Trinity Arts Festival Dance

Navadisha conference captures different contours of Natya

Sandra Pisharody at the Hasthalakshana Deepika workshop

Sandra Pisharody at the Hasthalakshana Deepika workshop   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan


Natya artistes and scholars in allied fields presented various perspectives of the art form

‘Navadhisha — New Voices in Dance’ Edition 3 on ‘Syntax and Semantics in Indian Classical Dance,’ convened by Apoorva Jayaraman, deliberated on dance literature including poems, on narratives as in the adaptation of international classics to Indian classical dance and on aspects of solo choreography. Lifetime Achievement awardee, poet Arundathi Subramaniam, set the tone with her pointers on ‘How to read a poem.’ Velcheru Narayana Rao emphasised the totality of experience of the poem.

‘In Tamil literature, there were no specific songs for dance, any song could be used,’ said Tamil scholar Prof. S. Raghuraman. From the earliest source, 2 BC Sangam literature, any piece could be read as poetry, tuned for musical rendition or for ‘abhinayam.’ According to him, social themes including kings, wars and lands dominated Tamil poetry; human emotions were sublimated to the divine only from the Bhakti Movement (7-13th century). Numerous sringara compositions were however available from Agam poetry in the Sangam period, though Kirthanams were introduced only in the 14th century by the Sirkazhi Trinity (Muthu Thandavar, Arunachalakavirayar and Marimutha Pillai).

Deliberations on the second day of ‘Navadhisha’ centred on the ‘Syntax of a Dance Narrative’, more specifically on adaptations of the Spanish classic Don Quixote in Kathakali (Dr. B. Hariharan), the award-winning film ‘Life of Pi’ in Bharatanatyam (Ganesh Vasudevan), and the Shakespeare masterpiece ‘Othello’ in Kathakali. (Sadanam Balakrishnan). Day 3 dealt with ‘Grammar and Syntax in the Solo Format’ and the ‘Craft of Making Dance’ as the world created by literature is visually translated.

Visualisation of music

Mahati Kannan provided insights into Padma Subrahmanyam’s creative process in the visualisation of her solo dance-dramas and about her own journey as a student imbibing the choreographies. Padma’s emphasis on the music and the visualisation of music and movement simultaneously and spontaneously, for example, using the jaaru gamaka to slide from one note to the other, echoing the dancer’s movements as demonstrated in the ‘Sukha Lasyam’ (Todi), and the raga rendition, as in the volume, pace and with or without gamaka, to suit the mood of the enactment as demonstrated in ‘Krishnaya Tubhyam Namaha,’ when the trees sway to Krishna’s music in a paasuram ‘Marangal...’ (Yaman Kalyani) and in ‘Aarugal paaindhu’ (Namakkal Kavingnar, Mohanam) to show how tumbling rivers empty into an unchanging sea. Her adaptation of non-dance lyrics such as Meera bhajans, etc., into the varnam format besides her careful choice of text and her preference for abstraction concepts such as Bhagavad Gita, etc., was emphasised. Mahati also spoke about her guru giving her the space to bring in her own individuality while she imbibes and follows her guru’s vision.

Karuna Sagari’s ‘Exploration of Alternate Literature in the Solo Format’ touched upon non-commissioned literature such as Sangam literature, Thevaram, etc., that may not fit into the Margam format for dance presentation. Her presentation took examples from Appar’s ‘Thiruvanga Maalai’ and an Aganaanuru poem, ‘Mullai vainnunai thondre’ to demonstrate the danger of using lyrics that cannot be cut for repetition or those that do not fall logically in order. A dancer also needs to research into the background of the poet and the poem to be correct in terms of the ornamentation of the dancer and the visualisation to be used to reflect accurately the geography and the local beliefs of the period in question. She suggested possible tools on the internet to do this.

The keynote speaker of the day was Priyadarsini Govind who shared her thoughts on the ‘Craft of Making Dance’ in conversation with Apoorva Jayaraman. She urged dance aspirants to become ‘thinking artistes’ not just ‘performing dancers’ and emphasised the importance of honesty and integrity in addition to a good, strong foundation. For her the triggers for visualisation were the written word, the music, the inherent rhythm in the poetry and the time cycle. She cautioned dancers from being carried away by the music and said that enjoyment of the music should be inside, not outside. Sometimes the words and the music maybe predominant and at other times they will be supportive to the visuals. The emphasis should be on the lyrics and the composer, personal opinions of the dancer notwithstanding. ‘Training is about training the mind and imagination,’ she said. She spoke of her abhinaya guru, Kalanidhi Narayanan, during whose class she understood about character change, when the guru suddenly switched from a coquettish gopi charming Krishna in ‘Mathura nagarilo’ to a stern 45-year old teacher to chide her about her embarrassed giggles. She was all of 9 then.

