The Swati Tirunal Festival in New Delhi presented a good mix of dancers, while the selection criteria for Nritya Milan was baffling.

The annual Swati Tirunal Festival by the International Academy of Mohiniattam, despite haphazard inviting and publicity about the two-day event, must be lauded for a discerning selection of dancers in all styles. The start with three Kalamandalam-trained Mohiniattam dancers Kaitiki Narayanan, Ashwati and Subanna Rejish, with good technique (Ashwati was the most impressive and Kaitiki showed expressive mukhabhinaya), would have sparkled more with tuneful singing. Vocalist Rejish lacked a feel for ‘sur’ his singing and Rajat Prasanna’s loud flute finding no microtonal alignment. In the charanam of the varnam in Dhanyasi “Ananda vanjitha samsharana”, the solfa passages were so off key that it hurt listeners. The technically correct dancing showed the disadvantages of a solo item rendered by three dancers, without changing stage spacing for group rendition. Standing triangular fashion, each anchored to a fixed spot, the gestural simultaneity in the interpretative part portraying the virahotkanthita nayika, with each face emoting in an individual way, made for distracted viewing. Even the famous Dhanashri tillana of Swati Tirunal, while neatly rendered, would have been more effective with some redesigning for a group.

Intricately detailed Bharatanatyam treatment, adhering to strict classical conventions, characterised Ragini Chandrasekhar’s rendition of the Swati Tirunal varnam in Neelambari “Sarasa chara sundara” — one of the high points of the evening. Pleading for the Lord’s protection and love is the nayika’s address to the deity, interlaced with devotion and desire. Love’s magic beckoned by the moonlit night is empty sans her beloved. The nayika asks with concern what could be worrying one at whose feet devotees offer prayers! In a richly nuanced rendition, the interpretative passages had the mingled conviction of Venkateshwar’s fine singing and Ragini’s abhinaya, the nritta part comprising spirited jatis (Karaikudi Krishnamurti compositions with special tonal vibrancy in the arithmetic and musicality in the rhythmic syllable arrangement), Shankar’s nattuvangam punch and etched linear precision of Ragini’s movements, with Chandrasekhar’s sensitive mridangam accompaniment. The drawback of such intricately packed, painstaking choreography lay in the item spilling well beyond the allotted half hour time slot, depriving last dancer Malti Shyam of a large part of the audience.

Malti Shyam’s sophisticated Kathak of just 30 minutes exuded freshness without sacrificing classical weight. Most heartening was the accompanying music. The classically trained, melodious singer Aditi Sharma, along with Govind Chakraborty’s seasoned tabla and Kamal Ahmed on the sarangi, evoked the right mood for the “Sundar Shyam, Sundar Gopi....” beginning, wherein every aspect of Krishna, with nature chiming in, spells beauty and enchantment. “Krishna Chandra Radha Manamohana” the repetitive line in Bhairavi, caught musical echoes of both Hindustani and Carnatic strains, symbolising the versatility of Swati Tirunal. Without the conventional lehra refrain for Kathak nritta, Malti used the one line classical music, painlessly weaving in a tapestry of both the interpretative and the rhythmic. Thaat, “Digi digi thai tha thai” tukras, gat nikas or a “niratkarat” portraying smoothly the episode of boy Krishna playing ball culminating in Krishna’s dancing on the hood of the subdued serpent Kaliya, a paran all flowed in a fluent recital. The silken flow saw a fleeting “takita takita dhin” and “nadhin dhin na” footwork, coming in and fading naturally. Harnessing familiar Kathak elements for a changed context evokes a subtly original feel. Aesthetically costumed, Malti danced with elegant grace and mastery.

High professionals and aspiring youngsters

Anita Babu’s Nritya Milan mounted at the Habitat, was a see-saw featuring the highest professionals alongside raw aspirants still being groomed, confusing one about criteria applied in the choice of dancers.

