Shantha Rati Misra's Kuchipudi recital at the renovated Thanjavur Amma Veedu in the capital city was well received by the audience.
It is a strange paradox that sometimes there is novelty in things and ideas antique. So it was when the inner quadrangle of the ancient Thanjavur Amma Veedu, lit up in the subtle glow of oil lamps, became the venue for Shantha Rati Misra's Kuchipudi recital.
Once upon a time Thanjavur Amma Veedu was the residence of Maharaja Swati Tirunal's consort Sundara Lakshmi, an accomplished dancer, and for Shantha it was a dream come true to dance in those hallowed precincts.
“I fell in love with the place the moment I set my eyes on it years ago, when I was here for a photo shoot. And I am very happy to be dancing in the land of my ancestors,” says Shantha, a Malayali born and brought up in Singapore.
Her father, who spotted her talent even as a toddler, took her to Kalanidhi Narayan to be trained in Bharatanatyam. She went on to learn Kathakali under Oyur Govinda Pillai, then took up Kuchipudi, motivated by Raja and Radha Reddy. Selected by the Singapore Government at the age of 15 to be the country's cultural ambassador, Shantha's career trajectory saw her dancing at major dance festivals in India and abroad. Her creative streak is strong and her experiments have given birth to unusual productions. She conceptualised, scripted, choreographed, and directed a dance and theatre production ‘Writings on the Wall,' in which she blended Indian and Chinese calligraphy and dance techniques in an ode to nature. Shantha was commissioned by NASSCOM to do a show ‘Where technology meets tradition' and at the Babylon Festival she choreographed Indian dance movements to the Oud music of the Middle East.
‘And Miles to Flow' is a much acclaimed documentary film on Asian dance-theatre that was researched, directed, and produced by her. It traces the evolution of Kathakali and focusses on the parallels between Kathakali and Kabuki and Noh of Japan, and the Chinese opera. Common features such as exaggerated facial make-up, female roles enacted by males and the later trend of including women, and the strong guru-shishya relationship in these traditions are well-documented in this film screened at international festivals.
Now based in Mumbai, Shantha has set up ‘Antara,' an art foundation to promote Kuchipudi and other art forms and to encourage talent amongst the underprivileged.
Stage to experiment on
Shantha's Kuchipudi performance at the Thanjavur Amma Veedu was, perhaps, yet another stage for her to experiment on. Beginning with the invocatory piece to Lord Ganesha, she moved on to the Krishna Shabdam ‘Yaduvamshasudhaambudi Chandra Swami ra ra.' The next number was the Mira bhajan ‘Hari tum haro, jan ki peet,' a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi. A Meera bhajan usually does not find place in the Kuchipudi repertoire, but Shantha did justice to the style and the lyrics with enactments of the stories of Draupadi, Prahlada, and Gajendra moksha. ‘Inchu boni,' a Sarangapani composition in Panthuvarali raga and Adi tala, was an abhinaya piece in which she portrayed the angry nayika who wards off those women who accuse her of a love affair with Krishna, by exposing them. Shantha concluded her recital with a thillana by Dr. Balamuralikrishna in Brindavana saranga in which she introduced elements of the tarangam by dancing on the brass plate, an outstanding feat on account of her deft and aesthetic execution.
But, isn't the space around the nalukettu a bit constricting for a dance form as exuberant as Kuchipudi? “At one time we used to dance in such intimate spaces,” she says.
And creating an intimate space for the arts – a forum for cultural exchanges and performances, accommodation for artistes, and an art café, is what is on the anvil for Thanjavur Amma Veedu, which breathed dance and music all those years ago. Mitraniketan, which now owns this heritage building, hopes to restore it to its past glory and the sea change is being brought about by Trichur-based architect Vinod Nair who sees this as a work of love and dedication rather than a job.