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3rd edition of Shishir Chhanda Dance Festival
Photos: Simha’s Photography

January 4, 2018

Former Ambassador of Argentina and Director General of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Mr. Amarendranath Khatua in his opening remarks during the first day of Shishir Chhanda Dance Festival of Odissi exponent Sarita Mishra’s Adyasha Foundation, mentioned that more than 8 and half lakh population of Bangalore are from Odisha. Indeed it was a matter of great pride that they have during past fifteen years supported the Odissi dancers in the city, encouraging them to establish their dance institutions and train young dancers in Odissi.

He also complimented the Kannadiga community for their catholic attitude to accept Odissi dance form, some of them learning it with devotion. It speaks volumes of their broadmindedness and genuine love for the performing arts.  Besides Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Yakshagana, Kathakali, the popularity of Odissi in Bangalore has been very heartening. Few years ago only one or two Odissi dancers had ventured to establish an institution to teach Odissi and perform it. Today, more than eight Odissi dance institutions are in Bangalore, including Adyasha.

Like her other contemporaries, when Sarita Mishra settled in Bangalore and decided to start teaching Odissi, she found the response very encouraging. In particular, the established senior exponents and gurus, whomever she approached, encouraged her and she started an institution in Koramangala where she stays and also opened a branch in J P Nagar. When she organized the first edition presenting her students and also inviting senior Odissi exponents and Gurus from Odisha, she found the response overwhelming. Today, Odissi has become a popular dance form in Bangalore.

Celebrated Bharatanatyam guru and exponent B.Bhanumati, her disciple Sheela Chandrashekar, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali dancer Usha Datar, versatile male dancer, expert performer of Yakshagana and female impersonator Surya Rao, Madhu Nataraj, daughter of legendary Kathak guru Maya Rao readily agreed to perform in the festival. Leading dancer Aruna Mohanty was invited to present her choreographic works, and young male dancer Saswat Joshi, who has been winning international reputation for his excellent Odissi performances.

The first day of the festival
On the opening day Shweta Venkatesh, daughter/disciple of Suparna Venkatesh, presented Kathak. She is a spitting image of her mother and with striking stage presence gracefully danced a prayer in praise of Ganapati. Trained in Kathak by Suparna and Mysore Nagaraj, Shweta has also been studying from her mother Bharatanatyam in which she has shown equal proficiency. It was to her credit that her Kathak was quite distinct and there was no impression of Bharatanatyam. The footwork, the chakkars, execution of movements in nritta, was classical Kathak. In one of the numbers of Maya Rao, she explored various jatis in teen taal of 16 beats in effortless manner. The mnemonic syllables, bols of Kathak were rendered with perfect sync and arriving pat on the sam was impressive. From among the young generation of up and coming dancers, Shweta has established herself as a competent dancer. With support from her mother and sound training, she will go places.

Shweta Venkatesh

Dr. Kshitija Barve

From Kolhapur arrived a mature young Bharatanatyam exponent Dr. Kshitija Barve, trained at Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, Mumbai, under guidance of Thangamani, a Bharatanatyam teacher trained at Kalakshetra. She chose Tanjore Quartet’s well known varnam in Sankarabharanam raga Manavi chekona raadaa in praise of Brihadeeshwara. At leisurely pace, she unfolded nritta with clean lines of Pandanallur bani. Her expressive face registered the bhavas effortlessly requesting her Lord to have mercy on her. The sancharis were adequate, understated and pleasant. Description of the beauty of Lord Shiva with his usual adornments, crescent moon on his jata, serpents as ornaments, seated on his vahana Nandi, were depicted well. And the separation, begging Shiva not to get angry with her, the five flowery arrows of Kamadeva hurting her, that she is drowned in ocean of viraha were in order without exaggerated expressions. The alternating nritta, the teermanams and bhavas were pleasant. It was a pleasure to see such a talent in engaging Bharatanatyam, maintaining it in a far corner with fidelity. Kshitija had worked for long at Goa’s Kala Academy teaching Bharatanatyam and is now settled in Kolhapur where she trains local students.
After these two dance forms, the senior dancers of Sarita presented Panchamahabhuta theme in Odissi, choreographed by Aruna Mohanty. It was an interesting ploy to have three tiny tots in form of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balaram placed in the centre stage and a young dancer offering pranam to the three gods. The blowing of conch created the ambience of Jagannath temple, with the prayer Nilachalanivasaya, the Lord residing on Nilachala, Blue Mountain. The five elements water, fire, earth, ether and wind found felicitous expressions through Aruna’s imaginative choreography. The refrain Mahabhutam namamyaham, bowing to the elements reiterated how these cosmic elements pervade us. In particular depicting fire - Swaha, which is raktavarna - blazing was danced vigorously. Aakash, Prithvi, Agni, Vayu and Jala were all choreographed giving concrete shape with dancers performing in unison.

