Awe-inspiring alchemy

Astonishing artistry, suppleness and energy make ‘Sari’ a timeless tableau with a soul.

October 25, 2012 03:28 pm | Updated October 30, 2012 04:30 pm IST

From Daksha Sheth and Devissaro’s production, ‘Sari.' Photo: Special Arrangement

From Daksha Sheth and Devissaro’s production, ‘Sari.' Photo: Special Arrangement

If there is a stairway to heaven, the Daksha Sheth Dance Company hasn’t heard of it. The dancers of the repertory prefer an alternative mode of ascent. Ropes. Long, thick, extra strong ropes which they use to shinny up, swing and twirl, to assume challenging postures with remarkable equipoise. Welcome to a world in which elements of Mayurbhanj Chhau, Kalaripayattu, Mallakhamb, aerial dance, yoga and gymnastics coexist in happy union underscored by the grace of Kathak, beneath the umbrella of Daksha’s creative vision, birthing a vocabulary of remarkable power that sings a paean to the human form.

Formed in the late 1980s, Daksha’s dance repertory is globally renowned for its vibrant productions that showcase contemporary Indian dance rooted in traditional styles. Conferred with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (2010) for her trailblazing experimental explorations in dance, Daksha has broken new ground with original works complemented by music composed and directed by Devissaro in his vocal and percussion ensemble, Asima.

The vocalists include Anil Ram, Anoop Sivanand and Khalid, with Manish Pingle (mohan veena), Sameer Rao (bansuri), Yakzan Perreira (keyboards), Tao Issaro and Sajith Papan (percussion). Led by Daksha Sheth, the dancers include Jyothsna Rao, Ramesh Ram, Rajesh Raveendran, Ratheesh Raj, Babu Sukumaran, Anupama Pillai, Arushi Garg, Tejaswini More and Priyanka Pawar.

Initiated by Rita Kapur Chisti, co-author of ‘Saris – Tradition and Beyond,’ ‘Sari’ is a production by the Daksha Sheth Dance Company, Asima and The Sari School, which traces the journey of the cotton seed from pod to hand-woven garment.

Choreographed in Daksha’s signature style to Devissaro’s music performed live by Asima and premiered in 2010 at the Kamani auditorium, New Delhi, the production was staged at Sir Mutha Venkata Subbarao Hall under the aegis of the World Crafts Council summit, in Chennai.

The opening sequence is heralded by chants from the Rig Veda invoking Surya (sun) and Ushas (radiant dawn) against the visual backdrop of an elegantly designed tree of life.

Illuminated by a soft green glow, the inert figure cradled within suspended yardage, symbolizing the cotton seed cocooned in the pod, sways slightly in the expectant stillness. The music is gentle, while other figures - thus far in the shadow - gradually ascend, circling, spinning, the rope an extension of body, to assume in mid-air the yogic seated lotus posture, the ascent signifying growth, from germination to maturation, and finally, the cotton pods are ready for picking.

To the evocative strains of Bowli, the weavers welcome dawn with the effulgence of oil lamps, the flickering diyas accentuating grace of form and simplicity of unstitched attire.

As the dancers group and regroup to the tranquil flow of Jog, the complex processes that go into the preparation of cotton yarn are vigorously played out – carding, combing and spinning, to culminate in a surprise twist.

Three principal figures swinging in ever widening circles, supported only by ropes, launch themselves off the stage, almost hurtling into an astonished audience, in blatant defiance of the laws of gravity – a display of sheer exhilaration arising from the joy of creation, in a form possibly never witnessed before, brilliantly conceived, daringly executed.

Tryst with colour

A series of engaging sequences details the sari’s tryst with colour. The drift and swirl of fabric unfurled in a riot of hues, elaborates the dyeing of yarn during the Udyog (washing and cleaning). Again, pristine white woven lengths from the loom are transformed into billowing curtains of light and colour.

In what arguably constitutes the highpoint of the presentation, two dancers elevate aerial to new heights. Aloft, unfettered, gloriously free, the entwined male and female forms revolve as one entity in mid-air, redolent with earthy sensuality – sublime visual poetry that moves, inspires and exalts. This is the defining moment in which the multi-hued strands of the narrative converge in a harmony of stillness and motion, mind and body, man and Nature, warp and weft, weaver and fabric, wearer and sari. And herein lies the choreographer’s greatest triumph – sculpting a timeless tableau that captures a transcendental, perfect moment which will remain etched in memory.

On this generous canvas, the science of movement is employed to deconstruct specific actions in weaving. The throw of the shuttle and the use of parts of the body as measuring units, are translated into staccato gestures that slice and cleave with geometric precision.

In Daksha’s hands, the delicate tracery of Kathak progresses to a sawal-jawab of footwork (Daksha) and body drumming (Tao). The dynamic mother-son duo craft rhythmic exchanges, Tao’s percussive gestures echoed by five other dancers in a heady alchemy of vigour and power that takes the audience by storm.

Devissaro’s compositions feature interesting permutations in the melodic segments. The influence of both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions is manifest in the choice of ragas – Bowli and Jog, with fluid glides of the flute highlighting the first and mohan veena chords layering the second. Intriguingly, the Rig Veda verses, enunciated with clarity, end in a pronounced whoop, a feature that the composer attributes to the chanting style of a Chaturvedi scholar in Mathura. In the rhythmic suite, the use of gopucha yati (descending counts) is an effective device. Tao’s skills come to the fore in the 16 and 8 beat variations and a spirited chatusra (4 beats) in the draping sequence, the young percussionist letting fly in the crescendos.

Vehicle of expression, the human body, toned to optimum fitness and primed to obey the dancer’s every command, redefines frontiers in terms of suppleness and agility. Yet, the body alone is not the focus. This visual treat has soul. The organic progression of the narrative with emphasis on rich detailing allows the weaving in of patches of quietude and drama that move and dazzle in equal measure. The celebration of the sari becomes a celebration of life itself.

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