Is it a Wednesday? Is it a Sunday? Most of us are unable to keep track of what day it is, much less how we’re spending our time. Last Saturday, however, was different for Bharatanatyam rasikas — four hours of eight well-known artistes, each an Instagram Live performer, for half an hour. Aalaap, an arts management company, had organised an Abhinaya marathon festival, titled, ‘Through his Lens.’ It was quite interesting to watch the dancers perform pieces that they had not explored on stage. They wove in a personal narrative of experiences and beliefs through the choice of pieces that they presented.
Beginning with an ode to Siva, one of whose forms is Dakshinamurthy, Vaibhav Arekar described Abhinaya as an act of communication which mirrored what he felt deep within himself. ‘Krishna Nee Begane,’ the Yamuna Kalyani melody was the highlight of Arekar’s performance. “The poet says that there is a search for the little Krishna till the end. I think the quest is not only for him, but the innocence of a child. In this piece, I search for that Krishna. At least for me, there is no final answer to this piece, but an effort to look within ourselves,” Arekar explained.
A simple blend of raw emotion and fascination for the little one, who doubles as the Lord of the Universe, Arekar journeyed through butter baiting, describing marvellous feats and a longing for a lost sense of childhood, unlike the love of Yasoda that we are used to watching. Arekar concluded on a lighter and happier note through ‘Rusali Radha,’ the celebrated Marathi piece, a tug between the passive-agressive tensions Radha and Krishna pull through, which Arekar had not performed on stage before.
Describing the piece as his personal favourite, Christopher Gurusamy opened with ‘Yaarukaagilum Bayama’ in Begada, where he aimed to show how Abhinaya was a way to connect to himself. “Much like the protagonist, whom I love is my own business. I’ll live my life the way I want to live it,” he stated as he immediately fixed the context: “Right now it’s representative of my fridge and my puppies judging me every time I walk over to snack on chocolate. It’s my own business.” He presented the heart-wrenching Ashtapathi, ‘Naata hare Jaganaata hare,’ which he had presented at the Music Academy’s dance festival, earlier this year. The sakhi of a lovelorn Radha narrates to Krishna the suffering in his desertion, saying, “You are the Lord of the three worlds, will you not be with her? Do you not know how she suffers, waiting for you?” To embellish a failed persuasion attempt, Christopher ended with ‘Oh my lovely, Lalana’ in Kharaharapriya giving it a touch of the modern.
Kasi Aysola brought forth a different repertoire, unfolding with the first segment of the Thanjavur Quartet varnam — Sami Ninne Kori Naanu Ra. Through the combination of nritta and abhinaya, Kasi described how the Trikala jathi was a precursor to tapping the essence of the varnam. “It lets you think about how rhythm, technique and physical movement can lend themselves to the concept of Abhinaya,” he pointed out. Inspired by the cyclic qualities in nature, Kasi drew an excerpt from Sangam poetry dealing with the water cycle as metaphor for the continuous movement from day to night.
Describing it as an experiment and a personal reflection through choreography, Kasi presented the Hindi bhajan, ‘Maili Chadar Odh Ke Kaise.’ An interesting piece, it followed a journey charred through a dirty cloth, i.e., the physical form, where the protagonist asked how they must shed the form to reach the divine. “I’ve done so many things that are selfish. You gave me a beautiful body, voice and eyes — did I really use them for good,” he said, adding, “We often think about the things we lose, but do we really think about what our higher purpose is?”
Reorienting pieces in an impromptu session, Shijith Nambiar chose to explore compositions he had always wanted to present. Set against a red curtain background and an aesthetic lamp ( vilakku ) to his side, he presented a Kannada viruttam in Bhairavi — a call to the Lord, ‘Madhava baro, Vittala’ its ending request to present himself. Resonating through Bombay Jayashree’s mesmerising voice, he went on to present ‘Irakkam varamal’ in Behag, a composition of Gopalakrishna Bharati. The poet here asks, “What is the reason that you have no compassion for me,” holding his/her compassion as a right, adding, “I have come to you having heard and believed that you are an ocean of compassion.”
