Meenakshi's magnificent Margam 
- A Seshan, Mumbai 
Photos: Harshan Thomson  

October 29, 2009 

Old is gold! 

In recent times this writer attended a series of neo-classical (or modern or contemporary or theme-based) Bharatanatyam (BN) programmes. While he certainly appreciated the novel attempts to introduce a fresh life into the ageing world of BN, he became nostalgic and yearned for a change – from the new to the old! So when Meenakshi Srinivasan, a student of Venkatachalapathy of Kalakshetra and later Alarmel Valli, informed him that she was going to do the Margam at her NCPA engagement in Mumbai on October 27, 2009, it came as a big relief. And relief it was because of the exemplary manner in which she carried the flag of the traditional format to an appreciative audience. 

The programme opened with the Pushpanjali in Meghavahini composed by Madurai Muralidharan. As in other aspects of life, form is as important as content. The manner in which a programme or even an item therein unfolds is crucial as the first impression is often the last and the lasting one. After more than 60 years, this writer still remembers the dramatic manner in which the legendary Kamala used to enter the stage. She would sprint like a deer to the nattuvanar and his accompanists for salutation and then, after completing the round, offer pranams to the audience. In these days of dancing to recorded music due to financial constraints, one can do all that only to a tape recorder or a CD player! Still there are ingenious and attention-drawing ways of opening a programme. When the curtain parted one saw Meenakshi prostrating on the floor and then slowly rising. The offering of flowers was to god, dikpalakas (the guardians of the geographical directions), guru and the audience. The characteristic features of the Pandanallur style were brought out even at this early stage giving an inkling of what was to come later. Though often this early phase of BN is dismissed by many dancers as a routine to be done with quickly to proceed to what they consider as more substantive items, Meenakshi did full justice to what she had taken up. Besides a plethora of adavu patterns one saw utplavanas also besides the deep-seated positions that one often associates with Pandanallur. The depiction of Lord Ganesha in the Nattai song (“Mooshika Vahana”) as part of Pushpanjali, especially his gait and bearing in walking, was done well. This and the other songs were all in Adi tala 

Then followed the Varnam of Dandayuthapani Pillai in Kharaharapriya (“Mohamakinen inda velayil”). Meenakshi meant business when she told me that she was going to traverse the traditional path. The varnam is the piece de resistance of Margam and the yardstick to measure the technical virtuosity of a dancer besides her aesthetic capability. In the distant past, it used to take an hour to be completed. Nowadays, if anyone performs it at all, it shrinks to a capsule version as in the case of Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi in music concerts.  During the 100 minutes she danced she devoted about half the time to do full justice to the varnam.  This varnam is dedicated to Lord Siva and is in the form of the nayika telling her sakhi about her nayaka and the pangs of separation (viraha) and asking her to fetch him to her. In her introductory remarks Meenakshi said that the song could be interpreted in two ways – the longing of the nayika for union with the nayaka at the mundane level and the desire of the bhakta to merge with the Lord. The varnam was interpreted in both ways to evoke rati and bhakti sringaras. Viraha was woven in subtly. Nataraja’s different poses, held without any tremors in the body, were like what we see in temple sculptures.  The footwork was flawless. One was reminded of her guru’s statement that abhinayam does not mean only facial and body expressions; it calls for  footwork also for keeping track of the rhythm.  (‘See the music, hear the dance - Alarmel Valli's Synaesthetic Approach' - In fact, rasikas often concentrate on the face and the torso and rarely look at the feet. There is a wrong impression that foot movements are important only in Kathak.  

Dandayuthapani Pillai, the composer of the varnam under reference, believed that hand movements should be taught to a student only after he or she mastered footwork. Sitting in the first row close to the stage this writer could observe the foot movements. He noticed the dancer counting beats with toes a la musicians doing it with fingers.  The sancharis were done at three places in the varnam. Of these, the one dealing with Manmatha was outstanding. The effects of the arrows of love of Manmatha on the nayika were portrayed dramatically.  “Mathe, yarukkakilum bhayama” was another line taken up for elaboration. She did the abhinaya just to the playing of the violin in some cases that was a novelty to the audience.  In all the sancharis, Meenakshi could express the emotions of the nayika effortlessly. She has an attractive stage presence with a mobile face that can reflect myriad emotions in a quicksilver fashion.  Utplavanas and araimandis were a pleasure to watch. Clean lines, clarity in mudras, angasuddha in adavus and stylistic sarukkal (jaru or skalitham) were other notable features.  It had an aesthetic finale. 

The third item was Durga Stuthi (“Sri Jagadeeswari Durga Swagatam, Susswagatam”) in Ahir Bhairav composed by Lalgudi Jayaraman. The benign and ferocious aspects of Durga - her creative, protective and destructive energies - were delineated. “Tikku teriyada kattil” played the role of the padam. This song of Subrahmanya Bharati became famous when G N Balasubramaniam cut a 78 rpm record more than half a century ago. It was a sell-out success. However, one has not heard it or seen its performance in recent times. The dancer kept the Ragamalikai structure as in GNB’s rendering without changing the ragas (Behag, Jonpuri, Bauli, Senchurutti, Sahana, Kapi and Pharas). The nayika’s getting lost in the forest and her final rescue by a hunter who turned out to be Krishna provided the occasions for a multi-faceted abhinaya. The programme was rounded off with a tillana in Desh by Rajkumar Bharati with the charanam taken from a Subrahmanya Bharati song. One saw statuesque poses along with the standard addamis and other movements. Occasionally there was suddha nrittam – dancing only to the rhythm of the percussion instrument.  The performance came to a dramatic close.  

The success of the programme was in no small measure due to the support of the recorded music. The following artistes participated - Kaniyal Hariprasad (vocal),  
MS Sukhi (nattuvangam), V Vedakrishnaram (mridangam), Shigamani (violin) and  
A Shashidhar (flute). The vocalist was clear in his enunciation of words so those who knew the language could follow them.  

An enjoyable evening 

What helped in the enjoyment of the evening was the artiste’s brief explanation before every item of what she was going to do. And in the case of varnam, while narrating its meaning, she demonstrated a few mudras that rasikas would be seeing later. The success can be summed up by pointing out that the Godrej Dance Theatre with a capacity to accommodate 200 persons was well occupied. What is more, for the first time, as far as this writer’s knowledge goes, the programme was ticketed though at a nominal price of Rs 20. He learnt that about 30 tickets only were unsold. This is remarkable since he had attended many music and dance concerts at Godrej with only a half of the hall filled. Practically every member of the audience remained to watch the programme till the end. All this augurs well for not only Meenakshi but also for the future of Bharatanatyam in the city. One hopes Mumbai can see her more often.  Perhaps the audience interest was facilitated by two factors. One, the revamped programme magazine of NCPA (‘On Stage’), circulated among members of the Performing Arts Circle, now carries more details than before of all the artistes performing in a month with colourful illustrations. Secondly, a series of concerts of top-notch dancers (both classical and contemporary) in the recent weeks appears to have stimulated the interests of the Mumbaikars in fine arts. 

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.