Bharatanatyam and Bibilical narratives

Bharatanatyam dancer Divya Vasanth strings together traditional mudras that depict the rolling waters of a sea, the act of gently splitting an object into two, and the installation of high walls — she is conveying the Bibilical account of Moses parting the Red Sea. It's not a one-off performance. Divya is a key member of a group that employs the gamut of Bharatanatyam movements to illustrate Bibilical narratives. Carnatic music and songs — also dedicated to this goal — accompany these performances. Welcome to Christu Dance Centre (CDC).

CDC traces its origin to a project for the students of Women's Christian College (WCC), started way back in 1984. Anjala Richard, a Tamil professor and head of the department of languages at WCC, authored an initiative called Narseithikkalai Koodam (NK), which presented Bibilical dance dramas and worship songs through Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. As a descendant of Vedanayagam Sastriar, the court poet of King Serfoji, Anjala had inherited a rich tradition of classical music and dance, which she put into this project.

After her retirement in 1994 too, she nourished her brainchild, now known as Christu Dance Centre. Following her sudden demise in 1997, a lull set in. But for a timely intervention by an unlikely patron of Indian arts, it would have prolonged.

Timely intervention

N.R.D. Ezekiel — who assists his wife Vathsala Ezekiel and niece Divya in running CDC as a weekend-school in Vepery — recalls: “Around two years after Anjala passed away, Dennis Hudson, a family friend and professor of Comparative Religions at Smith College, North Hampton, Massachusetts, gave us a pep talk. It encouraged us to re-start the programme. It did not surprise us that Hudson took this effort — during his stint at an Indian college, he developed a fascination for Carnatic music, and learnt it.”

Keeping CDC going has not been difficult — for one reason. Almost all of Anjala's close kin are tutored in Classical music and dance forms. Vathsala is a trained classical veena player and is good at singing songs set to Carnatic music. Before she moved to the U.S., Divya's cousin Mary Sajini Anand — also trained in Bharatanatyam — worked alongside the rest of the family in keeping alive Anjala's legacy. There is a ready lyricist in Priscilla Christodass, Divya' mother. More significantly, a treasure trove of music and dance has been passed to the family.

Vathsala's mother Dayamani Manasseh has written Carnatic hymns on Bibilical themes and some of them have become an integral part of CDC's public shows. As a matter of practice, every show ends with a performance based on ‘Bethlehem Kuravanji', a work by Vedanayagam Sastriar that was inspired by ‘Kutrala Kuravanji'.

“Before this performance, we present all elements of a traditional Bharatanatyam performance, including alarippu, jathiswaram, padam, varnam and tillana. We are equally meticulous about the Carnatic elements in our songs — they conform to tradition,” says Divya. “Mudras and ragas make a powerful language that can convey any message. It's something we have experienced over the years.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 11:35:55 AM |

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