Local and Glocal  
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 
December 31, 2007  

Glocal is the buzz word these days. Stay local but think global. Artistes during the December dance and music season were seen trying all sorts of things. Few succeeded. Here is my second report. 

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is one organization that offers its programs free for rasikas during the Chennai season. Being centrally located, these shows naturally attract a full house on most days.  

The Kathak program by guru Rajendra Gangani, the son and disciple of renowned guru Kundanlal Gangani of the Jaipur gharana, on Dec 12 was to start at 5pm... (or was it 5.30pm?) People were in their seats from 5pm onwards. And we waited...and waited...there seemed to be nothing happening on stage, so we all waited for some announcement, something to happen. It is actually a Kathakali performance, wrongly listed as Kathak, said an old man to his neighbor in the row behind me. Maybe due to circumstances the first program could not happen, so do we just sit around till 7pm for the next program, wondered another.  

Then in a matter of 5 minutes, the musicians settled on stage and the Kathak program by Gangani commenced at 5.50pm with a Shiva sthuthi, followed by pure dance, an item on rain, a bhajan and an energetic jugalbandhi with the tabla player. It was an elegant presentation, but it is high time organizers instructed ushers on what should not be done when an artiste is performing. It was atrocious to see a steady stream of people being directed to walk across the front to be seated on the other side for the next program. And these people on their part calmly strolled over, unmindful that they were causing disturbance to the performer as well as audience. 

Gangani concluded his recital at 6.50pm and there was mayhem after that. The hall was already full by now and there were many wanting to come in to see Sudharani Raghupathy and her troupe of 22 perform MAMMUDHA - FROM DUST TO LIFE. Being a free program, most of the family and friends of the performers had come that day. As a volunteer blocked the door saying there was no place, there was a near stampede as people pushed the man aside and moved in, most of them having to settle to standing along the walls to watch the show!  

It was an almost plain backdrop of grey panels broken by the face in two parts – a Therukoothu half and a Bharatanatyam other half. This, according to producer and Artistic Director, KSR Aniruddha, was to suggest the blending of the folk and the classical elements within the operatic ballet. It was refreshing to see a new theme being enacted. Mammudha (as he’s known in rural South India) or Manmatha, the God of Love, at the behest of Lord Indra trained his arrow on the meditating Shiva, only to bear the brunt of Shiva’s third eye which reduced him to ashes. Moved by his inconsolable wife Rathi’s tears, Shiva promised her that Manmatha would come back to life, but be visible only to her eyes! Through diligent research, the whole story was composed into a 1hr 45 minute long presentation. A more even level of dancing between the seasoned senior students and the newcomers could have raised the entire quality of the production.  

Priya Murle as Indra was brilliant in her Therukoothu style portrayal. She was such a natural that she stole the show. Three months of rigorous rehearsal from the renowned Therukoothu artiste Sambandan had given Priya all the nuances of walking and making the expressive sounds during the dialogue sessions. Sasirekha Balasubramanian as the Therukoothu Kattiyakaran/narrator was engaging. Aruna Subbiah as the narrator in Bharatanatyam style seemed superfluous. A talented dancer like her could have been used in a more meaningful role. Anusha Venkatramani as Nandi made an imposing figure, towering above the fiery Siva danced by Priya Dixit. TM Sridevi was a coy Rathi and the ever-gorgeous guru Sudharani was an elegant Manmadha.  

Celebrating 60 years of her career in dance, this is the first time Sudharani is taking on a male role. The dummy horse dancers did a neat job. The well presented show was testimony to all the hard work put in over the months, but a couple of scenes, especially the dialogue between Manmada and Indra could have been edited a bit. Costumes of Manmadha, Rati, the folk dancers, narrators, Indra and Nandi by V V Ramani were striking-some better than the others. Sudharani’s costume colours in a golden brown/orange was very flattering with her breast plate in elegant black and gold. Lighting by theatre veteran Mithran Devenesan added sparkle to the production that has been running to full houses and standing room only audiences throughout its 9 show run this season!  

