At the Vasant Utsav Dance Festival, it was a pleasant surprise to watch Bengal-born Prabal Gupta hold his own.

The 11th ‘Vasant Utsav Dance Festival’ was presented at the Kapaleeshwara temple by Saraswathi Educational, Cultural and Charitable Trust, Chennai, with eminent former bureaucrat, Dr. C.K. Gariyali, at the helm.

Besides many dancers, Bangalore-based Kathakali performer Prabal Gupta braved the Chennai summer to perform here at the 11-day event. His performance raised many questions: How come a Bengali took to Kathakali? How did a dance-drama tradition turn solo? How did the ‘stree vesham’ – female impersonation- take centre stage when the ‘minukku’ characters are supporting characters in most situations?

To answer the first question, Prabal says that thanks to poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s cultural inclusiveness, artists from all over the country were invited to Santiniketan including actor- Kathakali dancer Guru Gopinath and Kathakali artist Kelu Nayar from Vallathol’s Kerala Kalamandalam. Kathakali took root in alien soil in the 1930s, and grew to have a strong presence in West Bengal. Prabal was fascinated with this art form from his childhood and studied under the illustrious Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty, a favourite in Tagore dramas, who later founded Calcutta Kalamandalam.

Moving South, Prabal continued his training with a seven-year gurukulavasam with Guru Fact Padmanabhan. The dancer is currently working with the Keezhpadam school of Kathakali expert, Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan.

Prabal is in the process of maturing. He has a fair amount of technical virtuosity that includes foot work, arm movements and movements of the facial muscles. Though he does not carry the expertise, the stiffness and experience of seasoned ensemble artists, his sense of timing and dramatisation is impressive. He was able to hold his own during the performance.

He commenced with a predominantly nritta-based (kalasams) Todayam, composed in four talas by the raja of Kottayam, 250 years ago. This was another departure from the norm, as the piece is usually performed behind the curtain or ‘tiraiseela’ before the performance. Vaitharis (Guru Balakrishnan) and alapana-style stretched notes sung by Rajesh Menon and Sadanam Radhakrishnan, marked the 22-minute benediction.

Prabal presented ‘Stree Vesham’ with well-known padams from ‘Dakshayaagam.’ He presented Parvathi in varying moods - first as a loving wife who expresses her desire to visit Daksha’s yaaga despite not being invited in ‘Lokadhipakanta’ (Yadukulakamboji, Chempata), followed by an angry and insulted Parvathi, who orders Siva to make haste in killing her father Daksha in ‘Thingal moulae’ (Mukhari, Chempata). Prabal was restrained in abhinaya and peaked well in the second, but as a soloist, he lost out on Siva’s reactions completing the picture.

The Chitta padam - finale, ‘Nallar kulam aniyum’ from ‘Kirmira Vadham’ of Kottayam Thampuran was Prabal’s best. The segment from the Mahabharatha describes how the demoness Simhika avenges her husband Sardula's death by winning over and abducting an unsuspecting Draupadi. In the guise of a beautiful woman Lalitha, the demoness speaks sweetly to Draupadi and lures her into the forest. Suddenly there is a flash of the vengeful demoness on Lalitha's hitherto adoring face. Words such as ‘Kandaal ati modam,’ when Draupadi is filled with the pleasures of the forest, changes to ‘Kandaal ati ghoram’ (she sees everything as fearful) capturing Draupadi's change of heart. Prabal’s give-away looks in the forest were restrained and well-timed. The end was excitingly loud and dramatic with Simhika’s open hair and her anger in full flow. The piece had a well-rounded finish, the poetic similes and the beautiful music (Kalamandalam Mohan Krishnan Poduval) creating beautiful moments.

All choreographies were Guru Balakrishnan’s, except for the finale that was choreographed by Guru Padmanabhan and modified by Guru Balakrishnan.

Will the attempt to de-construct a traditional dance-theatre experience into a repertoire of assorted, stand-alone ‘pieces’ sustain? Only time can tell.