Ananda Shankar Jayant on interpreting Tagore’s verses alongside the works of Telugu poets he influenced.
Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant was in Kolkata recently to perform “Kavyanjali”, a work that brought together the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore with Telugu poetry of a similar genre. A powerful dancer, she took up a very common song of Tagore and integrated it with Telugu poetry, interpreting it with flourishes of emotion to portray ultimate bliss. The audience of Santiniketan and Kolkata took rapturously to the experiment, which was presented as part of the Rabindra Utsav 2013, organised by Happenings Kolkata. The festival, whose tagline is “Rediscovering Tagore”, features an eclectic range of theatre, music and dance presentations inspired by or in tribute to the ‘Bard of Bengal’. “Kavyanjali”, performed by Ananda and her group of dancers from Shankarananda Kalakshetra, Hyderabad, was a visually arresting presentation that brought out Ananda’s qualities not only as a dancer and choreographer but also a trainer of high calibre. Here, the alumna of Kalakshetra, Madras, and recipient of the Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, talks of the process of creating this collaborative work.
What was the starting point?
I wanted to explore, understand and present a literary colossus like Tagore’s influence on a widely spoken language Telugu! And this is where my collaborators stepped in. Dr Partha Ghose, a renowned Tagore scholar, whom I had met over lunch at a friend’s home, seeing my enthusiasm for the topic and understanding the research I needed to do, gently steered me towards reading some important books and essays on Tagore. “The Essential Tagore”, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, became my first detailed reading of Tagore in its entirety. And so began this very beautiful journey into Rabindranath Tagore, as I began reading this 800-plus page book. His poems and songs particularly were interesting because I was reimagining them in my dance vocabulary as I read them, for they were dramatic, and had a sweep of the narrative, very akin to the storytelling of the two classical dance styles of my training — Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. My imagination went into overdrive as I bookmarked nearly every poem and song that I read! I also read “Rabindranath Tagore The Singer and his Song” by Reba Som, a biography of Tagore, with music as its leitmotif. I was keen on not presenting a translation of any of Tagore’s poems, or presenting the poems or songs of Tagore in another genre of music. I was clear that I would present the poems or songs in Bengali and in Rabindra Sangeet. Understanding the mind of the great poet, his deep philosophy, and the lucid verse, the text, context and subtext of the poems as well as the beautiful music, was a deeply enriching experience, and translating the inherent mood of the songs helped me transform the visual optic into my dance idiom. Rabindra Sangeet singer Sayantani Chakravarty would sing and explain the text. I translated into the dance idiom. I then went to my next collaborator Dr. Mrunalini Chunduri, a well-known Telugu scholar and writer who sent me reams of researched documents and papers on Tagore’s influence on Telugu poets. In keeping with the depth of Tagore’s influence as well as the breadth of the poet’s writings, we zeroed in on Devulapalli Krishna Shastry (1897-1980) Rayaprolu Subba Rao (1892-1984) and the poet duo Oleti Parvateesam (1880-1970) and Balantrapu Venkata Rao (1882-1955). The duo’s poem “Ekanta Seva” as Devulapalli described was to the Telugu people what “Gitanjali” is to the Bengalis.
How did you decide on the use of dance idioms?
I usually allow the mood of the music, and the nuances of the poetry, to influence my choreography. For me dance choreography follows the music. The Kuchipudi lilt and verve suited the music of Tagore’s poetry, as the music too had a lilt to it which could be replicated in movement through the grammar of the Kuchipudi style.
The main challenge area was the fact that I could not read Bangla, and was dependent on translations from books as well as interpretations and meanings. The same problem in a lesser vein was also present in Telugu, though I understand Telugu well.
The second challenge was that of the very different tala structure that is used in Rabindra Sangeet. While I had worked with Jazz music in my earlier choreography, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, and with fusion music in “Dancing Tales”, there was only one genre of music. Here we are abreast with two very different styles and genres of music, with their own rules and systems. We took time to understand this, as we were used to different rhythmic cycles or tala structure used for Carnatic music. This problem was magnified especially in the first segment, “Nataraja”, as we had interlaced and interwoven the Telugu song with the Rabindra Sangeet. To overcome this challenge, we introduced swara or note passages, which aided the transition from one genre of music and rhythmic structure to the other. We also used jatis and mnemonic and rhythmic overtones, to help make these transitions between two very different styles of music. This was a huge challenge for the Carnatic musicians as well as the dancers, and we overcame this with the many rehearsals that we put into this area.
The third challenge was: In Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, we repeat a single line of the lyric as many times as we want to, so that we can bring out the textual, contextual and subtextual as well as dramatic and narrative landscape of the lyric through the dance. We found that in the Rabindra Sangeet, there was a predetermined way the lyric was set to music, and in some places even the number of times a particular line was to be sung. Here we followed the Rabindra Sangeet, and allowed that way of singing to determine the choreography.
How about the calligraphy
The title calligraphy and design was by Jayant Dwarkanath, my husband. Since we were talking about the poetry of two languages, Jayant felt that these scripts, Bangla and Telugu, should be projected on to the backdrop. We scanned some of Tagore’s handwritten script along with the doodling. As we couldn’t find at short notice the Telugu manuscript, we had the Telugu poems written and scanned. Jayant next suggested we also project some of Tagore’s paintings on the backdrop. Dr Partha Ghose suggested that I look for the book “Rabindra Chitravali”, published by Viswa Bharati. We projected the selected paintings from this book alongside the Bengali and Telugu scripts. Our next step was to have a dramatic visual opening before the dance commenced. As Jayant is also a good calligrapher, I requested him to create the title “Kavyanjali – An Ode to Gurudev”. This image was then super imposed over a striking and suggestive line drawing representative of Tagore by sculptor, painter, designer Pratima Sagar.