There is value only in those things
that burst forth from inspiration,
Which springs from
the irrational depths of our being
I delight in the barbaric and spontaneous
Elan of inspiration
Effervescent spiritual states,
Essential lyricism and inner tension
- Romanian philosopher EMIL CIORAN
Fresh from the exhilaration of completing 8 shows of THE JUNGLE BOOK in Palo Alto and Houston, I returned with a menu list of injuries... In spite of some fabulous reviews for my role as KAA the serpent in THE JUNGLE BOOK, I felt like a wounded soldier returned from battle. Feet sore, forehead swollen with acetone infection, tired, overweight and listless. Add Vertigo to that list and you can picture me flat on my back for 10 days! I have spent most of October recovering and literally putting my feet up. Sprains, twists, hairline fractures all take time to heal and nothing helps more than REST.
I did manage to see several shows (yes, I hobbled to and fro carefully) - Bharatanatyam only - and realised how much I had missed listening to good Carnatic music and watching Bharatanatyam in the ambience of my Alma Mater- Kalakshetra. This month I will focus on the performances I watched in Chennai and the questions that arose from the varied experiences.
At the EKAM festival curated by Divya Devaguptapu, I was confronted with a whirling dervish aka Shijith Nambiar. A Kalakshetra graduate, he was at his athletic best in the solo at the Rukmini Arangam auditorium. Non-stop movement, choreography saturated with ideas that jostled for attention and an astonishing physicality that delivered more bravura than depth. The jarring LED lights were distracting and the excellent orchestra sang and played constantly all at once, causing an excessive loudness that was also distracting. This is not taking away anything from Shijith's excellent 'anga shuddham' and movement clarity. However, I was surprised that a senior dancer like him would take a gentle composition like Muthuswami Dikshitar's MEENAKSHI MEI MUDAM and clutter it like a Diwali 100 wala firecracker. I missed the depth of this melodious song and the deep connection it had with its composer who requested that it be sung as he breathed his last.
Do dancers read or wish to know about a composition's history? Is that not important in today's hurtling world of speed and agility? The wild applause that accompanied every jathi and flourish of Shijith with Malavika Sarukkai watching keenly from the front row (is she mentoring him?) was proof that my questions were answered. Obviously NOT.
The Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam is everywhere and it is an important marker for both dance history and kinetic innovation of its founder Rukmini Arundale. So, why would Shijith not want to maintain that training? Why would he wish to clutter his choreography with influences that blur the hallmarks of the style? To what purpose? Lack of confidence? Compulsive urge to innovate? Play to the gallery of popcorn rasikas?
Another question I have for both dancers and curators is about time keeping. When Shijith danced well past his allotted time, uncaring of the senior dancer waiting to start her performance, it shows a total lack of professionalism and selfishness. When his entourage of fans and students left immediately after his performance, my next question is - Are students not curious enough to wait and watch a senior dancer? Is there not something to learn from different approaches to Bharatanatyam by simply watching?
Geeta Chandran, who followed Shijith Nambiar made the wise choice of not performing a varnam and shared her beloved items in an evening she called ANANTAYA - My search for Infinity. Geeta made the right choice of singing the early portions of the SURDAS lullaby in her gorgeous voice while seated on stage - a scene where Yashoda puts a stubborn baby Krishna to sleep in the cradle by singing him the story of Rama. I have seen this performed before and it has never failed to move me. The highlight of Geeta's showing was the episode of the Govardhana mountain from the KRISHNA KARNAMRITHAM. The many varieties of responses to Krishna's astonishing feat were immensely communicative. The orchestra, led by Venkatesh, provided excellent support and it was such a pleasure to see the dancer look towards the musicians in appreciation on more than one occasion.
In her post performance response to the audience, Geeta insisted that hers is an "alternate voice in Bharatanatyam", having lived and created in her hometown of Delhi and soaked in Hindi, Sanskrit, Braj compositions along with her close connection with the town of Brindavan and the Krishna ethos.
I could only attend two of the three days of the EKAM event and therefore, I missed the incandescent performance of Divya Devaguptapu who charmed the sparse audience with her maturity and imagination even within a Tyagaraja kriti. Divya is a dancer I have always been interested to follow and her grasp on abhinaya, especially the Telugu javalis and padams, is admirable. I was able to catch the YOU TUBE recording of the performance and was struck by Divya's measured and surefooted presentation.
