It was a double bill that Kalamandir Trust offered as homage to patron S. Viswanathan.

Over the years, Kalamandir Trust's annual show of the performing arts, paying homage to industrialist and arts patron S. Viswanathan, has established a reputation for sincerity.

This year, at Naradagana Sabha, it offered a double bill. "Shanmukha" by Sikkil Gurucharan featured Tamil songs on the "Tamil" God, followed by C.V. Chandrasekhar's dance drama "Aparajita - the Unvanquished," celebrating the feats of the Mother Goddess.

Gurucharan focused on variety in ragas, alternating vivadi with rakti, and an empathetic rendering of the lyrics, rather than technique and fireworks, to create a sense of fullness within an hour and 15 minutes.

Madhyamavati ('Sharavanabhavaguhane') was the centre piece, where the young singer showed his respect for tradition in alapana and kriti rendition. The tukkada 'Poonguyil Koovum,' came off with the ease of a favourite signature tune. B.U. Ganeshprasad's violin was melodious as always, while K.V. Prasad (mridangam) and B.S. Purushotthaman (ganjira) answered the needs of the occasion, with a thani whose brevity was no bar to excellence.

Premiered in Baroda (1988) 'Aparajita' is not new to Chennai. Drawing his material from Devi Mahatmyam in Markanda Purana, Guru Chandrasekhar focuses on the raudra (fury) and vira (valour) of the mother goddess in a series of episodes without narrative connectivity.

Abstract theme

The theme of tantric abstractions is not particularly conducive to lengthy exposition. There is no story here, nor do the episodes accommodate the tender emotions of sringara (love) or karuna (compassion). Even the bhakti in 'Aparajita' is not so much about being moved by the Devi's compassion, as being awed by her might.

There is little scope in this monochromatic picture for layered abhinaya with crisscrossing sanchari bhava. No characterisation either, as everything remains black and white {ndash} the gods are goodness incarnate, while the demons epitomise evil, without those intriguing shades drawn by master poets in a Ravana or a Duryodhana. The action too consists of cyclical rounds of war and destruction.

So how does a seasoned choreographer deal with these challenges? He begins with an applause triggering opening visual of many dancers imaging a singular multi-armed Devi. The bhakta (Saikripa Prasanna), playing a continual choric role, describes her as destroyer supreme. But 'Aparajita' takes care to establish the feminine deity's contrastive grace and beauty at the start. In a lilting lasya interlude, Yoganidra (Varsha Akhori), with a veil misting her face, departs from Vishnu's eyes, in order to awaken him from mystic slumber and destroy the twin ogres.

The rajasic exploits of the Devi were accomplished by Manjari with impeccable footwork, seasoned flair and controlled ease. These great deeds were launched with the arming of the warrior - a sacred ritual in epics the world over - as divinities arrived one after another, offering their own sula, chakra, vajra or sword to the goddess. Sound effects turned the conch and the bell into invocations of cosmic power.

The myth of Raktabeeja has amazing relevance to the contemporary world. Every drop of his spilt blood sprouts into a new demon. Unable to combat this horror despite her multiple forms, the Devi asks Kali (Vijayalakshmi) to drink his blood as it gushes forth. From patra pravesam to the final kill, black robed Kali spewed a credible, bloodthirsty belligerence, balancing the righteous wrath of the Devi.

With so many battles, the engagement with a tired Mahishasura became action replay, but the circular movements of the seven Matrikas, transferring their powers to the Devi, evolved into an evocative prelude to the annihilation of Nishumba.

'Aparajita' marches to an unrelenting pace from start to finish. The nritta formations demand anga suddha in high speeds, accurate group formations, and sustained energy in repetitive movements. Not easy in a production which affords few restful breaks. Again, the talams themselves are straightforward, but the kanakkus and nadais are not. They are composed to shape the content, not merely underline the action.

The music composed by C.V. Chandrasekhar proved an asset. K. Hariprasad sang the verses with the verve demanded by the theme, but without missing out on ragabhava or punch in the swara cascades. Adyar Balu (mridangam), B. Muthu Kumar (flute), Deepu Nair (violin) and Hari Babu (sound effects) never relaxed their heightened alertness. The jatis stole the show, ringing with the angry laughter of the Devi, or the clash of weaponry.