Friday Review

Treading her own margam


In India, people like to quote the adage that Saraswati and Lakshmi simply can’t be friends and steer clear of each other. The complaint cloaked in this good humoured cliché is that — particularly in the world of arts and letters — those who control the funds are often woefully lacking in understanding of the arts or sensitivity to artists’ needs, but they are the ones who call the shots. Luckily though, there are always exceptions. The Sanskriti Foundation is one such. Since its inception, this has been seen as an entity comprising aesthetes and scholars with the magnanimity and wisdom to offer financial and infrastructural support to artists of various disciplines. Apart from hosting performances, seminars and workshops, exhibitions and its unique permanent museums, this organisation offers a number of fellowships aimed at encouraging young talent in classical dance and music. Among these is the Sanskriti-Madhobi Chatterji Memorial Fellowship.

The 10-month Fellowship, first awarded in 2010-11, offers selected candidates Rs. 1,00,000 to pursue a stated goal. But that stated goal need not make the recipient feel constricted, points out Amrita Lahiri, the recipient for 2015-16, whose term is concluding now. Purobi Mukharji, who spearheads the programme, is flexible about how an artist may want to use the funds. “I liked how she left it a bit open-ended,” says Amrita. While some organisations do “just give money and say produce something,” which works for commissioned programmes, Amrita remarks, Purobi “was more understanding”.

This Tuesday evening, Amrita, whose brilliance of technique combined with her abhinaya range and lively demeanour have earned her a fan following over two decades, will present a Kuchipudi recital at the India International Centre to mark the culmination of her Fellowship.

Some people make use of the opportunity provided by the grant to learn from one guru, but says Amrita, “I haven’t worked with just one guru. I have many gurus.”

Describing the repertoire she has put together for her recital, the Singapore-based dancer says, “I’m presenting what I’ve done over the last one year.” The presentations include some new and some older compositions which have been revisited.

One of the new pieces is a Telugu javali, “Sakhi prana,” which she learnt from Guru Leela Samson. Another is “Chaliye kunjanamo” of Swati Tirunal, in which she was guided by Bhriga Bessel. However, notes Amrita, she has worked on the pieces and will not be presenting them in the same way as her gurus might. One reason for this is of course that they are Bharatanatyam exponents while Amrita performs Kuchipudi. More importantly though, Amrita feels that the student has to make the piece her own rather than merely repeat it.

In an age when many teachers churn out dancing figures as if on a conveyor belt, this attitude sounds refreshing, but Amrita reflects that the imitative approach too has its merits at one stage, adding, “At my age it can’t be like that.”

This year Amrita also spent time in the village of Kuchipudi where her chosen art form is believed to have been first nurtured. There, she drew fresh inspiration from the Kuchipudi Yakshagana (traditional dance drama) festival. Thus she will also be revisiting a composition from “Usha Parinayam” which she learnt under Guru Swapnasundari many years ago. It’s a piece, says Amrita, of which she never tires.

The performance will also include a composition of Vempati Chinna Satyam and a tarangam composed by Vempati’s disciple Kishore Mosalikanti, another of Amrita’s gurus.

Early in her career, Amrita learnt Bharatanatyam under Leela Samson. Having begun learning Kuchipudi in Washington DC under Anuradha Nehru, Amrita had moved back to India at the age of 15, and it was Anuradha who encouraged her to start learning Bharatanatyam too — a generosity of spirit not always found in teachers.

Amrita’s eclectic taste and training have not stopped with Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. She has also been mentored extensively by Odissi exponent Sharmila Biswas.

“I haven’t performed (solo) in Delhi for the last seven years,” Amrita mentions. “I hope this is well received.” Behind the vestige of hesitation is her impression that Delhi audiences prefer the tried, tested and conventional over the experimental.

“The last production I did in Delhi was ‘Moorchhana’ mentored under Sharmilaji,” says Amrita. “I thought I’d do a more straightforward margam this time.”

But, she says, “I’m also working on a more contemporary production for a festival in Goa.” Called Serendipity Arts, the weeklong festival takes place in December and is curated by Sanjeev Bhargava of Seher. “It’s a 45-minute solo production.” She will be working with vocalist Sudha Raghuraman and percussionist Nawaz Mirajkar.

For now, though, it’s time to walk on a path others have taken before. But that doesn’t mean this margam won’t reveal new twists of its own.

Kuchipudi by Amrita Lahiri on September 6, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi, 6.30 p.m. Accompanying musicians: Sudha Raghuraman (vocal), Thanjavur Keshavan (nattuvangam), M.V. Chandersekhar (mridangam),G. Raghuraman (flute)

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 8:38:19 AM |

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