Mesmerising faces

"God has made her for dancing,'' said an ecstatic viewer after watching Malavika Sarukkai at Bharat Kalachar. You could well understand the elation; in fact, you felt it yourself. It was an inspired performance dedicated to musician Meera Seshadri, who passed away this month (she had composed much of the music of the evening). A senior cavilled, ``She looks like a wax doll.'' A young dancer was dismissive, ``Malavika's abhinaya has no heart.''

It seemed to me that these critics missed the point. Sarukkai does not depend on just the facial muscles to communicate, not even on movements of eyes and lips. Whether sthayi or sanchari, bhakti or sringara, anticipation or desolation, her whole body conveys the emotions. And on that day she had no peer at all. I felt that her use of gestural imagery, whether lotus or lamp, water or fire (and how many variants of those motifs!) was as resonant and layered as poetry, calling forth associations from deep cultural memory. Her dancing had those points of stillness, which energise the viewer's grasp of the immaculate movements.

"Enna araimandi!'' sighed a fledgling dancer shunting between college, computer course and cramming for GRE, after watching Urmila Satyanarayanan at Krishna Gana Sabha. This new entrant to the Nritya Choodamani ranks, had sparkling teermanams and sprightly sancharis to rivet the eye. ``Enna maiyal!'' said the seasoned rasika (can we translate this as ``what sensuousness?"), unsure whether to approve or disapprove. ``Enna azhagu!'' was the uncluttered response from a stunned NRI music buff who had stayed on to give the dance a try.

Leela Samson's loyal fans in the city started the applause before the dance at the Krishna Gana Sabha. Her Ashtapadi certainly deserved appreciation. The sakhi was lucidly distinguished from the nayika (a tricky test even for seniors) as she brings news of Radha to the hero. (Now how do we contemporise that idea in our e-mail age?) Her costume had a flowing grace, reminiscent of the kinnaras who dance on the mountains in her guru Rukmini Devi's "Ramayana'. Will some crusty connoisseur (no dearth of `em in Chennai) offer top prizes to Samson and Sarukkai as our most consistent re-inventors of tradition in costume design and colour scheme, with a bite-n-bark explication of the choice?

A word about stage design in our major sabhas. Krishna Gana Sabha scores in its Chettinad frontage, though you wonder why on earth they have sidelined that gorgeous bronze Krishna and centre-staged a navaratri bommai. The Music Academy has gone in for pleasing platinum-shade minimalism. Even small Bharat Kalachar has peacock feathers on reed mat for that chic finish. Starting with suave ethnicity, Narada Gana Sabha has reverted to painted sets of palace halls where we expect a yesteryear T. K. Shanmugam, or even Manohar, to materialise and declaim dialogues of demoniac length.

At the canteens (more indispensable than the stage for our festival) the hearty welcome from the brisk staff ("Vango, vango! Enna mami, innikku adai pottirikkom. Mama, shooda keerai vadai kondu varava...") had an enchanted foreign "guest" raving about the personalised service. Why not? For what you get here is not `tiphan' but prasadam, blessed both by the gods the eateries are named after, and the samiyars who glower down at us from their banners. One even had some ``His Holiness'' at the formal inauguration, with apple halwa for naivedyam to god and customer. Besides, at the Academy canteen, Mummoorthies beckon to you, as they sing auspicious ragas (not Ahiri you hope) from the cardboard gopuram at the entrance. But look in vain for special a la carte fare — no Tyagaraja bajji, Dikshitar vadai or Syama Sastri sundal — resurrected through authentic research into recipes of the Trinitarian era.

By the way, the `ada da!'(s) from the row behind me at Bombay Jayashree's recital turned out to be from Sikhamani and Nellai Kannan, accompanists for the following dance programme. No wonder they were able to bring that rasika temperament to their own music when they played for the dance. In fact, there are some who have started attending dance programmes to hear music ripe from Sikhamani, Vijayaraghavan, Bhagyalakshmi or young Akkarai Subbulakshmi. ("Sir, she gives you the raga like badam halwa!'' a sabha habitue said).

I also discovered this time at the Krishna Gana sabha that seasoned rasikas can go on two tracks, absorbing the music in an unconscious process as they talk incessantly.

Voice One: This year, the nellikai season is very good, this is an excellent Bilahari, yesterday I pickled them both in salt and chilli spice. My grandchildren from Boston were raving about the thokku. Can't coast along on slow gamakas, he must put in more briga and ravai sangatis to bring out the raga essence.

Voice Two: But very expensive, forty rupees a kilo he says. I have heard better Surutti in my time, my grandson is thrilled with magaali kizhangu, they get everything abroad nowadays but not magaali. Even if they did who is to make it there with all the itching, certainly not my daughter-in-law, no, I don't mean by Ariyakudi or Alathur but Sanjay Subrahmanyam who sang a far better Surutti some time back right here.

We know what the locals do between cutcheri sessions (Mamas snooze, Mamis make nellikkai thokku). What about those exotic winter migrants from foreign climes? The bevies cluster in Sundari Silks and Rasi. (Nalli and Kumaran I am told are for the not too chic locals plus the hoi polloi). At Radha Silks I was as stunned as the salesmen were, when a young man, with beard and diamond earring, draped a zari-splashed Conjeevaram saree in magenta and mustard over his shoulders, to admiring comments from his retinue of girls. Not a transvestite but - you guessed it, a dancer of course.

Overheard at the car park:

Mesmerising faces

Mama: I don't like jugalbandhis, they're like avial for chapatthi. But this one by Sriram Parasuram and Anuradha was top class. Brilliant ear rings too.

Mami: So you found Anuradha's ear rings more dazzling than the singing!

Mama: Not Anuradha's thodu but Sriram's vaira kadukkan. Once I too had kadukkans just as sparkling. You said not in fashion and made some pendant for yourself with them. I remember how my friends were as dazzled by them at our wedding as by Rajaratnam Pillai's Todi.

Mami: You remember those tiny miserable diamonds after all these years, more than Rajaratnam Pillai's Todi and Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar's Sankarabharanam!

Mama: (sighing) Not tiny...


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