Numbers on their minds!  
- Pratima Sagar, Hyderabad 
Photos: G Muralidhar 

August 16, 2008 
After a hiatus of four full years, it was a full moon night for art connoisseurs of Hyderabad as the brightest stars of Indian classical dance shone on them. Well, the entire constellation of dancing fraternity descended on them for the biggest show unveiled in the twin cities in half a decade's time. Set to delve into the mysteries of 'holy number' concept in the Indian pantheon, the festival was indeed a milestone. Thanks to Shankarananda Kalakshetra, of Ananda Shankar Jayant, for conceptualizing the unique festival, and ahoy to Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, for actualizing the five day long festival titled Nritya Sanrachna in the city of Hyderabad.  Ravindra Bharati was packed to its capacity through out the festive evenings, which seemed more like a beehive with artists and art lovers flocking towards the theatre (almost awakened from a long slumber of no art activity in the city)!  

Curtains opened up for Nritya Sanrachna, festival of choreographic works on Sankhya, with Mohiniattam by Bharati Shivaji who decorated the stage to establish the divine Ten- on the Sankhya concept. Interestingly, the show strung to a number theme flowed one into the other, as though each dancer/ choreographer featured in the festival, contributing to the single, ultimate goal of Shoonya- symbolizing a meditative merge of frenzied dance into the mystic nothingness! The classical themes symbolizing the theoretical codes of numbers from ten to zero in descending order - Dashavataram for ten, Navarasa for nine, Ashta Nayika for eight, Saptaavarta for seven, Shadrutu for six, Panchabhoota for five, Chaturveda - four, Trimurti - three, Dvaita - two, Advaita for one and Shoonya or zero... actually depicted the numbers and their mythical significance- and what a best illustration of the same through varied classical dance forms of the country. Mohiniattam to Manipuri, Kuchipudi and Kathak, Bharatanatyam to Bharata Nrityam and Vilasini Natyam, and Chhau to Contemporary, the festival was also a mélange of dance forms set on a numbered journey!   

The time honoured Mohiniattam depicted the traditional choreography of Bharati Shivaji, with a host of her disciples performing Dashavataram. Bharati extended the Vaishnava theme for Ten to a subtle and graceful number in Shiva thought titled "Dasha Pushpam," where dancers in twilight dance for lord Siva, "Chandramaule..." - offering him floral eulogies.  

Dashavataram - Bharati Shivaji
Navarasa - Ananda Shankar Jayant
Ananda Shankar Jayant's Navarasa, added the essential effervescence to the inaugural evening of the dance festival after a mellowed Mohiniattam's prayerful presentation. Ananda's novel presentation, in terms of new choreographies, was in tune to Sangeet Natak Akademi's endeavor for endorsing newer works in dance in the annual festival of Nritya Sanrachna. The profound Bharatanatyam finds pioneering possibilities in pure dance to evoke varied emotions of Navarasa.  Here the choreographer evolves out of the mythical narratives and explores the kinetics of pure body movements to draw the emotions. Angular and fiery movements to evoke Raudra (anger), comical movements at once bringing smiles on to the audience for Hasya, sensuous and poised dance to paint romance or Srungara, vigorous and bouncy dance for Veera (valour), and the like... culminating with Shanta or peace. Each Rasa was intermitted with a male dancer Pradeesh K Thriuthiya, who sported colourful veils representative of each emotion and swayed across the stage to establish the mood with Kathakali (like) gestures, giving way for very fine- five dancers who fathomed the complete form of each Rasa solely through syllabic and melodic dance! The dance choreography that unfolded to evoke the different colours and spirit of the Nine Rasas seemed merging into the static emotion of nothingness - Shanta...Shoonya...connecting the number philosophy - the theme of the present festival.  

Guru Singhajit Singh's Ashta Nayika in Manipuri was again a traditional beauty with the lead danseuse Charu, accompanied by a host of dancers and drummers made a picture perfect presence on stage. For the south Indian audience, watching Manipuri was a sheer cross cultural experience. Gentle, restrained and graceful movements... ideal for sketching the moods and imageries of the classical heroines, Eight in number. Ashtapadis of Jayadeva made an apt theme for exploring these feminine graces. In fact the stage itself seemed like a huge painting with colorfully clad dancers forming groves and gesturally becoming doorways, temples, and even trees and foliage to enhance the surroundings and moods of the heroine in love.  

