Exploring Fragments of Femininity Through Dance: Yanum’s Revolutionary Artistic Journey of Aiyemperumkappiyangal

May 07, 2024 08:25 pm | Updated 08:25 pm IST

 Dr. Bhuvana Kannan, the Artistic Director of Yāṉum

 Dr. Bhuvana Kannan, the Artistic Director of Yāṉum | Photo Credit:  Lochana Wijesundera, New Zealand

It all began nearly three decades ago at the Kannagi bus stop, a recognisable landmark near Chennai Marina. Her questions at the age of six had Dr Bhuvana Kannan, the Artistic Director of யானும்/ Yāṉum- Fragments of Feminity, delve deeply into the treasures of ancient Sangam Tamil literature, notably the ஐம்பெருங்காப்பியங்கள் ‘Aiyemperumkappiyangal’ or the Five Great Epics.

Yāṉum creative team in front of the Yāṉum set design at TAPAC, New Zealand

Yāṉum creative team in front of the Yāṉum set design at TAPAC, New Zealand | Photo Credit: David St George, New Zealand

Driven by her zeal, she began to infuse vitality into the narratives of Female Protagonists of ‘Aiyemperumkappiyangal in New Zealand, employing her beloved medium of expression: Bharatanatyam.

With three decades of experience in Bharathanatyam, since she was six and attending Sri Saraswathi Gana Nilayam, Chennai, Dr Bhuvana Kannan has established herself as an Avant Grade Bharathanatyam artist outside India. Renowned for her original thinking and innovative choreography, she embarked on a unique journey. She retold the story of five female protagonists from Sangam literature ‘Aiyemperumkappiyangal’—Kannagi, Madhavi, Manimegalai, Kundalakeshi, and Valayapathi-in a way that was both fresh and deeply respectful of the original narratives.

Bhuvana, as an Artistic Director, researched and wrote the scripts and dialogues, choreographed, and performed as one of the characters.

 Dance performance Yāṉum characters 

 Dance performance Yāṉum characters  | Photo Credit: David St George, New Zealand

The genesis of inspiration for “Yāṉum”/ யானும் traces back to questions that have intrigued me since age six. It’s surreal to realise that, after three decades, I can finally explore and answer these childhood musings through Yāṉum dance production, sharing my thoughts with others. I thrive on challenging myself and pushing boundaries, using dance as the language to express unique ideas yet unexplored in the medium. My socio-political inclinations find expression in bringing original concepts and social questions to life through innovative presentations and choreographed foot rhythms. I call it “Activism through dance”, and Yāṉum is no exception- says Bhuvana Kannan.

“Yāṉum” / யானும் stands as a groundbreaking achievement on several fronts. Firstly, it marks the first-ever production to intricately weave the narratives of five female protagonists from the ‘Aiyemperumkappiyangal’ or the Five Great Epics, delving into their shared experiences and drawing parallels to contemporary political contexts.

Secondly, the original music composition introduces a novel fusion of Western and classical instruments skillfully intertwined with koṉṉakkōl rhythms, creating a captivating auditory experience bound to specific gathis or Jathis (rhythmic patterns).

Lastly, a visually striking photographic image encapsulates the essence of all five female heroines united, symbolising the convergence of their stories and the enduring relevance of their narratives across time.

 Five heroines of ஐம்பெருங்காப்பியங்கள் ‘Aiyemperumkappiyangal’ or the Five Great Epics. Top Left to Right: Ambaree Rege as Madhavi, Swetha Gopi as Kannagi & Athulya Mohan as Manimegalai. Bottom Left to Right: Bhuvana Kannan as Valayapathi & Niken Waloejo as Kundalakesi.

 Five heroines of ஐம்பெருங்காப்பியங்கள் ‘Aiyemperumkappiyangal’ or the Five Great Epics. Top Left to Right: Ambaree Rege as Madhavi, Swetha Gopi as Kannagi & Athulya Mohan as Manimegalai. Bottom Left to Right: Bhuvana Kannan as Valayapathi & Niken Waloejo as Kundalakesi. | Photo Credit:  David St George, New Zealand

The performances held on March 15th and 16th, 2024, at The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC), Auckland, New Zealand, left the audience in awe. Reviews and shared experiences described the show as a display of female power, evoking spellbound moments, bringing some to the verge of tears, and stirring emotions with its political and empowering themes.

Bhuvana’s storytelling through dance culminated in Yāṉum, a groundbreaking production presented by the Artham Dance Company, which she co-founded alongside Padma Akula, the Creative Producer of Yāṉum. Padma brought her cinematic experience to a dance production, overwhelming the audience with her expertise. Padma managed the scenography, publicity visuals, and makeup and designed the costumes.

