Smaraami Shankaram: An exhilarating experience
- Shrihari Josyula

 May 28, 2009 

The Saraswathi Cultural Trust organized ‘Vasanta Utsav’ in the spacious Navarathri Mandapa of the ancient Kapaleeshwara Temple in Chennai. Held in summer, the festival has become an important part of the cultural calendar of Chennai.
'Smaraami Shankaram' by Kuchipudi exponent Lakshmi Mani, saw the capacious Mandapa brimming with expectant crowds. The atmosphere charged with devotional fervour seemed to bring out the best from the artiste, who seemed to be in her element too. Living up to her reputation as a classicist choreographer with an innovative bent of mind, she carefully chose Sanskrit and Telugu compositions that resembled multi-hued gems from a treasury of composers, each revealing a different facet of the Lord and coming together to form a beautiful necklace. 
Paying obeisance to the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Shankari through the lively 'Shri Vighnarajam Bhajey' (Gambeeranata - Khandachaapu - Oothukkadu Venkata Subbaiyer), the artiste revealed graceful movements, so becoming of the deity, which set the tone for things to come. 
The next item was the serene 'Parvathi Nayaka,' a beautiful composition of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in the raga Bhowli and set to Adi thalam. The composer salutes the benevolent Lord who protects his devotees by annihilating destructive forces. In this piece, Lakshmi portrayed the episode of Tripuraasura Samhaara, wherein she depicted the misdeeds of the evil Asura towards women, cows, hermits and other devotees, who in turn pray to Lord Shiva for protection. The Lord ascends the chariot (whose wheels are the sun and moon) and wielding the mighty Meru for a bow, slays the demon. Playing the contrasting roles of the arrogant Asura and the majestic Lord Shiva most effectively, Lakshmi gave ample proof of her exquisite artistry. Arguably the first of her generation of dancers to choreograph thematic solo presentations on Swathi Thirunal and Oothukkadu Venkatasubbaiyer in Kuchipudi in as early as the '90's, Lakshmi's strength seems to lie in careful selection of compositions and understanding of their full import, rather than a mere word-to-word delineation. Her choreography evolves with each performance and is a veritable work-in-progress, rather then remaining stagnant.
The central piece was 'Karunaamritha,' a spiritualistic composition that was adapted to dance effectively by the dancer. Originally a Sanskrit composition of HH Ramana Maharishi, it was later translated into Telugu by a devotee. Set to Ragamalika and Adi Thalam, this piece stood out for Lakshmi's touching portrayal of Kannappa (the hunter who does not hesitate to give up both his eyes on seeing a weeping Shivalinga) and the rare legend of Arunaachaleswara. While the former episode was distinct by the artiste's sheer involvement, the latter was a revelation to many who were unaware of the legend. Reportedly, when Brahma and Vishnu try to assert their supremacy, Lord Shiva assumes the form of a fire whose beginning and end remain unknown to the Brahma and Vishnu, in spite of their best efforts in the form of a boar and a bird. The deities then merge, thus forming the Agnilinga, seen at Thiruvannamalai in Tamilnadu. The Markandeya episode was also portrayed, though one felt it could have done with some curtailing. Sticking to the Kuchipudi tradition, Lakshmi danced on the rims of a brass-plate with admirable grace and aplomb, winning instantaneous applause on finishing each diverse cycle of rhythm.
The next item 'Dhimi Dhimi' described in chaste Telugu the cosmic dance of the Lord, accompanied by Parvathi and musically assisted by the entire pantheon of Gods. A composition of Parupalli Ramachandra Murthy, a contemporary poet, this piece was set to Ragamalika and Talamalika. Lakshmi performed with indefatigable energy and wonderful technique, despite the demanding tempo of Kuchipudi, giving testimony to her training and involvement.
The final piece was the reverberating 'Rudraashtakam,' attributed to Tulsidas, which, apart from describing the physical attributes and embellishments of the Lord, also eulogizes Him as the supreme dispenser of salvation, one who is compassionate towards His devotees & yet one who is terrible in the face of evil and so on. This was danced with great gusto by the artiste and left an indelible mark in the minds of the audience, both for its catchy musical structuring, as well as for the mature dance that was successful in conveying its spiritual essence. 
The program ended appropriately with a verse from Adi Shankara's 'Shiva Aparaadha Kshamaa Stotram,' bringing the curtains down on an evening that will remain etched in memory for long.
The compact yet competent orchestra supported the dancer well, with Sundari (nattuvangam), Hariprasad (vocal), Dhananjayan (mridangam) and Muruganandam (violin). Make-up by Sundararaman highlighted the dancer’s intrinsically beautiful visage and the purple-red costume by Aiyyelu was apt in conveying grandeur aesthetically.