Sangeet Natak Akademi festival of awardees saw traditional performances as an obeisance to the old masters

The contemporary zeal for innovation notwithstanding, the adage of “old is gold” was strongly stressed in a couple of presentations in the week-long Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) festival of awardees. A picture of elegant simplicity and inner serenity in her off-white sari, grey hair in a neat jooda, and just the long white tilak adorning the forehead, Manjusree Chatterjee in the Kathak Krishna vandana in the most minimal gestures caught the glory of “Kandarpa Koti Saundarya”, “Karunasindhu”, “Deenabandhu” and “Jagatpathi” Krishna. It was the inner dancer’s expression giving meaning to every movement.

The music of her padhant, almost non-existent today even among experts, and the tight little bandishes of paramparik Kathak presented by her students, deceptively simple in their very subtle arithmetic of fractional intervals of rhythm not easy for anyone without deep understanding of laya, projected one disciple who has preserved in totality what was handed over to her by Guru Shambhu Maharaj and later Guru Sunder Prasad. And everything was presented within the framework of the non-stop lehra by an expert team of musicians with no ched-/chhad in vilambit and double-fast tempo. As she finished with her own presentation of thaat, gat nikas and gat bhav with the final hymn to “Durga Maharani Devi”, one raised a quiet toast to old gurus and faithful shishyas.

Equally sincere to Guru Kittappa’s Bharatanatyam teaching was Nartaki Nataraj, the Tevaram Tirunavukkarasu poetry Tirutttandavam of Shiva set to ragamalika in an extended varnam fashion, a blended joy of nritta with her guru’s jatis, and delicate abhinaya. The nayika’s eternal search for Shiva she has lost her heart to comes to an end when she realises that she has to look for the omnipresent Lord (‘engum Chidambaram’) within her. The sringar culmination in the inward journey of the kundalini shakti being awakened was communicated suggestively. After Dharmapuri Subbraya Aiyer’s javali in Sindhukapi, the Ponniah Pillai Shankarabharanam tillana made a perfect ending for a superb recital.

Watching Kathakali sringar by Kalamandalam Gopi as the inimitable Nala is always an experience one cannot have enough of. The other Kathakali veteran Thonakkal Peethambaram from a different Kathakali tradition, in his very sketchy Ravana Vijaya scene did not quite expand on this wonderful Katti character. But in the next scene when Ravana waylays Rambha, who is off on a prearranged tryst with Kubera, and is cursed for forcing himself on her, the sringar while muted was more communicative.

In a category by herself and still able to sustain a solo performance, even without covering the stage space in high leaps is Padma Subrahmanyam. Her invocation of Ganapati, “Lambodhara lakumikara…”, had all the feel of the ponderously graceful elephantine deity, with awardee Karaikudi Krishnamurthy on the mridangam. Her dramatised interpretation based on Subrahmanya Bharati’s “Kuyil Paattu” about the king who falls in love with a girl from an ordinary constituency, had all the tandava-lasya contrasts built into the narrative. The final cementing of marriage vows with the saptapadi scene, with the interspersed nritta passages too designed by Padma, along with the melodious veena accompaniment of B. Kannan with Gayatri Kannan’s nattuvangam and vocals, was in the dancer’s typical Bharatanritta mould.

V.K. Hymavathy’s Mohiniattam in the varnam depicting an exchange between Usha and Chitralekha — who through the potency of her chants promises to draw Aniruddha, Usha’s dream lover, to her side — had the dancer’s expressional allure as a feature. The Iraiyiman Tampi “Omana Tingal” lullaby in Kurinji was strong in images of the ecstatic mother comparing the beauty of her baby to the lotus, the moon, the nectar of flowers, the mating birds, the dancing peacock, the singing cuckoo and the leaping gazelle.

Always known for his slick presentations, Ramli Ibrahim, the Odissi dancer from Malaysia who has been honoured with the SNA award, has adapted for group presentation pallavis originally composed by his guru Debaprasad Das, with disciples like Gajendra Panda now working with Ramli adding their own inputs. The Saveri pallavi as a duet of the tribal snake woman with the besotted lover — enlarging and stretching the visual image of the Sabari woman adorned with a snake in the Saveri raga dhyana sloka — has been presented earlier. Ramli’s partner Geethika Sree, comparatively less experienced than the other senior female disciples of Ramli, is, nevertheless, a graceful performer. Apart from combining well with her guru, Geethika’s sringar depiction in Navarasa was effective in internalised expression. Debaprasad’s composition, very dramatic in its simplicity, was presented without major changes, except for the adaptation of movement for two dancers.

SNA compering cannot give less than exact information, and while rightly giving Gajendra Panda full credit for his inputs, introducing him as one of the senior disciples of the late Guru Debaprasad Das (there are others like Durgacharan Ranbir, who are more senior) would have been more correct than giving the impression of him being the foremost torchbearer of the guru’s school of Odissi.

(To be continued)