The Divinity Series got off to a well applauded start with three Bharatanatyam performances

The Chinmaya auditorium is a congenial space for mounting a Bharatanatyam festival under what has been named the Divinity Series, sponsored by the Chinmaya Centre in association with Jyotsna Shourie’s Dance Society. But with our classical forms so traditionally linked to the search for a higher consciousness, what this special journey in divinity meant is difficult to say. The festival, announced as a special offering to youth displaying increasing interest in our classical dances, lived fully up to its title, and consecrating stage space with its aural symphony like a benediction, was the invocation every evening with the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Choir. Whether a Rig Vedic shloka, a hymn to “Veena vadini Varade”, a prayer to the Trimurti, invoking Shiva whose body is the Cosmos eternally dancing in the theatre of the Universe, or a prayer for shanti, the co-ordinated voices of varying octaves, with the restrained accompaniment evoked a quietude, creating an ideal ambiance for the dance.

The all Bharatanatyam projection had its curtain-raiser in the recital by Rama Vaidyanathan whose élan and sparkle evoked enthusiastic audience response. Starting with her signature Mayur Alarippu in Misra jati Triputa tala, she followed with the centrepiece, the Swati Tirunal ashta ragamalika varnam “Pannagendrashayana” after which came the Purandara Dasa pada “Saddu Maadalu Bedavo” in Kalyani — all items presented by the dancer a fortnight ago in Bhubaneswar and covered in this very column. Continuing in the interpretative vein, but in a different mood from the naughty, spritely gopi lovingly chiding Krishna not to disturb the sleeping neighbourhood with his distracting flute music, Rama went on to the moving lyric from Rama Natakam by Arunachala Kavirayar set in Husseni raga — “Eppadi manam tunindado”. Sita on hearing of Rama’s impending exile asks how he could even think in terms of leaving her behind while he went to the forest for 14 years. Reminding him of his marriage vows, she questions the manliness of this decision to forsake her. Rama’s interpretation, for this critic did not live up to the Sita image — certainly not the Sita Arunchala Kavi builds up in his work, as one who is the ultimate Uttama Nayika, who with all the steel and self-possession in her, has a gentle restraint, with no arrogance. The poet shows her in a lyric pleading that not being able to start the day looking at those lotus feet, before which she prostrates, would be unthinkable for her. Rama’s visualisation had a bounce more indicative of a Madhyama nayika ornamenting herself at the start, and later using sarcasm almost like a Khandita nayika with her husband, and triumphing at the end on the ruse having worked in changing Rama’s mind. While fully endorsing artistic freedom, in abhinaya interpretations, cultural memory when it comes to characters like Sita’s and the concerned poet’s approach need to be kept in mind. With the “Jeevah Shivah, Shivo Jeevah” refrain in Charukesi catching both the movement and the stillness of Shivahood, Rama concluded to a standing ovation. Sivakumar’s nattuvangam led a competent musical team with K. Venkateshwaran providing vocal support, Sriganesh on mridangam and Rajat Prasanna on flute.

Dancer Meenakshi Srinivasan, with her stage presence and immaculate dance lines is a striking dancer, though her soft and nimble foot-contact rhythm, while very accurate, given a slightly more assertive feel in places, would create a contrast making the dance even more arresting. In a recital devoted entirely to Krishna, the dancer in her articulate introduction to each item stressed the sringar/bhakti approach, in its combined erotic/spiritual longing for the divine. Verses from Nachiyar Tirumozhi structured in the varnam format, with lyrics set in a ragamalika musical framework, portrayed Andal pleading with the Lord to take her into his embrace and make her one with him — “Äatkolla vendum Ayyane.” With Hariprasad’s golden voiced vocal support, the dancer was in her element, in portraying the love smitten Andal who wants the clouds and creatures of Nature like the birds to act as her messengers of love. She appeals to the God of love Manmatha, for time is passing by and wilting in unrequited love, she lives in anticipation, for this birth of hers, she is convinced, is only to become united with Krishna/Vishnu. Jayasri Ramanathan’s nattuvangam and Devakrishna on mridangam with Kalaiarasan on the violin provided fine melodic support. The Meera Bhajan in Misra Kamas, composed by Jamuna Krishnan under whom the dancer trained, “Kunjanban chhaad main kahan jaaoon” is very poetic — Meera saying that if she were a fish in the waters in Vrindavan, she would kiss the feet of Krishna every time he stepped into the water, if a cuckoo bird, she would sing to him all day as he herded the cattle, and if a pearl would be an ornament placed close to the heart of the Lord all day. Meenakshi’s abhinaya, while involved, after Andal’s statement, did not have enough variety coming immediately after. The Jayadeva ashtapadi “Kuru-yadunandana” evoking sringar in the sambhoga vein, with Radha united with Krishna, set in Behag, took just the first verse and seemed repetitive — the sustaining of the after-union mood, with Radha wanting Krishna to repair her dishevelled state, not coming out convincingly. Rajkumar Bharati’s tillana in Sindhubhairavi was too fast, the tempo sacrificing the statuesque grandeur of the tillana, and not really catching the Raslila spirit it was meant to evoke.

“A relevant theme today”

Slated to conclude the three-day festival Mythili Prakash, based in Los Angeles, barring the strongly American accented English, is more Indian in outlook than many of our youth brought up within our country. It is as if the art of Indian music and dance she has been part of since childhood, with mother Viji Prakash running a large dance training institution, has somehow insulated her from the more brash side of the cultural ambiance of many youth in America. A really inspired dancer, with brother Aditya equally excelling in vocal Carnatic music, Mythili in the intense spirituality of her Bharatanatyam, seemed the perfect choice for the Divinity Series.

Asserting that divinity is what Indian classical dance aims at, Mythili, in a chat prior to the recital explained, “My performance is very much in the margam vein, starting with a prayer to the Sun God where I treat Surya as the Sun within us which we have to realise, for that is the essence of all creativity and effulgence in the universe.” Her main piece, designed like a varnam, “Vadane navaneeta gandavaham...” from the Krishna Karnamritam of Leela Shuka, after a rapturous description of the Lord goes on to his flute music played under the kadamba tree (Kadamba muley..) — it is music all pervasive, which unites man and all creatures of the universe drawn to its divine call and melody. The varnam was musically set in several ragas, Natakuranji, Reetigowla, Kedaragowla and Mohanam. The ashtapadi “Radhika tava virahe” was also part of the package.

Asked if she believes the contemporary youth are attracted to the theme of divinity, given the crass nature of what is happening in the world all round, where all ethics and the mood of concern for a higher consciousness seem absent, Mythili said, “All the more reason for arts like Bharatanatyam to concentrate on that search for the Sun within us. That love, bliss, magnetism of a state beyond mundane living is so necessary today. Human longing for that higher state of being expresses itself through mythical themes. And yes, contrary to what is normally expressed, I do believe that young people do respond to that quality of transcendence in the dance. In the Hollywood amphitheatre with a huge audience, I just performed in a work of collaboration with a large number of musicians, presenting ‘Mara’ from the Buddhist folklore. We treated it as a journey of the mind, mirroring in its aspirations the personal journey of every human being. And what a response we got!” Which is why she designed her programme to conclude with that line of prayer composed by late Ravi Shankar (with whom her family has spent many memorable hours), “He Nath Hampar kripa keejiye”, asking for that drishti which we all need so much. Mythili pointed out, “What divinity aspires to is not religion, but spirituality, without which we are nowhere.”