Sarita has been carefully training her disciples in various dance numbers created by legendary gurus, the architects of Odissi dance. This is how the legacy of gurus is being carried forward, as they live through their work. Batu number choreographed by Kelucharan Mohapatra with mnemonic syllables tak dha dha kidtak taham ta was nostalgic. Over past fifty years this item has remained so fresh and enchanting. Kelubabu’s choreography of dancers playing on flute, veena, manjira, mridang brings alive the sculptures of dancers playing these instruments seen on parapet of the upper region of Konark temple. The young dancers performed Batu with perfect sync and striking correct poses. Basant pallavi by another group of young dancers incorporated the sculpturesque motifs of alasa, parshvamardala, potala and darpani, in quick succession. The trooping in of tiny tots received instant applause from the audience. Their innocence and joy while dancing were transparent. The solfa notes of Basant raga with jham ta rita jhina filled the hall with melodious music. Here was another evergreen piece which evokes nostalgia for senior rasikas like us.

Students of Adyasha Foundation

Adi Guru Pankaj Charan Das’s choreography of Nava Durga is another gem of a choreographic piece, taking from Vyasa the prayer Bhagavati Jaya Bhagavati Devi Namo vara de. The prayer goes further describing Bhagavati’s iconic form, as one who annihilated Shumbha and Nishumbha demons, wearing garland of skulls, and so on. In group choreography Odissi as a dance form offers scope for projecting multi armed goddess, dancers standing behind and extending their arms wielding various weapons. With imaginative lighting, Sai Venkatesh created magic. Rhiya, 12, the young daughter of Sarita, presented a solo. Performing Pallavi in Megha raga choreographed by Ratikant Mohapatra, she gave ample proof of her taiyyari and commitment to study Odissi. She is a dimpled beauty like her mother and performs with total involvement. Managing to execute nritta movements perfectly, she danced confidently. She is bound to do her mother proud with more exposure.

From Bhubaneswar, Odissi dancer Saswat Joshi presented two numbers. The group composition in praise of Mahakali saw dancers forming various formations. The Sanskrit text with fierce and benign forms of the goddess had Tantrik overtones. Various tableaux were enacted to the rendering of Jai Mahakali, one dancer in the centre and others circling around her, the collective prayer with chanting of Jayatu Mahakali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini, Durga, Chandi, and ending with Narayani namostute shloka the cause of creation and sustainer of the world, the dancers beseeching the blessings of the Goddess ended the group number with auspicious feelings.

Saswat Joshi has partnered Italian Odissi exponent Ileana Citaristi, disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, for past many years. He runs his own dance academy in Bhubaneswar. With commanding stage presence he impressed the audience with his professional presentation. In Shivashtakam choreographed by Ileana Citaristi, Saswat created images of the lord emphasizing his auspicious aspect, with Shivam Sundaram recitation.  One of the karanas known as Vrishhcika karana, the shape of the leg of scorpion, bending his body, and the leg touching his head was quite sculpturesque and imaginative. Wielding trident in his hand and with third eye, Trinetra, his fierce nature was evoked. But all pervading shubham was the essence. Shivam Shankaram resonated giving the composition auspicious feeling.

Saswat’s next presentation was an attempt to combine pure dance using pallavi in Megh and Miyan Malhar ragas, investing nritta with expressional aspect of vipralabdha (separation) and  samabhoga (union) shringara, as Varsha, the rainy season evokes desire of union among lovers.  The nature and birds also dance in joy, as one watches peacock with his full spread out feathers dancing with joy. The nayika was portrayed as bashful, being embraced and kissed by the nayaka, in physical union.  With physical command, Saswat performed split, lowering himself to the floor and also took urdhva tandava pose of Shiva, lifting his leg upwards towards his head. That won him rounds of applause from the young members of the audience. It is natural for a dancer to get carried away with applause. However, Saswat needs to guard against playing it to the gallery, as he has a lot to offer from traditional numbers which lift audiences’ spirits to higher level.

Saswat Joshi

Surya Rao

The finale was by a vastly gifted young dancer well versed in Yakshagana, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Surya Rao is a name to reckon with among multi talented male dancers in Bangalore. I had the good fortune of first time seeing him in his male warrior role in Singapore, playing the role of a majestic King in a dance choreographic work. Last year in dance festival organized by Veena Murthy Vijay in an open air stage of a Ganesha temple, he had wowed the audience with his inimitable abhinaya of Satyabhama in Bhama Kalapam in Kuchipudi. The tradition of male dancers enacting female roles is still alive and this rupanurupa tradition he embellished by his superb abhinaya.

