It’s story time: Natyarangam’s Bharatham Kathai Kathaiyaam (Part 1)
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

August 24, 2011

The 15th edition of Natyarangam’s week-long annual festival took place from August 12 to 17, 2011 at Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai. Having already presented festivals on holy places, holy rivers, saint poets of India, composers and so on, this year featured 12 Bharatanatyam artistes, each artiste presenting a modern Tamil short story written over the past eight decades followed by a traditional story on parallel lines from the epics, puranas, legend or history, by the same artiste. The Natyarangam committee made up of S Kannan, Charukesi, KS Subramaniam, S Janaki, Kalpagam Balasubramaniam, Major Gen. A Balasubramaniam, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and R Krishnaswamy, did painstaking research to choose the stories, assisted by resource persons Sudha Seshayyan (Puranas), Jaya Srinivasan (Puranas and Theatre) and Pravin Kannanaur (Theatre).

Some specifications were given to the dancers. Each program would contain 3 segments, namely reading of the story or its condensed version by one of the readers. The modern short story to be performed first only to music with NO LYRICS, but punch dialogues can be used in appropriate places. It could be vocal or instrumental comprising of ragam, tanam, svaram, percussion, solkattu /jathis/theermanams. If any song lines form part of the original story they may be sung. The parallel story is to be performed next with lyrics chosen from Puranas or old literature in any Indian language. The stories should be presented in stylized mode in Bharatanatyam. Dancers should use only live music and Indian instruments. Realistic presentation like a drama in mono acting should be avoided. The presentations should be Drsya Kavyam (Visual poetry) and not Drsya Natakam (Visual drama). The dancer may divide the time for the stories equally into 25 minute segments or into 30 and 20 minute segments. No segment should be less than 20 minutes.

“Apart from this, we thought this fest will make not only the participating dancers but also dancers and others who are watching it, realize the need and the various ways one must get under the skin of the story - the context, characterization, being focused, to crystallize and cull out the important parts to make it crisp yet effective, sub-texts, climax, etc. And narrating stories are so much a part of any classical dance. It is a lesson in exploring the mindscape of the writer and the characters portrayed. It is quite a challenge to choreograph and depict the final twist in each short story,” says S Janaki.

Aug 12
On the inaugural day, Guru Rhadha was honored for her contribution to Bharatanatyam. The Obul Reddy Award for senior dancer went to PT Narendran, Sudharani Raghupathy Award to violinist Kalaiarasan, and Vasanthalakshmi Narasimhachari Award to V Karuna Sagari for talent promotion. “Story telling is not new to Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam needs everything – songs, music instruments, knowledge of the puranas, fitness, knowledge of human emotions and so on. To show it’s not a stagnant art, we try to experiment with new concepts so youngsters can show their creativity. Man’s basic emotions are the same, whether the story line is from the past or now,” said Sujata Vijayaraghavan.

The fest got off to a grand start with the Shridhars from Bangalore, one of the best dancing duos of India. Shridhar and Anuradha presented ‘Sangu Thevanin Dharmam,' a short story by Pudumai Pithan, which was read out by his daughter Dinakari Chokalingam. It is dusk and the old woman Murukkupaati Muthachi with furrowed brows and long earlobes, bent with age, is at a goldsmith’s workshop, urging him to finish work on a traditional heavy ear ornament meant for her daughter’s wedding that is to take place the next morning. Collecting the finished ornament, the woman starts walking fast along the jungle path in darkness to get to the next village. She nervously clutches the precious packet praying that she will not be waylaid by the bandit Sangu Thevan. She looks over her shoulder nervously as she walks fast. She sees a man and is happy to have his company. She tells him about her daughter’s wedding and the jewels in her keeping. As she reaches the temple and sees light, she is relieved to have made it through and hurriedly takes leave. The man says she is poor, is she not, and presses a money bag into her hands. Happy over this unexpected luck, she blesses him and asks him his name. “Sangu Thevan! Name your first grandchild after me!” booms Shridhar. The shocked woman drops the money bag. He assures her of his good intentions and disappears. The whole piece was performed admirably and evocatively to instrumental music. Shridhar as the goldsmith Thangavel aasari and majestic but menacing bandit Sangu Thevan gave a fine portrayal of might mixed with humour, and Anuradha as the anxious old woman wrapped in a shawl was equally superb.

