Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Navtej Johar, who had once turned away from performing on Lord Ram, has brought the Ramayana back into his repertoire with a unique production
A moment of madness can change one's entire life, and when the madness transmits itself to thousands of others, it can change the course of history. The moment has countless reverberations and repercussions big and small. When a mob brought down the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, it did more than demolish a centuries-old structure, more than rend a country's social fabric that was already in danger of wearing through. It caused different kinds of wounds in hearts across the world that manifested themselves in varied ways. For Bharatanatyam and Contemporary dancer and yoga practitioner Navtej Johar, it resulted in his turning away from performing dance pieces on the theme of Lord Ram.
Navtej, an alumnus of Kalakshetra, Chennai, had been “completely inspired” by Guru A. Janardhanan, a Bharatanatyam and Kathakali maestro whom generations of students had watched as he played the title role in Kalakshetra's famed Ramayana series of dance dramas. But, he says after the Ayodhya issue became a platform for Rightist elements, he felt “Ram was being usurped. He became the grand symbol for the Hindu Right wing.” It was late Anandi Ramachandran, another senior teacher at Kalakshetra when Navtej was a student, who pointed it out to him initially. “She was the one who first told me, ‘We can't do Ram any more',” recalls Navtej with a soft sadness. Guru Anandi, who had been associated with Kalakshetra founder Rukmini Devi Arundale since the institution's inception, was among the stalwarts, who helped instil into students the concept that art, devotion and life were three inseparable contexts. Yet she too shared the fear that dancing the age-old Bharatanatyam pieces that upheld Ram as the ‘Maryada Purushottam' — the ideal man — of the Hindu scriptures would be misconstrued a way of strengthening the hands of the Hindutva brigade.
Yet, this Saturday, as Navtej presents “Dravya Kaya” at the National School of Drama's Bharat Rang Mahotsav, his choreographic work with the Ramayana returns to centre-stage, and the personal hurt at the tragic politics surrounding Ram's birthplace and the site of the Babri Masjid has come back in a unique way. In “Dravya Kaya” (the title composed of the Sanskrit words for object and body), he uses four objects that are associated with Ram and his consort Sita: the bow, the bark garment worn by Sita when she accompanied Ram to the forest exile, the rice she offers as alms to Ravan when he comes disguised as a holy mendicant to kidnap her, and the rocks used by the vanara sena or monkey army to build the bridge that Ram used to cross to Lanka and rescue Sita. The work also contrasts the constructive face of devotion that can build a bridge out of pebbles with its blind opposite that destroys life.
The intention, says Navtej, was to use objects that don't have any significance at first glance. Since these objects, except perhaps Ram's bow which is constantly seen in imagery, are not loaded with the baggage of tradition, he was able to look at them and expand the theatrical dialogue. “I thought about it later. It's earth, bamboo, bark and rock,” he says.
Navtej dances in the production along with Sudeep Kumar, who trains under him in both Bharatanatyam and yoga. The musical and lyrical component has been provided by G. Elangovan, noted vocalist and nattuvanar.
“It is a very interesting concept,” says Elangovan. Navtej told me about it and I wrote the Tamil lyrics for the songs.” This past week the production went to Amritsar as part of Bharangam's side festival that takes place simultaneously in a second city every year. Well received in Amritsar, it was sung entirely by Elangovan with the accompaniment of only a tanpura and no other instrument — a sort of paring down to basics for which theatre is known but typical Bharatanatyam is not. Elangovan is quite proud of the effort, but as theatrical productions are rarely the same twice in a row, he and Navtej are considering adding a percussionist to the orchestra.
Speaking of Bharatanatyam as it is currently performed, Navtej heaves a deep sigh. He admits he doesn't feel like watching much of the fare on offer. “I love dance. I think it's God's gift to humanity,” he muses. “It's hard to put your finger on it. Some of the dancers are doing so well, they're brilliant, yet you come out cold. So there's a big…crisis of some sort.”
Perhaps that crisis will lead to creativity. Things have a cyclic way. Time for dancers to introspect perhaps. On things, on the body. Let's try dravya and kaya.