The navarasa were at his beck and call. Requesting sakhi to go unto Lord Shiva and convey her deep intense feeling of love and bring him unto her; as Ganga he displayed several subtle nuances of lajja, shyness and in a repartee with vachikabhinaya answered the sakhi who made fun of Ganga describing Lord Shiva wearing Vyghra charma, tiger skin, applying ash on his body etc., he created mirth and fleeting expressions of coy nayika in a seamless manner. The audience was eating out of his hands. Veena Murthy Vijay recalled how few years ago, B.Bhanumati, she and Usha Datar had performed it as a dance drama in different styles. The audience gave Surya Rao a standing ovation. It was a memorable performance.

The second day of the festival
The second day of the festival had the stalwarts performing. The audience was all agog to witness the senior dancers. Guru Maya Rao’s disciple and daughter Madhu Nataraj, attired in eye catching costume, with her tall and slim figure performed Kathak as she has studied from her legendary mother to a dhrupad composition in chautala. Mata Bhavani was danced gracefully, bestowing on devotees bounties, and she is Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu in various forms, mother and all pervading Shakti. The Kathak vocabulary in its subtle glory was enchanting.

Madhu spoke of the spectrum of Kannada literature and exploring it, choreographing with Maya Rao, the sharani, surrender aspect of poetess like Akka Mahadevi, incorporating advaitin philosophy, where the devotee becomes one with the God, merging with him, transcending space, extolling non-shringara aspect. In abbreviated version of 11 minutes, Madhu danced performing disappearance aspect succinctly. The music of Praveen D Rao highlighted the mood. The translation by Madhu’s uncle Subbarao was comprehensive. Madhu ended her performance recalling the style of thumri as was performed by Kathak dancers of yore while sitting and enacting abhinaya. Maya Rao taught her abhinaya for thumri of Bindadin Maharaj, Krishna teasing Gopi - ‘Mohe chhede dekho sab narin me’; how do I go to fetch water, ‘nir bharan main keise jaun’; as he stands in the middle of the road, ‘maga bich rokey Kanhaiya’. She enacted sitting on a small stool and investing the thumri with subtle abhinaya. It was a treat to watch it. It was a sophisticated presentation by the second generation dancer embellishing the legacy of senior performer with contemporary sensibilities.

Madhu Nataraj

Aruna Mohanty

Aruna Mohanty, a senior disciple of Guru Gangadhar Pradhan has acquired many skills. As an outstanding performer, she has also been training young dancers, choreographing mega dance productions, performing to well written librettos, commissioning them with thematic content, both abstract and mythological, more in nature of symbolic representations and a universal message. With a background and inspiration from a father steeped in arts, literature, theatre from childhood she has received sanskaras which has grounded her in creating works which project ideas with imagination. Take for instance the abstract theme of journey of life. From childhood playing, dancing, growing to young age, using the pallavi like composition tana dere na, and  arrogance in youth, greed, lust, power and then ultimate old age, with energies fading, eyesight getting weaker, unable to listen, one finally has to realize that there is solace in worshipping god. The refrain of Bhaja Govindam conveys the message succinctly. Aruna projected all the avasthas, conditions with clear expressions, conveying the states in most communicative manner.

Her choreography of Bhumisuta to the libretto of poet Kedar Mishra is a piece de resistance. Aruna’s ability to use the technique of flashback is excellent. Sita as Rajanandini princess Janaki,  questions patriarchy which tramples womanhood. The narration of key incidents of Ramayana is brief, known, and suggestive. When Ram is exiled, Sita with folded hands begs of Ram to go with him - Tapasvesha vishesh udasi Ram vanavasi, Nath sakalsukh saath tumhare sharda vimal vibhu vadana nihare - the inner cry and complete surrender to be with Ram, the happiness for her is to be with him. Aruna’s abhinaya touches spectators’ hearts. Getting attracted by golden deer, Ram’s rushing after to beget the deer, Ravana’s disguise as a mendicant, asking for bhiksha and when Sita crosses the Lakshmana rekha, kidnapping her, were enacted in quick succession, arousing sympathy for Sita. Ram brings her back after defeating Ravana, Sita successfully passing through agnipariksha to prove her chastity, the loose tongued washer woman’s gossip casting aspersions on Sita’s character having stayed as a captive in Ravana’s kingdom, Ram’s agony and sending Sita when she was pregnant to forest, raising two sons, Sita questions: ‘If I did not love you with my heart, nor followed you in all duties, then why this punishment? Manasa, karmana vacha yatha Ramam, O my mother Madhavi Devi open up and take me away in your lap” - the cry is heart wrenching. Aruna’s lying on floor taking the dust and showering over her body suggestively merging with earth leaves audience stunned. The powerful abhinaya speaks volumes for Aruna as a mature dancer.