The next story ‘Thirumangai Mannan,’ the last of the Azhwars (Thirumangai Azhwar) was about another type of bandit. The king hailing from the Kallar community falls for beautiful dancer Kumudavalli. To get Thirumangai Mannan initiated into Vaishnavism, she agrees to marry him only if he promised to feed 1008 poor Vaishnavites in the temple every day. He agrees and so life goes on till all his money runs out. She then tells him to rob to feed the poor and he resorts to bandit thievery in the forests. One day, Lord Ranganatha and his consort come to the forest as an ordinary couple to test him and Thirumangai Mannan waylays them threatening with a spear. Shridhar beautifully motions Anuradha to remove one jewel after another till only her toe-rings remain. She pretends to be unable to remove them, so he tries to yank them off – Shridhar actually falls back in the attempt, face mirroring his astonishment as he sees the divine couple appear in their wedding splendor. The sight moved the reformed ruler, who became Thirumangai Azhwar. This item gave scope for dance sequences and abhinaya. Shridhar was compelling as the love struck ruler, feared bandit, repentant thief and enlightened azhwar. Anuradha as the charming dancer, persuasive wife and divine being testing her subject was equally convincing. Both items were choreographed intelligently and there was never a dull moment. The orchestra comprised of Balasubramania Sastry on vocal, Prasanna Kumar on nattuvangam, HS Venugopal on flute, Harsha Samaga on mridangam, Madhusudan on violin.

Shridhar and Anuradha

Shijith Nambiar & Parvathi

Upcoming talented couple Parvathi and Shijith Nambiar performed ‘Theermanam,' a short story by Janakiraman. Sujata Vijayaraghavan’s story narration was full of drama and character play! The protagonist is a ten-year old girl Visali. She settles down on the pyol of her house playing with her shells as she waits for her friend Radhai. Instead, her father-in-law arrives in a bullock cart to take her to their house, since her husband Neelakantan wants her there. The child-bride who has till then been childlike in her behaviour, suddenly shows extraordinary maturity, packs a couple of her clothes, tells her aunt to convey the news to her father that she has decided to go ‘home,’ leaving her aunt stunned. On returning from the market, her father, who has never given respect to Visali’s in-laws, takes a horse cart and races to catch Visali, with food packets given by her aunt. He gives her the shells, feeds only her, throws the other food packets in the river and tells her he will never go to see her but she can come home if she wants to see him. The girl says ‘Nice dad!’ and laughs. Parvathi was convincing as the naïve little girl skipping along, playing hopscotch and pallankuzhi as well as the determined girl/woman; Shijith as the somber father did indeed tower over her.

In the parallel story of ‘Sita follows Rama to the forest,’ one sees her determination to accompany Rama as he gets ready to go into exile. “My place is beside you, wherever you are,” she tells Rama and accompanies him to the forest. This was a comfortable traditional item. Both pieces were presented neatly and to the point, with jathis used in first segment and more stress on emotion in the Ramayana story. Some minimum dialogues were also used. The accompanying artistes were Arun Gopinath on vocal, K Parthasarathy on nattuvangam, Ramesh Babu on mridangam, Sivaramakrishnan on violin, Srutisagar on flute and Brijesh on ganjira. Music was composed by Rajkumar Bharati with different ragas highlighting the myriad emotions.

Aug 13
Through her expressive abhinaya, tiny Bragha Bessel stood tall in portraying the short story ‘Dhaaraigal' by La.Sa. Ramamrutham. The story was narrated by the writer’s son Saptharishi. Dhaaraigal are the springs that give perennial water supply to a well - the moisture that keeps life going. Like a woman’s kind heart, the recesses are filled with compassion. The story is how one such woman grows in stature by her gesture to another woman, victim of male wickedness. Amma comes to know from her servant Mari that an abandoned dead child has been found near the dustbin behind her house, the poor mother from the slums has been found and the panchayat is in progress to give justice. Disturbed by the uproar outside, Amma climbs on a stool to see what’s happening, through the gap between the roof and wall. As a mother, she can identify with the loss and goes to the gathering, sees the bloody whip lashes on the poor lady’s face and neck. Is this the justice Mari spoke of? She gives the poor woman some food to eat and tells the gathering, “Where is the man responsible for this? Find him as he is equally to blame and must face punishment too. This lady is poor and you are giving his punishment also to her? What dharmam is this? Only the mother knows the truth of a father’s identity. In this girl’s case, she is poor and is being punished for others’ sins,” said Amma and walked away. After a while, she peeks again and sees no one. Appa admonishes her that she should keep her own counsel as they were here to eke out a living, not make enemies of the town people. Bragha finished the episode dramatically declaring, “You talk about brain logic. But there’s also a logic for the heart and a logic for the stomach and their share is more!” The audience burst into thunderous applause. Instead of starting her recital with description of the surroundings as in the original story, Bragha first entered as the poor woman covered with a shawl, back to the audience, abandoning her child, and this set the story rolling from scene one.

