Textbook Bharatanatyam at its best  
- A Seshan, Mumbai 
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com 
May 27, 2008 

There is so much novelty and innovation in the field of arts. As Kabir said, it is the flowing water that keeps itself clean, not a stagnant pool.  Bharatanatyam is no exception to this trend.  Increased exposure to other cultures and the expansion of media and communication facilities, have helped in this process. Rasikas have seen a sea change in the approach of senior artistes to their presentations. Fusion with other dance forms, dancing to alien music and theme-based or story-based group dances have proliferated in the recent years. All these changes are no doubt welcome to keep up the interest of rasikas so that they are not tired of seeing again and again what may turn out to be a routine.  At the same time there is always the ever-present danger of the artiste losing her or his roots in Natya Sastra as conventionally followed.  It is in this context that a program planned on the lines of margam or the traditional repertoire by a single dancer comes as a relief to the connoisseur overloaded with the contemporary dance formats. This reviewer had an opportunity to see one such program at the Little Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on May 23, 2008. An added attraction was that it was a solo Bharatanatyam recital by a male. The artiste was a youthful P Praveen Kumar, who runs the Chithkala School of Dance in Bangalore.  

Praveen studied Bharatanatyam for 14 years under guru Narmada and is currently fine-tuning his artistry under the veteran natyacharya C V Chandrasekhar, who is a leading torch-bearer of the Kalakshetra school. Like many other youngsters he migrated to Bharatanatyam because of his passion for the art from a totally different field, viz., IT industry, where he had worked as an animator. He has been presenting programs for over a decade both in India and abroad. He is the recipient of prizes in many competitions and awards for artistes. Besides solo performances he has choreographed half a dozen programs like Pandharpur and Krishnam Vande Jagatgurum in the latter of which 320 school children participated.  

Praveen's selection of items for the NCPA event showed his imagination and ingenuity. Considering the fact that the oeuvre of Bharatanatyam is generally female-oriented, he did considerable research to locate and choreograph songs suitable for a male dancer. The evening started with the traditional Pushpanjali in Gambiranattai and Adi tala followed by slokas in Ragamalikai in praise of Ganapati, Lakshmi and Nataraja. It showcased his talents in a nutshell in relation to devata hastamudras, footwork and abhinaya providing a preview of what was to come later.  Then followed a varnam in Ritigaulai in Adi. It was unusual in that it consisted of extracts from Srikrishna Shathanamavali Stotra, unlike the normal one that is generally a sahitya specially composed for that purpose.  The verse starting from "Sri Krishna Kamala Nado" had been set to music tunefully by Tirumalai Srinivasa Iyengar. A few episodes from the life of Krishna from his birth to Geetopadesam were selected for the portrayal of superb sanchari bhavas and navarasas. The quicksilver changes in the expression of Praveen attested to his ability in mukhajabhinaya. Particularly poignant was the climactic scene where Arjuna's despondency on the battlefield in Kurukshetra on seeing so many of his clan on the other side was well done as also the Viswarupadarsanam of Krishna. Azhuttam and adherence to kalapramanam marked his footwork.  

After nearly 30 minutes of varnam, one padam and one javali followed, which were also unusual being not heard or seen on the concert stage. Praveen found only a few songs with the nayaka at the centre, instead of the nayika. One was by Sarangapani. Rendered in Kalyani (Adi tala) this piece "Citike vesite nivanti" portrayed the extraordinary experience of Krishna in getting snubbed by a pretty girl, when he approaches her for dalliance. He gets the shock of his life because all along he has been chased by gopis whom he literally takes for granted. Here is a slip of a girl who just ignores him as someone of no consequence! It is the illustration of a nayaka in the dheeralalita mode - carefree and pleasure-loving, according to U S Krishna Rao's book entitled "A Dictionary of Bharata Natya." Krishna engages in a little bit of braggadocio saying that the girl does not know who he is. He is Venugopala who could, just by a snap of his fingers, summon thousands of girls! The song's content is sensuous as in the case of others in the same genre. There are four charanams of which Praveen selected the first and the third. This writer noted that he wisely left out the second charanam ("Sarige payita") with its highly erotic lines. The amorous advances of Krishna were shown in a restrained manner eschewing vulgarity.  

After the piece on Krishna came a javali by Pattabhiramayya ("Taru maru lade vemay vayyari") in Nattaikurinji and Adi. This was a case of a Dhristanayaka, one who is always guilty but asks for forgiveness like errant lovers with a penchant for beautiful girls. Here too Praveen's mimetic skills came to the fore. The program ended with rarely-heard tillana in Simhendramadhyamam in Adi tala by Madurai Krishnan ("Krishnadasan"). The sahitya of the charanam is a tribute to Kumaraguruparar, the Tamil saint-poet. It was a fitting climax to an evening of enchanting dance with vigorous charis, sculpturesque poses and movements of eyes and head. Particularly satisfying to this reviewer in the entire program was the frequent use of araimandi, the basic stance of Bharatanatyam, with the correct positions of the torso and the feet. Araimandi is fast disappearing and may enter the list of endangered species before long! His perfect adavus and mudras were straight from the textbook. His aharya was simple. Endowed with a winsome personality he is a dancer to the manner born.  

In sum, Praveen's performance was a good illustration of how a dance based on the classical sastras could be made interesting to an audience, many of whom may not be aware of its nuances. His brief introduction to each item was helpful to the audience in understanding what was going on the stage. The recorded orchestra was supportive. Generally the dance programs at NCPA attract only a few people because the venue (Nariman Point) is on the southern tip of the Mumbai island. On a weekday the average rasika is anxious to catch his train to travel back home. But the size of Praveen's audience was satisfactory, which this reviewer could attest to because he had attended many such concerts. He felt that it was an evening well spent despite the time and effort needed to travel from the northern suburb of Sion. Praveen's performance was his first in Mumbai. He deserves to be seen more often in the city. Music and dance sabhas need to take a note of him. 

The author is an Economic Consultant in Mumbai and former Officer-in-Charge of the Department of Economic Analysis and Policy of the Reserve Bank of India. He is a fine arts buff.