B. Bhanumati has earned a formidable reputation for her abhinaya and choreography. Selecting Purandaradasa’s Aada hodalla nakkalu composition in ragamalika and roopaka tala, set to music by that ace musician Srivatsa and to his mellifluous singing, Bhanumati created the world of child Krishna complaining to mother Yashoda that whenever he goes to play with young playmates, they tease him and say that he is not her son, but of Devaki and Vasudeva and do not play with him. Bhanumati had incorporated for abhinaya some of the traditional games children play across the country which made her abhinaya delectable. Yashoda comforts Krishna by taking his companions to task. Purandaradasa describes very tactfully that Krishna is at loggerheads with Shakatasura, Puthana, Kaliya, and his uncle Kamsa, and not knowing his divine form children tease him. Bhanumati enacted through sanchari bhavas various episodes conveying Krishna’s annihilating the evil forces.

B Bhanumati

Sheela Chandrashekar

Sheela Chandrashekar presented Arjuna Krishna samvada weaving the story of Arjuna’s vishad yoga, not wanting to fight the battle, Krishna showing him his Vishwarupa, reminding him of his duty and not seeking the fruits, and the message that whenever there is rise of adharma, Krishna take birth –Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati Bharata … sambhavami yuge yuge. Arjuna rises and picks up gandiva bow to fight. The various characters of Duryodhana, Krishna and Arjuna were neatly enacted by Sheela by her quicksilver change of expressions and angikabhinaya.

Bhanumati concluded with Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Tamil composition Varugalaamo Ayyaa. Nandanaar was a Dalit, low caste born Shivabhakta. He longed to have darshan of Shiva at Chidambaram but the priests would not permit him. The sequence with lord appearing in dream of temple priest to keep a pyre ready for Nandanaar’s entry and also in dream of Nandanaar to enter the pyre, walk through the fire and emerge totally safe and become one with the lord attaining moksha was performed with utter devotion. The musical accompaniment led by Srivatsa was outstanding.

Usha Datar

The finale with veteran Usha Datar in Kathakali with Puthana Moksham was the highlight of the festival. Seva Sadan auditorium was packed, people sitting on the floor, standing on the side and others watching through the windows. It had generated quite an excitement. In her 70s, Usha has mastered several dance forms and has a dedicated following amongst her audience. It was a rare opportunity for the younger generation to watch her.

Appearing behind terashila, the curtain held by two dancers, and to the electrifying music on maddalam, chenda and talam and powerful singing, Usha made an entry describing the beauty of Gokul where peacocks were dancing, the gopis were churning butter, the musicians were playing various instruments, mridangam, veena, and some dancing gracefully. From demon to beauteous Gopi, Puthana transformed doing her hair and putting ornaments, looking in mirror. Usha excelled in all the elaborate abhinaya. Finding the house of Nandaraya she stealthily opened the doors, climbed various storeys and finally saw the most endearing child Krishna in a cradle, sucking toe of his leg. Usha created exquisite image of child Krishna in that pose reminding one of vatasyapatre shayi Krishna painting. The audience responded spontaneously to that improvisation of Usha.

Puthana is mesmerized seeing Krishna’s beauty but is reminded of her mission to kill him. Cajoling child Krishna she takes him to breast to feed him, applying poison. After a while she starts feeling uneasy. In Lokadharmi abhinaya, Usha showed Krishna’s pranks and fondled him. A dancer while performing Puthana’s role turns her back and applies kajal, black on her eyes and face to reveal her demonic form before Krishna sucks her life. She runs hither thither in agony and showers blows on child Krishna stuck to her breast. As often happens in Kathakali, the dancer runs through the audience. Usha ran through the audience striking fear amongst children sitting on the floor, screaming and rushing back on stage. And finally fell on the floor. A thunderous applause greeted her. So dramatic was her enactment that audience gave her a standing ovation for a long time. A versatile dancer, Usha displayed her abhinaya gifts which indeed kept the audience under a spell. Kathakali as a dance-drama form has this amazing power. It is perhaps the only solo number which audiences comprehend unlike the complex abhinaya and manodharma of the dance dramas where several characters appear, converse, improvise and perform.

Sarita deserves congratulations for planning to present senior dancers and raise the bar of the festival. It was a sheer pleasure to watch their performances. One returned after relishing the amazing power and impact of classical dance forms. The generosity of senior Bangalore artists to support young generation of dancers is praiseworthy. The musicians deserve to be mentioned for their support. There was very good stage backdrop further embellished by imaginative lighting. The comperes for both the days were competent giving brief introductions about the dance numbers. Overall the two day festival was professional and highly enjoyable.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic, Padma Shri awardee and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.

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