Natyanjali Trust's Nartaka Dance Festival, in memory of its founder Jayalakshmi Satagopan, had an unusually thought-provoking inaugural.

The fourth edition of the Nartaka Dance Festival, organised by the Natyanjali Trust in memory of its founder Jayalakshmi Satagopan, had an unusually thought-provoking inaugural with speakers such as Ashish Mohan Khokar (dance scholar, cultural historian), Ramli Ibrahim (dancer and Artistic Director, Sutra Dance Theatre of Malaysia), Ranvir Shah (arts enthusiast and philanthropist) and Gowri Ramnarayan (music and dance critic, playwright), who debated on the role of males in dance over the last two centuries.

While the codification and reconstruction of most classical styles (other than Mohiniyattom) have been attributed to male nattuvanars and scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, their relevance today has diminished.

According to Ashish, the number of male soloists in Bharatnatyam today is abysmal, perhaps due to the misconstrued belief underlined by Ramli, “that the world thinks that dance produces sissies.”

While Gowri felt the onus lay on the dancer to prove the world wrong, she remembers being in awe of the power and strength of male dancers in Kalakshetra. She also finds the present crop that are from less cosmopolitan backgrounds, to be more non-conformist and willing to take risks, as against the imitative attitude of their female counterparts.

Ranvir attributed the dominance of male gurus and nattuvanars to a male-dominated patriarch system in society, but was emphatic about the difference between good and not-so-good dance, not male and female dance. He blew away the issue of the aesthetics of the male body and quoted instances of greats such as Kelucharan Mohapatra and Balasaraswati, whose quality of work went beyond physical appeal.

Short film

A short film, ‘Purush,' put together by Ashish from the Mohan Khokar Archives and other sources, presented male dancers in India across each decade - from Ted Shawn during 1910-20 (who performed ‘The Cosmic Dance of Shiva') to Ramgopal, Uday Shankar, Siddhis of Gujarat with folk dances, traditional Kathakali and Chau dancers, Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra and the pathbreaking contemporary dancers of the decade 2000-10, such as Astad Deboo and Jayachandran of Attakalari.

Ramli Ibrahim the Nartaka Award 2009 winner, presented ‘Encounters with Krishna,' a group Bharatnatyam performance, with dance compositions by his guru, Adyar K.Lakshman.

The 70-minute show was unlike Ramli's recent choreographies that have come with a full company of dancers and glamourised settings.

It was a ‘back to basics' show with traditional pieces, simple recordings, simple costume and a small group comprising Ramli, Harenthiran and Shanmuga Sundaram. It was a beautiful experience. Guru Lakshman's melodious and bhava-laden music brought about a heightened sense of mood, while Sivarajah Natarajan's rich lighting added shimmer to the choreographies.

Ramli is a gifted choreographer with a strong sense of aesthetics and restraint. The varnam (‘Nee Inda Maayam,' Dhanyasi, Adi, Papanasam Sivan) was especially well-designed. While retaining the traditional format of alternating pure dance and mime segments, Ramli introduced a sense of a larger canvas, of Krishna and the gopis in Brindavan, using the dancers in fluid mime.

His nayika bhava as a love-lorn gopika was mature and delicate and it was a pleasure to see this side of Ramli.

The pure dance was fast and had high energy, as the dynamic choreography and excellent coordination kept the show visually exciting. That Ramli was able to keep up with his youthful colleagues speaks of his body conditioning and discipline.

As a soloist describing the magnificence of Vishnu in ‘Parthasarathi' (Madhyamavathi, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar), Ramli was a shade less effective, but what he lacked in intensity he made up in simplicity. As a dancer, he has an honesty and humility that is quite rare.

Ramli's presentations are primarily meant for the layman, and thus narrations form part of the layering in the choreography.

For a connoisseur, the steps may be repetitive and the abhinaya less intense, but there is a brilliance in the choreography that no one can deny. It may not be intense, but it is always exciting.

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