Everyone clarified the timing of the next day’s show before leaving! The 5.30pm slot on Dec 13 witnessed a beautiful Odissi recital by Ranjana Gauhar, this year’s recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. The items presented included a composition on Shiva, Dheera Sameere, an excerpt from Kalidasa’s Ritusamharam and an Oriya poem ‘Biti la to jamini.’ Odissi music is always beautiful and the accompanists Ramachandra Sagar (vocal), Prafulla Mangaraj (Pakhawaj) and Kiran Kumar (flute) treated us to some divine music.  
Programs at the Bhavan generally adhere to timings and the next was 5 items on SKANDA, one of the names of Lord Muruga or Subramanya, presented by students of Chidambaram Academy of Fine Arts, conceptualized by guru Chitra Visweswaran. Though she was invited to perform herself, she could not bring herself to do so, so soon after her husband Visweswaran’s demise, so she is presenting her students during the season. She is still moved to tears when she announces a composition of her late husband. It was a neat and compact one hour presentation with a plain backdrop broken by peacock feathers. The dancers included Uma Namboodripad, Arupa Lahiri, Ashmita Raghavan, Supriya, Nivedha, Shalu and Jai Quehani. The supporting orchestra comprised of Sukanya and Mridul Vivek on nattuvangam, Murali Parthasarathy on vocal, Adyar K Gopinath on mridangam, R Thyagarajan on flute, G Sitarama Sharma on violin and C Munuswamy on tanpura. It was good to see the full auditorium.  

Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi gave a beautiful violin recital for Bharat Kalachar, on Dec 25. The backdrop was so cluttered and harsh on the eyes that I heaved a sigh of relief to see a plain backdrop for Padma Subrahmanyam’s thematic presentation ANNAMAYYA PRATHIBA that followed. She chose some beautiful Telugu songs translated for her by Pappu Venugopal Rao and also included 2 songs suggested by scholar VAK Ranga Rao 15 years back when she had presented an evening of Annamayya compositions.  
Starting with an invocation to Lord Venkata, the devotee finds climbing uphill difficult but is re-energized on getting a darshan of Devi. Then follows a description of what he sees at Thirumala, the different vehicles of the Lord and the audience broke into rapturous applause especially when she pulled the chariot! After entering the sanctum, the devotee describes the 16 upacharams in “Shodashakalanidhikku.” An item on athma pooja where the beautiful description is about body being the temple, head being the kalasam and so on. “Bhavayami Gopala Balam…” that is synonymous with MS Subbulakshmi, followed by an item in sringara bhava on love between Perumal and Thayar. The swing song was composed in folk tune and so was the next item “Brahmam Okate.” As we were enjoying Padma’s mind boggling array of a myriad facial expressions for the one line, the power went off resulting in total blackout. But the orchestra continued playing, Padma stood where she was, keeping beat with her ghungroos and when the power came back on in about 3 minutes, they continued the item from where they left off! Because of the T Nagar area being such a mess now, I thought that the audience turnout of about 100 or so was fairly good, but my dance critic friend disagreed with me and was most annoyed that programs were being presented to near empty halls.  

Anita Ratnam always premiers her new production of the season at Krishna Gana Sabha and so it was too this year, with FACES –Blessed Unrest on Dec 28. It showed familiar and loved archetypes from our cultural tapestry, but through depicting them, Anita’s idea was to convey the dominant emotion connected with that personality. “These faces were already there – have always been,” says Anita. “But they have been recognized as personalities rather than emotions. So when you look at them just as faces, they become easier to relate to, the emotion becomes personal.” It was not thematic production like her earlier two works, 7 GRACES and NEELAM but was a collection of her favourite dances that she had created during 2006 and 2007 but never performed together. FACES revealed Goddess Annapoorni as the face of compassion; Durga vs an invisible Mahisha as the face of rage; the forgotten face as an exercise of subtle abhinaya to “aasai mugam marandhu pochey” sung soulfully by Sikkil Gurucharan to Anil Srnivasan’s plaintive piano notes; timeless faces from the Ramayana to the Brindavana Saranga raga alaap of Sikkil Gurucharan; the face of blissful surrender through Meerabai ended the 55 minute evening.  
The presentation used lot of theatrical stage movement, and the backdrop with swinging bamboo poles designed by Dipankar Mukherjee was simple and dramatic. Anil Srinivasan's musical arrangement used traditional Carnatic music compositions not specifically tailor-made to suit set choreography or stage directions, so Anita’s choreographic inputs used its natural flow. What was striking in the soundscape of Faces, were moments of stark silence. “The silence allows the mind to ponder, and form a coherent thought before being rushed into the next face/movement. The dance lies ultimately in the rasanabhuti of silence,” explains Anil. The pre show music when the audience was seated along with a wonderful prologue filled with Anil’s piano and Amritha Murali’s violin, brought the audience into the world of FACES. 

