Focus on rural art
The spotlight at this year's Natya Kala Conference was on folk forms.
Photos: V. Ramamurthi and Shivaji Rao.
COLOURFUL VIGNETTES: Bhakta Prahlada explains a point.
Observing its silver jubilee year, the Natya Kala Conference, under Convenors Narasimhachari and Vasantalakshmi, in a landmark gesture of aesthetic discernment, veered away from its elitist classical dance emphasis, devoting half its proceedings to what are ubiquitously, in imitation of western terminology, known as folk forms. What scholar/administrator Pappu Venugopal Rao underlined in his keynote address about the Desi/Margam categorisation being more applicable to the Indian situation where the regional and the stylised/textual traditions are by no means mutually exclusive, was proved to the hilt in the Karnataka Yakshagana presentation ``Gadaa Yudha."
Shambhu Hegde's potent blend of total theatre comprising dialogue of improvised silver-tongued eloquence, histrionic prowess and dance expertise made the studied elegance of classical dance look vapid. From the invocation to the Oddologa wherein the Pandava princes make their vibrant entry to the most variedly paced nritta and rhythmic gaits, to the finale when the lone Kurukshetra Kaurava survivor Duryodhana is lured out of his watery hideout in the Dwaipayana Sarovar to be eventually killed by Bhima, the Yakshagana presentation kept the audience mesmerised. After Sivaram Karanth's lifetime devotion to giving coastal Karnataka's regional rural theatre Bayalaatta (later christened Yakshagana) a new lease of life, it is Shambhu Hegde whose sheer genius has given this 14 th/15th century tradition, sophisticated artistry. The manner in which fevered tension is created on an empty stage, in the search for Duryodhana through gait, attitude and exquisite mimetic enactment, aided by the sympathetic Chenda/mridanga percussion, is purely the theatre of imagination. Sivananda Hegde, son and disciple of Shambhu Hegde made a fine Bhima. But nothing could match up to Shambhu Hegde's Duryodhana, his elaborations enacted round the line ``Kapata Nataka Ranga" (taunting Krishna as the master of intrigue) holding the audience spellbound. The two stree patras in invocation were delightfully graceful. The distinctive high pitched dramatic singing of Bhagavata Nebburu Narayana and the striking aharya with ornaments like Edekattu and Mundas (hairdo with special ribbon criss-crossed halo-like gear) heightened the theatrical impact. The next morning's accent on folk forms of Tamil Nadu started with a rousing audience welcome in the courtyard with ebullient Peacock, Nandi and Poikkal Kudirai dancers. The acrobatic feats of the Karagam dancers balancing pots on their head symbolising embodiments of Mariamman or Shakti thrilled.
V. R. Devika, who conducted the proceedings, mentioned how the infinite variety of steps in Tevarattam by the Kambala Nayakars a dance dedicated to Shakti Jakhamma and rendered to the rhythm set by the Devadundhbi percussion had through her recommendation, become an ideal physical regimen for youngsters in many schools.
The best part of the morning was the Kattaikkoottu (or Therukoothu?) excerpts presented by children trained in the Gurukulam near Kanchipuram run by veteran actor Rajagopal. Unspoken apprehensions about Kuchipudi's Kalapam and Yakshagana being too predictable were proved wrong, after the riveting Yakshagana and Terukootu/Devarattam. Anuradha Jonnelgedda's meticulously organised paper, in the performance elaboration, was led by guru Vedantam Radhesham, whose explosive mix of nattuvangam, singing and acting constitutes a one-man repertory volatile and impossible to contain within specified time limits. An operatic form built round one main character, the Golla Kalapam as an exchange between a milkmaid and a Brahmin deals with metaphysical concerns of the Atma, Manasika Yagna, Pindottpatti Karma all of which make for a unique dance-dialogue interaction. This verbal duel with the milkmaid questioning the Brahmin's exalted status sends strong messages on caste inequality, gender discrimination and so onAgainst Radhesham's spirited conducting, both Mrityunjaya Sarma as the Brahmin and Siddhendra Varaprasad in the stree role as the Golla gave a fine performance. The Yakshagana dance drama format, in the Pravesa Daruvu from Usha Parinayam, was enacted with panache by VedantamVenkatachalapathy, the actor in male attire highlighting the subtle grace and movement needed for a female character. By tagging on the "Yaduvamsha Sudhambudi Chandra" sringar delight of the Gopi inviting the Lord to her side, the rendition brought out the open-ended nature of presentations.
The crowning event was the Hiranyakashipu/Lilavati/Prahalada samvaad from Bhakta Prahalada, with Vedantam Venkatachalapathy as Hiranyakashipu reaching new heights in his portrayal of the conflict between fatherly love, and rage at Prahalada's steadfast refusal to accept him as god. While the actor is living up to the reputation of his father Rattiah Sarma, the entrance, get-up and enactment of Narasimha proved to be a damp squib.
With Guru Achintya Kumar Behera leading the performance, assisted by disciple Sridhar Mahanta and Bharat Kumar Senapati, the Mayurbhanj Chhau session organised and conducted by Dr. Sunil Kothari provided yet another example from the hugely varied canvas of regional body languages of India. Inspired by the regimen of the militia-like Parikhanda exercises, Mayurbhanj Chhau, as distinct from Seraikela Chhau and Purulia Chhau both of which use masks, is a porous absorption of myriad cross-cultural influences giving it an unflappable physicality of its own. Since Chhau sprang from the art of "Yuddhare Atarteet Akraman" (stealthy attack in battle), with the hands wielding arms, the legs in widespread aerial sweeps initiated movements imitative of rural women's domestic activities (in an all-male tradition till recently). Movements emulating the mixing of cowdung (gobargola), sweeping the floor (kharka), cleaning the toe-ring (Jhitia-maja), face-wiping (Mo-pocha), parting hair (sintipada), shaking of water from washed hair (Mathahada) all rendered through leg sweeps were demonstrated. Movements imitative of animals like the crane (Bogga-topka), crane looking for fish (Bogga-Macha-Khoja), tiger drinking water (Bagha-Pani-Pia) were all shown. Dr. Kothari mentioned how Padma Subrahmanyam had compared Karanas like Bhujangatrasita, Sarpita, etc., which in the Natya Shastra are movements evoking serpent-related imagery, with Chhau Uflis (leg movements) in which movements are inspired by the imagery, Chhau being a predominantly kinetic form where hand gestures and facial abhinaya play little role. . Starting with a Sangeet Natak Akademi film compiled by late Jivan Pani visualising the traditional Chhau during Chaitra Parva with feats such as rolling on live coals, and hanging the body by legs over raging flames to the inward alertness and silence of Achhintya Behera's Nataraj demonstration portraying Siva in different moods, was the evolution of a tradition. From there on to a contemporary Chhau dance drama was to know how strong in adaptability to various contexts these forms are.
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