The recent Dhauli-Kalinga Utsav featured a range of art forms and some excellent performances.

One enters Dhauli at dusk, lights illuminating the temple tower atop the hill and the Peace Pagoda by its side, the bristling night air carrying faint echoes of Shiva chants. This is Kalinga land, full of the throb of history, where Emperor Ashok the conqueror transformed into Dharma Ashok, the apostle of peace — the futility of a triumphant victory striking him on seeing the bloody battlefield torn with cries of grieving families mourning over myriad slain soldiers. At this heritage site, 12 years ago, Dhauli-Kalinga Utsav visualised by late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, mounted on the floor of the Peace Pagoda, featured martial art forms. The legacy now carried on by disciple Aruna Mohanti, heading Odissi Akademi, Bhubaneswar, with the support of the Tourism and Culture Department of Odisha, has assumed an enlarged dimension. Mounted on a specially erected aesthetically designed Vishwa-shanti Mandap at the foothills, programming now finds space for dance and music along with martial arts.

Symbolically resembling Kalinga, the destructive battle which became the transforming agent converting a war lord into a messenger of peace, was “Agni” featured on the opening day, paying obeisance to Fire both destroyer and purifier. Sharpened into silken smoothness through Agni’s licking flames, the steel swords and spears through the Manipuri art of Thang Tha are transformed into supremely artistic agents entertaining and protecting. Conceptualised by Preeti Patel, Kolkata’s Anjika Dance Group’s presentation led by Imocha Singh thrilled in the performance of the fleet-footed, springy grace of performers, who fenced, parried, held off attacks with alacrity of body and mind, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats. Moving performers holding urns and torches of fire created myriad designs, the stage as canvas reflecting curved lines of flames.

Another surprisingly finished performance came from the Sangeet Mahavidyalaya group, Madhusmita Mahanti and Pankaj Pradhan disciplining the dancers into neatly coordinated formations in the Shiva invocation and the Madhyamawati pallavi — centre-staging a row of highly finished male dancers — though the solo efficiency of each is yet untested. The dance drama with lyrics by Nabkishor Misra with Dhaneswar Swain providing the rhythmic inputs, while technically flawless, was too pat, its straightforward war, killing, weeping and a converted king taking to a life of peace, posing no choreographic challenges.

The Srinivas Satpathy-led group of flautists, while combining well, in Srinivas’ contemporary composition set to raga Bairagi totally lacked any Odissi music flavour.

Undaunted with the heavens opening out with rain the next evening, the organisers tackled the emergency by shifting in record time to the live-in facilities by the side, for Odissi Akademi’s dozen Gotipua youngsters — with their school education also provided for, along with the dance training. With half the hall seating about 100 persons, the other half as performance space evoked a warm intimate performer/audience ambience. Bengaluru’s B. Bhanumati’s Nrityakalamandiram students presented a refreshing group recital, starting with mallari woven round the one anjali mudra for invocation, followed by Tygaraja’s kriti “Vidulaku” in Mayamalavagaula paying homage to the gods and great sages who nourished music, the Sama Veda which delighted Shiva, and propagated the sapta swaras. Bhanumati’s artistic group approach never swerves from the adavu movement alphabet of Bharatanatyam. Based on the Tulsidas bhajan “Sri Ramachandra Kripalu Bhajman”, the group staged a well blended interpretative cum rhythmic mini Ramayan narration. Then followed a precisely executed tillana in Ratipatipriya.

Diksha Manjari, Dona Ganguly’s Odissi institution in Kolkata, presented too many dancers for a not-so-large performance space. But the opening Arabhi pallavi showed highly self-conscious dancers with forced smiles, yet to command the immaculate technique making them forget the self in the dance. Much better was “Durga”, wherein the Devi’s destruction of Mahishasura had some visually arresting group arrangements.

An excellent finale was provided by the Raibanshe Martial Dance of West Bengal, Dr. Tarun Pradhan’s group, with an exuberance of energy and verve in movement, jumping, crawling, and cartwheeling to great effect, much to the enjoyment of the audience.

Rakashree Shirke whose Lasya Dance Company has earned fame for its dramatic performances in the old Kathakar style, in its “Ritusamhar” where love was portrayed in both separation and fulfilment, did not quite live up to its name, notwithstanding fully trained dancers, and excellent costumes. Firstly, the too loud music tape, with jarring thunder like sounds intervening, proved very distracting. A large part of the programme was fashioned on just abhinaya, based on lyrics like “Bijari chamake barsana”, “Jhuki ayi badariya”, “Jhoolat Radha Naval Kishor” which with the soft mood lighting made little impact. In the concluding part wherein Kathak virtuosity had full scope, with no foot mikes to amplify the ghunghroo sounds, the impact was totally lost.

Guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s piece-de-resistance “Konark Rasya Lila” met with an excellent rendition through dancers of Odissi Dance Academy, the recorded music, the dance proficiency and the group interpretation excellent, with Madhusmita taking on the role of the Moon originally played by Aruna Mohanti. And the academy’s Gotipua boys did them proud.

An excellently choreographed martial exercise finale by Fate Fighter group from Puri provided a memorable curtain call for the festival, their balancing feats of Mallakhamb on the pole quite fascinating. Involving students of various institutions is an excellent educational method for propagating both message and art.