 Padma Akula, the Creative Producer of Yāṉum 

 Padma Akula, the Creative Producer of Yāṉum 

Padma Akula, also originally from Chennai, brought her passion for arts and theatre when she migrated to New Zealand. Padma says, “My interest in the arts eventually led me back to India in 2008 to explore the world of Indian cinema, having worked as an Assistant Director with Kona Venkat, V. Priya, & briefly with Jeeva & Mani Ratnam and also having been heavily influenced by working with the editor Sathish Suriya & cinematographer Srikanth Naroj, & briefly with Jeeva & Mani Ratnam, I inevitably bring my film experience to my theatre productions. I became a Creative Producer in New Zealand because I love the creative process of bringing ideas to life & Yanum gives me the perfect opportunity to understand & execute the vision of Bhuvana as an artist.

“We are very aware of our strengths and play to them” - says Padma.

As a duo team of Artham Dance Company NZ, Bhuvana and Padma have journeyed together for nine years, allowing them to collaborate remarkably.

Karnan Saba, the Music Composer of Yāṉum 

Karnan Saba, the Music Composer of Yāṉum 

Bhuvana crafted the script for Yāṉum, serving as the foundation for the composition of the music and koṉṉakkōl. Karnan Saba, a Sri Lankan Tamil residing in New Zealand specialising in theatre and live sound design, took charge of the music composition. With a rich background in leading the composition and sound design for diverse Indigenous cultures such as Maori, Pacific Island, and South Asian production companies in New Zealand, this marks his inaugural collaboration in Indian classical, partnering with Bhuvana for Yāṉum.

For Karnan, “The music of Yanum synthesises the timeless art of koṉṉakkōl, Carnatic music and contemporary cinematic musical ideas to propel the work’s narrative. My approach to this work was capturing core emotions that signify each character’s evolution in this retelling through movement. At the same time, the precision and dynamics of Umashankar’s koṉṉakkōl breathe life into these stories.”

Ghatam Uma Shankar, the koṉṉakkōl composer & singer of Yāṉum

Ghatam Uma Shankar, the koṉṉakkōl composer & singer of Yāṉum

Ghatam Uma Shankar, the renowned Ghatam player from India and the son of percussion maestro Vikku Vinayakram, is the composer behind the verbal percussion art form known as koṉṉakkōl. Uma Shankar’s mesmerising talents extend to the Ghatam and koṉṉakkōl and encompass a diverse range of percussions, greatly enriching the musical production.

Traditionally, percussion instruments were supporting in dance compositions or recitals, with vocals as the primary medium for dancers’ artistic expressions. However, Yāṉum takes a unique approach where koṉṉakkōl replaces vocals, becoming the dialogue medium for all characters, each assigned specific gathis. For instance, Tisram for Kannagi, Kandam for Madhavi, Chadusram for Manimegalai, Misram for Kundalakeshi, and Sankeernam for Valayapathi. Uma Shankar created koṉṉakkōl jathi (Gathi) for each character, showcasing remarkable skill and artistry.

Uma Shankar says, “Bhuvana Kannan envisioned the music for this production with Koṉṉakkōl as its core. Collaborating with Bhuvana and the team on the music was a great opportunity to explore and innovate. Numerous Koṉṉakkōl ideas came to fruition and were given prominence in this music production. I enjoyed thinking about the form of Koṉṉakkōl apt for work based on the Sangam era. I wish the production the best during its debut and hope audiences enjoy our efforts”.

The research on the Silapathikaram, Manimegalai, Kundalakeshi, and Valayapathi, performed by Bhuvana alongside the multifaceted Tamil literate and movie lyricist Ramesh Vaidya. For Ramesh Vaidya, the most exciting challenge in the project was a deep dive into the Sangam era through a feminist perspective for the research. He also penned lyrics to fit the Koṉṉakkōl beats that added value to the original music composed by Karnan Saba.

A crucial aspect of bringing Yāṉum to life was selecting the right artists for the performances.

Swetha Gopi, a Bharatanatyam artist from Auckland, New Zealand, with a dance journey starting at the age of 6, portrayed the sensitive character Kannagi from Silapathikaram with ease. Ambaree Rege, originally from Pune and now residing in New Zealand with an M.A. in Bharatanatyam, embodied the iconic character Madhavi from Silapathikaram fiercely.

Dr Bhuvana Kannan, the Artistic Director of Yāṉum, during the performance as Valayapathi.

