Bharatanjali at the National Theatre
- Govind Anantharaman

March 27, 2010 

Guru Bhanumati of Nrityakalamandiram, Bangalore, revolutionized group choreography in Bharatanatyam. Moving away from group features like dance dramas, she experimented in extending the solo repertoire to a group setting. This journey led to the creation of her troupe, Bharatanjali in 1994. With staff and students of Nrityakalamandiram as members of the troupe, Bharatanjali continues to flourish under the able guidance of Gurus Bhanumati and Sheela Chandrasekhar.

Some of the original members of this troupe are settled outside India, predominantly in the United States. Recently, six of them - Smitha Srishaila, Sheela Ramanath, Deepika Kaiwar, Suneetha Tirumalai, Suma Srishaila, and Anupama Srikanth - came together from all over the US for a performance at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. And what a performance it was! 

Starting with Poorvarangavidhi in Mysore style, the dancers set the pace for what was to follow. This piece featured the original choreography of late Venkatalakshamma (a court dancer from Mysore), adapted to the group setting by Bhanumati. The six dancers appeared on stage in permutations, creating geometric patterns, expected and unexpected. The well-choreographed entries and exits, and the seamless transitions were dramatic, adding to the interesting korvais.

Sriman Narayana in Bhowli elevated the audience to a meditative, serene plane. In contrast to the vivacious Poorvarangavidhi, this itemís gentle and peaceful quality communicated the spiritual aspect of Bharatanatyam, even to the lay audience. The formations including Lord Narayana riding the majestic Garuda and His viswaroopa were awe inspiring.

The inevitable sparkle of nritta came through in the Valachi thillana, a composition of Dwarki Krishnaswamy. Bhanumatiís choreography was full of understated elegance, like a classic being revived.  

An interactive session with the audience followed. Questions ranged from costume to technique to abhinaya. The audience was a multi-cultural mix of artists, art lovers, and the uninitiated. Sheela Ramanath facilitated this session, with the rest of the dancers demonstrating each aspect. After a brief introduction to the grammar of Bharatanatyam, Sheela touched upon hastha, nritta, and abhinaya. To help understand abhinaya, she offered to interpret sentences provided by the audience. What an ingenious approach! The audience responded with great enthusiasm. When questioned on some technical aspects, the dancersí explanation was simple and concise, devoid of overwhelming details. The spontaneity of these dancers was proof of their artistic acumen. The dancers also took this opportunity to talk about their Guru. The dedication of their performance to Guru Bhanumati was a very touching moment.

A contemporary piece on the Mahatma followed. Featuring popular patriotic classics such as Vaishnava Janato as the background, and commentary in English in the fore, this was one contemporary piece that communicated eloquently, without compromising the integrity of Bharatanatyam.  The concluding item was Deepanjali. With muted stage light adding to the visual effect, this piece was symbolic of the jyoti (light) of knowledge lit by the universal languages of music and dance. 

It was really hard to believe that this group was dancing together after a ten-year hiatus. Unlike most groups where every dancer is a clone of each other or the teacher, each dancer of Bharatanjali exhibited her individual, undiluted style. They were like threads of distinct colors that together wove the most incredible tapestry in dance. Most importantly, this was a performance that reached out to a predominantly uninitiated audience. How often does that happen? Kudos to the dancers, and to Guru Bhanumati who continues to inspire them beyond time and geographical boundaries!