Odissi witnessing creations of pallavis and abhinaya of Gita Govinda ashtapadis and Odiya padas when Kelubabu, Sanjukta and Raghunath Panigrahi, Sonal Mansingh, Kum Kum Mohanty, Dhirendra Nath Patanaik were busy dancing to the repertoire which was expanding. Ah, those were the halcyon days!
The festival under review offered one glimpses into the choreography in major classical dance forms. Odissi of course has offered great scope to dancers and choreographers to explore it using well trained male and female dancers. Keeping pace with changing times, Odissi has passed through various stages. And it reflected succinctly in the works presented, both by traditional gurus, their legatees, children and successors.
Under the banner of Srjan established in 1993, Ratikant chose to present Ravana in individual new light. The Sanskrit libretto, script is composed by Dr. Manmohan Acharya and is introduced on recording by Aditya Mahapatra, extolling Ravana as a protagonist of the choreographic work. Dr. Manmohan has composed invocation in praise of Dashanana with which the narration starts.
Ravana was a devotee of Lord Shiva. The narrative emphasizes Ravana’s majestic persona. That he was an anti-hero of the Ramayana and fought a valiant battle with Lord Rama, kidnapping his wife Sita, is a well known story. However, Ravana was highly knowledgeable, all powerful king. He displayed rare courage, integrity and perseverance, chose to achieve death at the hand of Lord Rama, creating a ploy of abducting Rama’s wife Sita, so the battle would ensue between them and if killed in battle he would achieve his aim. This indeed is an unusual treatment.
Ratikant uses chorus device to narrate the story and elaborates key incidents. The group of dancers, acting as chorus, with excellent training, creates eye catching visuals and also suggests key events when the dance-drama proceeds. Ravana’s penance, cutting one of his heads, placing it in the yagna, sacrificial fire, offering it to Prajapati, asking for a boon to die at the hands of Lord Vishnu as Rama; drawing from his own arms, the veins to play veena to please Lord Shiva etc., were well designed and enacted by Ratikant in key role of Ravana. Janaki Harana description through text, Panchavati, golden deer, Ravana arriving as a mendicant, Sita crossing Lakshmana rekha, being kidnapped, Ravana lifting her from earth, taking her in a chariot, Jatayu’s battle to save Sita, building of setu, bridge by monkeys, with brilliant choreography, multi-armed image, Ravana’s dialogue with Mandodari, and not listening to her arguing with her that he will be laughed at if he did not fight the battle, his wanting to have ‘Vaikuntha prapti,’ final destination in heaven through battle with Rama, all were well articulated through text and enacted with appropriate expressions, and body language on part of Ravana.
The stage space is used with two leveled platform. Sujata Mohapatra appears in a brief moving cameo as Sita. The troupe performs with élan and sophistication enhancing Ratikant’s gifts in choreography. Lighting by Jaidev could have been more evocative. The use of smoke often left one wondering at its usage. The music was commensurate with rendition of Sanskrit text and effective.
Performing Kathak the duo in Varsha, danced to the music of flute by Praveen. Creating visuals of droplets of rain, gathering of clouds, lightning, peacock dancing, lovers meeting, all were performed but was not using any text - sahitya. Using Malhar raga, they created atmosphere of rainy season successfully. Dressed in blue costumes both looked very elegant and danced in perfect sync.
Giving glimpses of their choreography displaying variety both of them impressed the audiences for their approach to Kathak. They were commissioned by Television Rasalila group choreographic work in which they wove in from Bhagavatapurana, incidents which have eternal appeal watching Radha and Krishna as a couple, Krishna dancing with other Gopis, suggestive of Gita Govinda ashtapadi in which Krishna pleases each Gopi giving her an impression that he belongs to her, including Radha. When he disappears they all realize that jivatama, the soul cannot take pride in possessing Lord, paramatma. Then Krishna performs with each one making each one realize that he belongs to all. The use of Dandia raas, with sticks and clapping were highly enjoyable. The colourful costumes and music highlighted the choreography which appeared simple but had the complexities using Kathak technique.
