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In step with a movement

LEELA VENKATARAMAN
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DANCE “Talking to God in the Mother Tongue”, held in New Delhi recently, beautifully brought female Bhakti poetry in defiant search for divinity. LEELA VENKATARAMAN

Parvati Baul.
Parvati Baul.

That the Bhakti movement in India which came in waves inspired some of the best poetry and music by women bhaktas is known. But few realise that the movement was more than religious and had far reaching social implications standing for women’s liberty and freedom. Fewer still understand how much of the work of these women became a crucial component in enriching and helping language flexibility in the many vernaculars in which their poetry was composed. Whether a Meera Bai, Lal Ded, Janabai, Andal or Akka Mahadevi, these women who lived life on their own terms were unafraid opting out of domesticity and marriage in many cases, defying existing social taboos and restrictions of caste and religion, living with the common man and composing in a personal style, different from established literary traditions. “Talking to God in the Mother Tongue”, organised by Manushi, in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Research (ICCR) and Delhi International Arts Festival (DIAF), despite some lack of coordination among the various organisations creating confusion about festival timings at Azad Bhavan , what one could manage to take in amidst a Capital gone mad with festivals, was very enriching.

Parvati Baul rendering compositions of Baul gurus, Radha Adishakti, Jadubindu and her own compositions, made for a memorable curtain raiser for the festival, though she went far beyond the allotted time slot.

What a sensitive Kathak dancer Rani Khanam is! With the warm tones of sarod accompaniment and Shoheb’s vocal support, her interpretation of Lal Ded (claimed as a Sufi by Muslims and as a Shiva bhakta by the Hindus) had that combined imagery of this 14th Century Kashmiri woman whose philosophy about relationship with the body was influenced by Hathayoga, Shankaracharya, Buddhism and much else. Like a boat which needs steering by God (Rani used the image of Krishna as charioteer for Arjun at Kurukshetra in her interpretation.) the poetry wonders how the body striving for liberation can be contained like a fish in a pot of water. In the next Meera bhajan, “Maro Pranam”, the dancer selectively rendered immaculate Kathak nritta as homage to the Lord.

Only LakshmiViswanathan’s known penchant for abhinaya could have tackled Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s description of the awesome dancing Shiva at Alankadu. This was a softer, benign version of this poet’s customary mad love for the blue-throated Shiva dancing in ecstasy, replete with fearsome images identifying with the ghouls in the crematorium the Lord dances in. In a different tone was the Andal poetry where the bird as messenger is cajoled and entreated by Andal to approach her beloved Vishnu. Whether catching a fleeting glimpse of Rama’s arrow destroying the ten-headed Ravana, or communicating the love play of chirping birds through nimble fingers, the dancer’s lucid expressional skills were evident. Lakshmi’s concluding item based on Muddupazhani’s composition Radhika Santvanam, the exotic sensuality of the verses having a precursor only in Jayadeva’s “Gita Govinda” perhaps, has Nature in her fulsome manifestation increasing the desire for Radha in Krishna, who tells Manmatha not to waste his flowered darts for he is already deeply in love with Radha. Clarity of abhinaya was enhanced by experienced vocal accompaniment, which kept pace with the dancer and her interpretative capabilities.

Jheelum Paranjpai’s Odissi interpretations of abhangs of Janabai, despite the take-off advantage of music composed by the likes of Kishori Amonkar and sung by Urmila Kulkarni to give the regional flavour, went too much by the conventional repertoire of Odissi, treating the first composition calling out to Panduranga Vithala as Mangalacharan Stuti. The second song describing Vithala lightening all her household chores making work a bliss and the finale where as abhisarika nayika she boldly sets out to meet the beloved Lord “Jani Jaaya Paani Aaji, Maghe dhare RishiKeshi” with the Gajendramoksha, Drapadi vastrapaharana and Kaliyadamana references, became too much like the Odiya Janana, the sringar becoming only bhakti.

Dancing to Andal Nachiyar poetry, Revathi Ramachandran did a competent job, though as textual base, this poetry for Bharatanatyam interpretation did not pose challenges of an original nature. Starting with a crisp Nachiyar Kavutvam, the Turppavai Parabhakti verses with the flutter created in Kamsa who finds that the child born to Devaki in captivity is going to be his undoing, to Kuyil Pattu ending in phalasruti was a neat programme. The conducting student as vocalist showed great promise and with a string of ragas like Suratti, Hamsanandi, Begade, Arabhi, Todi, Mohanam and Revati, with neat teermanams linking up the interpretative passages, Revati’s was a well conceived, neat recital.

Saswati Sen’s Kathak began with a Meera Bhajan, “Mein to savar ke ranga rachi”, after which the dancer in the drut passages went on to verses of Brahmo Samaj women poets like Kamini Sen Roy’s “Tumaro Bashite Bhalo Tumi…” and Hemalatha Devi’s lyric “Keshe Param Sunder” topping it all with a Baul song — all of which in their philosophical underpinnings and lack of imagery provide ideal base for using abstract Kathak nritta elements. With Anirban Bhattacharya for vocal support and Utpal Ghoshal on tabla, Saswati had Chandrachud Bhattacharya (sitar) and Anil Kumar Misra (Sarangi) as the other accompanists.

A very melodious session was M.S. Susheela’s singing of Akka Mahadevi’s Vakh like “Akka kelava naan onda kanasu kanden” in raga Durga and “Chenna-mallikaarjuna” in Desh.

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