A look at the cultural avalanche that sweeps Chennai during Margazhi.

Bleary eyed from lack of sleep and reduced almost to a zombie at the end, one looks back at the music/dance avalanche that swept over Chennai during the December/January seasonal madness.

While the city, if anything, seems increasingly passionate about Carnatic music, with every auditorium featuring top musicians packed to capacity, this year, one must admit to experiencing a slightly enhanced response to dance as well, in some of the less out-of-the-way venues such as Pettachi and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Starting with Sruti’s three-day Nritya Samrachana, jointly mounted with Apsaras Arts of Singapore, to Purush, the Natya Kala Conference and the Music Academy festival, it was a roller coaster ride, and what with auditorium-hopping to catch glimpses of programmes at various venues, one at times forgot whether one was going or coming.

Each event had its niche audience, though unlike Music Academy’s early morning lectures, which did not have a seat vacant in the hall, dance events attracted only a highly interested minority. What with clusters of women clad in a riot of colours in the latest of Kanjeevaram sarees, exchanging notes about various programmes; the local tweets about personalities and recitals; daily bulletins specially printed for the seasonal activity selling like hot cakes; eateries at each of the venues overflowing with hungry art devotees and an appreciable number of NRI faithfuls, who never failed to descend on the city at this time, this was Chennai in the throes of ‘Margazhi Madness’ at its buzzing best.

“Who do you think has given the best performance so far – in music and in dance?” was the common query I faced. How does one compare apples with oranges, one wondered? All one could say was that, despite all the fear about dwindling support for the classical dances, the number of really talented youngsters featured on various platforms took one by surprise. Where were the opportunities for providing performance space for so many, despite an ever expanding infrastructure? And even as one heard strong expressions voiced about dashed hopes, dancers, of all levels, managed to find ways of creating space for themselves.

Chennai shows the traditional/contemporary (as if these are mutually exclusive) polarisation. ‘Purists’ rarely attend programmes where more contemporary expressions find place. For example, the general audience for the Purush festival programmes, or special events organised at the Space, in late dancer Chandralekha’s home, saw hardly any of the conservative Bharatanatyam audience. But for me it was very encouraging to see some of the Music Academy programmes (generally of a good standard this year, barring the odd very disappointing show), a presentation such as ‘Jyotir Gamaya,’ where Jayanthi Subramaniam’s choreography with evocative music by Rajkumar Bharathi created a whole work inspired by ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull,’ written by Richard Bach, Using just one mudra and flapping hands, a whole Bharatanatyam movement edifice was structured capturing images of the Seagull, with an aesthetic eye. Eschewing any kind of purposeless movement embroidery, with evocative jatis, which fit into each situation providing the right mood punctuation, the simple backdrop designs of flying seagulls by Deeptha Jayakar, the production wholly based on Bharatanatyam, communicated powerfully – despite the slightly didactic end.

Yet another entertaining and cleverly worked out production, despite whispered criticism from several orthodox quarters, was ‘Tripaada’ of Sree Bharatalaya supervised by Sudharani Raghupathy, where Bharatanatyam lived along with folk traditions such as Poi-k-kal kudirai, and Teru-k-koottu glimpses and physical disciplines such as Kalari and Yoga – all used in fleeting well rendered scenes, with excellent introductions in English and Tamil by K.S.R Anirudha and his wife.

There was a lightness and feel for humour in narrating the story of Bali, and hasya is not common in our recitals. The fact that Bharatanatyam, for a purpose, can interact with other forms with such ease is all to the good.

Some special numbers become the flavour of the season and this time it was the Ashtapadi, ‘Kuru Yadunandana’. That its bold eroticism showing Radha in the languor of after-love, should be so popular, perhaps says much for the confidence of our youngsters, though not all understood the mood - what with some vigorously showing sandal paste grinding, and one portraying Radha flirtatiously trying to free her hand clasped by Madhava, though none of this was what Jayadeva’s poetry was about in this Ashtapadi. The best portrayal was by Sujatha Mohapatra, and no wonder, as she is the daughter-in-law of the late Kelucharan Mohapatra, whose signature item this was.

The very high standard of vocal support and melodic accompaniment said much for the dancers being very alive to music, making or marring a recital.

With all the youthful athleticism and agility one saw, there was little to beat what the ever youngVyjayantimala Bali and Leela Samson showed in their Bharatanatyam. Watching Vyjayantimala at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, a foreigner remarked, ‘That was sublime.’

Some dancers will never learn to respect time. Meenakshi Srinivasan and Dr.Neena Prasad (whose Mohiniyattam varnam based on Modern poetry was superb) erred in this respect. As for Nirupama and Rajendra, the Kathak couple, overshooting the time limit and asking the audience if they could do two other items, as if they were the organisers (amongst hundreds, one or two voices in support will always be found) for the group, to show a contemporary production based on Abhimanyu’s death in which one had to look hard for the Kathak element, was wrong and festival organisers must clamp down on this. Sometimes, very senior dancers take advantage, making it awkward for persons conducting the evening programme to intervene.

While more organisations are planning seminars, restricting each day to just two sessions with time for interaction would be better. All in all, it looks as if Chennai is all set to overtake other cities in becoming the culture capital of India!