January 27, 2020
A for art, aesthetics, A grade. And in Bharatanatyam it is Alarmel Valli. That's the real A list. And what a mature, meaningful opening to the New Year's season it was at Music Academy Dance Festival.
Alarmel Valli is a first rate professional. From costume to conducting; orchestra to overall ambience; diction to fictionalised Pushpa Vilapam, a subject I've thought of too - what a flower must feel when torn from its setting/family/parents/relatives/ just for human consumption and sacrifice, even if at altar of gods? Valli's 4 crisp offerings ought to have got a standing ovation but this is Madras, not very generous even to its own. A few people did stand up but...
Many eyes were moist seeing her invoke the essence of Chidambaram. Tillai is not really Chidambaram; it is 18 km away. A group of heretics had assembled and as they could not enter holy Chidambaram area, they stayed outside. They practiced many wrong practices and rituals, creating confusion to seers and sages, who passed through it to Chidambaram. Ancient Tillai thus became the place where the mythical duel between Durga and Shiva took place, where due to women's modesty (those days; now there's gender equality, bending, empowerment and surgery too to become one!) she lost the dance duel as she could not emulate Shiva and lift one leg high up, lest her sacred parts got exposed. Men being men, didn't care, in fact indulged in showing off and Durga or Shakti got defeated.
Myths are stories are memories are statements and sometimes these become fodder for gifted classical dancers like Valli to explore and expound upon. It was a fulsome experience witnessing this exquisite artiste. Occasionally, her lop sided smile, so endearing and child like, returned and somewhere one could see her mother smiling in the wings. May Valli and her art live long and regale rasikas.
The hall had real A list of dance celebrities and stars starting with A for Astad Deboo, B for Bijayini, C for Chitra and add Malavika Sarukkai, Madhavi Mudgal and many youngsters. To think a ticket can cost 2000 an evening in India, that too in conservative Madras, full of sub standard sabha culture, is amazing. Why not? One would pay much more in New York or Sweden. Why should our artistes, accompanists and organizers be denied of better emoluments?
B for bad scheduling. Often, I wonder at people who schedule content or programs. Who advises them? Any name goes, out of work dancers who have hardly moved a limb, or even been in India the whole year. They get to speak. Or a visitor just in town. Or some smart operator who stations himself in city during this Margazhi season and worms his way in. Far off in North, in freezing single digit winter, poor south Indian dancers are given slots to dance that too in the open, while Delhites are enjoying feni in Goa, or sunshine of Madras. A known slime ball and alleged financial offender to boot gets to talk to a diva on stage in Kolkata and elsewhere, unknown folk dancers assemble in a huge govt jamboree in central India, paid for by the innocent tax payer. Who lets these people get away with bad and faulty planning? The process defies the people who select those slotted.
C for can you spot the difference between potential and possibility? How to groom and mentor those really deserving? How to ensure they are not short race runners but have substance and character for long haul? Then too, the very concept of loyalty. Do dancers have that? Which ones have most? Do they have loyalty to their art itself? Forget those who help them. Such and assorted questions will arise the whole year ahead. We hope to get reasonable answers!
D for diva Dr. Kanak Rele, gave a deep and reasonable answer when, on the occasion of her creation - the Nalanda's annual festival and awards function - she said: "Nalanda is my mansik child". That's it. An idea has to possess one, to create something lasting. She has. In a city full of Bollywood trivia, she has created an institution of excellence. Nay, a research institution backed by Science and Technology ministry, no less. Kanak ben or tai or aji, (sister, mother) as she is called universally, has spunk and substance. She has been dogged in her pursuit of dance studies, academics and research. Mohiniattam was her chosen medium and Kavalam Narayana Paniker helped her a lot, but creating Nalanda as a landmark institution in Bombay, now Mumbai, was an amazing feat.
Bombay had lots of Kathak stars, the Sitara Devis, the Damayanti Joshis, the Roshan Kumaris but none of that legendary level in South Indian forms, except Kanak ben and Sonal Mansingh. While Raja Rajeshwari School did teach and reach out training many (Vani and Meera Ganapati, Malavika Sarukkai) there was no ACADEMIC university level institution. Kanak ben created and filled that void.
Today, after 55 years (founded in 1966), the institution is robust and meeting point for artistes of all hues - Orissi, Kathak, Bharatanatyam. And of course, Mohiniattam. The in-house production Krishnakarnamritam (with an excellent Krishna played by Shubham Khowal, whose dancing ability matched high class histrionics) used all three forms, originally choreographed by Sonal Mansingh, who was bestowed the Bharatamuni Award on the occasion. Theatre personality Sarita Joshi was bestowed too for her lifetime work in theatre and chenda player P.K. Marar. 5 next generation talents were bestowed the Kanaka Nartana Puraskar: Uma Dogra, Daksha Mashruwala, yours truly, Swapnokalpa Dasgupta among others.
Monica Singh Sangwan at ORC
Speaking of chenda players, how can one forget that Australian music yogi Devissaro, married to one of India's best choreographer-dancers Daksha Sheth? From Stralaya came a bunch of dedicated dance learners under tutelage of their guru Monica Singh Sangwan, who is a Sadhavi: sorted, solid, sensible. Shepherding 20 talents of varying ages from 5 to 50 is not easy, that too in a village town of Puri, where dead turtles lay strewn on the beaches while assorted folks pushed their way into the temple to have darshan of their favourite deity. Despite PM 's Swachch Bharat campaign which is yet to reach Odisha, Monica's logic says Orissi dance is about Lord Jagannath and his official residence is Puri, so eating aaloo or tikki, they came and camped for almost a month in January. It is amazing how deep foreigners get into learning, when they get into something. Music, patachitra painting, yoga, temple trips, heritage-history films - all this and more Monica organised while teaching them dance!
ORC hosted their excellent short show, in which the polish and perfection of movements and material made die hard local critics and connoisseurs say, "Their standards are better than ours!" ORC is run artistically by the fine singer Dr. Sangita Gosain. Among VIP attendees were cream of Orissi dance scene - veteran Dr. Priyambada Mohanty-Hejmadi, who with Indrani and Dhirendra Patnaik won prize in Delhi for showcasing Orissi way back in 1950s. Then she was lost to the field of zoology and served many institutions. Guru Gajendra Panda, the dynamic dancer guru and the jovial maverick genius guru Bichitrananda Swain, poet-critic Kedar Mishra and star dancer Sujata Mohapatra. The morning show and seminar seemed intelligent, inclusive and meaningful. All speakers were given clear time to enunciate their thoughts. They articulated well. Gurus all and critics some. There were students of Rahul Acharya attending, students of Ratikant Mohapatra attending, and of veterans like Adi guru Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das, Kelubabu and Mayadhar Raut (yours truly!). Then next generation gurus like Gangadhar Pradhan babu, Sudhakar Sahu (ace disciple Shrabani Mitra) and Kumkum Mohanty. A 2 minute silent prayer was offered as homage to Orissi's most loved, sabhya and senior dear departed soul, Dr. Minati Mishra, whose 13th day coincided with this function. The whole atmosphere was surreal, pious and pure, with no stress and in end mahaprasad was fed to all assembled. Sitting in far away Melbourne, Monica is doing something right. Her many students prove that. A for ... also an Australian Odyssey (Wordplay on Odissi too!).
Proof lies in eating the payasam. Or Pizza. Next month, we will partake of both! From Italy and Kerala! And then some....E...F...G...
Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed author, arts administrator, historian, critic with many published books and edits India's only yearbook attenDance. He is now helping the IGNCA, Delhi, set up the Mohan Khokar Dance Archives-cum-Museum.
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