Agathi: Plight of refugees through dance

 Agathi by Apsaras Arts, Singapore performing at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai

Agathi by Apsaras Arts, Singapore performing at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai

Ensemble dance theatre works such as ‘Agathi,’ presented by Apsaras Arts, Singapore, and directed by Artistic Director, Aravinth Kumarasamy, are important milestones in the preservation and evolution of the classical arts, as solo Bharatanatyam is acquiring a ‘niche’ tag and presented in smaller venues, as against being included in the mainstream schedules of large culture festivals across the world. Another reason for ‘Agathi,’ gaining importance was the subject — moving away from mythology to subjects of universal interest such as the sufferings of refugees. Presented at Natya Darshan, ‘Agathi,’ incidentally was an India premiere.

‘Agathi’ was based on A Book of Poems: Expressions from our Youth , written by under-12 refugee children across the world and published by the UNHCR. Some poems were translated into Tamil by Niranjan Bharathi while some others were used for their stories. In addition, a poem by Kavimani Desiga Vinayagam Pillai and songs of Subramania Bharathi and Kannadasan were included.

‘Agathi’ was not just a dance-theatre work, it was also a social commentary on current affairs across the world. It threw the spotlight on the circumstances that make people flee their homes, natural calamities and politically-motivated displacements, and brought awareness of the injustice of it all, especially the latter.

The common theme across the poems was ‘Life will never be the same again.’ And this Aravinth conveyed. His personal journey as a refugee from Sri Lanka to Singapore, though in his childhood, seemed to have found resonance here.

Expectedly, it was a tear-jerker. The visualisation was dominated by powerful words — the soliloquy of the narrator who introduced the main acts and the text displayed on side screens during the show, both in English and the voice-overs and lyrics in Tamil. Sample this soliloquy: “Why are we running away from home? They are killing and raping my people. For what? For not believing? For opposing?… I am alone in a flash… family, friends, beloved… taken away. How am I supposed to live? How will he live?”

Music and dance reinforced their impact. The well-trained dancers worked within a tight framework of movements to bring out the mood, but what was most impressive was their seamless contribution to the intensity of the narrative. The boat scene composed in a haunting Madhuvanti raga, was the highlight of the show. The refugees scramble, sometimes fighting for survival, to get onto the boat. The trauma of the rough journey was shown through the movements of the dancers who mimicked the boat being tossed about on sea, as well as the people clinging on for life inside… A baby dies and the father, after one last cuddle, tearfully throws the body into the sea.

Moving lament

There could not have been one dry eye in the audience. The dancers re-grouped in the ‘Lament of the Refugee’ scene, each recounting their loss, while the others sit in empathy in the darkness. This was the main scene of ‘Agathi’ — ‘Avan ini avan illai’ set to Sindhu Bhairavi and other sad tunes.

The lighting was ambiguous, reflecting the sombre mood of the show, using darkness as much as light. The colours were minimal with white spots in front and back lighting used the most. The music often felt less than pure classical, since Aravinth had retained tunes from the well-known Tamil poets and lyricists. The frequent use of swaras and jatis and pallavis of thillanas alleviated this feeling to some extent.

‘Agathi’ was visually and dramatically absorbing, with well-coordinated scenes and in-depth cataloguing of the journey along with the trauma. The only drawback was that it dragged on longer than it should have. Editing scissors is all ‘Agathi’ requires.

Music was by Chitra Poornima and Karthik Raveendran; choreography - Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, Renjith Babu and Vijna Vasudevan; light design - Gyandev Singh, sound design - Sai Shravanam and costume design - Mohanapriyan.

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Printable version | Jul 6, 2022 6:20:15 pm |