When veterans set foot on the stage, it is not about the run-of- the- mill repertoire, it is a learning process for the emerging dancers. So we had the Manodharma dance fest under the aegis of Sharon Lowen’s ‘Manasa - Art Without Frontiers’, featuring Bharatanatyam dancer-academician Lakshmi Vishwanathan and doyen of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj on two consecutive days.
While Lakshmi Vishwanathan moved graciously on the stage miming to rare pieces of poetic excellence in the form of Tamil keertana, Maharaj chose the lec-dem mode to explore the nuances of varied human emotions (bhav) that are conveyed through gestures, eyes and facial expressions (abhinaya-mudra).
He sat down on a pedestal singing along with the orchestra, gesturing as he did to recreate the poetic thought in Kathak posture.
The Tanjore-style Bharatanatyam exponent took up padam and javali- both abhinaya-oriented pieces with emphasis on shringara (romantic/erotic love with an underlying devotion to the deity). It has to have a nayika (artistic heroine) and the nayaka is usually the romantic lord Krsna, at times Murugan (Kartikeya), even lord Shiva, Vishnu so on. The piece on lord Shiva was a sweet satire where the heroine eulogises the lord’s myriad qualities with an undertone of blame for lack of love (ninda stuti) since he is not born of a father or mother! Vishwanathan gave diverse abhinaya for just one line refrain displaying her expertise.
The same devotion was displayed for the Javali (Swati Tirunal) in the rare Saindhavi raga.
The dancer gave a brief prior to each of her pieces she wished to showcase to enhance audiences’ appreciation. In the Javali, which is all about an inexperienced maiden’s imminent rendezvous with lord Krsna (Pankajanatha), the twiddling of her fingers expressed the bashful yet willing nayika with conviction. Her finale was in a la-Tillana to a Thevaram (ancient Tamil devotional) which was also laden with abhinaya and minimalistic footwork.
There is always this dichotomy in dance performances wherein the subject matter of the padam/javali alludes to young maiden (wed or unwed) and her beloved. These, at times erotic songs, can be handled best by experienced dancers but then their stage persona seems contradictory to the content. Vishwanathan’s fluid abhinaya is worth emulating for all the dance aspirants.
The audience on the second day were a tad disappointed that Maharaj wouldn’t be dancing but his expressive singing and gestures lifted up their spirits. The impromptu poetry-his forte- thrilled the gathering with its lyricism and wit.
The crux of his lec-dem was the importance of virtuosity in Kathak. Normal everyday activities are enhanced through rich expressions. His pun on the term ‘bewafaa’ for instance had the audience in splits; at the same time the various connotations to the term were educative.
‘Gokul doondho, Vrindavan doondho...’ another bandish and the tukda embellished with mnemonics, ‘jhoolak lage naval kishor; tat tit krut radha’ which means that Radha resided in every breath of Shyam and the flute cooed with that very breath when played, was an exquisite piece of poetic imagination that drew instant applause.
The two-day fest had seminars followed by Q&A in the morning session on manodharma (virtuosity) aspects of dance and its development through gurus of our times like Kelucharan Mohapatra (a video on the Odissi exponent), Singhajit Singh (Manipuri), Saroja Vaidyanathan (Bharatanatyam), Birju Maharaj (Saswati Sen-Kathak), Lakshmi Vishwanathan (Bharatanatyam), all of whom shared their experiences while Sharon Lowen, Kamalini Dutt spoke on the pedagogy of teaching manodharma to today’s students. India International Centre played host to the event.