Tradition well preserved

'Maha Pattabhishekam.' at Kalakshetra Photo: M. Moorthy  

In the 1930s there was much discussion regarding the revival of ‘Sadir,’ as Bharatanatyam was then known, due to its association with the Devadasis, hereditary temple dancers. The art form was to be abolished, along with the artists, when activists E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale stepped in to rescue it through the Madras Music Academy and Kalakshetra respectively.

Rukmini Devi chose to ‘sanitise’ Sadir of any vulgarity, and emphasise bhakti (devotion), thereby creating a Bharatanatyam style characterised by strict angularities and understated expressions, taking off from the Pandanallur Baani. She added Kathakali to the curriculum as well.

Besides the Bharatanatyam margam that laid the foundation for the dancers, the visionary Rukmini Devi created a new genre of dance dramas that were distinct from Kathakali, Yakshaganas or any other existing dance-theatre form. Since her concept of art was inclusive, she borrowed liberally from Kathakali - movements (fight scenes, etc), facial expressions, the tiraiseelai, the hand-held curtain for presentation of characters, maddalam, the big cymbals and the idea of manodharma acting to percussion, for instance when Ravana threatens to chop up Sita, cook her over the fire and eat her up, if she does not accept his overtures.

Of all her dance-dramas, the six-part Ramayana series choreographed during 1955-1970, is perhaps her most enduring contribution. With stalwarts such as Venkatachala Shastri, Adi Narayana Sharma and Peria Sarada choosing the Sanskrit lyrics from the Valmiki Ramayana, Rukmini Devi set about creating the right ambience for the drama of Rama avataara to flow through.

Meticulous arrangements by the musical greats, Mysore Vasudevacharya and his grandson, S. Rajaram, accentuated the ebb and flow of emotions. They made sad scenes more poignant such as the one where Kaikeyi heartlessly hands out bark garments to Rama, Lakshmana and a bewildered Sita as they take leave of a broken-hearted Dasaratha (Arabhi, Amritavarshini), or, when a tearful, regretful Bharata comes to meet Rama in Chitrakoota (Subha Pantuvarali, Saveri, Saramathi, Mukhari, Thodi).

Rukmini Devi was an innovator. She introduced concepts such as emoting during a nritta passage such as Tara’s anxiety (Mashrunu Nrittam) when she sees Rama and Lakshmana, or adding a short swara passage with steps in between high drama (in Ashoka vanam when Ravana approaches Sita).

But these were done delicately so that they did not break the mood.

Her sense of aesthetics extended to costume design and colours, different flower arrangements for hairdos such as buns, innovative make up and head dress for rakshasas, vanaras and other beings, et al.

With simple props and limited lighting facilities, she created magic using the power of suggestion. For instance, the crossing of river Ganga with Guha — which took place at the back of the stage, keeping the front dark.

The cyclorama screen was drenched in blue lights, representing the river, with red and amber lights in the wings to accentuate the time of day (early morning and sunset); a diminutive Hanuman carrying Rama and Lakshmana on his shoulders to meet Sugreeva on the mountain. Rama’s knee was seen on Hanuman’s shoulder and Lakshmana’s foot dangled on his back. Hanuman had his arm and focus on the top, to give a sense of elevation; another scene was the burning of Lanka, where the white cyclorama screen was lit up in red and then was gently shaken to look like flickering flames.

Most important was the dignified subtlety - no loudness or over-dramatisation, no opening of the mouth. Her characterisation of even anti-heroes such as Ravana had dignity.

Sterling performances marked the Ramayana series with star-dancers such as Prof. A. Janardhanan and Hari Padman and star-musicians such as Sai Sankar and V. Hariprasad.

Kudos to Rukmini Devi for her genius and also to the Kalakshetra Foundation for its meticulous documentation and reproduction.

These works form part of our living heritage and have the power to communicate and move people, after more than 50 years since their creation.

Grand spectacle

The Ramayana series finale with music by S. Rajaram and choreography by Rukmini Devi in 1970, has over the years acquired a cult following. If the other dance dramas were crowded, this one was overflowing long before the start.

‘Maha Pattabhishekam’ was a grand spectacle, with beautiful scenes and pretty group dances alternating with dramatic events such as Vibhishana’s desertion, the battle, Lakshmana’s collapse, Ravana’s death, Agni Pariksha, return to Ayodhya and Rama’s coronation.

The two and a half-hour production was so seamless and mesmerising, that one journeyed along unconsciously with Rama and Sita, exulting at the ups and sorrowful at the downs. The cast lived their roles.

The dance-drama opened with a lively dance (Madumat Sarang, Udayaravichandrika, Kalyani) by the celestials in Ravana’s palace. The six dancers, in beautiful embroidered skirts were in black to denote the Rakshasa connection; the lilting music had sollus embedded, for which the steps were sprightly, with some running around and some fully-seated mandi adavus. Rukmini Devi had added excitement through quickly changing formations — now in pairs, then in a circle and then in two straight lines and so on.

The Sethubandana scene in Kadanakuthuhalam raga with the monkey army building the bridge to Lanka was pleasing, while the crossing was spectacular. The bridge stretched diagonally across the stage and was drenched in blue lights. The lighting design was by Rukmini Devi and the technician was Venkatesh Krishnan.

There were also the sad moments — when Lakshmana was taken for dead or when Mandodari wept over her dead husband, Ravana, but the characters handled the tragedies with great dignity.

The mood-relevant music (Sivaranjani, Natabhairavi respectively) was slow and tender, enhancing the pathos without resorting to melodramatic aids.

Girish (Rama) was exemplary in his dignity and stature, the ultimate maryada purushottama, as was Sreenath (the attentive Lakshmana). Sreedevi Jayakrishnan (Sita) showed unusual depth during her period of trial, when Rama’s distance both hurts and angers her. Jayakrishnan (Ravana) had a commanding presence; Amalnath (Vibhishana) was convincing as a righteous rakshasa, while Atul (Angada)’s cartwheels were a happy surprise. But the highlight wasHari Padman (Hanuman), who appeared as a born-again artist, with an intense, agile and restrained performance.

The excellent musicians were: Rakesh (nattuvangam), Sai Sankar, Hari Prasad (vocal), Anil Kumar (mridangam), Sivakumar (violin), Sasidhar (flute), Ananthanaryanan (veena) and Sivaroopan (maddalam).

It is said that Rukmini Devi always preferred to end a dance-drama on a positive note; she had enough to celebrate with Rama’s coronation. The retinue returning to Ayodhya in a grand procession was a sight to behold, as were the apsaras flitting in and out in joyous ecstasy.

The Ramayana series was presented in association with the Indira Sivasailam Foundation, Chennai.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 8:32:52 AM |

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