Tanusree Shankar and her troupe create beautiful imageries and dynamic visuals through body language, music and lighting

The last time one saw the works of, or was inspired by, our first cultural ambassador and creator of the modern Indian dance genre, Uday Shankar, in Chennai, was in 2001 at the ‘Uday Shankar Shatabdi Samaroh’ presented by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in honour of the artist’s birth centenary.

Kalakshetra recently presented Uday Shankar’s daughter-in-law Tanusree Shankar, a disciple of Amala Shankar and wife of musician Ananda Shankar, in 'Jagaran' to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary.

Uday Shankar’s ‘Hi-Dance’, as he first called it, combined elements from Indian classical and folk traditions along with presentation techniques from the West. By her own admission, Tanusree follows a similar template and has added some of her own aesthetic values; Uday Shankar’s rechristened ‘Creative Dance’ has evolved into Tanusree’s ‘New Dance.’

Tanusree’s style has shades of Odissi, Kathak and the Manipuri martial arts, the Thang-ta. She uses striking Indian costumes that make a statement in a group scenario, not the usual rich silk-and-brocade, but richly-coloured cotton or something similar. The lighting design (Anil Das) is as much a part of the choreography as the movements are.

The effect is surreal - beautiful imagery created by smooth choreography and excellent coordination between the dancers. To some, the dance style may seem flat as there is nothing radical in the rhythm; on the contrary, the dancers wear only anklets not bells. The male dancers’ vocabulary is more challenging.

The dance style has also no use for expressions or mudras and Tanusree conveys the mood through body language, music and lighting. Freed from these keystone factors, ‘New Dance’ thus offers a straightforward vocabulary with high aesthetic value, which is easily understood by everyone, even global audiences.

Arresting choreography

There were two parts to the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company’s performance. The dance presentations comprised: a Shanti Mantra and a salutation to Ganesha; a dance about friendships, celebrating womanhood- Maithreyi; and Himalaya, bringing to life composer Ananda Shankar’s imagination about the tall mountains dancing from dusk to dawn in the moonlight.

The last was the most arresting, as the choreographer captured the stillness of the mountains at sunset, their transformation into dancing gods in the moonlight and back to their unmoving state at sunrise.

The choreography and the lighting- with reds for sunset, blues and whites, with floor lighting, to depict a scene awash with moonlight, and the yellows for dawn- were poetic.

The other part, the highlight of the evening, was ‘Jagaran’, a dance-theatre tribute to Swami Vivekananda. Based on the music composition of Debojyoti Mishra and Shuba Mudgal’s voice (‘Vande Mataram’), the 25-minute presentation, with Joydeep Guha as assistant choreographer, traced the strife in the Indian youth, the appearance of the ‘wandering monks’ causing them to pause, and the famous speech introducing Hinduism to the world at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.

As the opening words boomed, ‘Sisters and brothers of America...’ the dancers sat down in silence in the darkened stage facing a brightly lit corner at the back of the stage. The powerful words about toleration, acceptance of all religions as true, and the quote from the Shiva Mahimnah Stotra, ‘As different streams... all lead to Thee’ was delivered, the energy of the words and the voice seemed to awaken the Indian youth.

The Sanskrit version of Tagore’s ‘Aguner poroshmoni’ and our national song, ‘Vande Mataram’ brought in a sense of patriotism and religious unity, and the quiet yet dynamic visuals with the 12 dancers in and out, and in geometric formations, conveyed this determination. Tanushree came in a cameo role for ‘Vande Mataram,’ sealing the vibrant finale. It felt good to feel patriotic again!