Nritya Neerajanam in Maryland

November 4, 2009 

A Maryland, USA non-profit organization, Aahaarya, devoted primarily to promoting Kuchipudi dance presented an unusual and interesting performance as its initial offering on September 19, 2009 at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Lanham, Maryland.  The saahityam for a Kuchipudi concert is typically predominantly in Telugu with some items or portions of items in Sanskrit.  An occasional Kannada or Tamil item might be seen if the subject is especially of interest to the choreographer or the audience.  This program, titled 'Nritya Neerajanam,' comprised of items in several non-traditional languages in addition to Telugu and Sanskrit, one item each in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Manipravalam, Hindi and Bengali.  The concept and choreography for all but one item (one was choreographed by Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam) as well as the music for a couple of items and the lyrics for one item were by Vempati Ravi Shankar.  Many of the performers, in addition to Ravi Shankar himself in two of the items, were long-time senior former students of the Kuchipudi Art Academy, Chennai, currently living in several states in the US.  The performers included physicians (Yamini Saripalli, Bindu Madhavi Gutti, Sangita Rangala), Ph.Ds (Subha Maruvada, Anuradha Murali), a pharmacy student (Vanita Sundararaman), as well as professionals (Sasikala Penumarthi, Hima Bindu Challa, Swati Gundapuneedi, Lakshmi Babu, Jyotsna Potarazu), and a school girl, Shreya Babu.  When Ravi Shankar called, all these very busy people took the time and made the effort to give the lucky members of the audience an audio-visual treat.  
While non-traditional for Kuchipudi, the items in other languages were all compositions by masters in their own right, the items in Hindi, Sanskrit, Malayalam and Manipravalam being by Maharaja Swathi Tirunal, Kannada by Purandara Dasa, Tamil by Gopalakrishna Bharati and Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore.

Ravi Shankar showed his unique combination of adherence to the traditions of Kuchipudi with his flair and original ideas and a willingness to try innovative change.  These were evident in the invocation item, with lyrics (in Sanskrit), music and choreography all by Ravi Shankar; he incorporated the five jaatis, with the sahityam perfectly matching the rhythmic patterns, especially the part in sankeernam.  This item, titled 
'Vande Umasutam,' starting with Ravi Shankar and Sasikala, brought in the whole group of dancers who performed with excellent coordination.  The precise timing and coordination also marked the other item that included all the performers, namely the Tillana at the end of the program.  The Tillana in Bhupalam ragam was a Sanskrit composition by Maharaja Swathi Tirunal. Ravi Shankar aptly used charis and hastas according to the theme and flow of the item. He used the following akasaki charies: atikranta, apakranta, parshwakranta, noopura paadika and vidyutbranta. He also used uromandalam and rechita-ardharechita nritta hastas. The combination of hastas and charies that enhance the inherent nature of the song or its theme can be seen in choreographers who have a keen sense of imagination and aesthetic sense. This aesthetic sense in a choreographer allows the lyrics, ragam and dance to gel as a whole unit, rather than simply using a movement for the sake of using that particular movement. This illustrates that if one delves deeply into the technical aspects of the Natya Satsra, a talented choreographer has much scope for innovation within the Natya Sastra tradition in the Kuchipudi dance style.

The Kuchipudi Art Academy, under the direction of the Vempati father and son, has always emphasized the importance of Abhinaya to complement the words in the sahityam to bring out every nuance of the story being told; and this was noticeable in all the items presented in this concert, especially in the five solo items, one by Ravi Shankar, two by Sasikala Penumarthi, one by Swati Gundapuneedi and one by Subha Maruvada. 

Ravi Shankar's portrayal of Nandanar in the Tamil item "Enneramum" from Nandanar Charitram with lyrics and music by Gopalakrishna Bharati was the keynote of the evening.  He brought the wide and complex range of emotions felt by Nandanar to life - sadness at not being allowed to enter the Lord's temple, utter devotion when he beseeches the Lord to show himself, and blissful realization that Lord Siva has granted his ultimate wish.  Ravi Shankar's skill at using movements to depict events was on display especially in portraying the arrival of Siva on Nandi. 
Sasikala literally lit up the stage and infused in the audience the joy she herself obviously feels when she is performing.  In the item titled "Javvadi Mettinadi," an Annamacharya composition with music by Dr. M Balamuralikrishna, she gave a perfect portrayal of a vaasakasajjika, depicting Goddess Alamelumanga's joyous anticipation of her romantic encounter with the Lord.  The heroine's love and devotion shine through Sasikala’s brilliant abhinaya.  In the other solo item by Sasikala, with Bengali lyrics and music by Rabindranath Tagore, the heroine is Chitrangada, one of the consorts of Arjuna.  The story traces Chitrangada’s transformation from a warrior princess to a loving damsel that leads to successful union with Arjuna.  The wide range of emotions in this item provided Sasikala the opportunity to show her mastery of Abhinaya as well as her ability to use the entire stage and hold the audience's attention. 

Swati Gundapuneedi (Manipravalam) and Subha Maruvada (Malayalam) each performed a solo with lyrics and music by Maharaja Swathi Tirunal and addressed by the nayika to Lord Padmanabha. Each gave a good portrayal of a nayika confiding to her friend that she is pining for her Lord Padmanabha, and one sadly asserting that without her Lord, her life is meaningless (Swati); the other asking her to tell Him of her longing and to hopefully bring Him to her (Subha).

The rest of the items were performed by small groups with the excellent coordination characteristic of disciples of the Kuchipudi Art Academy.  One was a Swathi Tirunal composition in Hindi titled "Aaj Aaye" set to music by Dr. Balamuralikrishna, with Swati Gunapuneedi, Lakshmi Babu, Himabindu Challa and Subha Maruvada as gopikas dancing with joy because Lord Krishna (Sreya Babu) has come to amuse himself with them.  Another item was an Annamacharya composition titled “Kolani Lona” with the gopikas this time being Sangita Rangala, Bindu Gutti and Jyotsna Potarazu and Sreya Babu again as the young Krishna.  The theme of gopika vastrapaharanam where Krishna succeeds in ridding the gopikas of their inhibitions, symbolizing the Lord's teaching for the atma to give up their ego and be one with the paramatma was delightfully presented.  The third group item, also in praise of Lord Krishna, with Anuradha Murali, Sangita Rangala and Jyotsna Potarazu was "Narayana Ninna" in Kannada, with lyrics by Purandara Dasa, music by P Sangeeta Rao and the only item of the program choreographed by Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam.
In honor of Vempati Ravi Shankar's talent and dedication to the art of Kuchipudi, Aaharya honored him with the award of 'Kuchipudi Nava Ratna.'  As he is a kidney transplant recipient, Aahaarya donated much of the proceeds from this program to the National Kidney Foundation of Maryland and the TANKER (Tamilnadu Kidney Research) Foundation.  Dr. Prabhakar Baliga, who played an important role in facilitating Ravi Shankar's treatment, graciously gave a speech educating the audience on the prevalence of kidney disease and diabetes, primary initiator of kidney disease, in the Asian community and the importance of supporting such research organizations.

Aahaarya also supports the teaching of Kuchipudi to blind children.  Sruthi Lingam, a senior student of Kuchipudi Kalakshetra, Visakhapatnam, is successfully conducting dance classes in a government-run school for the blind.