Of mystic search and cosmic tales

Anita Ratnam conveys the delicacy of a dream with ease.

Anita Ratnam conveys the delicacy of a dream with ease.  

VIVID, VISUAL imagery interpreted in the Bharatanatyam idiom encompasses the gamut of Naachiyar's mystic search for the divine. Staged by Anita Ratnam and the Arangham Dance Theatre, Naachiyar stands out as a classic illustration of how a theatrical production can turn out to be a captivating presentation despite deviating a little from the puritanical `margam.' For here, Anita has dealt with Vaishnavite spiritualism in the language of aesthetics, vocabulary of Dravida `vedam', interspersed with symbolism, encasing it in the archaic dance drama (Sutradar, thirasheelai-spokesperson, curtain) pattern. Thus, Nachiyaar is not the archetypal Andal or Kodai but emerges as the mystic (Alwar) who pined for Sri Ranganatha (Vatapatrasayee/Krishna) and whose physical presence can be felt in the epic poem - `Nachiyaar Thirumozhi' and at a later date `Amuktamalyada' more than the popular `Tiruppavai'.

Balancing the eroticism of a young maiden delirious for physical union with none other than god with the spiritual connotation of such a merger without sermonising, Anita Ratnam as Nachiyaar was able to deftly convey the delicacy of a dream and the consecration of devotion (bhakti). Her prelude in English was a welcome initiation into the world of not just the saint-poet Andal but to the prevalent Vaishnava `sampradayam' (custom) of those times. The redoubtable Revathy Sankaran, dressed in nine-yard sari was eloquence personified with a rich voice that sang in the sweetest of tones. Her heralding of Andal's story in the role of a `sutradaar' and narrative interludes, her doubling up as the foster mother of a forlorn Andal later in the story where she consoles and caresses the divine maiden, the lullaby to the lord atop the palanquin were handled by her in the most convincing manner. Walking between the dancers, she represented the quintessential woman — the mother figure who is the womb from where tradition takes birth and tradition lives and regenerates.

The dancers (five in all) each performing a regular ritual in the very opening scenes; the symbolic Shankaravam (sound of the holy conch) by the priest (Kailasa Kambhar) said to be culled out of a ceremonial custom in the Thirukurungadi temple served to enhance the aura of mystic ritualism of Nachiyaar. The sound of the gushing ocean in the background as Andal raises the `shanku' and puts it to her ear was a piece of creative excellence just as the palanquin bearing the `utsava murthi' (idol) of the lord enters the stage with four dancers shouldering it and walking adhering to absolute rhythmic footwork in keeping with the sea-saw movement of the palanquin. A sort of temple atmosphere permeated the stage as the `sutradaar' comes singing and another set of dancers welcome the lord on the palanquin. Beautiful footwork creating aesthetic patterns as the carriers change hands and positions to temple chants and tolling of bells in the background made this scene by far the best. The Krishna idol bedecked with a peacock feather and jewels was amazingly full of life. Other scenes like the `tulsi' grove where the dancers dressed in mango-green costume converge as basil bushes where the divine child Andal is found by the great Vishnuchitta, the parallel scenes across the stage where Andal is being bathed and decked as the bride-to-be behind a curtain by her foster mother and the same ritual is being mimed by a group of dancers obviously for the benefit of the audience, the dance of the elephant by Anita (Nachiyaar) solely to flute music reminiscent of Krishna's `venu ganam' shone brilliantly.

Anita's ingenuity comes to the fore in the multi-dimensional symbolism of the milky white silk `angavastram' sporting the `thirunamam' in gold as a centre-piece. This piece of cloth held by two dancers as a screen in the entry of Nachiyaar (Pavaiye thiru pavaiye), becomes the motif `choodi

kodutha maalai' (garland), gets converted to a canopy, duplicates as flowing waters and so on. Her emotive `abhinaya' in scenes of dreamy stupor and the yearning for the lord was subtle and suggestive. The `jati' patterns worked out both by the central character in the `swarajati' format and by the group of dancers seemed to lay more stress on syllabic aesthetics not to talk of footwork artistry. The `Tirukacchi Nambi' reference and role served to give a third dimension to the story.

