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Vempati's Margazhi Utsav at Kuchipudi Art Academy, Chennai
Photos courtesy: Kuchipudi Art Academy

January 21, 2017

In the overcrowded festivals in Chennai during the season, one new Margazhi dance festival has been added by Kuchipudi Art Academy for 7 days at the Academy premises. Conceived and curated by Venkat Vempati, elder son of Vempati Chinna Sathyam, it aims at providing platform for the young dancers. One welcomes it for this very reason as young dancers need a platform to showcase their talent.

The festival was dedicated to late Chief Minister Jayalalitha. It was inaugurated by Keshav Prasad, traditional Kuchipudi exponent from Kuchipudi village and Mr. Natarajan, local MLA. With assistance from Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, the festival from 25th till 31st December 2016 featured on the opening night Vempati's granddaughter Vempati Lakshmi Kameswari, Jayapriya Vikraman and Sahana Rao in Kuchipudi.

I was away at Vijayawada therefore I could not attend the opening night's performances. On 26th December the artists featured were in classical Carnatic instrumental music, on flute C.V.Sudhakar, a gifted musician who has been now a part of the musicians of Kuchipudi Art Academy and an asset for composing music for Kuchipudi repertoire and from Kolkata two male dancers Subikash Mukherjee (Odissi) and Samrat Dutta (Kathak).

Vempati Lakshmi Kameswari and Sahana Rao

Jayapriya Vikraman

Samrat Dutta

Subikash Mukherjee

Trained by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and at present taking further training under Ratikant Mohapatra, Subikash Mukherjee performed prayer Matangi Dhyanam choreographed by Ratikant with all the iconographic images. He has a pleasant stage personality and maintains the basic position of chauka with precision. In Hamsadhwani Pallavi choreographed by Kelubabu to the music by Bhubaneswar Mishra, Subikash displayed a variety of tribhanga, alasa and parshvamardala sculpturesque poses with elan. The ashtapadi "Dhira samire Yamuna teere" choreographed by Kelubabu offered Subikash scope to distinctly enact the role of Sakhi telling Radha to go unto Krishna waiting for her in his bower. Describing the state of Krishna preparing a bed for her, placing lotus flower on it, looking for Radha's arrival and when even a leaf falls on ground thinking she must have arrived, Subikash did justice to Kelubabu's choreography. Sakhi telling Radha to put on sari, leave ankle bells and go to Krishna etc., were enacted well. In his rendering of ashtapadi he maintained dignity and avoided any effete impression.

Trained by Thankamani Kutty in Kolkata in Bharatanatyam and currently taking training under supervision of C.V. Chandrasekhar, Samrat Dutta after Pushpanjali enacted the ten incarnations with appropriate hastas and angikabhinaya. Narasimha and Vamanavatara were graphic creating the moods as per the need of the incarnation. In Ramanatakam padam the sequences of Ramayana were impressive and performed dramatically. Both artists performed jugalbandi in praise of Mahadev, Jay Mahesh in their respective idioms. Samrat displayed vigour and Subikash displayed lasya when enacting role of Parvati, in Ardhanarishwara image. Their movements in Bharatanatyam and Odissi were complimentary. Set to Ragamalika and Talamalika the jugalbandi received appreciative applause from the audience.

The highlight of the third evening was sophisticated presentation of Sattriya dance by Guru Jatin Goswami's disciple Lima Das from Guwahati. A seasoned artist, Lima Das presented special choreography by Jatin Goswami for the character of Surpanakha from Ramayana. Lima has an attractive stage presence and mobile visage which registers fleeting expressions easily. Surpanakha's approach to Lord Rama and when he directs her to go unto Lakshmana was expressed by her competently. Surpanakha's humiliation when Lakshmana disfigures her in anger was enacted with feeling.

In Draupadi's role, Lima has received encomiums. Describing the game of dice, Yudhisthira losing everything, including Draupadi, Dushasana dragging Draupadi in court, her request to elders in court to protect her, the helplessness of Pandavas having lost her in game of dice, and humiliation at Dushasana's disrobing her, appeal to Krishna to protect her, Krishna sending unlimited saree and Dushasana's falling on floor, all found felicitous expression in her abhinaya. The technique of Sattriya nritta was interwoven in a seamless manner. With restrained abhinaya Lima Das impressed the audience.

