In the eye of the beholder

Anita Ratnam in performance.  

In a ritual laden country like India, most of us have grown up with some form of family tradition, be it prayers at a particular time of day, specific foods on specific days, visits to a hallowed location, favourite songs, or even customs associated with exams, clothes or the arrival of special guests. As we become engaged in the hectic routines of a globalised adult world, these ceremonies are often reduced to mere memories; woven into fragrant associations rather than everyday practice. Classical dancer Anita Ratnam, who grew up in a South Indian Vaishnavite family, took her memories of visiting temples, dancing Bharatanatyam as a girl to “Rangapura Vihara” movingly sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi, and hearing recitation of verses of saints like Andal, and fitted them into the larger canvas of her dance choreography.

Her solo production, “Neelam... drowning in bliss” that she presented in the Capital this past week featured songs and chants from a range of devotional literature, including Andal, Annamacharya and Muttuswami Dikshitar.

Anita has trained in Mohiniattam and Kathakali as well, but Bharatanatyam — with its characteristic leg stretches, rhythmic foot striking and ‘Dhi Dhi Tai’ flourishes — was the predominant influence in the movement vocabulary, with jatis (composed for different pieces by Karaikudi Krishnamurthy and KSR Anniruddha) interspersing some of the vocals. She also created freer movement designs, as in the undulating arms to suggest the mythological ocean churned by the gods and demons.

Anita’s abhinaya was marked by subtlety of facial expression and economy of movement. In “Rangapura Vihara” she invoked key junctures of the Ramayana story with minimal gestures. The brothers going to the forest with Vishwamitra, defending the rishis against demon assaults, then proceeding to Janakpuri for the swayamvara of Sita, who was smitten at the sight of Rama, breaking the bow to win her hand; and later, Sita’s relinquishing palace life to accompany her husband in exile, the violent Surpanakha episode that led to Ravana’s revenge, the death of Jatayu, the building of the bridge to Lanka, the battle and Sita’s agni trial — all were fleetingly but clearly depicted.

Another memorable piece was Andal’s address to Krishna’s conch, Panchajanya. The dancer presented this abhinaya seated on a stool. What was striking was that the verses were chanted ( Revathy Sankkaran and Pradeep Chakravarthy) in the traditional manner, not sung. Andal, the devotee and mystic poetess, has been elevated to the status of a goddess. Once placed on a pedestal, the person becomes somewhat removed. Thus, her poetry as traditionally chanted usually evokes a general devotion for Krishna. Here, though, that cordon of propriety, where the devotee is one step back, so to speak, was wittily breached by the abhinaya that drew our attention to the actual words of the chant. If the verses had been set into a song pattern as they often are, this juxtaposition may not have been apparent.

The dancer portrayed the longing of Andal for Krishna that was reflected in her Shringara-filled question to the conch; how Krishna’s lips taste when he places them there to blow it, or her remark that ordinary mortals have to bathe, while the conch has the good fortune to be purified by the moisture of Krishna’s mouth. Anita added her own chanting voice in select silent spaces of the soundtrack. At a technical level, this caused a noticeable difference in sound quality, but maybe this was intended as the bridge that connected the exalted realms of priestly chants to the teasing, emotionally volatile world of the mortal devotee.

Audiences too bring their associations to the viewing. They see and hear not merely what is happening on stage but also with the mind and memory, and “Neelam”, rich in Vaishnavite imagery, became an evening of allusions, obvious and subtle. No doubt this is true of all performances, but in Anita Ratnam’s work there is little chance to sit back and be lulled into a semi-attentive viewing of the familiar. Those not completely at home with the pure Tamil and Sanskrit lyrics, and those not sharing the dancer’s cultural background – which would describe most of us – had to concentrate a little harder perhaps, on the introductory announcements by Sadhana Srivastava.

Besides the danced allusions of gesture and posture and movement were the visual allusions of the set and props: an installation of lotuses, an arrangement of parrots, garlands used by the dancer to convey a variety of meanings – from the swayamvara of Lakshmi risen out of the ocean of milk, to the ‘Lakshman rekha’ laid to protect Sita, to Rama’s bow.

Sound design by Anil Srinivasan and Vedanth Bharadwaj used the harmonious ‘dissonances’ that evoke a ritual atmosphere: the priests are not necessarily in tune with each other but their intonations are parallel; the bells, large and small, are also not in sync, but together the sounds evoke an ‘aural fragrance’. Srinivasan’s use of the piano for Carnatic music, though well known, still astounded for the way the chords created a soothing backing for the vocals at times, and at others, a percussive layer.

Costumes by Sandhya Raman and Rex and visual design by Rex were inseparable aspects of the aesthetics. A number of noted singers, including Sikkil Gurucharan and Subhiksha Rangarajan, temple artists and percussionists lent their artistry to the production. The choreographic consultant was Hari Krishnan. Additionally, G. Raghuraman of Delhi played the flute live during interludes between the pieces, and sometimes joined in with the recording. This was a difficult task but he proved equal to it. His opening cadences were highly evocative.

“Neelam” exemplified how today’s performing artists are engaging with inherited tradition. There is no one right or wrong way to go about this. Those who seek to paint India in simple hues are reckoning without its many colours of bliss.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 12:13:55 AM |

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