The absence of the typical `Andal kondai' (koppu) as an identified headgear of Nachiyaar was unexplainable especially since the generous use of peacock feathers were deemed fit as metaphor for the mythological Krishna. Andal is more definitely placed in history than the `puranic' Krishna and the influence of a Chera hairdo on the natives of the neighbouring Srivilliputhur sounds more realistic than the imaginary peacock feathers. Certain aspects of an antique dress code would only add to identity of a character. Similarly, was it really necessary to substitute a foster mother in place of Perialwar to appreciate Andal's feminine predicament? There are many fathers who mother their daughters and become their alter egos too. The poetry-song drawn from the `Divya Prabhandam', `Tiruppavai', `Nachiyaar Tirumozhi' recreated a lost century. Percussion by N.K.

Kesavan proved to be an asset to the entire presentation, Devraj on the flute, and Subhasri on the `nattuvangam' were expressive. Roshni's vocal to O.S. Aruns' superb music was up to the mark.

Cosmic tale

Rajeswari Sainath traces nature's five elements through puranic lore.

Rajeswari Sainath traces nature's five elements through puranic lore.  

The potency of the five elements pervading the cosmos was a well thought out theme in the wake of the recent daunting tsunami. `Prapancha Vichitram' — Cosmic Mythology, group choreography by Rajeswari Sainath and her disciples (Sangita, Varshita, Vaishnavi and Navaneetha) traces the origin of the five elements and exemplifies these through `puranic' lore. Each element was vested with various aspects and was presided over by a deity.

The deity in Hindu mythology is a concretisation of the abstract to drive home a significant truth that divinity resides in every created entity from air to water to living and non-living.

In `Prapancha Vichitram' (World Wonder) the sky (Aakash), wind (Vaayu), fire (Agni) waters (Varua) and earth (Prithvi) and their respective significance in the order of the universe were extolled in Sanskrit verses with Rajeswari providing the mime and footwork to concretise the abstract. S.R. Veera Raghavan was in his element in rendering the `slokas' and songs in the most expressive tones to varied ragas compositions set by Balasai. His reach and timbre were marvellous.

The use of the Tamil language to convey the `puranic' details to testify the powers of these individual elements proved a little uneasy to the cosmopolitan audience of the South Indian Cultural Association.

The group of four dancers trouped in and out at the appropriate intervals to illustrate a series of fables: on the Vamana avatar (to depict the element akaash), the Hanuman search for Sita episode, Kamsa's mortal scare about Devaki-Vasudeva's progeny (all with reference to the sky element), Hanuman wanting to play with the sun (reflecting Vayu's power) and so on.

Responsive to rhythm and sync, they made a meaningful five. Rajeswari remained centre stage filling in the more abstract details with gestures and lacing each episode with commanding footwork, which alternated between elongated syllabic accent and racy rhythmic beats. Pure `nritta' has always been Rajeswari's strong point though this time around the concentration was more on an extensive thematic exposition with select footwork.

`Prapancha Vichitram', but for its mundane title, provided quantum information packaged in the medium of Bharatanatyam.

The Sanskrit verses denoting the different aspects of each element and the English commentary prior to the commencement of the each cosmic element were succinct, stately and sufficient to drive home the point with an esoteric touch well conceived by Karaikkudi R. Mani (mridangam maestro) and choreographed by Rajeswari Sainath.

The myriad mythological stories that seemed an endless rambling flow of pieced illustrations sung in Tamil seemed patchy and prolonged, bringing down the lofty theme. Nagai Narayanan on the percussion and C.K. Vijayaraghavan on the violin and Srikanth on the `tabla' made a fitting orchestra. `Nattuvangam' by Amaram Gita and Ranjani Seshadri was just up to the mark.


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