The parallel story was of ‘Ahalya’ in which Bragha used verses from the Kamba Ramayanam and Rama Natakam. The scene of Indira enjoying Ahalya and her response that she could not control was handled delicately by the dancer. Gautama knew the past, present and future but could not realize the true love of his wife. Bragha drew on both stories to end her recital. In Ahalya, the husband cursed and turned her into a stone. In Dhaaraigal, the public made the poor lady into a stone. In the modern story, the man totally enjoyed the poor woman, gave her a child but when the public hounded her, he ran and hid. Compassionate Rama came to forgive Ahalya but which Rama came to help the poor woman?

What were the challenges Bragha faced when choreographing the short story? The story line was powerful but in the climax, the parting shot is important. To convey this subtly and powerfully with only music and dance movements, without using too much dialogue, she chose the tanam by veena. Even the silence had to shout – and it did! “The story has helped me to become a complete artiste. From this challenge, I learnt direction, visual approach, power of dialogues, to string episodes together economically, to use rhythmic vachanam and voice over dialogues for the dramatic impact. In music itself, I realised the power of different musical instruments.” The orchestra comprised of composer/vocalist Hariprasad, Anil Kumar on mridangam, Kalaiarasan on violin, Ananthanarayanan on veena, flute by Srinivasan, nattuvangam by Rakesh. Jathis and swaras were composed by Nitheesh Kumar.

Bragha Bessell

A Lakshman

In contrast to the serious first half, the next presentation by A Lakshman was humorous and well suited to the dancer who is adept at bringing out humour in dance. Bovines formed the centerpiece of both stories. ‘Sundar' by Asokamitran is a hilarious account of a tussle centred round a cow that has a mind of its own and is supposed to be a true story! The cow Lakshmi is owned by a Gujarati family who call it ‘Sundar’ meaning beautiful, and the efforts of a family to own this cow after buying it, becomes a misadventure, as the cow refuses to give milk and breaks loose every time to go back to its original owner. Vexed, the family finally sells it and this time, Lakshmi finds her way back to the second owner! The comically alive scenes are narrated through the eyes of a school boy. Shanmugasundaram mooing as the cow and L Subashri (nattuvangam) narrating the Hindi/Tamil dialogues with Lakshman emoting suitably was enjoyed immensely by the audience. Lakshman’s challenge lay in portraying varied characters like the boy, his mother, the Gujarati lady and the cow, with refined humour and it definitely reached out to the audience. When the cow kicks, Lakshman actually fell backwards from the stool, astonishing everyone! The score was by vocalist Murali Parthasarathy, mridangam by KP Anil Kumar, flute by Srinivasan, violin by Kalaiarasan, and jathis by MS Sukhi.

The parallel story was the ‘Viswamitra-Vasishta enmity over cow Nandini.’ While King Viswamitra is roaming the Earth with his 100 sons and army, he comes upon Brahmarishi Vasishta’s beautiful forest ashram. Vasishta welcomes Viswamitra for a grand banquet, and asks the divine cow Nandini, to make preparations for the banquet. The Nandi jathi was used to signal entry of Nandini. In an instant, Nandini produces enough of the richest food and drink to feed Viswamitra and his army. Though thoroughly impressed, Viswamitra becomes poisoned with greed and wishes to have Nandini for himself. He offers Vasishta 100,000 ordinary cows and all the wealth he desires in exchange for Nandini. Vasishta politely declines his offer by saying that Nandini is the vital source for the ashram’s spiritual activities. An angry Viswamitra orders his armies to seize Nandini and drag her away. Believing that Vasistha wrongly abandoned her, Nandini tosses aside her captors and runs back to the ashram. Moved by her tears, Vasishta reassures her that Viswamitra took her by force and that he is powerless to stop him. Nandini reminds Vasishta that his spiritual power is superior to Viswamitra’s physical might. Vasishta then commands Nandini to create a force capable of destroying Viswamitra’s army.