Holding a mirror
Lyrics set by K.C. Kesava Pillai, ‘Ival Tan Ival Tan’ in raag Jog was the next piece. Briefly holding a mirror unto himself, Nambiar interprets the lines, “It is you that resides in my heart,” through the degrees of a lover, a reflection of himself and nature. The warmth and endearment from these pieces wrapped up with a Malayalam prayer on Lord Narayana, an appeal to remove sufferings and embrace peace and well-being — ‘Vande Mukunda hare.’
“If you stay back in the house, I’ll give you fresh butter and sweets,” Praveen Kumar humours through Purandaradasa’s Devaranama. A direct reflection of today’s situation, he refashioned the traditional piece from a male perspective. A beautiful song that captures the relationship between Krishna and Yashodha, he explained how the parallel narrative of the modern world was an intriguing reflection of this simple piece. “You see all over social media, everybody is testing their own cooking skills trying to find a sense of balance with themselves,” he expressed. Drawing inspiration from the observations he made and stored — an excerpt someone read or a distinct smell, Praveen Kumar said that Abhinaya is through evocative multi-layered interpretations. “It’s like when you observe something, you naturally emote and respond to it. Communication becomes easy when these are adapted to abhinaya,” he explained.
“Society does not usually encourage a man to show his emotions. Male love is usually attributed to physical pleasure, but I would like to draw your attention to the plethora of male composers, who brought to the fore emotions akin to that of the nayikas,” said Bhavajan Kumar proving a point with ‘Aananda Natamidum Paadam’ by Papanasam Sivan. “Bhavam is something that finds resonance within you, it can be compared to the inner flame within us. Sometimes we feel something deeply but are unable to express it. The act of expressing that inner resonance is what I have understood to be Abhinaya,” he expanded. He concluded with the Ashtapadi ‘Mamiyam chalita,’ an expression of how the Purusha needs the Prakruthi to reach himself. A Hamirkalyani melody, it presented Krishna pining for Radha and her forgiveness.
A vibrant Bhaktaamara stotra through Maanatunga Acharya’s verses, Parshwanath Upadhye elucidated how this composition was believed to have taken form. Forced shut inside a cell of 48 walls, Maanatunga acharya who refused to stay in the court of a king who demanded his presence, composed this beautiful slokam. In a musical monologue of expression and singing the verses of a folk tale, Parshwanath presented an excerpt from a Gigi pada, also inspired from Girish Karnad’s ‘Nagamandala’ and adapted into an Abhinaya piece. The story of a bride just married to Annappa, it follows her dissatisfaction in an unloved marriage and prepares a love potion for her husband’s lunch. In a hurry, he rushes out and locks her in, her frustration making her throw the potion away. It falls upon an ant hill, within which resides a snake with the capacity to transfigure itself. Now in love, the reptile takes the form of her husband and comes to live with her. “While there’s a sense of absurdity in this story, it has meaningful undertones. Annappa and the snake are not two different entities, they're the same person. The perspective varies depending on one’s perspective,” explained Parshwanath.
An excerpt from the ‘Abhirami Andhadhi’ — a string of verses, which turn the dark new moon sky bright, lit by a luminous full moon. Pavithra Krishna Bhat presented a small episode from the story. Followed by a sringara padam, a composition of Balamuralikrishna, ‘Maralukonnane,’ Bhat reflected on how this sudden pause in work offered an opportunity to revisit earlier pieces and perform on online forums.
Aalaap’s founder Akhila Krishnamurthy shared: “For a long time now, I have been meaning to present a festival exclusively with male artistes with the focus on abhinaya. We also wanted to curate a festival that would help audiences feel like they are in an auditorium.” In uncertainty and isolation, it serves as a ray of hope in creating a sense of familiarity within the digital space.
Aalaap’s Live Instagram handle - @aalaap_concepts or via https://www.instagram.com/aalaap_concepts/