Gauri Sharma Tripathi, students of Kathak Kendra, and Priti Patel along with her Manipuri troupe offered slices of the exotic to Chennai audiences.

It is a reflection of the times we live in that one sees in the fevered pace of rhythm in Kathak. The Repertory from Delhi's Kathak Kendra is a varied gathering of highly skilled dancers, who are trained under different gurus and who have to learn to quell their stylistic individualities in the synchronicity needed for group presentations.

Vidha, Eshani, Shailaja, Namrata, Afsar, Mahendra, Ajay Kumar and Rahul Pawar are senior dancers but while the group may arrestingly freeze on the sama at the same instant in a prescribed pose, the micro moments of a movement course which should be the same are not so and it is here the total effect suffers as seen in the opening ‘Mahadev', a benediction to Shiva based on a Dhrupad composition set to Jhinjhoti in Chautal. ‘Sundara Gopalam Uruvana Maalam', the Govindashtakam had its moments, though here too the tukras, the parans, the fast footwork with many chakkars and the colourful costume made for a restless energy which communicated to the audience. The group formations with dancers close together tended to occupy one part of the stage. Spreading the group would have meant using stage space better apart from thinning congested arrangements.

Perhaps a cue for choreographer Geetanjali Lal, who hails from a rich pedigree of Kathak talent as the daughter of a singer, wife of late Devilal and sister-in-law of late Durga Lal. While the dancers relish the sequences at speed, the abhinaya part tends to be superficial.

‘Gajanan', where the Jaipur gharana vigour synthesised with a prayer song from Maharashtra, was more restful and well done by Purnima, Garima, Rahul and Ajay Kumar. With varied pacing the item had typical Jaipur Kavits embellishing and reinforcing the Ganesh theme.

The best item was the Tarana in raag Darbari. The entire group clad in pristine white presented a more unified picture and combined grace and dexterity. But it was unprofessional to say the least, for the dancers with each pirouette to keep shedding bits of jewellery. Why not less finery and what is not so easily parted from the dancer?

Ten dancers united and dispersed with ease and the ghazal verse woven into the choreography added to the court flavour of the item. Vocalist Amjad Ali sang the alaap precursor to the Tarana evocatively. Sarangi (Ahsan Ali), tabla (Aman Ali), sarod (Abdul Sami Khan) and pakhawaj (Mahesh Pawar) seemed one instrument too many, for sound balancing needed to be better. One does not know if the need to keep within the requirements of the clock and start the second part of the evening, gave less time for sound arrangements to be perfect.

What the audience missed

Just as one was inclined to feel elated about the swelling audiences for the dance festival the pitifully slender audience for the evening of vintage Kathak and Manipuri artistry created mixed feelings about the wisdom of the Academy's efforts to sponsor art forms from far corners of the country.

A disciple of her mother Guru Padma Sharma, Gauri Sharma Tripathi had her early training under giants Mohanrao Kalyanpurkar and the redoubtable Lachhu Maharaj. One of a vanishing breed in Kathak with rare abhinaya ability and a style where less says more and where virtuosity of stomping footwork and chakkars has minimal but evocative place, Gauri's art packs a rare punch.

Her recital titled ‘Ish Mir' paying homage to the triad of Ganesha, Siva and Krishna, had the meditative quality suffused with reverence blending with the distilled sensual, seductive grace of the Lucknow Gharana.

‘Vighna Harta', based on verses from Sarangadeva, had a leisurely treatment. Each freeze, turn of the head or eye glance spoke volumes. in her abstract teen-taal rendition with a handful of chosen tukras and parans. It started with the exquisite grace of her thata where the musical lehra refrain and rhythm running through the body finds minimalist expression of eyebrow, head and finger movements, culminating in the final sculpture-like freeze. This is one genre of the dance which practitioners of today dispense with in haste in a recital, for its elaboration calls for an inner quiet and command over laya with no apparent showmanship, which few are capable of.

With an excellent tabla player in Kalinath Sharma, nritta had the right support. With the sore throated singer Pandit Somnath Misra gamely struggling through Dayanand Saraswati's ‘Bho Shambho' in Revati, Gauri's interpretation was full of the grandeur of Siva, followed by Lachhu Maharaj's composition, ‘Daksha Yagna' based on a kavit-like narration (much like a prolonged kavutuvam in Bharatanatyam) recited with tonal impact by guru Padma Sharma, to which the dancer imparted smouldering power through her dance. One glance or a shrug was enough to convey a wealth of meaning.

The dancer covers the large stage with ease without giving the impression of having to run in order to do so. The truly exceptional ability for communicating continued in the Bindadin Thumri ‘Jal Jamuna Bharan Kaise Jaoon' where the gopi waylaid by Krishna is irritated by his pranks but never at the cost of her love for him.

Chaap Tilak where the Sufi's pursuit of God has that sensuous/ devotional mix where one cannot say where one begins and the other ends showed Gauri's interpretative charm at its best. The Balamurali tillana in Kuntalavarali ended a recital which the Chennai art loving crowd missed out on.

How often can one get an artist from London to perform? And the presentation with musicians seated on both sides on elevated platform with a delightful sitar interlude by Alka Gujar and flute by Balram Prasad showed the dancer's aesthetic sensitivity.

Dancing for the Gods

‘Manipur oh! Manipur' was the title of Anjika's presentation based on forms from Manipur, conceived and choreographed by Priti Patel. If the Kathak part had a small audience, by the time the second half of the evening began, the Manipur performers had just a handful of heads amidst hundreds of empty chairs to dance to. Used to dancing for the Gods, they still gave of their best.

Priti Patel integrated forms such as Lai Haroaba, Manipuri Raas, Pung Cholam of Sankeertan, Dhol Cholam, the Wari Liba storytelling techniques and , Manipur's famous games and martial arts to tell the sad story of Manipur today.

Where the Sun's rays glinted on dew drops on the grass, shining like diamonds and where people danced and sang with joy, is now a land of violence and grief where one can only weep at what man has made of man.

That aesthetic eye of Priti Patel has created a work throbbing with feeling. Taut bodied dancers vaulting with grace, or engaged in sword fights, nimble bodies playing drums and dancing simultaneously, the Sanaroi players, were all from the top drawer of arts in Manipur. Priti, with her narration between scenes, painted a picture of the past and present reality of Manipur. If the simple Manipuri of the past tilling and sowing the seed in his soil, building his modest home and wearing garments woven by him in his home looms was happy, greed for possession began to destroy him.

Priti Patel used the story of the Kaurava-Pandava rivalry as a metaphor to illustrate the craving for power leading to violence. In a non-linear treatment, she showed how many Draupadis are being disrobed and humiliated even today.

What happens to art forms nourished in the quietude of peace? Traditional music, the extremely disciplined performance, the pregnant silences, the pacing which keeps changing, the way stage space was filled, every aspect spoke of a deep respect for traditional forms while using parts of them intelligently for expressing a contemporary thematic concern.

The stage setting with red and black umbrellas used in processions, the subdued aesthetics in costume, lighting design by Samar Das – it was all an artistic experience. Can more publicity through previews written by knowledgeable persons, (perhaps the conceivers themselves), two minute introductions by people who are familiar with these less known art forms being presented in the festival, between recitals on other days when large audiences gather for favourite Bharatanatyam dancers, induce more persons to come and see what they have closed their minds to? Otherwise the Academy's yeoman service to the arts in getting such large troupes from so far will become an infructuous exercise.