Raja Ravi Varma’s lines, of art and of verse, captivated Mohiniyattam danseuse Gayathri Madhusudan ever since she happened to see Vinod Mankara’s documentary on the artist, When the Brush Dropped, about six years ago. As much as she was enchanted by the poetry in the paintings, she realised that the artist was also a poet who had written verses in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Manipravalam.
Recently, the Kozhikode-based dancer premiered ‘Hiranmayam’, a one-hour recital based on the verses penned by the royal artist. After the premiere at Bharat Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, she also performed ‘Hiranmayam’ at a programme organised to observe the 175th birth anniversary of Raja Ravi Varma at Kilimanoor Palace, about 35 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram.
Gayatri says that although she does not paint or draw, she had always been drawn towards the paintings of the great artist. “The realisation that he was also a poet inspired me to read and study the literary works of the artist and the writings on him. It was a quest to understand the artist and poet,” she says.
Gayathri managed to find some of his verses in three languages, in different books on the artist. After selecting the verses, she gave them to musician Nelamperoor Suresh Kumar, head of the Department of Music at St Teresa’s College, Ernakulam. He not only scored the music and set the songs to ragas such as Nattakurunji and Chenjurutti but also sang the verses in the Sopanam style.
“Of the four pieces in my recital, three are based on the artist’s verses. The first one is a cholkettu based on a stuti (devotional verse), ‘Shashishekhara Stuti’. I chose from many such verses written by Ravi Varma and set it to the movement pattern of Mohiniyattam,” she explains.
The second one, the main piece in her recital, is ‘Manasa Yatra’, a kind of travelogue. Ravi Varma enjoyed travelling and had the habit of sketching the places and the people he saw there. He also wrote small verses in Sanskrit about the places he had been to.
“Manasa Yatra’ is about a place he could not go to. Apparently, he longed to travel to Manasarovar in the Himalayas, but was not able to go there. Instead, he wrote a poem from his imagination of how it would be if he were to go there – the route, the scenic landscape, the people and his experinces there. There are four or five stanzas on it that I choreographed,” says Gayathri.
The third one is ‘Kiratha Parvathi Sthavam’, based on a famous painting by the artist that shows Shiva and Parvathy disguised as forest dwellers. During her research, Gayathri found that the artist was in the habit of writing crisp verses as captions for his paintings. She adds that much of the details about his habits, professional commitments and travel were gleaned from a book on the journal maintained by C Raja Rava Varma, Ravi Varma’s younger brother and disciple.
“After painting ‘Kiratha Parvathi’, Ravi Varma steps back and asks the painting if Parvathi liked the painting and his depiction. He asks if the costume pleased Parvathi and says how much he longed to know if he had portrayed the scene well. It is an evocative verse,” says the dancer.
The last item in her recital is an elegy written by Subramania Bharati on the demise of Ravi Varma. Instead of lamenting the loss of the eminent artist, Bharati writes that after painting beautiful scenes of celestial beings and the heavens, the artist himself had gone to heaven to check if his paintings had done justice to them. Bharati goes on to say that even the heavens would not be able to live up to the alluring pictures he had painted. “Two lines of the verse are easily available on the Net. I sought the help of a friend in Tamil Nadu to get the entire poem. She found it in a friend’s personal library and sent me a copy. I got it translated and then choreographed as a mangalam, the piece that is performed at the end of a recital,” she says.