From an interpretation of Sufism to Kathak explorations to collaborations looking at issues of identity, the week gone by wasn’t short on styles and themes

All shades of dance during the week before aimed at treading new areas, some thematically and others more drastically. Mounted at the Kamani auditorium in New Delhi, a special evening put the focus on the gentle all-embracing message of Sufism — “Inward Journeys”, an illustrated lecture by Professor B.N. Goswamy on Sufis visualised in Indian paintings Mughal, Deccan and Rajasthani, substantiated by Malavika Sarukkai’s danced images of “Love, Longing and Transcendence” based on Amir Khusrau’s poetry.

A reigning Bharatanatyam star of the last couple of decades, Malavika has been the reference point of impeccability and aesthetic sensitivity in Indian classical dance. While artistic freedom is every dancer’s right, for one of Malavika’s stature exploring fresh avenues, the challenges of living up to expectations and standards set by one’s own prowess, can be daunting.

The artiste is an ardent, unabashed advocate of spiritualism in dance, and a lot of her work in Bharatanatyam has been woven around the inner journey in the search for that ultimate state of being. However, the stentorian voice of Hindustani vocalist Shubha Mudgal with Aneesh Pradhan’s tabla and Malavika’s quiet interpretation, like oil and water, did not blend into any identity, remaining two separate art journeys.

Shubha’s voice in Jog overawed Malavika’s rather repetitive movements building up to a statement, where the three rivers of Sorrow, Pleasure and Release represent a metaphor for life’s journey — the imagery of the devotee as a ‘blemished stone’ (to quote Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s transcreation of Amir Khusrau’s verses) appealing to the Boatman (here the ultimate saviour) to be rowed across to reach that ‘lustrous jewel’, the loved one on the other bank.

There was much symbolism — the Bird reaching for the freedom of the skies; being jostled in life’s ocean; dance of the liquid harmonies created by water drops, etc. But in the minimalistic gestural interpretation of the dance, refraining from intrusive rhythmic passages, too many pauses with fleeting scenes never allowed any statement to register, and in the concluding moments, the live singer’s enunciation of Khusrau’s poetry left much to be desired.

One was happy to see glimpses of the conventional treatment in the tillana (music composition by C.V. Chandrasekhar) in Poorya Dhanashri — though, for this critic, the ghagra costume hindered the movement profile being fully seen. While understanding the dancer’s desire for non-margam search, anything too far away from the strong imprint of her Bharatanatyam identity becomes difficult to accept.

Kathak dance drama

In the Kathak world, Jaikishan Maharaj’s teaching skills are acknowledged. “Brhmarishi Vishwamitra”, the dance drama conceptualised by him, had fillers with Kathak intra forms, wherein Jaikishen Maharaj’s students did him proud. Though, why the guru should have been so influenced by the television Mahabharata visual effects with the wheel of life rotating, one cannot understand.

Varun Banerjee made an assertive Vishwamitra, though Vashishta, an important role, needed a dancer with more presence. The raj nartakis were all well rehearsed, though some of their scenes were overlong. So much of narration in a dance drama, with temptation to take recourse to far too many visuals, should be minimalised, with movement strong enough to convey the sense and feel of venue.

Music balancing, in the scores composed by Jaikishan himself, is again an aspect the Kathak biradari needs to pay more attention to. As Menaka, Gauri Diwakar was a good choice, though her costuming in so many colours made a slightly heavier frame after childbirth look worse. One colour would have been more flattering.

At the IIC, a young disciple of Lucknow’s Kumkum Dhar, Deepmala Sajjan, made a neat Kathak presentation in uthan, aamad, and the Khanda and Mishra jati intra forms in the drut laya projection. In the “Jaya Mahesh” invocation, she needed to hold one-legged stances with greater balance.

The Lachhu Maharaj nritta bits with bhav, and the gopucha effect in the paran and the ched-chad ki gat needed a less loud percussion not drowning the vocalist and the padhant efforts. The ghazal is a must for a Lucknow dancer, and in the thumri “Mag Roko na Savariyan” the dancer acquitted herself well.

Contemporary Dance interface

Kolkata’s Sapphire Creations in its annual Interface festival has been sponsoring cross-national and cultural Contemporary Dance collaborations. The evening at Habitat began with “Game On” by Theatre from Australia, the tabla and Western Contemporary Dance pushing art boundaries in an interaction — alternately performing till rapport is built with the two coming together.

The “Dha dhin dhin na ….ta tin tin ta …Dha dhin dhin na” rhythmic cycle, without the foot stomping dancer, found a rhythmic togetherness — even as hands and sometimes feet traced a silent rhythm-in-the-air route. One felt a less simplistic and more adventurous interaction could have been worked out showing rhythm transcending cultural boundaries.

The collaboration between Idan Cohen and Sapphire Israel and India was interesting, revealing cultural differences, identity problems and behavioural hangovers of socio-political developments — colonial occupation in one and a persecuted community in the other.

The chhed-chhad dance movements of one with the Radha-Krishna fixation and the saucy provocative movements of the Israel dancer outlined differences in approach. The concept was good, though movement-wise the work seemed confused. The imaginative part was the music by Sapphire Creation artists, both Hindustani vocalist Abhishek Basu and the rhythm produced beating on the mouth. The Israeli solo dancer in “My sweet little fur”, again on confused identity, was a fine mover.

Moods of fire

At the India Habitat Centre, Devi Durga Kathak Sansthan presented “Colours of Fire”, Kathak explorations built round fire in different moods, symbolised in orange, red, black and yellow, choreographed by Vidha Lal and Abhimanyu Lal, with the couple leading a group of finished dancers trained under Geetanjali Lal.

The starting scene needed tightening, with less time taken in the slow repetitive movement of fire started and rising to burn bright. In the “Red Fire” scene with a solo Vidha portraying being consumed by love pangs, based on Kabir’s “Biraha jalati mein phiroon”, the dancer’s own singing with sarangi being used in full cry would have suited the mood — with no need for Geetanjali’s voice chipping in.

The Mishra and eight-matra cycles in the passage on “Black Fire” were superbly danced with the group and Vidha/Abhimanyu in full cry. The Agni Suktam and the Gayatri Mantra, with more breath control and the right pauses, recited by two or more voices, would add resonance to the vachikabhinaya. As usual, the two percussions, tabla/ pakhawaj, were so loud that Amjad Ali’s vocal, Aisan Ali’s sarangi amd Fateh Ali’s sitar went unheard.