Welcome to the jungles: Dancing to the metaphors of life
Ananda Shankar Jayant performs to the timeless parables...Panchatantra
- Pratima Sagar, Hyderabad

April 23, 2006

A haunting bass windy whine lures the viewer into the nadirs of deep green jungle groves, a gentle beam illumines a creature that rises to call its clique... .bhum bhum bhum... bustles the group blowing Siva's drums, or is it the dancers' way of evoking the god of elements - on a stage set for exploring imaginative allegories from the forests, what they called Dancing Tales... Panchatantra, the timeless similes for life retold in a creative language of dance theatre.

Premiered on March 26th at the immense Shilpakala Vedika for a packed Deccani audience, Panchatantra by Ananda Shankar Jayant of Shankarananda Kalakshetra simply showed a way to dance!

An expression of life for always, and again; a visual medium enticing the viewer to fathom the fables through the almost seamless props providing space for the dancers who moved across and beyond the surface of dance into the creatures of nature they portrayed. On the judicious mix of dance, music, theatre and the age-old story telling tradition, the choreographer opines that classical dance today only attracts the old and where are the youngsters? Now 20 years down, we will have no audience. This production is a way of attracting the youth to India's dance and story telling traditions.

If the pure music created a wooded mood, the dancers took to weaving themselves into the elements of the jungle... of the banyan trees and winding weeds, birds gliding across the greens to the swinging apes, a sprightly stream downing the hills carrying the swift symmetry of fish to the aging alligators almost unmovable! Enter the jungle where anything could happen... monkeys would dance and play a dangerous prank, rabbits could rush and even outwit the lion king, cranes could congress and crocodiles get wicked, pigeons fly together to freedom and more. The animated dance ballet kept the audience riveted for almost one and a half hours!

Over a dozen dancers with movements so different, from the khanda tirputa, mallari to a mishram, the varying rhythms that made way from a pure dance Bharatanatyam to a body language of graceful stretches, bends and swings, ... a majestic elephant emerging, a creepy snake cutting across, a herd of deer grazing and swiftly galloping at the slightest sense of danger, or even representing the colourful flora... the dancers being in oneness delved on stage as dwellers of nature themselves. Of a visual vocabulary that at once transports one into the days of "once upon a time... "!

"Growing up with story telling sessions was simply a way of life. And Panchatantra being my favourite, I was tickled and inspired to translate these stories into dance... inspired because these stories had centuries of wisdom and find resonance in each one of us, by holding up a mirror to society... and above all I decided that we need to bring some fun and laughter into dance," says the Bharatanatyam dancer / choreographer Ananda Shankar Jayant, who finds the present production both creatively and kinetically challenging.

The dance movements replicated the gait, character and mood of the animal portrayed. And the choreography saw styles and boundaries of different dance forms not only complimenting each other but also fluently merging to highlight the theme. Like the depiction of a powerful glutton of a lion with the use of Kathakali expressions and gestures by Pradeesh confronting the dainty image of a rabbit enacted by Ananda, or the lucid choreography that showed a mirror image of the lion with another dancer enacting on the other end of the stage to depict its image in the well only to pounce on each other, and jump across down the stage with a thud!! And the rabbits rejoice their victory of outsmarting the foolish Bhasuraka, the lion, with a joyous and jumpy dance! Well, what they say "brains over brawn"!!

In another tale, a band of monkeys get swinging until a curious monkey gets his tail caught in the wedge left by the carpenters at a temple construction site- "do not peek into others' affairs" is the moral that touched across the suddenly calm and frozen theatre space! Nevertheless, the dancers casually sporting a braided drape across their waists and shoulders (suggestive of tails!) with uneven jackets in browns, jus' seemed to have had a great time on stage, all in summersaults, rolls, swings and jumps with a baby dancer in tow enacting a toddler monkey! The animated space and sound contributed plenty to Hasya Rasa.

In a ballet like dance that followed next, the agile dancers in long white flowing gowns now blissfully stretched and swirled to a kedar tillana. Ananda's use of classical art elements and contemporary body movements and collages enhanced the mood and imagery of these birds migrating from her. Two of them attempt in vain- to carry a tortoise to safety from the parched dry lake.

Stories and morals apart, one wondered how quickly they changed- now a monkey and now a crane! Well, the credit goes to the young designer Ganesh Nallari who gave the dancers a basic off-white blouse and patiyala pajamas with a jute kamarbandh (or waist band). And the varied sequences saw the dancers just sporting off and on, overcoats symbolizing the animal. Like the crew of crocodiles - here, the dancers appeared crawling on stage with gray green long flurry jute coats (like tail coats)!

At once, one is drawn towards the impeccable choreographic sequence between the two friends - the monkey Raktamukha and the crocodile Karalamukha. The latter seeks his friend's heart to indulge his wife with a snack, but gets fooled by the monkey who jumps to safety by claiming his heart was on a tree! End of a friendship!

The imagery was complemented by music in performing the lyric-free narratives. A mélange of instruments made apt expressional melodies specially composed by Prema Ramamurthy. Folk jingles to classical melodies, percussion beats and wind blown whines, all from a kaleidoscope of traditions, blended together to embellish the Panchatantra ballet.

As the awed audience applauded to these lucid narrative sequences, the ballet painted a fine finish with another fable of the famous Chitragreeva, the dove who leads his flock caught in a hunter's net to safety and freedom. The dancers blanketed in a silvery net moving across in patterns another tillana in jog - as though in a united flight (along and under the net), made an exceptional visual impact, establishing "the triumph of mind over body and freedom over bondage"!

The centuries old Panchatantra tales being a lengthy narrative with one small fable weaving into the other making a plethora of such witty wisdom yarns was perfectly perceived for the present ballet with just five select stories. "We chose tales which talked about friendship, bravery, quick wittedness, foolishness, vile and guile, leadership and Freedom," said the script writer Jayant Dwarakanath who connected and interspersed each narrative with droll and witty phrases voiced from the background.

The sap green curtain conclaves and thick knotted dangling ropes, asymmetric stage platforms and secret surprise entry - exit spaces made an intelligible stage symbolically depicting the forest landscape without being loud and literal. Surabhi Purna Chandrasekhar, Deepa Krishnamachari and light and sound designer Prakash Savio need to be complimented for the same.

And above all the dancers lead by their dynamic guru Ananda Shankar Jayant - Madireddy Mamatha, Manjula Rajesh, Arati Ballepu, Soumya Mohan, Radhika Thirumala, Purnima Ashok Kumar, OS Divya, Sruthi Challani, Rajesh Karma, Pradeesh K Thiruthya, Sibi Sudarshan, Premnath and baby Janhavi Iyer... each one of them put their best foot forward in bringing together Andhra Pradesh's most creative and chic dance choreographic creations of the season.

Like someone said, the production must be presented time and again across the country, for it carries the spirit and wisdom of the ever relevant parables called the Panchatantra, and save them from going into oblivion! Not to mention, the quality of dance and choreography that can be summed up with superlatives like intellectual, energetic and thoroughly entertaining!!