Padma Subrahmanyam and team brilliantly drew a web of artistry to showcase the Vijayanagar empire. Bhavajan Kumar-Divya Shiva Sundar brought alive the mighty Pallavas.

Contrary to expectation, dancer-scholar Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam’s ‘Vijayanagara Vaibhavam’ that launched ‘Bhoopaala Bharatham,’ was not a historical account of the vast South Indian empire or a presentation on its prosperity, architecture and water systems, but a dramatised rendering of little known episodes drawn from personal accounts of the rulers themselves. Dr. Padma drew a web of artistry with lilting music (Dr. Padma) and compelling acting in a way only she can. It was presented at Chennai’s Narada Gana Sabha.

The first part dealt with ‘Madhura Vijayam,’ the Sanskrit travelogue written by Princess Ganga Devi, who accompanied her husband Veera Kampanna down South to free the people from Turkish invaders. ‘Amuktamalyada’ was the other text, written in Telugu by the Kannada-speaking Krishnadeva Raya on the Tamil saint Andal.

While the historical background of the texts is indisputable, Padma chose to emphasise the more surreal aspects of the poems. Goddess Meenakshi appearing before Kampanna to convince him to free Madurai from the tyranny of the Delhi Sultanate was perhaps the highlight of the evening. The dancer spoke of the piteous state of the people, the temples and rivers, without shying away from the intensity of suffering and gore, but the aesthetic manner in which she presented it made the difference. At the end of the soliloquy, she reveals herself saying, ‘Don’t you recognise me? I am the fish-eyed goddess!’ That fleeting moment of shyness had so much subtlety and artistry; it was simply brilliant.

And where ‘Amuktamalyada’ also contains information about the empire and its governance, Padma chose to start with Krishnadeva Raya’s dream in which ‘Andhra Vishnu’ commands him to write on ‘that young girl who offers the garland after wearing it.’ The story of Andal followed, played out as a narration alternating with characterisations.

The introduction in each segment added relevance to the stories by giving them a historical context. In ‘Madhura Vijayam,’ Kampanna’s birth, his father Bukka Raya’s order to conquer South India and the father’s words of advice came through clearly (Dr. Gayatri Kannan), while Vineet as Krishnadeva Raya in the second part, played his part with dignity.

With lyrics taken from the texts, the musical score was a challenge. Padma’s distinct style of music requires detailed attention from the singers and the accompanists. With Radhika Muthukrishnan, Gayatri and Mahati Kannan as the sweet-voiced singers and the first two handling the nattuvangam as well, B. Kannan (madhura veena, shuddha maddalam), C.K. Patanjali (flute) and Thanjai Sendhil (mridangam) provided rich musical support. Murugan was deft with the lighting as he enhanced the effect by projecting the coloured lights on the white canvas in the background.

Gayatri and scholar Pappu Venugopala Rao provided the reference for the works. Resource person Prema Nandakumar’s scholarly dissertation on the history and poetry with regards to the Vijayanagara empire preceded the Bharatanrityam presentation.

Paeans to the Pallavas

Day 2 glorified the mighty Pallava kings through dynamic Bharatanatyam by Bhavajan Kumar and Divya Shiva Sundar. The screenplay was based on tangible historical evidence in Sanskrit and Tamil culled out from inscriptions of the 7th century.

A fascinating talk by historian Dr. Chithra Madhavan not only provided pertinent information but also whetted one’s curiosity about the ensuing dramatisation. Her talk shed light on the major achievements of the kings such as the architectural beauty of the rock temples, their military prowess and the construction of water bodies. Dancing in tandem, Divya and Bhavajan met the challenge of breathing life into the narrative content admirably. Richly textured music by Rajkumar Bharathi and further inputs by Prof. Raghuraman provided extensive working material.

Bhavajan and Divya took on the roles of Mahendra Varma and his son Narasimha Pallava respectively taking care to demarcate the individual persona. The sprightly notes of the initial number replicated by the dancers in quick adavus indicated the mood of the evening. Mahendra Verma as the painter, sculptor and lover of music was easily depicted by Bhavajan, with the aid of stagecraft and miming, all of which carried this episode smoothly. Bhavajan’s pose representing the king displayed his understanding of the subject as it mirrored the noble demeanour of the sculpture seen in the photographs earlier. Divya’s graceful actions complemented the theme.

On the other hand, the scenes which depicted drunken revelry drawn from ‘Mattha Vilasa’, a satire penned by the King, could not deliver the same impact, though not for want of trying. After the first humorous moments, the influence of song and dance petered down and the flow of the text laboured to be compatible to the demands of dancing.

In the next portion, the devotional aspect was introduced with the famous enactment of Appar’s miraculous escape and the king’s conversion to Saivism. Nimble movements by the dancers showed the carving of the temples and the beauty of the sculptures convincingly.

A good move that paid off was reserving power and vigour for the second half of the programme. A long theermanam to enact the war scene, background music of ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ and footwork to show crossing the sea, were imaginative strokes. Divya as Narasimha Varma lent the role dignity without resorting to excessive flourishes and held her own even in the face of Bhavajan’s athletic manoeuvres. Empathetic orchestral support led by Shobana Bhalchandra’s nattuvangam and Krithika Arvind’s singing were other positives.

The Bharatanatyam performance came to a lilting conclusion with a thillana like piece, that brought home Dr. Chithra’s eulogy of the Pallava kings commendably.

The Cholas revisited

The third day revolved round the great Chola kings Raja Raja and his son Rajendra. The resource person Dr Kudavayil Balasubhramanian provided the overview of the kings’ accomplishments with special references to the Nataraja icons in different temples of that period. The talk and the slide show revealed how the kings nurtured the classical arts and how dance was given a unique place during the past.

Converting a historical subject into classical dance is not an easy task. No matter how talented the dancers are, the final product in this experiment may not realise the theme completely. The performances of Lakshman and Divyasena delivered an assortment of ideas about the Chola kings with varying degrees of success. A fragmentation in approach meant that while some units had clarity of thought, in others there was an imprecision which left the subject cold. The grandeur of the kings was conveyed with gestures, body stances and dramatised walks but what one would have appreciated was a comprehensive analysis of their rule that spanned continents.

The dancers’ innate grace and abhinaya could be seen to advantage in lyrics such as the centre piece in Sankarabharanam, the trilling thillana, and where the music followed the narrative pattern, as in the story of Raja Raja Chola’s revival of the ancient Tamil texts. Literal depictions such as the ones describing the river Cauvery or the puja routines watered down the context.

It is a well-known fact that costume and props play a significant role in thematic productions. It was no wonder then that the fake look of the wig, the disproportionate crown and lopsided moustache sported by Lakshman, even if it was for one scene, cast a shadow over the whole dance. Thankfully he soon reverted to his regular Bharatanatyam attire, and Lakshman and Divyasena’s combined efforts took on better sheen.

Divyasena’s portrayal of the heroine waiting for the King underscored the emotional connection. Despite missing a few cues in the opening numbers, the lead vocals by the Padma Seshadri sisters warmed up later and with nattuvangam by Haribabu supported the dancing. Ultimately it was in moments where the dancing followed the traditional form which projected some images of the mighty Chola kings.