Dance A round-up of the Natya Darshan conference / performance conclave, “Epic Women”, organised by Karthik Fine Arts and curated by Anita Ratnam in Chennai.
An unforgettable curtain raiser was the inimitable Revathy Sankkaran’s “Manikka Veena” comprising brilliant vignettes of M.S. Subbalakshmi, presented in the Harikatha format. The versatility of this priceless raconteur kept audience spellbound, her voice turning into Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s, N.S. Krishnan’s , Musiri’s and of course into M.S. and countless others by turns. She captured the essence of M.S. Amma. With the fading notes of “Katrinile Varum Geetam” — the surrounding air wafting the compassion, the melody the humility of this epic woman who in a world of greed gave away every cent she earned to charity.
The morning invocation on the mizhavu Kerala drums with some movements woven in by Adishakti drummers presenting an excerpt from their production “Ardhakunjanarishwara” (feminine aspect of Ganapati) was unique.
Kapila’s Koodiyattam presentation “Sita Partyagam” registered the highest epic moment of the festival, dramatic intensity and stillness of rendition revealing a rare performer showing astonishing internalised power of expression using the austere vocabulary of Koodiyattam. Sita’s stinging farewell to Lakshmana was that Rama be conveyed her doubts about his royal lineage and upbringing — for would such a person abandon a loving pregnant wife? With the evocative mizhavu by Kalamandalam Rajeev and Kalamandalam Hariharan, each beat and throb communicated the rising urgency of Rama’s anger and helplessness at Sita’s disappearance, successively rendering more hollow his repeated urge/order that Bhoomi Devi hand over to a husband his lawfully wedded wife.
The World premiere of “Savitri — Dancing in the Forest of Death” by Thresh was a very radical take-off by Preeti Vasudevan, a Bharatanatyam dancer engaged in Contemporary work, wherein consequent to the grant of new life to Satyavan by Yama the God of Death, Savitri, finding palace life oppressive, seeks another exile. Preeti’s phenomenal body control and balance, unconsciously perhaps, unleashes a self-indulgent virtuosity. Yama with the bucket and broom accoutrements of the western witch, given all of Preeti’s histrionic skill, came across as a silly character. And the second time in the forest, Savitri, for this critic, did not seem more confident or free.
Chitra Subramaniam’s interestingly minimal, but still evolving ‘performative piece’ “Stree-Dom — An immaculate Conception”, through spoken dialogue, gestures and a suggestive prop of a white gown hanging from a peg, presented two parallel cases of epic women: Vasistha’s wife Arundhati and Odysseus’ wife Penelope. Arundhati the only rishipatni claiming star status, modestly shining less brightly behind her more conspicuous husband with five other males, was as faithful as Penelope who through solitary years with Odysseus fighting wars, resourcefully used her embroidery skills to ward off countless suitors seeking her land and hand. Did both resent being shadowy figures as “wives and after- thoughts?”
Yet another waiting woman left to pine in solitariness Yashodhara, whose plaint “Sakhi we mujhe kehkar jaate” poet Mythili Sharan Gupt brought out in his work, inspired Gowri Ramnarayan’s production encompassing Amritha Murali’s delightful singing, Mythili Prakash’s highly evocative Bharatanatyam with Gowri Ramnarayan’s lucidly articulated interventions. “Yashodhara” needs more tautness, the textual bits pared down. Aesthetic, the stage setting seemed to constrict space for Mythili’s movements.
The other lament (pulambal), portrayed through Lakshmi Viswanathan’s interpretative skills, pertained to mothers Devaki and Kausalya. Choice of poetry and the fine singing with Lakshmi Viswanathan’s abhinaya brought out the tragedy of the biological mother Devaki, imagining Krishna through a lullaby (Kulashekhara Alwar’s), not destined to experience the wonder of watching him grow. Kausalya who shared Rama with the other queens and was to be deprived of even seeing him for fourteen years, begs that he take her with him. To-the-point, simple and internalised, Lakshmi’s subtle abhinaya, moving so closely with the music, showed less — suggesting more.
The cross gender narrative of Amba Shikhandi found the right dancer choices in Priya Murali as Bhishma/Arjuna using the Therukoothu form, and Srikanth Natarajan the stree vesham expert becoming the beauteous Amba dancing in lasya-filled Bharatanatyam. The music was good. The work-in-progress needs to evolve.
Rajika Puri’s “Indo-Greek story telling” with action had an excellent solo accompanist in world percussionist Suchet Malhotra. Eleni of Sparta with “a face that launched a thousand ships” eloped with Paris unleashing the terrible Greek / Trojan war. Using movement from Bharatanatyam/Odissi/folk rhythms, with music of western, Odissi, Hindustani thaat vintage, and narrating in blended Greek, Sanskrit and English, Rajika’s cross cultural work requires that movements have more punch, without which even the fine voice and speech lose impact.
Urmila Satyanarayana’s “Panchali Sapatham” became an overly dramatised, nondescript genre with teermanam interventions spouting the typical Bharatanatyam mode, and inexplicable aharya for an ekaharya presentation — the dancer in headgear and red fan over a three quarter pyjama type getup. Many in the audience lapped up this presentation, while I could not but mull over the much preferred image of Urmila in undisguised, well-strung Bharatanatyam.
Underplayed and yet communicative, and aided by video/visual projections, was “The Spirit of Frida” in Contemporary genre by Kalpana Raghuraman raised in the Netherlands, inspired by woman painter Frida’s life, defying physical suffering including a leg amputation, to become an icon of female emancipation.
Equally straightforward and perhaps too simple was Anusha Subramanyam’s “Golden Peacock” inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s core philosophy of freedom from fear.
Neena Prasad’s Surpanaka, notwithstanding the largeness of the demon hard to capture in the demure Mohiniattam form, was aesthetically convincing, Surpanaka taunting Rama for scarring her soul. “After all what do you humans of ‘Arya vamsha garvam’ know of love and passion,” she scorns.
In the Kathavachak form, Rajashree Shirke’s “Mata Hidimba” was a sympathetic visualisation of this demon, who loses her son Ghatotkach in the Kurukshetra battle. Fathered by Bhima, the son is caught between the Pandavas advocating the Kshatriya war dharma of destroying every opponent, and Mother Hidimba’s teaching that dwellers of the forest never destroy fellow creatures wantonly. A lamenting Hidimba demands if a loving mother bringing up her son as a single parent has less rights than the father who departs after a brief idyllic union. Excellently trained dancers and Rajashree used stage space cleverly. A more consistently sur-conscious singer and less shiny costumes would make the efficient presentation even more poignant.
“Toomani maadattu” the typical Mazhgazhi song sung by the students, Tagore’s “Ekla Chalo”, “Gandhi: Warp and Weft” by Geeta Chandran (reviewed earlier) were also presented.
The melodic richness of the music in the early hours of the morning titled “Light at the edge of the World” with Anil Srinivasan on the piano and Viji Krishnan Natarajan on the violin, pulled at the heartstrings with ragam and taanam in Kalyani, Latangi, Poorvi Kalyani, and Hameer Kalyani followed by Sindhu Bhairavi and “Teerada Vilaiyattu Pillai” filling the auditorium with the united melody of the two instruments, each finding its own space. Rex’s aesthetic stage designing and the smoothness of competent organisation of this three-day event, with Anita’s team — particularly the Herculean efforts put in by the Arangham staff — have to be mentioned.