On hand gestures

The conference included two workshops on hastas, hand gestures — one on the ‘Evolution of Hastas through the Tamil Performing Texts’ lead by Prof. Raghuraman, who referenced ancient Tamil literature, including Tolkappiyam, Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Koothanul, Pancha Marabu and others; the second workshop was on the Hastalakshanadipika by Mohiniyattom dancer Sandra Pisharody, disciple of researcher-dancer Nirmala Panikker.

Of the two, Hastalakshanadipika, author unknown, is more popular in Kerala. It was first used by Nangiar Koothu (dance theatre), and theatrical forms — Kutiyattam and Chakyar Koothu — and was later adopted for Kathakali and Mohiniyattom. While the 24 hastas are the same for each style, Sandra said the use differed. For example, Kathakali has a wider framework with arms extended, whereas Mohiniyattom has a circular orientation, where the arms remain close to the body. There is another unique feature in the Kerala art forms — the hastas are not static, they have a beginning-course-end format. This too differs for each style according to the ‘Prayoga paddhati.’

Sandra’s Mohiniyattom style is a creation of her guru, based on the dance of the ‘Virali’ mentioned in Tamizhakam literature, such as Padittruppathu and Silappadikaram. The hand gestures are combined with the movements of the eye and torso, in line with the graceful swaying movements in nritta. Sandra presented a few mudras. Samples: Surya (rising sun, midday sun and setting sun), vardhanam (growth, eg seed to tree), chalanam (movement, walking on a path as against creating a path as in an Ashtapadhi), viknapanam (to inform, from one mind to another), samudra (ocean, with netra abhinaya to show waves coming in).

The eyes complete the picture, as showing growth from seed to tree, as in the rising sun growing in intensity, etc. The detailing, reminiscent of Kathakali, requires the studied experience — her guru took Sandra to the seashore to observe the waves. An important point to note here is that the names of Hastalakshanadipika hastas are different from the Natya Sastra/Abhinaya Darpana hastas — the ‘pataka’ hasta used for surya, raja, elephant… has a bent ring finger (like the Natya Sastra ‘tripataka’) — this can be confusing.

Priyadarsini cautioned dancers about short cuts in learning and said that as a dancer where you come from is more important than what you work on. The depth of understanding of the art form is more important than the subject presented. She spoke of her internal response that governed adavu choices so the adavus, music, rhythm and sahitya are created together as one sentence and not arbitrarily placed. This she termed modulation of adavus. For her, modulation in abhinaya would be how an artiste holds the thought and fills the spaces between words, as against the challenge a wordy poem, say by Jayadeva, may offer, where one has to convey the essence without being literal.

Dr. Hariharan, collaborator, detailed the creation of the Kathakali adaptation ‘Kihothe’ (2016). He and Dr.P. Venugopalan (attakatha-script) found that the story naturally lent itself to the structure of Kathakali. Discovery of commonalities was an important starting point — the epic dimensions of the novel, the language of exaggeration used, the characterisations of Quixote as a midambi (chieftain) in a kathi vesham, so he could be a hero and a fool, and Sanchez as a pot-bellied squire in a koodiyattam vidushaka vesham were some. The constant switch between illusion and reality had an underlying thread of satire that was seen in a clip of the windmill scene. Dr. Hariharan described the 20-minute death scene when Quixote has a moment of realisation as he goes through his death throes, modelled on the famous scene in Koodiyattam in Bali Vadhangam.

Ganesh Vasudeva’s thinking process in his Bharatanatyam adaptation (2018) of Yann Martel’s book ‘Life of Pi’, was clear as the progress of the storyline accompanied by narration in English was sequential with the introduction of the hero Pi, introduction of the animals in the zoo with specific mudras set in different nadais, to be re-introduced after the shipwreck, etc. He brought in comic relief when the priests of the three religions squabbled, with Pi declaring that they were fighting over his soul. The dramatisation included props, original music and a mixture of foreground-background interplay in addition to the emotional tale of loss, fear, faith and heartbreak.

Sadanam Balakrishnan’s interaction with Akhila Ramnarayan threw up interesting snippets about the master’s 1980s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in Kathakali, that he tried as an experiment to test the dance-theatre form. The epic sweep of the play attracted him to it; he said that Shakespeare’s plays and Kathakali are both stylised and both have strong emotions, incidentally they were created in the 1600s. As per characterisations, Othello was a hero with an inferiority complex opposite his wife, who was a picture of innocence and purity. He worked on suitable ragas and brought in the timila to project Othello’s heart murmuring. He used silence as a theatrical component — after Othello kills Desdemona and realises her innocence, there is a silence broken only by the sound of his breath. Costumes were decided according to the gunas of the characters.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 4:37:50 AM |

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