If Thottam Shankaran provided a novel departure from the Kathakali format, Namita Bodaji was faithful to the Bharatanatyam margam.
Not many persons acquainted with dance history know about how much Uday Shankar the Modern Dance pioneer owed to his Kathakali Guru Shankaran Namboothiripad and to Manipuri Guru Amubi Singh. The movement vocabulary of these two dance idioms which dominate in power and grace provided the two tones of dance as a base foundation for Uday Shankar's creative endeavours. Known for his ‘Thira Nokka' (introduction of character behind the curtain), ‘Irunnattam' (dancing as pacha character in the seated posture) and ‘Ekalochana abhinaya' (where each eye is used to evoke a different mood), Shankaran Namboothiripad was snapped up as Kathakali guru for Uday Shankar's India Cultural Centre, Almora, when Uday Shankar at the behest of Alice Boner went to Kerala in search of Indian dance and happened to watch his recital.
Now, dancing items from the repertoire of Shankaran Namboothiripad was his grandson Thottam Shankaran Namboothiripad who renders what he calls “Vedic Abhinav Natya Dance Form”, which seems an individualistic form of presentation where Kathakali movement does not depend on any sahitya and is accompanied by music which has ragas played in the Hindustani mode. Having imbibed this dance from his father, also a teacher at Almora Centre, the dancer however is unable to provide details about his grandfather's Kathakali antecedents. That Natya Sastra and dance are influenced by aspects from the Vedas (the gestural vocabulary from Yajur Veda and music from the Sama Veda in particular — some communities accepting only three Vedas minus the Atarvana Veda) by ritual prescriptions in Agamas and content provided by the epics, is a generic statement, and what exactly is meant by ‘Vedic Abhinava' was not clear from Thottam's explanations, such as they were.
His demonstration of Ravana requesting Rambha the apsara to spend the night with him had great intensity in netrabhinaya (expression making predominant use of the eyes) and delicate hand gestures. Ravana's description of how each of his 20 hands and 10 faces quarrel amongst themselves to be able to caress Rambha's lotus-like face was sensitively conveyed despite the limitations of frail flesh in an aging body. Then followed the 10 expressions of pride, romance, jealousy, shyness, satire, fear, anger, sorrow, wonder and compassion — all based on gestures and facial expression. The music had little of the Kathakali touch. Ghulam Wariz on sitar, Kishor Gangani on tabla, Ashish Gangani on pakhawaj and Devendra Raj Bhatt on flute provided the melodic base with tihais and rhythmic flourishes, the music not dictating dance. The concluding “Dushasana Vadham” despite the aharya accoutrement of nails, fangs, hair, etc., ended abruptly, proving too much for Thottam's physical endurance and (as he said) a mind dogged by memories of grandfather Shankaran having died while performing this item. This appeared to be the total repertoire of Thottam. How the grandfather got to make these departures from Kathakali tradition would make the story complete.
It was in the choice of very traditional items, steady pace with no unnecessary speeding, and the nattuvangam of Vasant Kumar that Namita Bodaji's Bharatanatyam recital stood out. Competent nattuvangam for the occasion is provided today by many specialists, some of them quite young. But the cymbal playing with occasional singing in complete sur and crisp recitation of sollus when performed by a person from the tradition becomes different from an only rehearsed performance — echoing vibes flowing from a vast background, a few gems of which are highlighted for the occasion.
The recital began with Ganesh, Kartikeya and Nataraja kavutvams — Vasant Kumar's grandfather the late Mahalingam Pillai having played a part in including some of these items which were a part of temple ritual in a stage Bharatanatyam recital.
The Khamas swarajati and the shabdam where love for Subramania expressed by the nayika takes on an erotic tone were rare items, for today's Bharatanatyam format generally ignores these genres. Namita's expressional enthusiasm is not matched in the technique where micro details, like distance between the feet while executing an adavu, need more meticulous attention. In the varnam in Shankarabharanam “Saamikki sari evvare”, the nayika speaking of her love for King Setupati, ends up saying that a fitting match for him as companion (as she would be), would be difficult to find. Instead of the mile long jatis, it was heartening to have the tautness of tight teermanams — though the dancer's movements again lacked immaculate line.
“Aduvum Solluval” in Sowrashtram, a very old interpretative masterpiece, wherein the nayika taunts the rags-to-riches story of the other woman, was well expressed. And the finale was the Behag tillana with verses dedicated to Goddess Rajarajeswari.
K. Venkateswaran sang melodiously and with feeling. With Raghuraman's flute and M.V. Chandrasekhar on mridangam, the musical accompaniment did not lack for quality.