The beautiful costumes have been designed by Delhi based Sandhya Raman, Anita’s collaborator for 15 years. The idea was to bring out the classical grace of the feminine image without the heavy embellishment of traditional costumes. The costumes contained wraps and drapes, so the main tussar-toned basic shell was layered alternately with green, chrome yellow, tussar and copper gold wrap, to facilitate lightning changes for each item. The crystal-studded organza Benaras cutwork like a flowing Sufi costume for the final item was absolutely stunning. Direction and Dramaturgy for her first dance experience in India was Aparna Nadiem from Hyderabad. With theatre and contemporary dance experience in Germany, it was a trial by fire for this young woman, who was appalled at the lack of infrastructure and professionalism in the Indian dance scene. Long hours of rehearsal, scripts and voice recordings resulted in an unusual evening that ended in less than 60 minutes! “This is more than enough time to state your idea and finish it,” said Anita. “Enough of long winded varnams and riddled jathis and silly tillanas by mature dancers. New ideas and intelligent programming are required for contemporary audiences. I know that I am ten years ahead of my time in my home town. I pushed for recorded music during season performances since 2000, and now Malavika and Valli have recorded their music for tours. Unless we, the established dancers, continue to push the envelope for improved aesthetics, we cannot communicate in today’s age of integrated media and multiple media streams.”     

Considering that Krishna Gana Sabha is the most affected venue thanks to the messy flyover construction work in T Nagar, a fairly good number attended the program. Says Anita, “I have premiered most of my shows at this sabha - Adhirohana, Utpala, Naachiyar, Seven Graces, Neelam and now Faces. Each of these shows has gone on to tour and impact audiences. Last year, NEELAM premiered on the day of Vaikunta Ekadasi. Sri Yagnaraman was so moved that he remarked that it was like having a darshan of the Lord and that he could now go in peace! He was so open minded and always encouraged my endeavors. I dedicate my work this year to his memory. Do you know that one sabha secretary would not offer me a slot for ‘Faces’ since it had “Christian” music?” Strange are the ways of this politically correct sabha world!  

A group of young students of Gheema Naidu School of Music from Phoenix, Ghana, led by their teacher Bheema, gave a devotional music recital from 9am on Dec 29, at Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium for Brahma Gana Sabha. These children are actually fans of keyboard player Sathyanarayana and when the children accompanied him on percussion during a visit to his house, Sathyanarayana’s father was motivated to help arrange a program for them and that’s how the performance slot happened at the last minute. The children sang so beautifully to the meager audience of 15, that I was compelled to ask Ravi, the Secretary of Brahma Gana Sabha, why they were having programs so early in the morning if response was so poor. Instead of performing to an empty space, one might as well perform at home!  

“It all depends on the whims of rasikas. There’s no such deciding factor as weekday concerts or weekend concerts, big name or less known names, evening slot or morning slot. Though we least expected it, a 10am slot for Saketa Raman had an overflowing audience, while a 6.30pm performance by well known Charumati Ramachandran had 30 people in the audience. The same thing happened with Sarojini Sundaresan from UK, who is a very talented performer, but is not very well known here. We like to encourage talent, but this is what happens. Crowd is a reflection of the artiste’s popularity. Saleswise, we are not running at a loss at all, because seats are all sold. But these people who purchase tickets have a set agenda and go to see only what they want to and stick to it, so seats go empty. If it’s a corporate house, we cannot accommodate anyone in the first 5 rows even if no one turns up and there are people outside waiting for seats,” says Ravi. It was so good to read about a recent concert by TM Krishna at the Music Academy being sold out and rasikas had to be accommodated on the stage!  

The next program was a veena recital by Nirmala Rajasekar, who is settled in Minnesota. There were about 30 people present to enjoy her music. She is an accomplished vocalist too and sang the first few lines of some of the items. So, how has her experience been this season? Nirmala has just returned from a satisfying concert in Trichy. She took time off to visit Thyagaraja’s memorial in Thiruvaiyaru and paid her personal tribute in a 90 minute vocal concert, with a few visitors to the memorial stopping to enjoy her singing!  

She says she has been quite satisfied on the whole, with the audience turnout too and had nothing much to complain about. “I love to perform in the Chennai season as one never knows quite what to expect at the various venues. So I come prepared for all eventualities. The thrill is in anticipation. I remember when I was 18, Mr. SV Krishnan called me from Coimbatore and invited me to perform there for Nada Inbam. It is one of the most wonderful memories I cherish. I am now eagerly looking forward to performing with my 86 year old guru Kalpakam Swaminathan on Jan 1 for Nada Inbam in Chennai. I cherish my long journey in music with my guru. The very thought that I would be performing with her gives me goose bumps!” says Nirmala with a happy smile at the thought of her forthcoming concert 

The one presiding factor of the December 2007 season was the horrendous traffic throughout Chennai. More one way streets caused confusion all around and several rasikas stopped sabha-hopping, preferring to stay near the Mylapore and Alwarpet areas where transportation and canteens were reliable and safe! Performances from morning to evening filled the calendars without any proper centralized information system on who was performing where. This is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to consolidate and disseminate the information clearly to all visitors to the city. Five star hotels need to have the festival calendar with prominent artistes’ biographies and program details! 

Ah well. I have more performances to watch and much more to write about!  

Until next time then! 
Happy New Year!