Some of the performances at the 16th National Festival of Creative Arts resonated with social issues.

After sustaining an annual festival of choreography for 15 consecutive years, no mean achievement in itself, Impresario India, in its 15th year, reinvented the event, giving it a fresh lease of life, through the three-day celebration mounted as the “National Festival of Creative Arts” at the Habitat. The festival this year not only incorporated theatre events, but featured programmes invested with themes and choreography resonating more with the issues of day-to-day life, and proscenium requirements.

What better way to start than with Parvathi Baul (Mousomi Parial) who imbibed her style from the parampara of Gurus Sri Sanatan Das Baul and Shri Shasanko Goshai singing “Moner Manush” songs from the South. The philosophy of the music preached looking for divinity within oneself. This search is beyond one who does not have a good heart “Jar mona bhalla nai”, for he cannot understand compassion (“Marma ki jane”). The mistaken devotee is like Radha thinking “Jael bhithar thai Murali” (sees image and thinks Krishna is inside the water) when he is “Tumari Antare” (inside you). After the sambhoga sringar song “Radha pyar Khelichi Sri Holi”, so completely involved in her own journey comprising simultaneous playing of ektara and the duggi tied to her waist with minimal dancing, was Parvathi, that organisers wondered about stopping her from using up time meant for the next artist — but Parvathi concluded on her own.

“Ektara Pathshala”, a group dance production presented by Lok Chhanda Cultural Unit of Midnapur, choreographed by Maitreyee Pahari in Chhau and Kathak mainly, continued the Baul theme, the visualisation based on Tagore’s poem “Baul” from Sishu Bholanath. The starting with movement based on Tagore’s famous song “Pagla Hawa”, fitting in with the word Baul which means ‘afflicted’’ with the wind, was in keeping with the philosophy of the Bauls with their unorthodox living totally at variance with societal patterns. But through the meticulously designed neat choreographic patterns, Maitreyee lost the plot in the individual scenes — for such orderliness and designer costumes for the female dancers (more like sophisticated gowns) is totally contrary to the subject of Bauls. The male dancers in the orange dhotis looked more in line with the theme. Songs in tune with the theme like “Mama Chitta”, with the “Taka Thai Thai” dancing, got lost in well conceived stage formations. Pity!

Kolkata’s Susmit Bose in his urban folk songs on social issues touched a chord, his singing, despite lack of virtuosity, full of the conviction which stems from commitment to his profession of highlighting societal faults. Inspired by the poetry of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, his songs spoke of child labour after watching children denied a childhood, sweating at carpet weaving, whipped into frenzied activity when fatigued body and mind dozed off every now and then, and much loved songs like “ Honge Kaamyaab”, the Hindi translation of “We shall overcome.”

“Khel”, a Hindi translation of Tagore’s work, was enacted with sensitivity.

And then there were two group dance presentations of high calibre. Natya Vriksha’s presentation of “Natya Vrinda” (name inspired by All India Radio’s Vadya Vrinda, where many instruments combined in classical compositions belonging to the solo concert repertoire) visualised by Geeta Chandran, combined the classical weight of Bharatanatyam without dilution with aesthetic group arrangements. One saw three separate arrangements sharing stage space, but all as part of one integrated frame, with excellent recorded music combining Sudha Raghuraman’s vocal, Sriganesh on the mridangam, Raghuraman on flute and with Sivakumar and Shankar for jati inputs and nattuvangam by Shankar and Geeta. After the pure dance start in mallari with homage to Chidambaram’s Shiva Nataraja, “Varsha Ritu” based on Kalidasa’s poetry, saw Nature’s benevolence in the joy of the monsoons, with the peacock dancing contrasted with her destructive wrath during floods. The group of marauding elephants (according to Kalidasa’s description of black clouds) visualised by the dancers with Geeta outside of it in a solo interpretation of the verse, was very imaginative. The music in Kalavati, Amritavarshini and Desh and the use of ragam, tanam were all very well conceived. The ecstasy of Krishna Raas on the Yamuna banks based on Haveli Sangeet showing Vasant Ras in Vasant raga, Sharad in Desh, followed by the mridanga rhythms in Chandrakauns and Kedar, where the signature line to Harivansha comes in, were all riveting in the choreographic presentation, with vigorous teermanams rendered in well rehearsed uniformity bringing in a special element of verve. Not the least was the costume designing by Sandhya Raman — excellent colour combination with each dancer’s outfit having a difference while all shared the overall fall and pattern of the costume.

To compare with this exhilarating Bharatanatyam was the concluding dance theatre production “Katha” by Lasya group of Mumbai, choreographed in Kathak by Rajashree Shirkey. Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s “Khata”, Rajashree as is her wont, blended the Kathakar’s tradition with proscenium Kathak in a manner which was riveting. An excellent actor herself, the way she has trained her students to collectively emphasise a mood, is nothing short of amazing. Here the case of the old fashioned, heavy handed husband who is totally against the wife indulging in any activity like reading and writing (considered too ancient for India of today by some in the audience), is really a metaphor for woman denied any opportunity for realising her potential. Uma Ki Katha is that of a tender young girl, chained to premature marriage, not allowed any avenue for using her skills and talent. The way Kathak bol vocabulary became a means of communication, with the intra-forms like tatkar, chakkars, tukra all brought in seamlessly into the narrative and with excellent theatre skills of students and choreographer, the production was a clean winner. But providing the melodic/theatrical take-off base through music and libretto was Aniruddha Shirke whose brilliant score, with Manoj Desai’s moving vocal support, laid the real foundation for this production.