NISHAGANDHI FESTIVAL Music and dance found a worthwhile platform in Kerala. LEELA VENKATARAMAN
Named after a flower of the fertile region, Kerala’s premier dance-music festival Nishagandhi’s incipient start in Kovalam over 20 years ago was as a winter evening event. Later transferred to Thiruvananthapuram, it was a music-dance festival before it became just the Nishagandhi Festival, with a melodic signature song composed by Gyanpith awardee O.N.V. Kurup with score by Itti Mathew. The festival — after years of localised fame despite featuring artistes of all-India stature — is set to acquire pan-Indian presence with the concluding event of the week-long celebration conferring a National award (instituted by the Kerala Government for dance and music every alternate year) carrying a generous endowment — this first year’s dance award being unanimously decided by the selection committee, in favour of doyenne Mrinalini Sarabhai. Given her stature plus the fact that this daughter of Kerala migrated to her new home in Ahmedabad after marrying scientist/educationist Vikram Sarabhai, the award could hardly have found a more fitting recipient.
Drums greet the festival visitor at Thiruvananthapuram’s open air Nishagandhi auditorium. Entering, the overwhelmingly decorated performance space assails you, its backdrop of a massive logo with a photograph of three Kathakali ‘pacha’ characters, flanked by large dance paintings with installations of ornate palace insides and doorways topped by tiled slanting rooftops, the entire canvas interspersed with white boards on which spaced evenly are Kerala’s typical, lighted earthern lamps. Making one wonder about the solo dancer striving for attention in this over-embroidered ambience.
A worthy feature comprised the young, promising Mohiniattam talents each evening. If Sreedevi’s succinct Ramayana dance narrative, with the springboard of clearly enunciated singing of Swati Tirunal’s Ragamalika “Bhavayami Raghuramam,” was movement and expression-wise lively, Saranya Sasidharan’s stage presence with internalised abhinaya, caught the seductive ebullience of courtesan Vasavadatta’s entry. Meera Sreenarayanan’s ‘Suryakaanthi’ interpreting Malayalam poet G. Sankarakuruppa’s romantic poem of the Sun and his fiancée the Sunflower, sensitively caught suppressed emotions of each till the idyllic joy of declared love gets crushed with a hurricane. Bijesh Krishna’s score competently sung, had dance visualisation by Kalamandalam Akshara Bijesh’s. Too late to catch Aswini C.P.’s Mohiniattam, one wondered how the penultimate evening’s experienced Bharatanatyam performer Kalakshetra Parvati Shyam, impressive in the “Kaikoppu tozhum ayyane” homage to Hanuman, was slotted with “upcoming talents.’
Among senior dancers, Smita Rajan who pinned her suite of Parvati Parinayam, Yashodhara and Rani Lakshmi Bai on woman power (stree shakti), was let down by poor group discipline — each dancer performing her own way. Also, visualising the Lakshmi Bai theme in solo word/gesture abhinaya was simplistic, requiring more coordinated foundational research into music, libretto and dance. With the vocalist, veena, mridangam and flute performing each to his own sruti, Neelambari, Hindolam, Arabhi, Todi, Kambodi among others went haywire, sounding ill rehearsed, sans sruti alignment.
If the slight, slim figure of Amrita Lahiri presenting Kuchipudi managed to hold audience attention in this crowded setting, it derived from proficient dancing and excellently balanced wing support with Guru Mosalikanti conducting in musical and clear-toned nattuvangam and Srikant’s mellifluous singing with mridangam (Ramakrishna Babu) and flute (Muttu Kumar) in harmony. The experimental Tarangam interwoven into Balamurali’s varnam composition ‘Amma Anandadayini” in Gambira nattai, was a winner, with grace-abounding postures and rhythmic interludes with electric pauses and changing accents making for a riveting fare. Amrita’s stage spacings, alternately balanced on the rim of the brass plate and off it on the plain floor, were smooth.