“When I was first given the topic in April, I was blank for the next 3 months! It’s a theatre piece but there should be no words, only music and how is it possible to depict a cow story like this in dance? Every night I would familiarize myself with the story and started work on it only in July. Revathy Sankkaran gave me some ideas. Shanmugasundaram, who is very good in Tamil, divided the story scene by scene. Music plays an important role so Murali Parthasarathy would meet me daily to try out different ragas. To denote the cow, I tied a cowbell around my waist. I had to show the cow kicking me when I try to milk it. One sits on a low stool to milk a cow. I used a 3 legged stool as it was easier to fall off it than a 4 legged one. It was a challenge to be visual yet not theatrical. The humour was difficult to depict. I can do what I want but it must appeal to the third person! Daily my students and friends would give me their feedback. While most people used jathis and swaras, I used hand gestures as well as abhinaya. Where to put what swara, what raga to use such that it reaches the audience without going over their heads, was tough.

With Shanmugasundaram, I went to octogenarian author Asokamithran’s house so he could check if I had the scenes, words in accordance with his story. I even performed the whole piece. He was surprised and delighted that I had been able to transform his story into dance. His approval was worth all the hard work. I had so much fun doing this. I want to perform this again, especially for school children as the story is easy to understand. Man has 6 senses, but animals have only 5. If man cannot change himself, how can an animal? The cow does not know it has been bought so it goes back to what it is familiar with. In the Viswamitra story, he forcibly takes away Nandini and she finds her way back to the ashram. Apart from the Nandi jathi, there were more lyrics, dance and abhinaya in this item, so I was very comfortable,” says Lakshman.

Aug 14

Water was the common factor in Sheejith Krishna’s presentations. His challenge was to focus on one of the larger issues of today in his performance of ‘Thanneer,' the first short story written by Sundara Ramaswamy when he was 20. Water has been the subject of conflicts for centuries. In the absence of rain, the village is in the grip of continuous drought with dry river beds that children use as playgrounds and dry wells. The land owners are silent but the farmers protest, looking up to the sky for mercy even as they are denied their share of water stored in the reservoir. A dam is built over years but still no water, so no harvest. It is a matter of life and death and the bravest among them make the momentous decision. Overnight, they break the barrier with shovels and water flows into the fields. The next day, they are all arrested and beaten up by the cops. The enraged crowd throws stones at the cops. The story ends with the tiny green shoots waving to the farmers who have been arrested! Tall and well built, curly hair flying, Sheejith used sticks to symbolise the walls of the tank, old person, as well as the police. The angavastram served as the garland used to woo politicians (orchestra members!). Jathis and konnakol were used in relevance to the situations.

The parallel story was of ‘Bhagiratha brings the Ganga.’ Brave King Bhagiratha is childless. Desiring progeny, he leaves the kingdom in the hands of his ministers and leaves for Gokarna to perform penance, hoping to bring Ganga down. He undergoes severe austerities. With fire on all sides and head exposed to the hot sun, he takes food only once a month. Pleased with his tapas, Brahma appeared before Bhagiratha and asked what he desired. Bhagiratha had two wishes: To bless him with a child to continue the lineage, and to bring Ganga down. Cursed by Kapila Muni, his ancestors lay in a heap of ashes in Patala. The ashes should be washed by the waters of Ganga so that their souls may go to heaven. Since the Devas were pleased with Bhagiratha’s penance, his wishes were granted. But the difficulty was, the earth could not withstand the force of Ganga's descent, only Siva could. So Brahma asks Bhagiratha to direct his penance and prayers to Shiva. Bhagiratha renewed his tapas and at last Siva appeared and told Bhagiratha that he would fulfill his wish and receive Ganga on his head. As ordered by Brahma, Ganga began her descent, but arrogantly thought she would fall on Shiva’s head and sweep him away towards Patala. To teach Ganga a lesson, he held the flood of waters that fell on his head, in his matted hair. Though Ganga tried her best, she could not get a drop out of Shiva’s locks. The disappointed Bhagiratha had to again propitiate Siva with penance. Finally Siva took pity on him and gently let out the waters of Ganga from where they flowed down in seven small separate streams down the plains making the lands along the way fertile.