Here's hoping her move to Chennai helps her art grow and that she will continue the annual EKAM festival in another city - not Chennai. This city does not deserve thoughtful curation or excellent ideas at the moment. It is too steeped in its own self indulgence and imagined self importance. Dancers lack curiosity and attend shows, not for the art, but for the personality on stage. The HALO EFFECT can truly be seen in my Chennai. I am ashamed and disappointed with its insularity and delusions of being the navel of the Bharatanatyam universe! With more than 5000 Bharatanatyam dancers, the paltry attendance on three days with the marked absence of Kalakshetra students themselves was deplorable. Bengaluru, Kolkata or Pune are far better cities for curated festivals like EKAM.
I did watch the dramatic Loka Dharmi soaked solo performance of Satyanarayana Raju in RAMA KATHA. An immensely watchable dancer who communicates through his physical characterisations of Jatayu, Hanuman and others, Satya has stayed true to his style and taste which made for an entertaining performance.
Following Satyanarayana was the vintage showing of Lakshmi Viswanathan. Here is a rare artiste, whose understanding of music, language, context and dance is so complete that one can be swept away by her simple yet profound capacity to communicate the deepest layers of a TEVARAM hymn. Having battled victoriously against severe health issues, a spontaneous applause greeted Lakshmi when the light shone on her dressed in a green silk costume. What followed was a rasika's delight. Here's hoping that she is seen more during the season and that younger dancers take the time to observe her capacity to allow the music to flow through her limbs as she responds effortlessly to the lyrics.
I also found the time to catch the effervescent Manasvini Ramachandran at the HCL Music Academy concert. The mini hall is a badly designed space for dance and certainly not suited for someone as tall as Manasvini. Conducted by her mother Revathi Ramachandran, the current director of Kalakshetra, Manasvini's performance showed her superb sense of rhythm and sparkling stage persona. However, Manasvini suffers from the same ailment of her generation. Over dancing burdened with a cacophony of ideas. Her opening piece, the Mallari was left wanting with inconsistent choreography motifs while her second on the dancing Ganapathi was beautifully executed. The varnam was a tour de force of sheer stamina. We, the audience, were holding our breath to see if Manas' energy would flag. It never did. But the motifs were too many and too quick to make a lasting impression. However, I was pleased to see the hallmarks of the SHUDDHA NRITTAM style of her Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer lineage.
So is Bharatanatyam in the doldrums with no direction and too many avatars? Has the virus of the NEW infected it permanently? Has it become a HYDRA that is ultimately going to consume itself? Are the younger generation at all interested in what the seniors are doing or saying? Is the AHA moment needed at the end of every jathi with the expected applause being the success marker? Many reading this may feel that the malaise has also infected other styles of Indian dance.
Just when questions seem to overwhelm me with few answers, there is much cause to smile. Two Bharatanatyam dancers - oceans apart - have departed in new and exciting ways, pouring their creative juices into beauty and fashion innovations. The stunning Kazakh dancer Kassiyet has launched her line of lipsticks inspired by the Bharatanatyam MARGAM. In lush colours, the launch contains 4 shades called PADAM, ASHTAPADI, JAVALI and KIRTANAM. Her Instagram handle @kassiyet has details.
Durban designer Verushka Pather has created a line of Indo western fashion with the iconic cloth called SHWE SHWE that Nelson Mandela made popular. A distinctive weave and print with a heavy wax coating (for safe passage through long journeys) these bright prints have found their way into jackets, table linen, sari blouses and even saris through her brand KHAANYA.
Meeting both women who are also brand ambassadors for their designs gives me hope that not everyone is waiting in the wings for a "CHANCE TO DANCE". That there are talented classical dancers who are willing to look beyond their training and vocabulary to discover new ways to express themselves. These choices, that also makes business sense, makes for a more diverse landscape where fulfillment in one area will create a healthier eco system of new audiences, patrons and rasikas.
As we wind down to the last two months of the year (where has 2022 gone?) it is also time to look ahead at the frenzy that is going to be unleashed upon us in the coming weeks. Multiple awards for various dancers, a new Sangeet Natak Akademi committee in place in New Delhi with 2 years of awards backlog being cleared, performances crowding the calendar but AESTHETIC DIVERSITY taking a backseat as expected.
Aaah well! There is always hope and another year to look forward to!
I prepare for the 24th revival performance of KAISIKA NATAKAM in my ancestral village (December 4) and rehearsals without the presence of the elders has been emotionally difficult.
The major festivals like Diwali and Navaratri may be behind us but there is so much to look forward to in November and December, especially the long awaited influx of the diaspora who have been housebound for two whole years.
With a warm welcome and a big smile to all those who are visiting India this winter season!
And yes, I am almost fully recovered from the many ailments. My doctor uttered the forbidden words "deterioration with age" which was a loud "OUCH" to my ears.
Even the best of us tend to forget the march of TIME!
So - Let the dance, fun and games begin!
- Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Bengaluru / Mumbai / New Delhi
Who said my feet are not itching to get on that next flight?
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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