If Leela Samson was sober and sedate, the Nrityagram group was spectacular but understated.

For her Bharatanatyam performance at the Music Academy Dance Festival, Leela Samson chose as centrepiece the vintage Husseini swarajati, "E Mayaladi" in Rupakam, a dance composition of Rukmini Devi Arundale. With fine singing by Hariprasad, it was a fitting tribute to the Academy's tradition of excellence and honouring heritage. The tempo was kept sedate, as the swarajati characteristically contains both fast and slow passages, and if the kalapramanam is not maintained accurately, the fast bits can run away on their own. The short, fleeting teermanams from the old tradition, with adavu combinations that are deceptively simple but require great stamina, and the dancer's impeccable lines, whether in nritta or nritya, combined to make a powerful statement. An invocation to Siva and Muthuswami Dikshitar's "Ardhanarishwaram aradhayami" in raga Kumudakriya preceded the main piece. The sobriety of the composition set the tone of the evening. The dancer's expressional intensity increased with the padam "Netru varen endru" in raga Pantuvarali, in which the disappointed nayika confides in her sakhi that though her beloved promised to come, he has not turned up at all. Things livened up with the javali "Mayaladi" in Thodi, in which the heroine is convinced `the other woman' has used black magic to lure her lover away. Informal mannerisms seem to have become a norm, in presenting a javali, to the point of reducing every nayika to an adhama character. But Leela's presentation was dignified, her eyes full of fire. After the tillana in Revati, tala Mishra Chapu, the sloka "Purnamada purnamidam" brought the performance to a fitting close. The pristine absence of the spoken word too was a statement, as the dancer did not interrupt the musical flow even to announce the pieces she intended to perform. This was, however, either taking simplicity to extremes, or expecting a uniformly high standard of acquaintance with the presentations, their music and language, since the plan provided in the programme notes was deviated from. The disciplined orchestra included, besides Hariprasad, Sheejith Krishna on the nattuvangam, Ramesh Babu on the mridangam, Deepu Nair on the violin and Shashidhar on the flute.The Nrityagram troupe that performed second brought the house down with its lively choreography, thorough professionalism and high standards of nritta. Exuding joy, the dancers exuberantly performed leaps and high kicks, never losing the essential classical base. The choreography by Nrityagram's senior dancer Surupa Sen, who did not accompany the troupe, made use of staggered entries and combinations of twos and threes, as well as unexpected exits and returns to keep the pace from flagging. Yet nowhere was there a sense of putting on a show. It was spectacular, yet understated; excellent technique without the self-indulgent simper of a virtuoso display.

Dramatic friezes

After "Sankirtanam" with its quick tempo and rousing bol accompaniment, the group went on to "Aakriti," a celebration of the ornamental technique of Odissi. "Sri Devi," dedicated to the Mother Goddess, weaving together slokas and bols, nritta and abhinaya, contained some dramatic friezes. It ended on a quietly moving note with a single dancer returning to the centre with flowers in the traditional anjali. Bijoyini Satpathy later performed the most intense rendition of the Ashtapadi "Sakhi he, Keshi madanamudaram" one has ever had the privilege of seeing. The solo piece, also choreographed by Surupa, was imbued with languor. Radha's intense longing for Krishna was evident in every movement. Not a hint of the physical implications of the lyrics was lost, yet it was never anything less than delicate. The verse "Prathama samagama," which dancers portray with varying degrees of subtlety and crudeness, was a case in point. While Bijoyini deserves credit for her telling abhinaya and sthayi bhava, her teamwork with Surupa is well known, and the way these two disciples of the late Pratima Gauri, along with Nrityagram director Lynn Fernandes, have taken forward the work of their guru after her sudden death, deserves all admiration.The other dancers, also excellently trained, were Pavithra Reddy, Ayona Bhaduri, Rashmi Raj and Manasi Tripathi. That the musicians were in absolute sync with the dancers was obvious from not only their enthusiastic smiles, especially mardala player Budhanath Swain who also recited the bols, but their complete attention to the dance. The other musicians were Shivshankar Satpathy on the second mardala and manjira, Rajendra Kumar Swain, whose emotive singing was an asset, Parashuram Das on the flute and Nirmal Nayak on the violin. The lighting, which added another visual dimension to the show, was designed and executed by Lynn Fernandes. The troupe deservedly received a standing ovation.