The Nishagandhi festival in Thiruvananthapuram provided both rousing and disappointing performances from across the performing art spectrum.

Uncompromisingly pan-Indian, the annual Nishagandhi festival organised by Kerala’s Tourism Department at Kanakkakunnu Thiruvananthapuram open-air venue, gave its own dance traditions minimal representation. Classical dances apart, music featured myriad genres — Hindustani, (the coveted Nishagandhi State award being conferred on Hindustani vocalist Lalith J. Rao), Carnatic, countless fusion ensembles, Ghazal and what have you. Not even the logo for the day-long lec/dem sessions of Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kudiyattam and music Carnatic and Hindustani, at the adjoining Palace auditorium — carrying Odissi postures and instruments tabla and mridangam — portrayed any drawings of Kerala’s art forms. The high visibility attending the open-air performances was in sharp contrast with the Kathakali plays, sans fanfare, enacted alongside at the Palace auditorium — though for anyone snatching sneak peeks, here was art of the highest calibre.

Curiously devoid of reputed artists, the less known dancers selected for the week-long festival, unlike other years, meant mixed fare. Dancers of film fame too found favour. Nobody questions Bharatanatyam by a Vijayantimala — provided dance proficiency merits the selection.

Film celebrity Navya Nair’s curtain-raiser Bharatanatyam, nritta correct, lacked the internalisation, erasing self-identity in the dance. Her male partner in the Devi Homage “Taye manam kanindu arul purivaye”, perhaps a capable teacher, required performer presence — neither dance line nor rendition impressive. Navya missed the central motif in the subtext of Papanasam Sivan’s Kapi composition “Enna tawam seidane”, wherein the poet wonders about the non-biological parent Yashoda meriting the immeasurable blessing of experiencing the joys of rearing the child creator of the Universe.

After Navya, the crowd considerably thinned, missing the in-form Unnikrishnan’s Carnatic vocal, from Swati Tirunal’s “Deva Deva” in Mayamalavagowla to Tyagaraja’s “Bantureeti koluvivyavaiyya Rama” in Hamsanadam to the centrepiece in Todi raga, with violin and mridangam enhancing the high energy performance.

Following invocation in a spirited Khanda chapu cadence, Kerala dancer Rajashree Warrier’s Bharatanatyam was characterised by centred stillness and composure, the main composition highlighting the eight guna-s of Krishna. Herself a reputed singer, Rajashree, spurred by melodious rendition of ragas like Kambodhi, Neelambari, Mayamalawagowla, Bilahari, Behag presented a dance narrative visualising Krishna episodes, with short nritta interludes providing punctuation links, avoiding over-indulgence in treatment.

Unimaginative choreography, especially in the Lalgudi Jayaraman tillana finale in Rageshwari, and unfinished movements, particularly in hand and leg stretches like veeshara adavu and the jumping toe/heel kudittumettu step, Sarada Thampi’s Bharatanatyam disappointed, even the interpretative navarasa part of “Adenamma” in raga Paras not compelling in mukhabhinaya.

With an orthodox Bharatanatyam foundation as a disciple of the Dhananjayans, Seetha Sashidharan’s performance while technically sound, needed more sparkle to hold audience attention, particularly in a long centrepiece composed by her guru, the Attana Nrityopaharam, “Ninne nere nammi nanu ra”. The ashtapadi “Sa virahe tava deena” had very involved rendition though singer Manoj, otherwise adequate, found sruti floundering in the Darbari Kanada.

Kavya Madhavan’s introduction was replete with her film attainments. Four other competently trained junior dancers in her group impressed (with the Khanda jati recitative music expression) in Patanjali’s ‘Chidambara Natanam’. While Oothukadu Venkatasubbaiyer’s “Maadu meikkum Kanne” with a folksy lilt to it, suited, in its light-hearted histrionics, the personality of Kavya, “Krishna nee ennai araiyilla”, a ragamalika evocatively sung by vocalist Nanda Kumar, danced with heightened expressions showing Radha’s dismay at Krishna leaving Gokula for Mathura, could have settled for more subtle mukhabhinaya, fitting Uttama Nayika Radha’s distressed address to Krishna of not perceiving her deep feelings. One saw little of nritta highlights from the dancer.