In ‘Ta dha’ choreographed by Kumudini Lakhia and elaborated by the couple, with attractive purple costume specially designed by Kathak dancer Tushar Bhatt, they created a favourable impression as it explored the form of Kathak in a novel and contemporary way. The use of staccato flute, various drums and the ‘ta dha’ postures, the silences in between et al were imaginative.
But the piece de resistance was an excerpt from their production Kathakitathom, presenting Mahabharata battle with emphasis on Abhimanyu’s valiant fighting with warriors in Chakravyuha, the military formation. With the deep study of Natyasastra under the guidance of scholar Shatavadhani Ganesh, they explored the sound textures of mnemonic syllables, creating illusion of war sounds, horses, elephants, innumerable foot soldiers marching on war field, using lighting in a manner which enhanced the illusion. Using the cinematic effect of looking into circle, as it were with top angle, the impact was mesmerizing. In particular, the soldiers coming in front one after another, and rushing of horses, elephants and creating atmosphere, won them rounds of applause. The costumes were suggestive half jackets like armours and dhotis, use of karanas like gajakriditam for elephants and ashvakarnta chari for horses and various vyayamas, the physical exercises, mentioned in Natyasastra were not only imaginative but also most impressive. ‘Manyu, Abhimanyu’ went the refrain and rising over the circle, Abhimanyu displayed his stature. The choreographers avoided the death part which also had quite an impact. Bravo! Both Nirupama and Rajendra displayed that from the young generation they have arrived on the scene with sound training and professional approach.
With her troupe of dancers as chorus, Vyjayanthi in the role of Gandhari looked imperial in impressive pink costume and ornaments. The patrapravesha daru was employed artistically. The moment of Dhritarashtra and her meeting and seeing him blind, she throws her scarf up in the air and takes a vow to blindfold her eyes, accepting darkness. She was dumbfounded at the fate awaiting her. It was presented in a very dramatic manner. In contrast, earlier in the sequence of the ritual worship of Lord Shiva offering bilva patra, Shiva’s Tandavamurti form, suggestion of trinetra and Madana bhasma, burning of Kamadeva, were well choreographed in Kuchipudi style, performed flawlessly by the dancers.
Prateeksha, her gifted young daughter in the role of Draupadi essayed the role competently. In ekaharya lasyanga convention, a female dancer impersonates male role. Vyjayanthi had four male dancers in her company but the role of Arjuna was played by a female dancer which looked incongruous. One appreciates the difficulty of enlisting support for male dancers. However, in such a production, the production would gain impact if a male dancer is invited to play Arjuna’s role instead of a female dancer.
The swaymavara sequence to shoot reflection of a revolving fish in water was imaginative, but the caricature of other kings did not look appropriate with a female character as Arjuna. The game of dice, humiliation of Draupadi, her curse and declaration that she would not tie her hair unless dyed in Dushashana’s blood (Veni samhara), battle of Kurukshetra, Gandhari’s anguish, opening her blindfolds, seeing the devastation, death of her children and cursing Lord Krishna, were enacted dramatically. The narrative itself is moving and both mother and daughter in roles of Gandhari and Draupadi acquitted themselves successfully.
In terms of choreography such narratives pose problems. Embellishing it with nritta sequences and lyrics, with more emphasis on description of physical attributes, the presentation looked imbalanced. Vyjayanthi has a very good grasp of developing characters. There was ‘a high voltage’ abhinaya and somehow it looked more like a dance-drama. It would help reworking some sequences and bringing in a male for Arjuna’s role. The music was commensurate with dramatic moments. The typical Kuchipudi movements were arresting and eye catching.
Guru Durga Charan played four roles of an old man etc., competently. The finale with ‘Budhham saranam gachhami’ and procession brought the dance presentation to an end. But the lighting failed at the right moment and Buddha was not seen climbing the stage. Jaidev is a gifted and trustworthy light designer, but the release of smoke in most of the presentations looked redundant and detracted from overall light designing. Guru Durga Charan succeeded in presenting the story with its simplicity and flawless Odissi technique. The teamwork was exemplary.
