Dancers and scholars shared notes on the theme ‘Rhythm and Vibes'.

Professor C. V. Chandrasekhar’s lament, in his inaugural comments, on dance losing sight of the aesthetics of simple rhythmic creations made for Bharatanatyam, in the desire for ornate jati expressions, sounded a note of caution even before the presentations on the theme of ‘Rhythm and Vibes’, set for Sri Krishna Gana Sabha’s Natya Kala Conference by Priyadarsini Govind, the convenor.

The lec/dem by mridangam vidwan G. Vijayaraghavan, one of the highlights, clearly revealed how sensitive composing of jatis for Bharatanatyam involved a complete understanding of its movement tone and nature of rhythm. His examples showed how rhythmic passages provided not just nritta decoration with their intricate arithmetic, but also aided the emotive situation concerned.

‘Thidambu Nritham,’ a ritual dance from Kerala, made for a poor start to the conference. Chenda and cymbals playing ‘kotti vilaithal’ in the process of the devotee carrying the deity on his head, working himself up to a religious frenzy through simple rhythmic steps, becomes a mockery as proscenium performance. A documentary with explanations would have been more suitable.

‘Alar Chapu’ saw a neatly designed programme by Srikanth, Roja Kannan and Priya Murle, comprising crisp explanations with rendered snippets from Pushpanjali, Sooladi, Todayamangalam, Mallari, the ‘tad dhit tom Nom’ syllables and kavutuvams – all from temple ritual coming into proscenium presentations.

A highlight, though over-stepping prescribed time span, was Swapnasundari’s lec-dem (dance by student Anupama Kailash) in ‘We pray this way.’ It concerned rhythm and its place in the temple ritual of the Andhra devadasi. Apart from the etymology of the two sounds ‘ta’ and ‘la’ reconciling what could be complementary purusha/prakrti contrasts, textual references with an underlying frankness that what constitutes ‘responsible recreation’ imbibes both old and the dancer’s own researched interpretations of rhythm, made for a mine of information on Dhwajarohanam, Devataahgyaanam, Bheri, Bali - each set to specific talas and ragas. One interesting observation, an answer to an query, was that the devadasi/temple connections were already on a diminishing curve even before the anti-devadasi movement.

In a different, equally regaling tone from the ‘spiritual spa,’ as Swapna called the dance/ religion connection, was the ‘organised madness’ as Parvathy Baul described it, of Bengal’s mystic Baul tradition. Here, the body as a vehicle, seeks to reach the sublime through action and movement but with an inside that has only stillness. With the ‘ektara’ (one-stringed) instrument in one hand, and the other playing the duggi slung round the waist, with the dancing feet (each in a different rhythm), the Baul captures the Radha/Krishna bhavas through his own rhythmic movements, and his music. “The Baul lights the fire and others feel the heat.” With her matted plaits almost reaching down to her ankles, Parvathy sang and danced her heart out in a tradition, which has no written text but resides in the lived lives of the devotees.

Quite unusual was Anil Srinivasan’s lec/dem on ‘Polyrhythms, Percussions and Pianos,’ on the texture of the piano which enables its use for dance and Indian music (lyrics such as ‘Kaatrinile Varum Geetam’ were first practised and composed on the piano), the left hand playing the rhythm providing the cyclic pulse for the music/dance, while the right hand provides the melodic component. What the piano does is to create ‘punctuation for the music without puncturing it’. With Anusha singing ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baro’, the tonal subtleties of Anil’s playing seemed to echo what was sung, linger on even when the vocalist had stopped. How the rhythm on piano can contribute to ‘rasa’ and an emotive strength made for a fascinating session.

The other riveting presentation by K. Harikumar pertained to Melapadam, the prelude to a Kathakali performance, with chenda and maddalam playing rhythmic improvisations, with the 23rd Ashtapadi from Gita Govindam, ‘Manjutharakunjatharakelivadane’ being sung, the open choice of the raga left to the singer just as the rhythmic part is left to the percussionists. The reason for this ashtapadi only being sung with the recent occasional inclusion of ‘Mamiyamchalita’ was not known. Both singing and the percussion provided a moving fare.

How rhythm is a silent but felt aspect of dancing for Astad Deboo was brought out through demonstration of sequences from his works of Contemporary Dance.

Edited scenes from ‘Harishchandra’ of Bhagavata Mela Natyam by Bharatam R.Mahalingam, and of ‘Hanuman Thoodhu’ in Therukootu by Purisai Kannappa Sambandam and Purisai Therukoothu Payarchi Palli, were examples of how theatre traditions harnessed music and rhythm for evoking sorrow and chivalry, respectively. Visuals of snippets from dance drama productions of Narasimhachari showed rhythm, in abstraction used to make mood statements beyond visually enchanting nritta.

How cross cultural collaborative work can open up fresh vistas on viewing traditional rhythmic combinations of 3,4,5,7 and 9 was touched upon by Aditya Prakash, whose examples of music composed for Mara with Mythili Prakash as the dancer, showed how his ethno-musicology background from the States, with added feel for non-Indian traditions of music and rhythm had added a fresh perspective to his rhythmic approach.

It was interesting watching Kathak dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar in collaborative work, for while the Bharatanatyam dancer dipped into her contemporary movement vocabulary, Prashant used his Kathak improvisational depth for visualising every situation in the interaction.

Samudra Natanam, ‘The Cosmic Dance of Siva’ by Samudra Performing Arts was an involved presentation, which for movement/rhythm control had few equals. How the vibes and metre of chanting provide an excellent backdrop for rhythm comprising not articulated as much as aerial ‘rhythm-in-the-air’ movements!

Padma Shankar threw light on how raga and laya validate each other heightening the appeal of each – the terseness of laya softened by the flow of the raga.

The concluding rhythm and vibes from the silver screen by Vineeth only confirmed that early film dances were inspired by the classical dance vocabulary.

As Convenor of this year’s Natya Kala Conference, this is what Priyadarsini Govind has to say:

“My association with Sri Krishna Gana Sabha goes back to the days when I was still a young dancer. Yagnaraman mama provided me with opportunities to showcase my dance. He believed in me when I was still an unknown dancer. Prabhu anna continues to provide opportunities to young dancers to showcase their talent and he continues to host the NKC despite all odds.

The Natya Kala Conference is a tremendous repository of knowledge. We have some pioneers and scholars sharing their views. I believe it is important to hear every point of view. We may accept it or reject it -- that is our prerogative. But it is important to listen and keep an open mind. As you know, we had a fantastic audience every day of the conference. Last year and this year, we hired Alaap to co-ordinate the details for the conference and with the artists. I had several artists tell me that they had never attended such a well organised conference. This time around, I also wished to open the platform to younger artists, who are otherwise not given a platform to voice their opinions or express their ideas.

Kumudha Bharatram