With the 15th National Festival of Creative Arts adding a range of art forms, some wondered if space for dance is shrinking further

Impresario India’s 15th National Festival of New Choreography — now named National Festival of Creative Arts — sported a more varied emphasis, with theatre and puppetry sharing the platform. Always touted as ‘experimental’, the inclusive featuring has been defined as helping promote other creative expressions that do not find much support and which the public is not familiar with. But senior dancers queried, “Do dancers find performance place in puppet and theatre festivals? This is shrinking further the space available for classical dance.”

Bijan Mukherjee, president of Impresario India, must be commended for featuring the patachitra artist Rani Chitrakar from Medinipur, displaying her work in the foyer of Stein Auditorium. Narrating the life story of Vivekananda, marking his 150th birth anniversary, Rani, with the help of her colourful scrolls treated the audience to a dying art form. Very simple and direct was the short English play “Swami and the Samaritan”, aimed at highlighting the complex encounter between Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita.

Anurupa Roy’s Katkatha Puppet Arts Theatre, in very imaginatively designed excerpts from “Bhavbhuti Ramayana”, made the interaction between glove puppets, rod puppet and human beings as puppets with masks very communicative. Hanuman’s antics and puppet Ram were delightful; the latter, just through the stretched leg and hand movements conveys the impression of a charged warrior about to face and destroy the large human actor playing Ravana in a getup with mask and large hips, sporting a Kathakali-like demeanour. And it was amazing how the human animators of the puppets, while visible on stage, somehow recede into the background, with the puppet’s actions drawing attention.

The dance groups did not disappoint. Sankhya dance group from Mumbai, conceived by Vaibhav Arekar, looked at facets of Shiva through some unusual group formations. The four dancers performed in rotating square formation facing four sides, with movements done to Alarippu syllables “Tam dhit tam kitataka tai dhit tai”. The frozen arrangements portrayed Chandrashekhara, Viswanatha, Pasupatineesha, Rudra and Chandramouli. The simultaneity of two groups doing different movements on two sides of the stage, plus the tandav-lasya contrasting Shivatwam-Saktitwam Ardhanariswar images by a solo Vaibhav, with the final Aigiri Nandini hymn evoking the Devi through group images, were all executed by trained dancers. Ambika Viswanath’s music, with its predominantly percussive element, was evocative.

Sharmila Biswas’ “Chaturmukhi” has evolved a great deal. After evoking Samaleswari in “Devi Bharni”, “Trikayee”, showing — with its unusual stage arrangements of both musicians and dancers — the almost inevitable coming together of music, rhythm and dance, had the boneless singing in Misra Khamaj by Srijan and Rajendra Kumar Swain, and poetry of movement in Saswati Garai Ghosh, with the rest of the group joining in — not in the least the mardala expert Bijaya Kumar Barik, whose inputs add a significant dimension to the work. This exciting piece is acquiring more polish in successive renditions. And the size of Stein’s performance space seemed ideal for it, unlike the large stage in Dhauli where the work was first presented. As for Sharmila’s solo Shurpanakha, nuances and brilliant touches in the abhinaya made it memorable. With the addition of certain sounds and syllables to the music that sound like non-human speech but are from the Sawara language, ideally suiting the character of a woman of the forest, away from human civilisation, there is a pep and variety in music and movement. With “Patuar” showing the processional dance of Ratha Jatra done to the ghantamardala, the performance concluded.

“Sarpa Sutra” conceived by Gowri Ramnarayan as total theatre encompassing dance, music and the spoken word is now a tight, evolved work — a far cry from the first production seen in Chennai months ago. The reverential tone of Vedavyasa’s Mahabharata in Sanskrit and the sardonic tone of Arun Kolatkar’s in an English translation combine in this tale of revenge. For destroying the forest Khandava with all his kith and kin, serpent king Taksha kills Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson, and to avenge the wrong Parikshit’s son Janmejaya, with a colossal yagnya, destroys the entire race of snakes, till serpent woman Jaraskarun beseeches son Astika to save the imperilled planet by stopping the genocide. What is amazing is the mesmerising singing of Nisha Rajagopalan, and the powerful acting-dance of Sheejith Krishna, whose narration in mnemonics becomes a parallel text, very communicative along with Gowri’s narration and lighting by Venkatesh Murugan. The crux of JustUs Theatre lies in using a Mahabharata episode as a metaphor to highlight the contemporary situation where history repeats itself with power senselessly used, destroying the ecology of the earth and further weakening subjects. Where are the rulers with the foresight to use their might for bettering the future of mankind?