As Bhishma, V.P. Dhananjayan crafted a stylish, musically rich and moving presentation, while Priya Murle’s Amba was dramatic all through. Natyarangam’s annual thematic festivals challenge dancers to present the classical repertoire in a whole new context with new themes and choreographies.

This year’s ‘Bharatham Mahabhaaratham’ was thought-provoking as well. Seven heroic figures from the Mahabharatha, who were presented through Bharatanatyam, folk and allied art forms, also provided enough food for thought and discussion.

Spearheading the research was the eminent scholar, Dr. Prema Nandakumar.

Natyarangam’s illustrated booklet with informative articles was very handy, but their stage decor and lighting was way below standard.

V.P. Dhananjayan - Bhishma

Veteran artist Dhananjayan had to walk on eggshells to portray Bhishmacharya. This hero is known to be a brave warrior and a man of unimpeachable integrity, but his role in enforcing dharma has often been questioned and debated. Sidestepping any controversy, the dancer pegged his delineation on Bhishma’s mother, Ganga’s soliloquy at the time of her son’s death.

Bhishma’s story unfolds as a flashback tracing the milestones in his life — his defeat on the battlefield, his birth and the promise to Dasha Raja that earned him the name of Bhishma, the terrible.

Using Ganga’s lament as a recurring motif, Guru Dhananjayan crafted a stylish, musically rich (Hariprasad) and moving presentation peopled with v human characterisations such as the effeminate Shikhandi, the beautiful Ganga and the swan-like Satyavati.

There was one regret, though. One wanted to see more of the protagonist Bhishma.

Vyasa does not give any clue as to Bhishma’s thoughts during the times of crisis, according to Dr. Prema, so there may have not been enough to chew on, but one wanted to see beyond the colourful tableau of the events. There was one scene in which Bhishma lying on the bed of arrows tells the vultures circling above, ‘Wait, I’ll die and then you can take me!’ This was one of the few times when one saw Bhishma up close.

One wished for more, especially during Bhishma’s wait for his hour of death when he teaches Yudhishtira about dharma and the supremacy of Krishna when the Vishnu Sahasranama is recited. Guru Dhananjayan was well-supported in the wings by Shantha Dhananjayan (nattuvangam, direction).

Priya Murle- Amba

Priya Murle’s ‘Amba’ was dramatic all through — from the heightened pitch of the narration, the plethora of musical instruments, the battery of percussion, and the terrific screams of vengeance from the dancer.

Bharatanatyam, Tai-Chi, Therukoothu, Kusti et al were the ingredients of this concoction; the effect was rich but the volume was often overwhelmingly theatrical.

Priya had left no stone unturned in her quest to be convincing as a beautiful Amba wronged by Bhishma, who is subsequently reborn as man-woman Shikhandi to avenge the wrong. Her costume in brown and gold was innovatively designed to appeal in a rather unisex way; the gender issue was kept in mind with male and female singers (G. Srikanth, Nandini Anand); the music score (Nandini Anand) was melodious with Tamil and Sanskrit lyric fitted in with care just as the jathis and sound effects (K.S.R. Aniruddha) had been integrated into the story.

It took her a long time to tell the story though. The introductory parts, the subsequent Amba-Bhishma encounter and the Ashtapadi-like ‘woman in love’ scene dragged on beyond what is prudent. It did not help that there were many pauses in between thanks to the narration, entries and exits. The energy picked up as did the volume of the production when Amba gets into a rage and decides to avenge Bhishma. After that, there was no stopping the beautiful dancer... But what turned the tables was the transformation scene.

As Shikhandi, she retained the feminine side but once she switched gender with the Yaksha, the transformation was complete. Shikhandi is now a man in every sense of the word, and Priya did wonderfully well to show the change.