Veteran dancers and scholars deliberated on the art and its transformation, at Saila Sudha’s two-day seminar-cum-performance.

When an art form flows through the corridor of time, it confronts the eternal challenge of retaining the rich core of the past legacy while making it contemporarily relevant. Saila Sudha’s two-day seminar-cum-performance titled ‘Tradition, Transition and Transformation’ was built round this issue. Held for the second consecutive year at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, the event focussed on three dance forms — Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi.

Painstakingly organised, the common drawbacks were an over-packed schedule compounded by delayed starts every day waiting for the audience to gather. Inaugurated by M. Balamuralikrishna, who maintained that tradition without innovation had no meaning, the Minister for Education and Culture, Government of Kerala, M.A. Baby concluded that nothing flowing through time could remain constant, quoting a Greek philosopher about nobody being able to dip his finger in the same river water twice. V. Ramnarayan (editor Sruti) in his presidential address maintained that what made “some artists great… was that they transformed the art.”

Reinforce our legacy

Speaking of ‘Continuity and Change’ in tradition, Malavika Sarukkai quoted Ramanujam’s observation about “the past working through the present even as the present reworks the past.” Respect for inheritance, topped by aesthetics, energy, intellect and life force (prana) could revitalise and reinforce our legacy. She also referred to the mindfulness of the dancer in making the body which is “the site invested with heritage” into the apt vessel to contain this priceless treasure. Spirituality alone cannot lead the dancer to a higher level of consciousness. The demonstration excerpts were from oft seen compositions of Malavika’s such as ‘Sthithi Gati’ in Madhumati with flashes of contrasting energy in nritta through vigorous passages with sudden halts, ‘Savyo Bhujasthe’ with sringara/veera polarities in perception, evoked by a view of Vishnu’s mighty arm, and ‘Yudhishtira’s Dream’ and ‘Thimakka’ which express Malavika’s concern for ecology and man’s duty to live and let live. Apart from all the abstract aspects of the inner dancer, was the point of the dance being above the dancer – the opposite being true today.

The panel discussion, which should have preceded the dance, had this critic talking on the myriad streams of art influence, going into the making of Odissi in the 1950s. Time will decide, audience applause notwithstanding, whether contemporary innovations become agents of transformation or remain flashes in the pan.

Arithmetic of jatis

Kuchipudi veteran, nattuvangam expert and musician Bhagavatulu Seetarama Sharma’s lament was for the depths of tradition (particularly in understanding the arithmetic of jatis) not even touched today, thanks to the new found love for innovation. Aruna Bikshu of Hyderabad underlined how characterisation, the main pillar on which Kuchipudi Yakshagana rested, has disappeared in contemporary Kuchipudi, changing its very nature. Social causes for change had to be studied, and there could be no expertise in dance without knowing all humanities. Aruna’s overlong screening of video excerpts resulted in her addressing a near empty auditorium.

Priya Jayaram’s Kuchipudi interpretation of lyrics by Dr. Balamuralikrishna (‘Ganapathi invocation, ‘Omkara Karini’ in Lavangi, ‘Ganalola’ in Ragamalika) had a melodious singer in Sangeetha. While one has no quarrels with the manner of interpretation, the dancer’s body which is patently Bharatanatyam-trained, needed more of the ‘ubukku’ or springy effervescence and the soft torso of Kuchipudi.

The next dancer, the organiser herself Sailaja, on the other hand, betrayed her strong Kuchipudi background in the varnam tattumettu passages with an unconscious hip involvement instead of the austerity of the Bharatanatyam torso. But Sailaja’s rhythmic tautness in the jatis with Sreelata’s excellent nattuvangam, and involved abhinaya carried the Ragamalika varnam ‘Poottavale bhuvanam padinangaiyum’ with the dancer portraying episodes from the Parvati myth rather than the Abhirami story dilated upon in the compere’s introduction. Singer and music scorer Veeraraghavan made sahitya clear through ragas Dharmavati, Sama, Shanmukhapriya, Saveri, Nattakuranji, Mohanam and Sri (which sounded more like Madhyamavati), and avoided too many curves in the singing.

Touch of opulence

Can traditional dances become mainstream was one of the questions asked. And with a loud, populist approach encompassing flashy costumes, high drama in narration, music involving heavy instrumental padding of every type, Krishna Kumari Narendra’s opulent Bharatanatyam ballet ‘Siva Swaroopa Thandava Lahiri’ communicated to the lowest denominator in the large audience which left the auditorium exclaiming, “Excellent fare!”

Madhavi Mudgal’s lec-dem dealt with the Odissi margam as fashioned by her guru late Kelucharan Mohapatra. She briefly touched on the musical aspect of Odissi which apart from the structured traditional Champu, Janano legacy of lyrics by medieval poets, also contained the Hindustani/Carnatic influences in compositions meant for nritta such as the Pallavi, reflecting the training background of composers Bhuvaneswar Misra, Raghunath Panigrahi and Balakrishna Das.

The extremely well attended evening performance, with a well balanced musical support, comprised time-tested items such as Jagannath sruti, Pallavi, Astapadi ‘Madhave Makuru Manini’, Banamali’s Oriya song ‘Dine Na Dakibu’ (with Radha chiding Krishna’s flute for disturbing) and moksha.

Mudgal’s innovative choreography, within the traditional mould, delightfully emerged in ‘Ambuja dekhi’ based on Mayadhar Mansingh’s poem with music by Maheswar Rao, portraying the devotee begging for Nataraja’s grace to dance like the peacock.

Brilliant all the way

The toast of the festival had to be Swapnasundari whose Kuchipudi lec-dem belonged to a different level altogether. Rarely does one come across such analytical research into how stylistic nuances have emerged, with what was an all-male tradition inducting women into it. Between the earlier saushtavam squarish arm position and the later straighter arm stretch, lay a vista of changes in movement units, as demonstrated. The earlier jump with a leg lift touching the opposite upper thigh in the ‘Taam dhigu dhigi thai’ movement as taught by Chinta Venkataramaiyya’s grandson and its change today, Vaiyaru (backward walking) changes, the ‘tat thai hitta’ alterations, the vachika taken over by the singer with lip synch (not warranted in lyrics which are in the third person), the disappearing demarcations of Nataka, Yakshagana and Nritya Nataka, and the impromptu Hindi song by Manikuntala Bhowmick of ‘Kohi Kahiyore Prabhu aavanakee’ with the dancer’s imaginative sancharis in abhinaya, had the audience enthralled.

The ‘gudisani’, ‘rajanartaki’ references, the ekaharya vilasini’s dance and the roopanuroopa presentation in Kuchipudi were different. The unsurpassed performance starting from the mind boggling rhythmic arithmetic of permutations woven into the Amritavarshini Jatiswaram solfa passages went on to the dancer’s own shabdam treatment inspired by Sundareswara Vilasam, a Yakshagana. From Devulapalli Krishna Sastry’s ‘Andal Kalyanam’, (music by greats such as Emani Shankara Sastry and Rajanikant Rao), the dancer using the Kalapam format, showed Andal’s entry through a Patra Pravesha Daruvu – the heroine urging her sakhis not to while away by sleeping the wonderful early morning hours with cattle grazing in the field and Nature dancing to Krishna’s flute.

The dancer’s own singing in Poorvikalyani and then in Hameer Kalyani for Andal’s dream sequence ‘Nenna Ratri Naku Nidra Ralede’, projected dance and abhinaya.