The first time audiences watched Mark Morris dance to ‘O Rangasayee’ they didn’t quite know what hit them. It was outrageous, almost grotesque, but it was also jaw-droppingly brilliant. And it made you laugh with its sheer daring.
The American dancer had, in 1984, picked up the lovely Tyagaraja lament and spun what looked like a spontaneous dance out of it. The movements had nothing to do with the lyrics, and there was no abhinaya . It was simply a maverick, creative response to the rhythm and the ebb and flow of the music coming from M.S. Subbulakshmi’s molten throat.
Morris was then 28, a remarkable stage presence — muscular, loose-limbed, clad in just a loin cloth on stage, his hair long and tumbled. He would move in abstract but perfect consonance with the kriti ’s rhythm. And every time the song folded back to the refrain, he would, on the beat, come to a standstill and hold out his palms painted a dramatic red and move his head in the clichéd southern head-nod.
Earlier this month, after decades, Morris revived ‘O Rangasayee’, pronounced one among the greatest choreographies of last century, at New York’s Lincoln Center. He curated the ‘Sounds of India’ section at the annual White Light Festival of the center this year, with a special emphasis on southern India’s arts. The response from New York’s famously discerning audiences was terrific.
It was a tribute to the universal appeal of the arts of South India, say the festival organisers. “Universality is a component of all human culture. I don’t believe, as is often said, that ‘music is an international language’. I would say that there is a human language with many and varied dialects and variations. The big themes: love, loss, hope, mystery, death. They are truly universal,” says Morris.
Indeed, the Kalamandalam Kathakali troupe’s hour-long ‘Dushasanavadham’ had all the elements of a universal drama. “Fights, songs, love, rhythm and music, it is one of our most popular plays in the West,” says veteran Kathakali artiste M. Krishnakumar. “We played to full houses twice during the festival.”
As for the extraordinary ‘O Rangasayee’, Morris, now 60, handed it over to Dallas McMurray, a young artiste at his dance company. And by all accounts the performance had audiences riveted as it always did. “Nobody thought that this piece could be danced by anybody but him. But, the true guru that he is, he has inspired his ‘disciple’, Dallas, to rock the scene in New York. The audience reaction to McMurray’s ‘O Rangasayee’ was simply awesome,” says Bharatanatyam guru Lakshmi Vishwanathan, whose discussion on southern performing arts with Morris opened the festival.
The festival featured vocalists Bombay Jayashri and T.M. Krishna, percussion wizard Selvaganesh; a Kathakali troupe from Kalamandalam and an Odissi performance by Nrityagram.
Morris’s dance company also presented another India-centric work, ‘ Tamil Film Songs in Stereo Pas de Deux’, at the festival. A comic choreography, it picks three songs out of a cassette titled ‘Tamil Film Songs in Stereo’ — that Morris picked up off the streets of Singapore in 1983 — and creates a story of a tough dance master and his student.
The curation was, says Morris, a tribute from a “devoted amateur” to his long and passionate love affair with South Indian arts. “I always spend time in Chennai for the (Margazhi) music festival. Sometimes I attend two or three concerts a day. I can’t get enough.”
It was during his first modern American dance tour of India in 1981, a packed two-week dash across the country, that the inspiration for ‘O Rangasayee’ came to Morris. It was also the first time he heard M.S., whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year. The dance, he says, was a young man’s response to an overwhelming first visit to India. “I made up a dance of homage composed of my impressions and expressions of delight: impressions of street life, Kathak, quotidian gesture, temple visits, etc. I didn’t learn the text until later. It was never meant as a parody. It was meant as a garland of appreciation.”
The choreography’s charm is intact, as Vishwanathan says. Legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, watching it at Lincoln, asked her the import of the kriti . “I told him about the three vital streams in this composition... Tyagaraja, Subbulakshmi, and (the idea of) ‘Bhooloka Vaikuntam’, which had kindled Mark’s creativity without him ever studying the meaning. His response a few minutes later was to touch Mark’s feet in appreciation,” she recalls.
Vishwanathan has been Morris’ friend and guide around Chennai’s annual, bewildering cultural mela — and especially its food fiesta, he admits — for 20 years now. “He has been inspired in many ways by our dance vocabulary... the use of space, footwork, hastha mudras , and also the pure geometry of the movement of limbs,” says Vishwanathan.
If Morris has his way, many more Americans would be flocking to Chennai for the Margazhi season every year.
Malini Nair likes to explorethe intersection between cultureand society in her writings.