Lima Das

Subrata Pandit

From Kolkata, Subrata Pandit, disciple of Molly Roy, has taken further training in Kathak in workshops of Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen. He has a stageworthy presence. Subrata performed Shiva Stuti extolling vigour of Lord Shiva. Pure dance in Chau tala, 12 beats saw him executing chakkars perfectly and he arrived on sam for various intra forms. He would do well to keep his lips closed as often it gave impression of short breathing. The Sufi composition written by Baba Hazrat Raj Banelvi dwelt upon the separation of beloved and the resultant agony. The feeling of desolation was conveyed both through expression and angikabhinaya. Tarana in Kalavati was replete with basic Kathak forms, footwork and movements of gat performed with confidence and movements appropriate for a male dancer. He has a bright future. Guru C.V. Chandrasekhar did the honours and blessed him.

Vempati's senior disciple A.K. Bala Kondala Rao's son Anukula Aditya from Visakhapatnam revealed the thorough training he has received from his mother. Both in abhinaya and pure dance numbers he showed confidence and expertise in tala and laya. His dancing reminded me of Vempati's indelible stamp and one was pleased to see him perform it with fidelity.

Anukula Aditya

Ajay Kumar

During the season with so many events clashing, I had to forego attending few sessions, in some of which Sinam Basu (Manipuri), Lalitha Sindhuri (Kuchipudi) and Dipan Mitra (Bharatanatyam), disciple of Anita Malik from Kolkata, Nandita Prabhu (Mohiniattam) and students of Kuchipudi Art Academy of Visakhapatnam partook. From Vijayawada, female impersonator Ajay Kumar, who has been receiving critical appreciation also performed. I had seen him at Vijayawada during the 5th International Kuchipudi Convention on 24th December. He is an artist to look out for, for his impersonation of female roles in Kuchipudi. I caught up with performance of stree vesham in Kathakali by Prabal Gupta who has acquired finesse with further training under Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan and looked impressive in the role of Urvashi.

Prabal Gupta

Aparna K Sharma

Kuchipudi Art Academy, Chennai

Kuchipudi Art Academy, Kolkata

On the final day, students of Kuchipudi Art Academy Kolkata and of Chennai participated. In order to showcase the progress of students of both the academies, the groups interwove their performances in a seamless manner. The male dancers from Kolkata - Asoke Chakraborty, Biraj and Sandip - and female dancer Sumana Bayen acquitted themselves well under the training of Srimayi Vempati. From Chennai Academy, Siva Kumar, Suvi Kumar, Chakravarthy, Mrinalini and Preety performed competently. It is indeed tough to perform in speed and to keep angashuddha perfect. But all of them did well holding Vempati bani intact.

The surprise of the evening was Aparna K Sharma, a Bharatanatyam dancer, disciple of Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant. With a commanding stage presence and live orchestra, she excelled in presenting four items including brief varnam in Amritavarshini raga. The choreography by Ananda Shankar Jayant of Navasimha, depicting nine forms of Narasimha was highlight of her presentation. The dramatic exposition of Hiranyakashipu, challenging Prahlada striking the pillar and Narasimha pulling the demon and killing him taking out his entrails was engrossing. Aparna's abhinaya was most impressive. She lives in Kerala and has had intensive training in dance and music. Her sense of rhythm, tala and understanding of the idiom and how to present it in nutshell were praiseworthy. It is in such area that the present festival will be doing good service to showcase lesser known dancers and young dancers.

To avoid clashing with other parallel festivals, if the next edition of Vempati Margazhi Festival starts from around 20th December and is well advertised, the dignitaries are approached in advance, heads of organizations like Kalakshetra, Music Academy, well wishers of Guru Vempati, leading senior dancers are invited as chief guests for each day, the word would spread and the festival would receive warm support. It is defeating the purpose if festivals start on the same day as other major festivals. For instance, Brahma Gana Sabha and the Music Academy dance festivals start on 3rd January and since Music Academy is a major institution with 90 years standing, Brahma Gana Sabha's festival on 3rd January has few persons attending. This issue of parallel festivals by various sabhas needs to be considered carefully, if the purpose is to support dance.

The venue for Vempati Margazhi Festival is ideal and there is enough room for parking facilities. The intimate atmosphere helps audience to enjoy the performances. At the back of the auditorium arrangements were made for snacks, tea etc and also stalls were put up for knickknacks, handicraft and a display of Burmese jewellery! With more financial support the festival will draw crowds.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic. He is honored with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.

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