The passing years have not been able to dent Bijan Mukherjee’s passion for bringing to centrestage artists he finds deserving. This was underscored by the recently concluded 18th National Festival of Creative Arts, an annual three-day event organised by Mukherjee’s organisation Impresario India. As in other years, the venue was New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre.
What began as a Festival of New Choreography aimed at showcasing creativity among dancers of the various Indian classical genres was transformed some years ago into a wider platform for artists from many fields. This year seemed particularly diverse, featuring traditions like Kalaripayattu alongside the rare skill of hand shadowgraphy, a stand-up comedy act and classical dance.
The fare almost seemed too diverse, but only if one looked at it from the narrow perspective of classical dance as an elitist pursuit that can only be paired with philosophical discourse, classical music and mythology. However, looking at classical dance forms as people’s arts, combining storytelling with music and community beliefs, the spread offered by the festival seemed wholly appropriate.
The festival opened with “Chandra Upasana”, a presentation in Odissi choreographed by Guru Durga Charan Ranbir and performed by his disciples. The title piece was dedicated to Chandra or the Moon. The dancers depicted the churning of the ocean of milk which yielded this milky white deity, then went on to extol Shiva who wears the moon as his crown. They ended with an obeisance to the moon, the Chandra Namaskar. It was an interesting concept to highlight, as the Surya Namaskar is much more widely known and practised by ordinary people.
The dancers executed the choreography well and kept pace with the rhythmic music, but the pace itself was unremittingly fast. Even a fast rhythm can become monotonous. Here with the tempo offering little variety, and the rest of the orchestra (on recorded soundtrack) also playing with full gusto, the nuances of a dramatic theme could not be highlighted.
The group then also performed “Jagannath Gopinath” which juxtaposed the concepts and stories associated with Krishna in his form of Jagannath at Puri and as Gopinath at Vrindavan. Another interesting idea choreographed in what has become a conventional manner, where the stress is on the nritta abilities and coordination of the dancers, it was once again competently performed by the group of well-trained dancers.
The other dance performances came on the second and third day of the festival. Day two featured an amalgam of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali in a production called “Banshee” that touched on themes of devotion, shringara and the different ways of worship. Choreographed by Rajdeep Banerjee of Parampara Dance Institute, it had a recorded soundtrack that brought together Rabindra Sangeet and Sanskrit shlokas along with a poetic English commentary.
All the Bharatanatyam dancers performed with lyrical grace and a refreshing neatness of lines. Krishna was shown in Kathakali vesham. Smoothly executed and pleasing, both visually and aurally, the production did bring to mind one essential difference in approach between the two dance forms. The technique of Kathakali, though a dance drama form in which characters interact with each other, does not conventionally permit performers to turn towards each other and focus on their interlocutors. Instead they remain focussed towards the front. But with Bharatanatyam and other solo forms, the centre focus of the dancer changes depending on whom the dancer is addressing. The change in the Kathakali approach to suit the Bharatanatyam does substantially change its aura, but this is a compromise or adjustment that is the prerogative of the choreographer.
On the last day of the festival Natua dancers of Bengal performed. They were presented in collaboration with www.banglanatak.com. This was described as an ancient and near lost dance form of Purulia in West Bengal. One could discern in their movements the characteristic strutting walk of Purulia Chhau, of which this art is considered a precursor. A feisty rural art, the Natua performance was a rousing one, highly percussive with drums medium to large-sized, acrobatic tableaux and breathtaking somersaults along with songs belted out at booming volume by the dancers themselves. A shehnai player also accompanied them.
Featuring an age range of young boys to men who looked decidedly past middle age, the display included entertainment of the sort associated with villages, which takes away nothing from their prodigious skills: a man folded impossibly into a hoop and manoeuvring himself out of it, then being joined by a young boy inside it and coordinating the escape effort; lusty somersaults and cartwheels all across the mat spread on the stage, executed simultaneously by the group that seemed to know no fear. The neutral stance they took from time to time, feet spread out, shoulders thrown back and hands on waist, was both strong and endearing. The troupe was led by Biren Kalindhi.
One hopes this energetic art is not allowed to fade into oblivion, and considering there are young boys working hard in this troupe, there is potential for its growth.
Another interesting presentation was hand shadowgraphy by Amar Sen, described as an actor, a magician and hand shadowgrapher among other professions. He entertained the audience with his hand mudras against the light, projected on a screen reminiscent of a marionette stage, bringing up all the while relevant topics like ecology and the need to preserve the environment. This art too has the potential to become very popular. In technology obsessed times when adventure too has been reduced to a virtual experience, the refreshing feel of simplicity and a gust of imagination is perhaps just what is required.
Speaking of adventure, the Kalaripayattu presented by Dr Murugan Pillai's Nithya Chaithanya Kalari Martial Art Academy, from New Delhi gave the Habitat Centre audience some moments of bated breath with their display of Kerala martial arts. Opponents attacking and defending using sword and shield, bare hands or sticks demonstrated techniques that are still relevant in today’s troubled times. These included an unarmed woman facing an attacker with two daggers, disarming him, and so on.
The closing performance was by stand-up comic Surendra Sharma. His act consisted largely of Haryanvi tinged husband-wife jokes but was also interspersed with a rather serious commentary on our education system that crushes the spirit of the child.
In its wide variety the festival did offer, besides the ‘something for everyone’ formula, a chance for the dyed-in-the-wool classical audience a chance to let their hair down!