Ashta Nayika - Singhajit Singh
Saptaavarta - Prerana Shrimali
Saptaavarta choreographed by Prerana Shrimali, brought in a treat with seven superb Kathak dancers gyrating across the stage amidst psychedelic lights to establish the monumental movements of the Seven planets. The pure dance symbolically depicted the all pervading and flaming Sun in an orange light, the gentle blue glow of the moon and the mystic swirls of Jupiter and the like. The choreography had a pace and movement to have captured the audience in esoteric spaces created through light design, music and sprightly Kathak. Further the dancers changed into different coloured veils and frills to symbolize the colour of the planet.  

Using veils or changing the upper frills or even the jackets of the dancers' costume in quick successions for different numbers seems to have become a trend for newer choreographies in the country (nothing wrong, but seemed rather filmy to me). Well, classical dance is all about expression, gesture and movement - backed by rhythm, poetry and aesthetics. Simple! If this happens in right proportions, no monumental props or elaborate lighting stunts can add or mar a performance. For it's just about dance and a thin line that defines in using of extra embellishments (I request - fulfill your love for superfluities in Nritya Natikas or theatrical productions, if that matters). Simply because, your beautiful dance and choreography sometimes (and most of the times) gets submerged by these over powered props, electronic extra effects and even lengthy intermittent dialogue intros from the sound boxes.  

For instance Swapna Sundari's Shadrutu. Her intimate and individualistic style of Vilasini Natyam was so enchanting... but she over crowded the stage space with painted pots and then, pulled veils out of them like a magician! And not to mention the slide show depicting a messy collage of mediocre paintings of nayikas, and also of clouds, flowers, abstract designs, and a mix of  many elements competing with her own photographs projected big and wide on the backdrop! To decode Six, Swapna, in fact came up with an interesting mythical...where she visualizes Shadrutu as an allegory - "The cycle of seasons serves as a metaphor for  tracing three relationships between the earth - woman and sun- man; the devadasi and god; the nayika and nayaka. The vigorous energy of the cosmos- brahmanda is released through the heat generating sun- purusha into the atmosphere. It is received by the earth- kumbha and causes volatile climatic changes in nature- prakriti. These changes manifest as the seasons rutu. Agamic worship in a temple provides a symbolic extension to the above idea. Here, the devadasi represents prakriti which pulsates amidst the brahmanda (the temple), the sanctum of which is occupied by purusha. Kumharthy, an essential ritual offered by the devadasi in a temple illustrates this concept. At the human level, the cyclical nature of the relationship between the traditional nayika and nayaka also conveys this basic motif..." Fascinating! Swapna could carry this theme with her powered grace in just a solo performance. Does she require these accentuations or for that matter, that male dancer at the rear end of the stage who entered and exited like a leather puppet!? Naa! I remember watching Swapna (over a couple of years ago) do a complete number just by sitting on the stage floor, singing with her lilting voice and dancing with her wide expressive eyes!! 

Shadrutu- Swapna Sundari
Framing Five - Anita Ratnam
The same evening saw ace contemporary dancer of the country Anita Ratnam taking on Five for Panchabhuta.  While she extends her dance-theatre production as "Framing Five..." to draw on the "number 5 - ever present in the eastern ideas of the five elements, the five symbols of Sikh faith, the five pillars of Islam, the pentagon and the pentacle, a feminine symbol for divine mother... its presence in the eternal symbol of tree-of-life..." Anita travels across the stage with abstract movements, gestures and expressions. Sometimes telling and sometimes mystifying! While the rhythmic cycle of five- tha ka tha ki ta... flows as the pulse of her choreography. The surprise element of this dance theatre presentation was the introduction of  two male Malkambh artists/ dancers who descended  from the roof entwined to a long red cloth and whose acrobatic dance at the backdrop was like a live prop complimenting the dancer involved in a somatic representation of symbols, metaphors and deep rooted beliefs preoccupied in five. Like always, Anita's work carries a surprise element. She never chases a formula... she simply experiments with the idea, to merge with its form... and evolve...only to liberate through the language of dance - so dear to her!    

A spell binding performance came from Rajashree Shirke who reigned on the stage with her dancing force (literally) of sixteen Kathakar dancers to encompass the concept of Chaturveda. She came on to the fore with dialogue, song and dance followed in chorus by her students. The dancers wove a magical visual of dance theatre, which retained the earthiness of Kathakar tradition of Kathak, at the same time unfurled into a dazzling dance of precision and grace. Of the sacred texts, Four in number, the choreographer delves further deep into the four vrutti-s of Bharata Natya Shastra. And what best than the ancient epic of Mahabharata as an inspiration to explore the concept. The choreography of the war of Kurukshetra was especially commendable for the perfectionism of pure dance and an expression of fearlessness and valour on the dancers' faces... literally encasing a battle field (for arbhatti vrutti) that culminated with a heart rending song and dance for the loss of lives.   

Chaturveda - Rajashree Shirke
Trimurti - Shashadhar Acharya
The spell was furthered in the next presentation on Trimurti. The divine Three took the festival close to the zenith where Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara come to life in yet another timeless tradition of Chhau. Choreographed by Shashadhar Acharya, the presentation was simply divided into three parts where the trinity appear in the traditional masks and are eulogized by a host of 27 male dancers and musicians. The performers filled the stage space with a battalion like dance! The theme of creation, sustenance and destruction saw dancers in varied cari movements of chhau, building the dance tempo to a crescendo.  

The much awaited last evening of the festival featured Radha - Raja Reddy, Padma Subrahmanyam and Sonal Mansingh. "It's always challenging and rejuvenating to research and choreograph hitherto untouched themes in dance... I appreciate Ananda Shankar Jayant for conceptualizing the idea and putting forth the challenge for us- to rethink, recreate and come together..." said Sonal Mansingh who went into a research to give shape to Zero or Shoonya through dance.  

Radha - Raja Reddy's Kuchipudi aptly stood for Dvaita, to represent the number Two. It's a pleasure to watch this couple who are credited to have taken Kuchipudi dance to newer heights. With their established aesthetics, Radha matched her lyrical graces of lasya with Raja's masculine tandava depicting the eternal symbols of love and union of prakruti and purusha. The duo extended the theme to yet another dance to draw the number Two for jeevaatma - paramaatma bond (the human- almighty relationship) with a stunning sanchari bhava illustrating the Geethopadesam.  

Dvaita Raja & Radha Reddy
Advaita - Padma Subrahmanyam
Talking of sanchari bhavas, here comes the maestro Padma Subrahmanyam with her inimitable style casting a devotional spell on the onlookers... almost effortlessly! For Padma Subrahmanyam, dancing for the almighty is a spiritual sojourn to preach the Advaita philosophy. Through a telling art of Bharata Nrityam, she wove the monumental concept of One with mighty verses of Adi Sankara's Sive-Manasa-Puja Stotram, Vivekachoodamani, Bhaja Govindam including compilations from Thotakashtakam, Gangasthtakam, Sankaravijayam and Maneesha Panchakam. Clad in Kashaya Vastram (earthy orange costume) and wearing rudraksha beads, Padma created imageries through a fabric of sanchari bhavas, of tales and folk narratives that once and again established the omnipresent and omniscient lord. Especially the signing off number "brahmam okate..." of saint poet Annamacharya, where the dancer evoked the devout audience to wave in glory of the one and only almighty! Only Padma Subrahmanyam can do that!  

Shoonya, by Sonal Mansingh, indeed took the festival to an upsurge. In her lyrical Odissi dance, she embodied the process of emanation of forms from the formless void... a nothingness that pulsates to create the world... Sonal too, used flash slide projections on the backdrop showing the stars and nebula like forms in a balanced proportion to go with her dance (however this (again) seemed superfluous). For, her mystic dance in twilight, where a nocturnal yogini yearns to merge with the numinous white light... was sound enough to shape up the sense of Shoonya and its enigmatic energies. A classic representation, where the dancer delves deep into Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and brings out related folktales and poetry that portray the yogini in a gentle trance of creation from nothingness. Perfect! 

Shoonya Sonal Mansingh
Wish there were more and more festivals like Nritya Sanrachna with newer challenges for the dancers to imagine, create and come together... for an ode to dance. 

Pratima Sagar is a cultural commentator and critic based in Hyderabad.