The Konark Natya Mandap Gurukul presented its 27th consecutive Konark Dance and Music Festival, gamely overcoming the loss of its founder guru

Bathed in balmy sea breeze and gentle sounds of swishing casuarina branches stands the Konark Natya Mandap Gurukul, its performance space with sculpted apsaras in dancing attitudes flanking a five-tiered gateway a performing artiste’s delight. This dream child of late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, inspired by the Natyashala of Konark’s legendary Sun temple, celebrated its 27th consecutive annual Konark Dance and Music Festival — the family organisers gamely soldiering on, keeping the dream alive, despite the guru’s shockingly premature demise less than two years ago, resulting in massive sponsorship lacuna, even given Odisha government grants. From the striking curtain-raiser with meticulously synchronised mardal/cymbal/ ghanta wielding dancers entering the performance arena from the wings, to the spectacle of the Panchadeva stuti with Odissi performers arrayed in five tiers of the central mandap, rendering homage to Ganesh, Narayana, Rudra, Ambika and Bhaskara respectively, followed by the daily featuring of music and dance — both folk and classical — introduced in English and Odiya, the festival is designed for mixed audiences.

This year’s Guru Gangadhar Pradhan Life Achievement award to Ustad Zakir Hussain the international tabla percussion wizard formed the high note on which the festival ended. From peshkar to rela to Lahorigat, with parans, tihais and tukras raining in multi-toned orchestration through the maestro’s quicksilver playing, along with mnemonics suggesting popular images of leaping deer and pitter-patter of rain — all this with the clear- toned melody of Sabir Khan’s exquisite sarangi accompaniment, made the packed audience ecstatic.

The other excellent music ensemble featured quintessential Hindustani gayaki ang by three generations of violinists: N. Rajam, her daughter Sangeeta Shankar and two teenage granddaughters, all equally strong in solo interpretative passages, combining in the majestic refrains.

Vocal expert Damodar Hota through a vakra raga comprising both Gandharas and Dhaivatas, in the ‘Odra Paddhati Sangeet’ unlike any other Odissi vocalist, underlined his Gwalior gharana training under great masters. The Jagannath opening number followed by Upendra Bhanja’s composition in Triputa and Jhula talas and the concluding Tribhanga, in ‘pakad’ and ‘bol bant’ were so full of classical weight that one wonders why Odissi music clamouring for the ‘classical’ status does not project this musician more.

Yella Venkatewara Rao’s mridangam, after initially being drowned under the weight of over-much orchestral padding, finally in solo brilliance showcased the versatility of this Carnatic percussion.

The Natya Mandap Gotipua boys charmed with the effortless ease and variety of Banda Nritya arrangements and exemplary group discipline. Its “Konark Lasya Leela”, Guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s piece de resistance choreographed almost 25 years ago and performed on countless occasions, had its most evocative presentation on this performance space. A site-specific presentation, its theme of the frozen Konark statues coming alive under the romantic moonlit night to dance, seemed in perfect mood and movement symphony with the sculptures all round, impregnating the entire space with new energy. And Ramahari’s score melodiously rendered has never seemed so apt.

The pick of the group presentations utilising many Natya Mandap dancers was by Chitraekha Dance Creations based in North America, led by sibling gurus Ellora and Devraj Patnaik trained under all great Odissi gurus from the late Kelucharan Mohapatra to Gangadhar Pradhan. If the Sringar Nritya Pallavi by eleven female dancers, set to raga Bahar and Ek tali, captured in telling group arrangements the graceful body atmospherics of sringar through rhythm and gestures emphasising “ Nayana, Sumukh, Kabari, Payodhara, Nitambinita, Nupura, Vastra, Sugandh”, Dashavatar by an all-male troupe was a powerful and originally designed version of Vishnu’s incarnations based on Gita Govinda verses. Choreographer, musician, and fine mardal percussionist Devraj Patnaik has above all that focus on details, making his work special. This brother/sister pair spending three months in a year teaching Natya Mandap disciples is the best development for this institution, filling partially the empty space after Gangadhar Pradhan’s demise.

Commendable balance

Sri Rama Nataka Niketan Bharatanatyam disciples performing on pots, (one hears of E. Krishna Iyer having done this), trained under Manjula Ramaswamy, showed commendable balance and superb control over technique and movement finish. While the guru’s live nattuvagman was good, the raucous taped “Shankara Sri Giri” made Hamsanandi sound flat.

Very amateurish, “Srinivasa Kalyanam” by Shobha Naidu’s large troupe of Kuchipudi dancers was most disappointing, considering that she herself was one of the greatest stars of Kuchipudi for years.

Rajendra Gangani’s solo Kathak rhythmic versatility combined with the very fitting homage to late Gangadhar Pradhan through his rendition of “Mala tilak manohar, ley Sri chhatra dhare, Guru bin aisi kaun kare,” won over the audience. His disciples in the group presentation were a delight.

Alarmel Valli was in crying form, her Sringar item followed by Krishna, ‘the intimate and the infinite” strung together with Madhurashtakam verses providing a refrain, rendered in a manner where classicism expressed with a winsome freshness, communicated intimately. Her thoughtful gesture in donating the Gangadhar award purse for dance conferred on her to the Natya Mandap for young Gurukul disciples was appreciated.

The Srilanka Rangaranga Dance Academy’s folk dances and Kandian dance though neat, were urbanised, choreographed versions. Bhangra by Mauj Punjab Di, not from the top drawer, through sheer vitality, held audience attention.

Despite a conspicuously absent local press, and lack of volunteers, the festival showed good organisation, with sensitive lighting — though sound needed better feedback arrangement for performers.