The most ambitious presentation in Odissi was Aruna Mohanty’s multi-cast group choreography of Gatha Odissi. As a dancer, guru, and a choreographer over the years, under the tutelage of late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, now looking after Orissa Dance Academy, Aruna has emerged as choreographer with complete command over the technique and visualizing large scale productions. Gatha Odissi falls in that category.
Barring the use of videos for battle scenes, the production through dance movements engages the onlooker to the unfolding of various sequences. I almost wondered when it was over, so seamless was its presentation. There lies the choreographer’s gift of groupings, flow from one scene to another and bringing it to finale which leaves an indelible impression.
Aruna has advantage of well trained dancers, including children, gotipua dancers, who dance with great confidence with seniors. I often wondered at the exit of large numbers of dancers. Aruna seems to resolve this task cleverly so that the production looks uncluttered. What I was most impressed was the scale on which she has been working using a large number of dancers. Their comprehension of space, entries, exits, performing without confusion, whether it is a raas sequence or a battle scene, the flow has been very smooth, and does not lapse into long and overdrawn scenes. Bravo, Aruna! The teamwork is praiseworthy in all departments - music, costumes, lighting, scripting and dancing. I was delighted to learn that poet and editor Kedar Mishra has assisted Aruna in the script. It is easy to grasp. Since it is ‘a khyata katha vastu’, well known story, it has an instant appeal. I enjoyed the use of Sanskrit, Odiya, and Hindi songs and English language for commentary. Odissi has grown and that has been well reflected in the production.
Sadhya, the troupe’s dancers are young, brilliant and energetic, performing with split second precision, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. Santosh is a son of Padmanabh Nair from Kerala Kalamandalam, trained in Kathakali, modern dance under Narendra Sharma and has studied Mayurbhanj Chhau under Guru Janmejoy Saibabu. He has wide exposure giving workshops in Mayurbhanj Chhau and contemporary technique abroad and within India. He has worked with companies of Austrian choreographer Editta Braun and others and has acquired considerable experience to evolve contemporary style winning laurels. As a feather in his cap recently he has been appointed artistic director for the Moving Earth Project, Birmingham, involving 240 artists for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in UK.
This was their first ever visit to Bhubaneswar and they won hands down with interpretation of known event from the Mahabharata. Shakuni and Yudhishthir wearing masks are seen playing game of dice, the result is known, Draupadi is shown in silhouette tying her hair, Dushashana drags her to court and attempts disrobing her, she is saved by Lord Krishna providing endless saris, cleverly shown with large cloth being wrapped around Draupadi and also Pandavas.
The convention of Bhima turning into Raudra Bhima and Narasimha when killing Dushashana, are a part of Kathakali. Similarly, the use of Theyyam, with larger than life masks added to the impact of the gory event. The projection of slides of masks at the back at times distracted. But it was only used sometimes by the choreographer. The lighting by Gautam Bhattacharya was evocative, created moods and heightened the event contributing in an imaginative manner to the progress of the narrative.
A fine example of teamwork, right from designing costumes to the making of masks, discussion of script and lighting, the work stood out for its overall impact and ‘contemporary’ technique. In absence of the list given to critics, reviewers, it is not possible to mention individual credits. The dancers have uniform technique and the energy level was breathtaking. A highlight of the festival.
In Rangastuti, taking shlokas form Abhinaya Darpana with slow music she invoked space with the stage as its representation and source of artistic activity. Brief and ending with lamp, it created a mood. In Vistaar, in the treatment of music as alaap, jod, jhala and bandish, she explored these elements, weaving arasas, the mnemonic syllables of Odissi within the pallavi, highlighting rhythmic patterns and spatial arrangements which were imaginative, juxtaposing several designs which linger long in memory. And add to it the exquisite lighting by Gautam Bhattacharya, which bathes the dancers in colours which have harmony. The resultant aesthetic experience has to be savoured.