Elegant abhinaya, contained yet convincing, characterised senior Mohiniattam dancer Ayswaria Wariar’s often rendered ‘Shakuntala’ as Nayika, based on Kalidasa’s work, with excellent score by Shivprasad, the fine vocalist. The young Mohiniattam artist Likha Rajan, with fine accompanists, acquitted herself equally well in the Shilappadikaram-based centrepiece in Surati, portraying dancer/courtesan Madhavi expressing her love for Kovalan, followed by the ashtapadi where Radha’s isolated anguish was convincingly communicated.

Of groups, the Odissi troupe led by Rina Jana came out trumps, with creditable group synchronisation in mangalacharan with an elaborate ashtapadi “Srta-kamala-kucha-mandala...” for stuti part, followed by the now almost vanishing batu, with Bhubaneswar Misra’s Bhupali score and dance choreography by late Kelucharan Mohapatra. In the Ardhanariswar duet ( Raghunath Panigrahi’s music), Rina’s male partner Shivnarain Banerji would reinforce the Tandava expanse of Shiva by articulating the chauka central concern in faster passages, giving his lower body movements width and amplitude. The Shankarabharanam pallavi was well executed. Rina’s solo interpretation of the lullaby “Braja-ku Chora” in Anandabhairavi, given her pliant facial expressions, tended to make motherly irritation resemble anger.

Kuchipudi dancer S. Divya Sena, trained under Vempati Chinna Satyam and now under Kishore Mosalikanti, is a finished dancer, her nritta as depicted in the tarangam, immaculate. She could, however, sport a costume giving a slimmer look to her back.

One cannot be equally enthusiastic about the other Kuchipudi performer Vidhun Kumar. Undeniably talented with a sprightly agile body, he requires the right guidance — his nondescript dance neither Bharatanatyam nor Kuchipudi. Barring dancing on heels every now and then, nothing of the constantly changing body levels of Kuchipudi, with its up and down springy movement, was seen. And items like “Bhramanjali” with tanam passages in Todi woven in, the kirtanam “Brahmam Vokate” (describing through symbolism the oneness of a brahmin and a chandal) and an apology for a tarangam danced on the rim of a brass plate, showed no trace of authentic Kuchipudi identity.

Poushali Chatterjee’s Manipuri was sadly washed out in the open air stage with a sudden heavy downpour.

The lacklustre Kathak by Sushmita Banerjee’s group gave the impression of five dancers, each anchored to one place, the movement not covering floor space. Intra-forms like amad became just flailing arms, the foot-work insufficiently accented even in the 14-matra Dhamar tala. Barring some tatkar passages, Sushmita herself seemed out of form. In the Devi bhajan (a favourite of Pandit Jasraj) the Jhap tala zest was missing. Teen tala had its moments but the thumri “Sab ban than ayi Shyam pyaari re”, with barely 30 people still seated at that late hour, lacked an encouraging ambience urging a spirited performance. The vocalist missed ‘sur’ once too often.

Points for attention are a too ornate stage for dance lines to show, carpeted performance space, and audience vision obstructed by a battery of irrepressible photographers.

The Kartik Fusion group comprised fine individual artists like recent Padma Shri awardee Vijay Ghate (tabla), Rakesh Chaurasia (flute), Sheldon D’Silva (bass guitar), Navneeth Sunder (keyboard), Siddharth Nagarajan (drums) letting their hair down in the impromptu musical improvisation. A starting raga Bhimpalasi on flute, vocally changed into Swati Tirunal’s Dhanashri tillana and in one fluid line to Tyagaraja’s “Nagumomu” in Abheri — all close but different, with brilliant solo space made for tabla, bass guitar and drums — to the frenzied delight of the huge turnout. This final festival curtain call, without pretentions to purity, was greatly enjoyed

But the indelible images were of Kathakali’s Margi Vijayakumar enacting the Brahmin’s role in “Santana Gopala”, Naripetta Narayana Namboodiri’s enactment as Narakasura, the soulful singing of Babu Namboodiri with Arjun Rai and Kottakkal Narayanan with K. Vinod and percussionists Narayanan Varanasi, Kottakkal Radhakrishnan and Margi Ratnakaran.