What is the story of Chennai? A narrative laced with historical anecdotes or a social and anthropological history of its people? Can it be objective in its world-view? Does the narration look at it superficially , the glitter of city city lights or look at the subaltern life tinted with hope? Is the city-space a site for a continuous redefinition of the cultural ethos? Complimented by soul-stirring music, Srinidhi Chidambaram’s ‘Chennai – A Margam’ at the Bharat Kalachar managed to capture the city’s many fleeting moments and raise some important questions.
Chennai is still Madras for the older generation who refuse to leave nostalgia to deal with the reality of its morphed nomenclature. The line between cultural assertion and chauvinism is a very thin one. “We define the city and the city defines us,” said Madhuwanti Arun in the beginning, telling the audience that this was not a historical chronology.
Opening with a pushpanjali inspired by Vairimuthu’s poetic tribute to the city, its secular ethos and landscape, one realises how this could all be a part of a fading memory, only to live in utopia.
‘Mylai,’ composed by celebrated vocalist Aruna Sairam, took the form of a varnam strung out of Papanasam Sivan’s famous compositions such as ‘Kapaali’ and ‘Karunai Seyeida’ and worked well for Srinidhi to express her love for the indubitable part of the city: Mylapore with its old world charm, the devout clamouring around the Kapaleeshwara temple and the buzz around the myth of it. While some of the construction of the whole scheme was obstructed by stereotyping, as an idea it worked perfectly fine for the theme.
Continuing into another of Vairimuthu’s poem on the glories of River Cooum that once had charmed the colonial populace, Srinidhi’s dance was feeble and circuitous. A token gesture at the best, to the legacy of Veena Dhanammal’s famed salon soirees, took shape in the presentation of Dharmapuri Subbaraya Ayyar’s famous javali, ‘Smarasundaranguni.’
Flat and patchy in her abhinaya, it seemed like a desperate exercise to finish a story that had been begun. But after that, the rest of the content made less sense.
Following that was another Vairimuthu’s poem on the working mothers of Chennai, to which Srinidhi’s dance seemed redundant in her effort. One wondered what the connection was to the margam she chose to develop. Noteworthy were Eshwar’s violin and Radha Badri’s singing.
A final tribute to poet Subramanya Bharati ended this new margam on a note of patriotism gone astray. Srinidhi has some brilliant ideas, good skills and a great presence. But her content confined the possibilities of what the form could deliver otherwise. With some clever rethinking, this production could easily grow to be a mascot for the city’s tourism board, however inapprehensive.
(Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic)