Rasa Unmasked  
- Dr. Sunil Kothari 
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@gmail.com  
Photos: Sivarajah Natarajan 

 May 18, 2009 

During my visit to Sydney, Australia, last year I got an opportunity to see the rehearsal  rushes of 'Rasa Unmasked' on a CD at Critical Path studio/laboratory with Anandavalli Sivanathan, the renowned Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi exponent from Sri Lanka, settled in Sydney. She had given up performances five years ago. In order to research the vocabularies of Indonesian dance, she had corresponded with me and I had put her in touch with several persons. She had already got in touch with Ramli Ibrahim, the celebrated dancer/choreographer from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Over a long period of discussion and meetings, they decided to have a collaborative work under their respective institutions Lingalayam Dance Company, Australia and Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia. They invited the well known American born Chinese musician/musicologist Alex Dea from Java, for musical collaboration. 
An international collaborative work, Rasa Unmasked has a theme which has universal appeal. It indeed is a fact that transcending racial and national barriers, the concept of Rasa is at once ancient and contemporary. Therefore Ramli and Anandavalli's collaborative work is a welcome venture. Whatever I saw on CD increased my curiosity to see the work in its final shape. Ramli and Anandavalli informed me that they will have an Indian tour in 2009, with the production performing at Chennai, Bangalore and New Delhi.  

Under the joint auspices of Malaysian Embassy, Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Sallaudin Pasha's Ability Unlimited the show was mounted at Kamani Auditorium in Delhi on 28 April 2009. I could catch up with the artistes a day before I left for Bangalore for World Dance Day celebrations.  

It indeed was a spectacular production. There are visuals which I can still recall for the choreographic brilliance and imagination. The opening scene with Prakriti/female/nature and Purusha /male/unmanifested creative energy, lying on the Waters of Existence, represented by five dancers with Seraikella Chhau masks supporting Prakriti reclining on them and from a nearby maze of wood, Purusha freeing itself, the union of male and female and the wonderment (adbhuta), the discovery of the body and that of rhythm and dance, the Maya of existence were enacted with finesse evoking the adbhuta rasa.  

When in the garden of love, Kamadeva generated passion, the courtesan/nayika and the hero/nayaka's longing for each other evoked shringara. Ramli and Anandavalli represented the nayaka and nayika.  

January Low and Rathimalar
Ramli Ibrahim in veera rasa
The choreographers have not dwelt upon the narrative, but selected sequences to reflect the rasa. In a spectacular sequence of veera rasa the nayaka was shown performing to the verses of Javanese shadow play describing Lord Rama, who imbues shakti before battling with Ravana. The effulgent costumes were dazzling and the atmosphere was charged with exquisite lighting and appropriate music using Javanese gamelan music, Alex Dea playing the Rabab that gelled well with the sequence. 

For karuna (compassion) rasa, Anandavalli chose Kabir's Hindi bhajan. The seeking by devotee, the original spirit of compassion to save humanity from being victimized with misinterpretation of the spirit of religions finds a felicitous expression in Kabirís bhajan. Anandavalli presented it as a solo abhinaya number.  

Hasya (laughter) was shown with figures dancing, dressed in frills and jumping, creating fun, whereas bibhatsa (disgust) had a group number which evoked disgust. Bhaya (fear) was recognizable whereas roudra (anger) had dramatic moments as seen in confrontation of sworn enemies provoking each other and swearing threats and vengeance. We often see similar scenes in Kathakali dance dramas. In the production under review, the aharya, the costumes, and the Balinese/Malay/ Indonesian dance vocabularies evoked the expected rasa. The use of kunnakol like sollus to generate dramatic impact was imaginative. The finale for shanta rasa strove to bring fulfillment, wholeness, images of divinity evoking transcendence over attachment to worldliness. 

Many an eyebrow was raised when a mélange of music was heard. But this is natural in any collaborative work on an international scale. To the credit of Alex Dea, with his training under Pandit Amarnath in classical Hindustani music and expertise in Javanese music, his rendering of alaap was commendable as was his overall composition of music and playing on Rabab. Bala Sankar's recitation of sollus (mnemonic syllables), playing on tabla and Aruna Parthiban's vocal support went hand in hand with the unfolding of the production, meeting the requirements of the evocation of the Rasas. For an Indian dance aficionado audience to experience rasa is, one would expect, much easier than other audiences who do not know the intricacies of the Rasa theory.  

A special word for Sivarajah Natarajan's light designing. I have used the word 'spectacular' for the production. His lighting indeed evoked the adbhuta rasa, wonderment. He bathed the dancers, with their exotic costumes, headgears, necklaces, flowing robes in brilliant colours. The props, one long branch hanging from the ceiling, and the other drift wood like on the floor, even when it looked strange, created curiosity. The visual impact was very powerful. The use of masks was also imaginative. 

Guna, with his thin frame, performs with amazing agility. January Low with her beauty adds glamour and charm as do Sutra's other female dancers. Ramli has an arresting stage presence. Anandavalli displays her command over the idioms of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, even after giving up dancing for last five years. But somehow, the pairing of Ramli as nayaka and she as nayika did not gel. 

As usual the program book with detailed introductions, arresting images, interviews and credits is published with impeccable taste and customary finesse one has come to associate with Sutra Dance Theatre. Those who have seen Ramli's other productions would feel that even when there was an unmistakable Sutra Theatre production signature, the production remained at a spectacular level at its best. 

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award.