Sharmila Biswas’s resourcefulness used lighting to accentuate visually the burning lamps, darkening the other backdrop effects to recede to a non-intrusive presence, creating a plainer canvas for her now fast-evolving Chaturmukhi production. After invoking the spirit of Samaleswari in ‘Devi Bharani’, movement flowered in ‘Trikayi’ based on a Misra Khamaj musical format, dance, music and rhythm slowly finding synchronicity. Then came ‘Lila’ based on Gaudiya Vaishnav philosophy where Radha, coaxed by the sakhi, joins Krishna – the union symbolising a Prakrti/Purush togetherness, with the finale Moksha . Unconventional placing of mardal (Bijay Kumar Barikh who set the rhythm compositions) and singers, with dancers intimately interacting with them on stage, is evolving into a distinct form, the production inspired by old chants, worship ritual, Prahlad Natak, Ghanta mardala and other Odishan traditions.
Urmila Satyanarayana’s Bharatanatyam, followed the Karaharapriya varnam “Mohamaginen inda velaiyil”, with an interpretative item based on Poondanam’s Gyaanapaana, the attempt warmly received by the Malayalam speaking audience. After a biting khandita nayika in the Purvikalyani Javali “Nee maatalemaayunura” with the heroine sending the lover on his way, having had enough of his fulsome promises which are like words written on water, Urmila’s Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer Tillana in Gambhiranattai weaving a picture of Krishna overcoming serpent Kalinga, for this critic, required more verve.
Aloka Kanungo’s conventional Odissi with a supportive musical tem, after the invocation “Krishnama tubhyam Namah”, rendered Kamodi Pallavi, choreographed to Ramaharidas’ score. The winsome abhinaya started with Banamali’s “Tolagi Gopa Danda Manare Kaliya” (Shankarabharanam), followed by the Ashtapadi “Keshi mathanam udaram”, Radha reminiscing on the first intimate moments with Krishna. Madhurashtakam made a lyrical conclusion.
If Amusana Devi of Jawaharlal Manipuri Academy and her group thrilled with Manipuri lasya in Dashavatar and the Ashtapadi “Haririha Mugdhavadhoonikare”, the skilful Dhol Cholam combining showmanship was thrilling. An abbreviated Pung Cholam and Thang–Tha sword swivels, and poetic lyricism of Jagoi from Lai Haraoba, with light-footed dignified male dancers perfectly synchronised with female partners, earned high applause, ending with a condensed Vasant Ras.
The curtain raiser for the music segment featuring innovative duets and Carnatic/ Hindustani fusions was the percussion ensemble ‘Heartbeat’ led by Ghatam S. Karthick. From the rhythmic bite of ‘Pulse’ set to Ratipratipriya in Adi talam to “Dandamupettamuraa” in Balahamsa to Ecstasy in Sallapam or Surya with its pentatonic scale, here was a charged performance, the textures of rhythm and crisp mnemonics of the drums, tabla, ghatam and mridangam keeping the audience highly regaled.
The Carnatic/Hindustani ensemble led by Pandit Ramesh Narayan was like a musical who’s who put together. Taking the floor after sound balancing (still not perfect) at 9 P.M. , one left after Madhuvanti raga, based on Shankaracharya’s text “Ajam nirvikalpam….” with both the Carnatic and Hindustani genres inspiringly rendered, with fine sitar ( Pandit Ravichary), tabla (Shubh Maharaj) violin (A.L. Manjula Rajesh) and mridangam (Dr.Yella. Venkateshwara rao) interventions.
Rakesh Chaurasia’s soulful Yaman in Teen tala contrasting staccato notes breathed into the flute with the meditative silence of elongated notes, with Ustad Fazal Qureshi’s tabla in complete synch, provided the curtain raiser for the K. Krishna Kumar and Binni concert. Binny’s swara improvisations in Pantuvarali/Kamavardhini fully revealed her Balamurali training. Krishna Kumar sang his own composition in Valachi/Kalavati, “Tirumalar idazhpol viriyum Nishagandhi”, after which came Deepak Dev’s inspiring composition in Karaharapriya/Kafi . The versatile tabla, mridangam (Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan) tones and drums brilliance (Sasi Malamari) in the tani avartanam held audience spellbound.