Dr Bhuvana Kannan, the Artistic Director of Yāṉum, during the performance as Valayapathi. | Photo Credit:  David St George, New Zealand

Athulya Mohan, a Bharatanatyam dancer born in Kerala and living in New Zealand, brought the sensitive character of Manimegalai gracefully from the Epic Manimegalai to life through dance. Niken Waloejo, of Javanese descent from Indonesia, portrayed the challenging, witty, and bold character Kundalakeshi with conviction through contemporary movements. Finally, Artistic Director Bhuvana Kannan took on the role of the enigmatic and powerful Valayapathi, delivering a portrayal of a pregnant woman that transcended imagination with finesse.

For Kundalakeshi and Valayapathi, contemporary steps underpinning Indian classical dance were crafted, while the other three main characters showcased Bharatanatyam. The live show also featured a narrative dancer, Dharshi Ponnampalam, who immersed the audience in the world of Yāṉum through dance narration and political dialogues, expertly accompanied by violinist Seyorn Arunagirinathan. Both Dharshi and Seyorn are Srilankan Tamils in New Zealand. Shreshtha Maiti, a Bharatanatyam dancer and Choreographer, worked as an Intern Choreographer alongside Bhuvana.

Audiences and reviewers alike praised the dancers, describing their performances as outstanding. Many in the crowd felt deeply moved as each dancer seemed to embody the essence of the characters they portrayed, bringing them vividly to life on stage. Several spectators were even brought to the brink of tears by the palpable display of female power emanating from the performances.

“Bhuvana breathes new life into these women’s narratives, adding depth and empowerment to their stories”- said one of the audience member.

One of the funding representatives said: The production was impactful, ethereal in places, cheeky in parts. The dancers did a great job bringing life to each character by living the character on stage. The narrative dancer Dharshi’s tone sets the impact and interweaves all the characters, bringing the idea to life. “It was wonderful to see and hear Arunagirinathan providing live accompaniment on his rather unique-looking violin.”- said one of the reviewers.

In addition to the dedicated Yāṉum creative team, significant effort was invested in constructing a dynamic and immersive stage set. The set served as a conduit for the artists to convey their emotions effectively, bringing Padma’s scenography idea to life. The stage was ingeniously crafted, featuring natural wood elements meticulously fashioned into doors, symbolising the entry points for each character into the enchanting realm of Yāṉum.

The ambience was further enhanced by intricately designed lighting and the subtle haze enveloping the set, adding depth and atmosphere to the performance space. The audience admired the detail of the make-up and costume crafted for each character.

The collective feedback was - the team challenges traditional perspectives and prompts the audience to view these timeless tales through a revitalized and transformative lens.” The choreography was impeccable, exceptional and innovative; The dancers did a great job. The production quality was remarkable, especially the scenery, costume, and ambience detailing. And the music was modern, vibrant, and mysterious, leaving the audience in awe and reverence. In a nutshell, the experience was no less than magical!

Moreover, New Zealand Tamil talents, including Gopi Dinakaran, Bhaskar Nagarajan, Madhan Senthil, and Vishwa Balasubramanian, lent their voices as real Sangam poets. They delivered poignant recitations of original poetry phrases tailored to each character, enriching the auditory experience with their unique voices.

For Bhuvana, Yāṉum transcends being just a dance production. It serves as a platform to shed light on Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ for the Tamil diaspora residing in non-Tamil lands. The journey from conceptualisation to the current stage spanned two years, involving the creation of the concept, envisioning music, extensive literary research, choreography, singing koṉṉakkōl, screenplay writing, and overall direction. This marks the initial phase of Bhuvana’s larger vision, as she aspires to delve deeper into Tamil history, bringing more aspects to life through the mediums of dance and music for the Tamil diaspora and the younger generation.

Bhuvana and Padma from Artham Dance express sincere gratitude for the generous support from New Zealand art funding agencies Foundation North Asian Artists’ Fund and Creative New Zealand. Their assistance has been instrumental in conducting Tamil research and bringing this dance project to life. This support reflects the country’s commitment to nurturing professional connections with Asia and promoting Asian arts.

Artham Dance extends its heartfelt gratitude to all the creatives from New Zealand and India who contributed to the production. Their collaborative efforts were indispensable in bringing this genuinely magnificent production to life.

Audience review:

Independent media reviews:

Asiamedia Centre review:Yānum: A Revolutionary Bharatanatyam Production Blends Ancient Tamil Epics with Contemporary Politics (asiamediacentre.org.nz)


Red Raven: https://redraven.news/2024/03/20/yanum-tapac-auckland-16-march-2024-review/

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