The curtain raiser was with Anita Babu’s students (one tiny tot stood out), still a long way from professionalism, presenting mangalacharan and sthai — the latter in the temple statues being awakened to dance, influenced by Anita’s guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s “Konark Jagaran”.

Jayaprabha Menon’s well trained students took the floor next, presenting an interesting group rendition of a Malayalam translation by Kavalam Narayana Panikar of the “Angikam Bhuvanam” slokam with music by Kavalam Padmanabhan — the icon of Shiva as Nataraja being a metaphor for the continual movement of the cosmic energies. The dancers ignoring the sound glitches, making a mockery of the music on a well tested C.D, with jerky halts, and abrupt stops, still managed to acquit themselves creditably. The next item was the oft rendered pandaattam from the traditional repertoire of Mohiniattam.

The Odissi duet, featuring Rina Jana and her partner Sarbani Nandi, saw the experienced Rina not at her best, her hurried “Yugmadwanda” showing tossed off movements, a shade faster in the foot contact rhythm than the tempo set by the music. In “Ardhanari”, she showed few traces of the lasya enchantment associated with Parvati one half of Shiva, as visualised in Shankaracharya’s verses “Chaampeya gauraardha shareera kayai”. Partner/disciple Sarbani, though heavy, gave an involved performance as Shiva.

The nondescript Kathak duet by Anurekha Ghosh and Saheli Pradhan defied description, and more worrying was the loud applause it fetched. Aggressive movements and no subtleties of grace, (even thaat and gat nikas were no different) had the body movement of a Kathak chakkar and a Na Dhin Dhin Na foot stomping, but without the Kathak ‘atma’. If this is the hybrid vigour of training in far too many styles, it is better to forgo representing any one dance form. The Saraswati invocation sounded like marching orders. A Bageshri chaturang choreographed by Kumudini Lakhia was announced though one saw no trace of Kumudini’s finesse.

Anuradha Sinha’s tame Kathak and totally amateurish disciples were no better.

To present dancers like Aruna Mohanty and her disciple Madhusmita Mohanty in a festival showing such unprofessional talents, could be explained only by the fact of Aruna Mohanty and Anita Babu being colleague disciples of the same guru, late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, whose memory this festival honours. The presentation of “Ki Nada” by this duo made the festival. The entire effort epitomised the integrated disciplinary inputs required in creating any original production. With Kedar Misra’s valuable research and poetic inputs, Gopal Chandra Panda’s evocative music score, evoking the typical regional flavour, Bijaykumar Barik’s mardal expertise providing the rhythmic inputs, and Aruna Mohanty’s fine feel for choreography with Madhusmita proving to be the ideal partner, this production had like-minded professionals integrating for a production. The invocation with both dancers heralds Nada in all its forms — as “Nanadena beena geetam”, as Nadaroopa Parabhrama, as Prashakti, and as Janadanaha. And then comes the subtle interpretation of three women drawn to Krishna and the nada of his flute — Yashoda, the embodiment of vatsalya (“Mamatara Mandakini” or motherly love), Radha as “Preeti Anuragini”, the beloved, and Meera as “Krishnamayi Ballababini”. Intensely expressive, both dancers in their portrayals gave moving vignettes of how the sound of the flute beckoned: Yashoda delighting in her foster son, gopis running in various states of undress bewitched by Krishna’s flute, Radha’s ched chad “Bansiwala Kanhaiya mein na boloon tujse”, Meera lost in love for Krishna. The choreography had two dancers coming together and separating unobtrusively and smoothly. With melodious vocalist Roopak Kumar Parida and the excellent mardal by Bijaykumar Barik, “Ki Nada” was a treat!

Heavy bodies lacking agility, and a loud populist abhinaya approach in Navarasa, characterised the performance of the Bharatanatyam duo Badari Divya Bhushan and Anjana Bhushan, making one wonder about his traditional connections.

“Nadi Narayana”, presented by students of Anita Babu, concluded the festival with an ecological message of not polluting our rivers. Rather simplistically visualised, the students nevertheless did a fair job in a production, helped by Kedar Misra’s poetry and good music.