Choreography for charity
- Neha Shekhar
Photos: Suneel Kelkar

September 25, 2010

It all began with a desire - a desire to create. Then a desire to help, to change the world by any means possible. And thus Prakriti was born. Prakriti, which means "creative energy" in Sanskrit, refers to the choreographers' event hosted by Jayendra Kalakendra on August 1, 2010. Thirteen senior students, their guru Suganda Sreenath, and a professional orchestra all united to raise money for the Indian Literacy Project.

Jayendra Kalakendra has always strived to be the school that makes a difference, be it by allowing students the rare-afforded chance to choreograph an entire production or by organizing a fundraiser for the worthy ILP. The Artistic Director, Suganda Sreenath, believes in providing her students the opportunity to teach, organize, and choreograph the steps she believes they should take in their journey of learning Bharatanatyam.

The process began with choreographing the pieces of a traditional Bharatanatyam margam, or repertoire: a pushpanjali, in which the dancers invoke the gods and offer them flowers, and an alarippu, in which the dancers warm up each part of their bodies like a blossoming flower. The pushpanjali was a new composition of Easwar Ramakrishnan, the vocalist of the evening, and flowed from a soft, slow speed to a more brisk pace. All the performers had pitched in to choreograph this piece, and its simplicity allowed for a range of creative possibilities. The beat was simple enough to allow the dancers to play with different steps and combinations until a novel combination struck them. This piece flowed seamlessly into the alarippu, a composition of Ramesh Babu, the mridangist of the evening. This piece, set to a complex 9-beat cycle, was a challenge for both the choreographers and the nattuvanars, who for the first time were the senior students themselves Sahana Kribakaran and Shreya Iyer. After about a few hours of counting the beats and fitting steps to the talam, they had an alarippu. After a few revisions of beats and fitting the words to the talam, they had its music!

The next piece was a jathiswaram, an abstract dance piece set to a cyclical talam. Surajitha Elamuguru, a senior student and currently at UCSD, choreographed this piece. "I actually picked it mainly because I liked the 7th corve and thought I could do something interesting with it .... The song just kind of made sense to me and the movements just flowed. I listened to the music and danced the first thing that popped into my head," says Elamuguru of the process. This talented young woman created a physically demanding piece with a final corve that can only be described as "killer." "It was a challenging and difficult item. We all respect Surajitha Elamurugu as a dancer and choreographer and although the piece was a challenge, it was fun to dance to (even though our thighs burned like crazy)," comments Shreya Iyer, one of the performers of the piece.

Varnam, the central piece of a margam, was next. This item was originally choreographed as a solo piece by Suganda Sreenath; ten senior students took it and transformed it into a group piece with formations galore! Detailing the life of Lord Krishna, this varnam mentions his love of butter, his magical mastery of the flute, and his various heroic deeds. Kaliya came alive when it was recreated as the huge serpent that it was, with a vicious snapping head and a long body (of five senior students). In the final scene, Shakuni and Yudhisthira gamble, and Yudhisthira loses his wife Draupadi to Shakuni; when she is being stripped of her honor and de-robed, Lord Krishna comes to save her. "The varnam we performed gave each dancer various opportunities to act as a different character in the Mahabharata. The varnam has been performed by solo dancers, but with many dancers, we were able to clearly portray each character's role and actions as well as add more interesting choreography to the jathis," comments Sanya Bhavi Vora. Sahana Kribakaran echoes this sentiment; she enjoyed working with the varnam because she found that since the jathis were already choreographed, there was greater freedom to "play around with the formations."

A keertanam, or devotional piece, followed the varnam. En palli kondeer poses a question to Lord Vishnu: Why are you reclining? Is it because of your valorous deeds as Lord Rama; you became emaciated looking for Sita, and you must be tired from battling King Ravana. Is it because of your heroic acts as Lord Krishna, such as dancing on the head of a poisonous river snake Kaliya, lifting the Govardhana Mountain to give villagers shelter from torrential rain, or killing the evil Kamsa? Oh Lord Vishnu, why are you reclining? Originally choreographed by Guru VP Dhananjayan, (Suganda Sreenath's teacher), the dancers adapted the piece to accommodate four performers. Sahana Kribakaran explains the process: the dancers adapted it by working with the storylines of the piece; each dancer played a different character in the various stories of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. "That way, it made it a bit more interactive between ourselves, meaning the dancers, and it also made it easier for the audience to understand what was going on," says Jayaprakash.

The live orchestra portion of the evening concluded with a thillana, also composed by Easwar Ramakrishnan. What were the students' concluding thoughts on choreographing classical pieces to classical, original music? "The choreography for the performance, like pushpanjali, alarippu, and thillana was a way to get to know more about the dance form. The pieces we learn in class always seem so perfectly choreographed, almost like the dance and the song were made for each other. I think that was the hardest standard we set for ourselves; we wanted the choreography to seem right and fit with the music that was composed for this performance. We wanted to live up to the pieces that we learn in class, and show that we as a group could not only put on this performance, but perform our own choreography for a good cause."

And a beautiful surprise for the audience: Bharatanatyam performed to Bollywood music!
An AR Rahman piece from the movie Thakshak was first in this half of the performance. Shona Hemmady, one of the choreographers for this piece, says of the process: "We basically listened to the music and created moves we thought would look good with it. We were able to do whatever we wanted because it really helped us make interesting combinations of steps. We were able to add things that we liked from other items too. We also learned to keep a good count of the beats to make sure our steps fit the music." With all the steps put in perfect sync with the music, a classical talam was created where a filmy beat existed, remaining true to the Bharatanatyam style and creating a piece that is interesting to watch.

Ragas Dance by AR Rahman was up next. "It was really different from the usual, because it's such a modern song with such a different tone than we're used to. It inspired us to use funkier steps and formations, and I think it was an interesting experience," says Sneha Jayaprakash of the piece. These contemporary pieces were really the breeding grounds here for new and unusual choreography stemming from traditional pieces, while staying within the classical framework. Says Aarushi Gupta, "I know that there were some unconventional and unorthodox things that we did; that was really a place to express our creativity and explore the ranges of Bharatanatyam."

The concluding piece was a thillana, a medley of various thillanas composed by Lalgudi G Jayaraman and remixed by Janani Iyer; the dancers christened it 'Adbutham.' "Adbutham is the element of surprise and awe. We named our piece Adbutham because we tried new talam patterns as well as different combinations of steps that we had never seen used before. We felt that the name was fitting because the item as a whole left people in awe at what we created." It included a formation in which the first dancer appeared to have the array of arms that a devi would as the other four danced perfectly behind her and a pancha nadai (five walks, set to five different talams).

The journey? "Choreographing initiates a different type of thinking process; it forces you to think of unique and different ideas that do not come to mind if you are solely a dancer. This was truly an unforgettable experience," says Sanya Bhavi Vora.

The end result? Vocalist Easwar Ramakrishnan, mridangist Ramesh Babu, flautist Ashwin Krishnakumar, Guru Suganda Sreenath, and performers/choreographers Aditi Bommireddy, Anirudh Bommireddy, Aarushi Gupta, Shona Hemmady, Shreya Iyer, Sneha Jayaprakash, Sahana Kribakaran, Navya Palacherla, Neha Palacherla, Sindhu Rao, Shivanjali Sewak, Neha Shekhar, Sanya Bhavi Vora, and the school Jayendra Kalakendra raised almost $2500 for the Indian Literacy Project. When people come together and put their artistic abilities to good use, the evening is never disappointing!