Taopoi Oriya poem by Gopinath Das of the 16th century rendered in Navakshari, as Madhavi explained later on in seminar with slight changes, had an instant appeal to the larger section of Oriya audiences. The tragic story of a sister whose seven brothers leave for earning money and barring one sister-in-law the rest torture the sister Taopoi, sending her to forest to tend the goats. She leaves home. On their return the brothers, through divine intervention, hear the cries of Taopoi and on learning the truth punish the wives whose noses are chopped off, except one who was kind to Taopoi. The treatment was smooth as the story was narrated, in an engaging manner, and Arushi performed the role of Taopoi competently. The sequence of brothers going on a sea voyage in a boat and the waves was imaginatively choreographed.
Like all her presentations, Madhavi’s Odissi choreographic works had sophistication and excellent groupings by dancers with uniform training and technique. Madhup Mudgal’s music further embellished her creations.
Guru Bipin Singh and Kalavati Devi’s daughter Bimbavati Devi from
Kolkata brought Leichan, like a bouquet of flowers, an assortment of
Vaishnavite dances of Manipur in its multi-splendoured colour and
beauty. The rituals were interwoven imaginatively. Moving from one to
next sequence like Kathokchaba, meaning offering, to Basanta, using Gita
Govinda ashtapadi and other Vaishnava poets’ compositions, Bimbavati
with her seasoned troupe of male and female dancers evoked the spirit of
spring, in improvised but colourful costumes.
The hori sequence with typical flags brought to Shri Shri Govindaji’s temple by Holi palas, groups, was suggested by a male dancer dancing with the flag. The Pung cholom, drum dance sequences, invariably bring down the house with their aerial whirls while playing on drums and landing on the floor. These were executed with finesse. In Goshthakreeda, the spirit of games was generated, dancers wielding one stick and striking on floor, playing games, dancing joyously, with conventional and yet stylized movements as seen in temple courtyards in Manipur.
The finale ‘Jaya Jaya Deva Hare’ revolved round Ratha Yatra as performed in Manipur when khubak ishai, clap dance, is performed with singing ‘Jaya Jaya Deva Hare.’ The Meitei songs describing gopis’ agony at Krishna going to Mathura are rendered in this sequence. The climax is reached with clap dance and singing by the group. In the end, the priest in white costumes, brings the arati on the stage and the atmosphere transforms into mood of a devotional prayer.
Bimbavati has emerged as a competent dancer and a choreographer from young generation making a name for herself. In the seminar she explained the significance of the rituals and its presentation in choreographic manner. It was a novel choreographic venture within the traditional frame work.
The visuals of dancers circling on their axis and forming lines with extended arms at once give the viewers a different perspective of the Bharatanatyam form. The use of pancha nadai and presentation in five sections, with progression in rendering of music was a sheer delight to witness with subdued lighting. The clean movements stood out for its beauty. The patterns and formations explored the familiar adavus, the movements and the geometry. The bhramaris, the pirouettes wore a new look. ‘Spanda, a vibration’ as the choreographer’s note mentions, ‘is symbolic of the enduring and perpetual energy that is life force of the universe. It incorporates the philosophical concept of Prithvi as the centre and source of energy in the universe and equates with nabham, the womb as the origin of energy in the human body.’ Such abstraction poses challenges. Leela has explored it with success in her choreography.
In Charishnu, Leela further pushes the boundaries of nritta in Bharatanatyam and through various choreographic designs, conveys expression of the joy of journeying. She has mentioned in her choreographer’s note: ‘Every individual, animal or nation – journeys in a manner typical of his own nature.’ It indeed is the crux so joyously danced by the group. The music by Madhup Mudgal and rendered by choir of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya captures the mood. The gaits, the way the dancers move with head up and chest in front, sometimes slightly sideways, create movements conveying joy and pride. With exquisite lighting the choreographic work delights the onlookers. I am glad the festival included these works as they need to be seen by the younger generation as terms of reference and what scope abstraction in dance offers to a choreographer.
