On January 3 when the curtain goes up on the annual dance festival organised by The Music Academy, Chennai, Methil Devika will be on stage to receive a coveted award. She will be receiving the award for the best dancer of the mid-year dance festival organised by the Academy early this year. “I will sharing the stage with Malavika Sarukkai, recipient of Natya Kala Acharya award of the Academy, and other stalwarts...,” she says.
She is ecstatic while talking about the dance festival. “I am not a regular face for the Chennai crowd and I was excited about performing in front of eminent artistes I respect a lot. They were appreciative of my performance...,” Devika says.
The petite dancer, who has carved her own path in Mohiniyattam with her productions, choreography, research and study, has had many such special moments. The Delhi Sangeeth Samaroh was one.
“It is a music festival. Also, I knew there were people in the crowd who didn’t like Mohiniyattam because they didn’t find it profound. But they said they were willing to take the risk after having heard about my performances at Khajuraho and at the mid-year festival. There were a lot of veteran artistes, many of them Padma awardees, who performed at the fete. Once my performance was over, they wanted me to do one more piece and I did! It was a gratifying experience because I was performing for musicians,” says Devika.
The conversation veers to her association with music and her experiments in dance music. Although not a trained musician, she is known for adapting kritis to the Mohiniyattam stage with great success. “I love music and I redirect or redo the kritis for dance. Nothing is more challenging than dance music,” she adds. Devika recalls the appreciation that came her way at the mid-year festival for ‘Hiranmayim Lakshmim’, a Muthuswami Dikshitar kriti, “for its musical adaptation”.
She is clear about the kind of music that she takes up for Mohiniyattam. Recently she got an opportunity to perform to the music of a celebrated musician on his death anniversary. “But I politely refused. I can’t dance to pre-recorded music, say albums. Instead I would like to rework and adapt that music to dance. I told them I was a progressive artist, but I wouldn’t fit my dance into someone’s else music,” she asserts.
In fact her work with the music usually starts from the storyboard. “Even if it is the work of a famous composer, I re-narrate and recompose it, but I ensure that the kriti does not lose its original flavour. I work on the emotions and then the visuals.” For this Devika can’t thank enough her musicians, whom she says are irreplaceable. “They are well prepared for my ideas and experiments. Only that it is getting intricate as years go by!”
Talking more about dance music, she mentions Kavalam Narayana Panicker, with whom she had a great rapport. “With his demise a golden era has come to an end. I have worked with him in many productions and have even redone many of his works with his permission. His was an era where music blended with philosophy, visuals, divinity and knowledge of literature,” she says.
She regrets the lack of women in the list of yesteryear composers. Everything is told through a male’s perspective.
“If you take sringara, it is always a woman pining for a man. Why not the other way round?”
As she continues to delve deeper into her art, many surprises have come her way. Like her forthcoming tour to Laos, Thailand and Taiwan with her new production based on the Buddha.
“Sometimes things just fall in place. I came across this kriti in Pali and Sanskrit about Buddha’s conversations with his disciples. I wanted a new texture for the song and so I blended Carnatic and Oriental music. Just as I was working on it I got a call from Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) asking whether I would do a production on Buddha! There is something about bridging boundaries, portraying an icon worshipped in another land through a dance form that has a connect with it - Buddhism is about restraint, so too Mohiniyattam. While working on the piece I felt one with that region and I don’t see myself distinct from it. It is universal,” she says.
* She recently acted in an English movie, Humans of Someone , based on characters in the late Padmarajan’s movies. The role was inspired by Sobhana’s character in the film Innale. “I have been getting a lot of offers. But the moment someone tells me the story I immediately get the visuals in my mind. I place myself in those scenes and say no. Naturally I get roles of a dancer, the cliched ones, where she is the epitome of supreme sacrifice, living alone.... But nobody has approached the dancer’s psyche in a different way. There are numerous shades to the life of a dancer.”
* She debuted on stage with Suveeran’s ‘Naga’, acting opposite her husband, actor Mukesh. “It was tough. I am not exposed to vocal acting. I am not fluent in Malayalam and I am not the innocent girl I was portrayed as. Although we have done six stages, I am still nervous about doing it. Suveeran had confidence in me and, in fact, he believes that acting is my forte. But I am yet to feel the same.”