The National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai played host to a unique synthesis of Odissi and Sri Lanka’s Kandyan dance

How often has one not heard Mumbai’s art loving groups saying, “Mumbai audiences have no time for classical dance”! Even as dance institutions soldier on bravely, the art form has seemed to exist in the quiet back alleys, the high-profile cultural events of pre-1980 days — with disciples of the late Mahalingam Pillai and Kalyanasundaram Pillai, the late Kelucharan Mohapatra, and Kanak Rele holding sway — seeming to be a feature of the past. Against this backdrop, few would have expected the rousing reception from packed halls that the Odissi-Kandyan combination evoked last week at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. The event was a week-long residency, hosting Bengaluru’s Nrityagram dancers and the Sri Lankan Kandyan dancers of Chitrasena Dance Company, featuring workshops and master classes in both dance disciplines.

There were also a seminar and open discussion forum addressing major issues on “Dance Matters: Content, Context, Core”, and performances presenting “Samyoga”, an Odissi duet by Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, and “Samhara: The Braid”, a blend of The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble and Chitrasena Dance Company, visualised by Surupa Sen. To be part of the enthusiastic vibes from viewers and participants in the delightfully appointed spaces of the magnificent NCPA complex — Tata Theatre, Sea View Room, Little Theatre, Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, Experimental Theatre — was to realise that quality and professionalism cannot fail to evoke a response even from those with a supposedly jaded appetite for dance.

Without months of dedicated effort in understanding the Kandyan dance culture, the language, the movements, the history, the identity and, above all, the rhythmic content and vowels produced on the ghetta bheda drum, to work out something like “Samhara” would have been impossible. The cross-cultural interaction was made to look natural, almost inevitable, so minutely were the details of movement and Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi’s brilliantly simple but utterly befitting score worked out. Each form retained its own space and identity without compromising in any way. None of the painstaking research and hard work would have paid off without two delightful Kandyan dancers in Thaji Dias and Mitilani Gunasinghe, who matched the professionalism of the Nrityagram dancers.

Thaji’s guru and relative Upeka Chitrasena is the daughter of Kandyan experts, the late Chitrasena and Vajira, who in the 1940s revitalised and codified what was a ritual dance known as Kohomba Kankariya. Since Kandyan dance is performed only to drums, the interaction was in pure nritta accompanied by instrumental music, just movement creating narrative byplays of dice playing amongst friends with all its innocently mischievous interventions. The long-limbed, antenna-like full leg and hand stretches and broad plie and quick torso thrusts of the Kandyan dancer in a jaunty gait, and the tribhanga (threefold) grace of the Odissi trio of Bijoyini, Surupa and Pavitra seemed the ideal foil for each other. Movement tones frequently had a masculine/ feminine complementing thrust. There was intelligent use of levels, and in the raga music set to rhythm the sense of sheer joy pervaded. If the Odissi dancers were like graceful dancing peacocks, the Kandyan dancers — with the Mayura hasta hands on the side and neck thrust upwards — were like the walking mayura (peacocks). Movements contrasted in alternating tones of challenge and invitation, the dancers coming together and dispersing smoothly in magical precision. Surupa’s choreographic patterns never became predictable and the element of surprise kept interest alive. And using not just the mellow sounds of the mardala, but also the syllables produced on the more assertively toned Sri Lankan drum with the “Chingada”, “Nomgada” and “Kititaka” syllables, the “ukkuta” type of combinations worked out by Surupa and recited by her were indeed impressive.

“Arpana” in Odissi, offering homage to Parvati’s supreme power, beauty, compassion and radiance of a thousand suns, followed by the homage to the five elements (the Kandyan dancers also joining in with movements of their Vannama — of elephants, deer etc.) made an arresting start to the programme. The Shiva Tandava Stotram by Bijayini, with Surupa joining in, was brilliant, a single moment representing “Bhujangamalita” going beyond the body seeming to suggest all the expanse of the cosmos represented in Shivahood.

Krishna’s repentance in the Jayadeva ashtapadi “Mamiyam chalitaavilokya…”, chiding himself for having caused so much anguish to Radha through his wanton flirtations, became an intense interpretation by Surupa, Lynne Fernandez’s lighting exquisite as Krishna’s brooding figure slowly fades into the darkness, seeming to leave lingering memories of his pain. Uday on the Sri Lankan drum, Shivshankar Satpathy (mardala), Jatin Kumar Sahu (vocal), Sreenivas Satpathy (flute) and Jatin Kunda (violin) in their intensely involved participation contributed fully to the total impact.

Surupa Sen has a deep voice. But for people to hear her compering, she needs to throw her voice out more instead of seeming to talk to herself.

Most encouraging was the special programme mounted for about 800 school children, with demonstrations — the very intelligently devised brick-by-brick build-up of Odissi with Bijayini’s explanations evoking quick responses from the youngsters, many reciting the Natya Sastra verse of prayoga of the pataka hasta along with the dancers. The Kandyan technique was similarly demonstrated.

There was a forum talk on dance criticism followed by a brief introduction to the why and wherefore of work done in Nrityagram. Dancers like Parvati Dutta, a path-breaker who through her institution Mahagami has been doing so much research in Kathak and Odissi, taking the dance to people in a place like Aurangabad; Sunjukta Wagh, who’s been experimenting with contemporary dance with Kathak as her base; and Vaibhav Arekar, the Bharatanatyam/ theatre artiste, gave insights into their work. Amidst this and crowded classes of eager youngsters and the not-so-young in workshops, one felt that classical dance may well be ready for a new spring.