Soulful music was an apt foil for Bala Devi Chandrasekhar’s nrittam.
The poignant story of the lowly leather tanner Nandanar whose devotion was so great that the Lord Himself allowed him darshan is well known. Gopala Krishna Bharathi has set this story in a compilation using various styles of music that include darus, irusol-alankarams, themmangu, kummi, etc.
Bharati’s version of the Nandanar Charithram was presented as Geetha Nrithyam by a highly competent group of musicians, spearheaded by S. Sowmya in the company of Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna, and Bharatanatyam dancer Bala Devi Chandrasekhar. The programme took place at Sivagami Petachi Auditorium for Brahma Gana Sabha.
Conceptually, the story was depicted partly through music alone and partly through music and dance. The songs from the compilation were presented in quick succession and the narrated script took us through the story in alternating Tamizh and English sentences.
Starting with Nandanar selling his wares (“Varirukkudu tholirukkudu”), all the while dreaming of going to the temples of Tiruppungur and Chidambaram to see the Siva he worshipped, songs such as ‘Sivaloka Nadanai kandu,’ ‘Sedhi solla vandhom, ’Ayye mettha kadinam,’ etc. traced the path of Nandanar as he sought salvation through devotion.
After entreating his sceptical fellowmen to stop seeking material pleasures, (‘alpa sugathai ninaindom’) Nandanar asks them to join him in a pilgrimage to the Siva temple. Several obstacles come his way, but through a series of divine interventions, Nandanar makes the trip to Chidambaram where he is said to have merged with the Lord.
Bala Devi used the stage effectively in the abhinaya for the song ‘Vazhi maraithirukkude,’ moving from one end to the other in the attempt to look past the Nandi that stood in the line of vision between Nandanar and the deity. The popular song ‘Varugalamo aiyye’ which has been used extensively as a padam in Bharathanatyam margams, was also sung soulfully by Sowmya to abhinayam by Bala Devi.
Other songs like ‘Kaanaamal Irukkalagaadu’ and ‘Tillai veliyile’ were interpreted through geetham alone by Sowmya and Balamuralikrishna. Sparkling jathi theermanams were incorporated effectively into the dance items. As an exponent of Padma Subramaniam’s style of Bharathanatyam, Bala Devi Chandrashekar’s choreography also included the swaying movements that are unique to Padma’s school. In some of the sarva lagu sequences (the standard 4-beat cycle), the dancer’s feet went off beat.
‘Nandanar Charitram’ as penned by Gopala Krishna Bharathi comprises a large number of verses and songs and having to present all of them in a short programme necessarily curtails the time and attention that can be allowed for each of them. In addition, the rich content of the text and lyrics, where each song takes the story forward, calls for a far more in-depth treatment and emotive elaboration to effectively bring out the desperation of Nandanar to reach the ‘sannidhi’ of his deity, or the agony he undergoes when his landlord sets impossible targets for him to fulfil before being permitted to leave for Chidambaram, or even the miracle of his soul uniting with the Lord.
However, Geetham and Nrithyam followed the story faithfully and the elaborate ensemble of musicians who ably supported the dancer and singers had Neyveli Narayanan on the mridangam, Thyagarajan Ramani on the flute, Seetharama Sarma on the violin and T.R. Sambasivam on the veena.