Sheejith used Lalgudi Jayaraman’s Pahadi Thillana in this item. Vigorous movements signified Shiva controlling Ganga. “Water is vital to life. I drew inspiration from the fact that this story could be likened to the struggle that everyone faces in their lives, and the hurdles they need to cross,” says the dancer. He was supported by his wife Jyothishmathi and Anish Ram on vocal, Ramesh Babu on mridangam, Sashidhar on flute, Anil Kumar on tabla, Ananthanarayanan on veena and Girish on nattuvangam.

Sheejith Krishna

Vasantalakshmi, MV Narasimhachari

The happy duo Gurus Vasanthalakshmi and MV Narasimhachari had fun dramatizing short story ‘Amma Mandapam’ by Sujatha, whose breezy style of prose captures weaknesses that often hide steely strength. An elderly person has advised a visit to Srirangam temple so the childless couple will be blessed with a baby whom they should name as Rangan. The young pious Parameswari is determined to take her atheist husband to the shrine of Ranganatha. She manages to bring him to Srirangam and even make him take a dip in the Cauvery, but as she minds everyone’s valuables, she loses her own precious bundle. Her husband rebukes her, they file a complaint at the police station, stay overnight at a hotel, go to the police station next day when a 19 year old shabby limping boy who has been beaten up is produced before them, but on hearing his name Rangan, Parameswari denies he is the culprit! Black and white slides of Amma Mandapam and Srirangam temple as they were many years ago (before modern constructions were added) were projected according to the scene of action. Melodious flute and violin solos were used for instrumental version of old songs aptly chosen for situations like “Viduthalai viduthalai” for freedom from household chores, “theeradha vilayaattu pillai,” “Sriranga puravihara…” when visiting the temple and so on. Voice over and punch dialogues were used to stress on the dramatic moments. Clad in a pyjama and kurta, a sling bag hanging down his shoulder, Narasimhachari as the protagonist with communist leanings threw delicious tantrums on stage and was perfect as the complaining husband, smug police inspector, limping lad and a drunk. Vasanthalakshmi as the pious wife and nonchalant policeman shaking his legs while reading a newspaper was an ideal foil to his energetic character play. It was more drama than dance, but all in all, this story was a great hit with the audience.

Narasimhachari changed into his dance costume and the drama continued in the couple’s depiction of the parallel story of ‘Purandara Dasa and his wife.’ As a classical piece, there was comfort in the music, nritta and abhinaya. Jeweller/pawn broker Srinivasa Nayak is a miser. He is known as Navakoti Narayana since he has amassed wealth to the tune of 9 crores. When a Brahmin seeks his help to conduct the upanayanam of his son, the miser leads him a merry dance for 6 months, finally giving him just a coin. The old man refuses, then approaches Nayak’s pious wife Saraswati Bai, who gives him her nose ring. The old man sells it to Nayak, who recognizes his wife’s nose ring. He buys it, locks it safely and confronts his wife. Saraswati knew that her husband would punish her if she told him the truth, so she decides to commit suicide. When she tries to drink poison from a cup, she sees her nose ring in it! When Nayak opens his safe, it is empty! They realize that this is the doing of Lord Vittala, who had come in the guise of the Brahmin. Nayak becomes Purandara Dasa and spends his life extolling the virtues of the lord.

Verses from Vijayadasaru Kavi were used and the item finished with a Swami Haridas bhajan. Choreography and music selection was by the artistes, vocal by Radha Badri, violin by Kandadevi Vijayaraghavan, nattuvangam by Lavanya Aditya, mridangam by Guru Bharadwaj, percussion by Nagaraj and flute by Devaraj. “We always absorb the story first and then live the characters. Once we get into the skin of the character, the dance and music fall into place!” says Guru Narasimhachari.

It’s story time: Natyarangam’s Bharatham Kathai Kathaiyaam (Part 2)

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of