The festival ended with Sharmila Biswas’s choreographic works in Odissi of her institution Odissi Vision and Movement Centre, Kolkata. In terms of originality, technique and stage design, experimental works, use of traditional movement skills and an ability to make unique statement for contemporary Odissi, Sharmila has earned a name for herself. A senior student of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, she has been continuously exploring newer vistas in Odissi.
Katha Surpanakha has been attempted by her variously. Ashubha, apriya, kutsita ninidta ramani, rakshasi rajakanya and several epithets are given to her. In a solo performance, Sharmila interpreted Surpanakha, when she transforms herself into beautiful women on her way to seduce Rama in the forest. Prior to that in a prologue, Sharmila used five to six masks to convey various stages, moods and forms of Surpanakha, which was indeed a very effective and dramatic ploy. Looking at her reflection in the river, she decorates herself and confronts Rama, who asks her to go unto Lakshmana, who punishes her and cuts off her nose. She is in great agony and on that note Sharmila ends her portrayal. She looks into Godavari and finds herself Virupa, Mahaghora. She indeed evokes sympathy for Surpanakha as a woman.
In the morning seminar she had referred to her earlier interpretations of Surpanakha as a mother and a grandmother with children and living happily. The different interpretations reveal various facets of Surpanakha. He referred to Leela Majumdar’s Bengali writing in which Surpanakha is mentioned as ‘Pishi Ma’.
In Avartan Vivartan, games are transformed into a dance number. Very imaginative and joyous. Sharmila had independently met Dhaneswar Swain, Banamali Maharana, and Harmohan Khuntia and discussed with them about the clarity of tala. She used various arasas and used games, the way we walk and other activities weaving them into choreographic piece. It succeeded in giving it a novel form and is a delightful addition to the Odissi repertoire.
The five day Choreography Festival of Dance ended on a happy note. The seminar in the morning also reiterated why such festivals should be organized so that we understand definition of tradition better and accept the changes. Tradition is not a bound pond, but a flowing river. And with changing times, a dynamic art like dance will always change. The core of the form will remain what it is. Then variations will not be detrimental to form. Those die- hard traditionalists, who fear about what would happen to Odissi in future, need not worry. The form is so strong and beautiful that it will invest itself with newness.
In the first session of the seminar, I screened few excerpts from my collection of Uday Shankar’s film Kalpana showing sequence in ‘Heaven’ and one of ‘Labour and Machinery’ which indeed are rare and show genius of Uday Shankar as a choreographer and how he took the theme of how Capitalist class exploits the labour class. The setting and choreography are all time classic. Priti Patel’s choreography of Agni in Manipuri using various traditions of Manipur and Chitraleka Bolar’s ‘Release of Carbon C’ using fusion of different styles like Bharatanatyam and Kathak and also music and use of mirror as a backdrop shows how dance choreography has moved over a period of time. These screenings were meant to brief the audience that we have moved a long way and we are all poised at a point where experimentations and changes are inevitable and we should welcome them.
For a seminar, the organizers must have a strong moderator to keep discussion within time frame and scope of seminar. One more suggestion: When the announcements were made daily, the credits for music, libretto, script etc were announced. That information should have been included in a brochure brought out by the Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, so that it can serve as a record and a part of documentation. I have not been able to mention credits in most of the choreographic works in absence of it.
Mr. Ashok Tripathy, Chief Secretary of the Dept of Tourism and Culture, Govt of Odisha, deserves compliments for fully supporting the festival. He has with his boundless enthusiasm and foresight, generated unprecedented response for the performing arts and with dance festivals galore we have witnessed an amazing range of activities. He plans to have in future a Festival of Contemporary Dance for three days, which augurs well for audiences in Bhubaneswar and the dancers and gurus, as such festivals help in exposing them to latest trends in dance. Aruna Mohanty and Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi deserve congratulations for such a sumptuous fare.
Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.
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