It’s story time: Natyarangam’s Bharatham Kathai Kathaiyaam (Part 2)
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

August 24, 2011

Aug 15
The evening started out interestingly. I asked the auto driver, how much to Narada Gana Sabha? He replied in English, “Three zero.” I said, “No. Two five.” The deal was struck, a war was averted! But war was the theme of Chitra Chandrasekhar Dasarathy’s presentations. The story of ‘Sooriyan’ by Ambai was read out by Dr. Thirupur Krishnan. It is war time and innocent civilian lives are claimed by cruel enemies. The protagonists are dwellers underground. The mother and her five-year-old son, who has never seen daylight, walk in darkness on the battlefield to check the fate of his sister who is missing, at the end of which they find she is dead and by then the morning rays of the sun break out. Music was by her father Guru CV Chandrasekhar. Chitra’s abhinaya was remarkable. She enacted pathos so beautifully that in a couple of instances, she was so into her character, we literally saw her lips tremble and her eyes swim in tears.
War has many faces. The parallel story was of King Asoka and the battle of Kalinga titled ‘Raktamallika' or the ‘Red Jasmine.' Ashoka wins the war but is he really happy with his victories? Why is the old lady sitting on the battlefield? Does she not have a son? He has reached god. Ashoka walks on. Why are the flowers in the garden red? The river is a ribbon of blood, so the garden now has red jasmine instead of white. He sees his army running riot, there’s bloodshed everywhere. Has his rage for victory resulted in this? He is confused. Ashoka gives up war and goes in search of truth and peace. Chitra drew on Jai Shankar Prasad’s Ashoka Chinta and Kannada work Priyadarshi Ashoka by Masthi Venkatesa Iyengar for this item.
Chitra’s challenge was in “trying to portray death and pathos, and widespread effects of violence in an aesthetic manner without being depressive. My interest in literature and earlier work in theatre helped me in exploring the varied ways violence affects the mother and the child in Ambai's story and King Asoka.” Be it the mother’s tears of the first story or Ashoka’s despair at the ravages of war, Chitra lived the emotions. The orchestra comprised of vocalist Nanda Kumar, who modulated his voice to very soft for scenes of pathos, Praveen Kumar on nattuvangam, Mysore R Dayakar on violin and Gurumurthy on mridangam.

Chitra Chandrasekhar Dasarathy
Vidhya Subramanian

Definition of godliness was the theme for US based dancer Vidhya Subramanian, who presented ‘Namavali’ by R Choodamani. The story that was published in 1992 was read out by K Bharati, a close associate of the author. In this story, the Almighty is the narrator, and it’s about how he is present where there is fairness and justice. Kanakarasan and his brother Arunagiri do business separately, but while the former is a failure, the latter flourishes. Kanakarasan ends up working in a small company to keep his family of 4 alive. He suddenly develops stomach pain and this necessitates an operation costing Rs.30,000. He mortgages his house to his brother. The operation is done but he does not survive. His wife Shenbagam is unable to return the money, so Arunagiri offers her another Rs.10,000 and asks her to hand over the house to him. She pleads with him to give her some time but he demands that she return the money within a prescribed time or he would send a lawyer’s notice. He even insinuates that since she and her daughter were pretty, they could…Shenbagam laments that god has no eyes or ears to see or hear such gross injustice. God however comes in the shape of Arunagiri’s son Sethu who gives her the house document and the loan papers and asks her to destroy the latter. It is up to children to realize what is right and wrong, his father may have forgotten his responsibility to take care of them as part of his family but he had not and he would tackle his father later. God is not known only by his various names of Eswaran, Jehovah or Buddha. He is also sympathy, mercy and justice. Music was composed by Vidhya from existing pieces, nattuvangam by Jayashree Ramanathan, flute by Devarajan, vocal by Randhini, mridangam by Jagadish Janardhanan and violin by Kalaiarasan.  

How did Vidhya work upon the story? “This project certainly challenged me from the get go. Having worked in theatre and some film, the emotive aspect was more forthcoming for me. However, the way the story talked to Bharatanatyam was the challenge. First I read the story several times with each time revealing a new, fresh perspective. Identifying with the main character was an internal struggle in itself as was relating to the story. The idea of accepting God in infinite forms, the omnipresence, the manifestation in all that is good as opposed to the ritualistic worship that many have reduced spirituality too, was a delightful idea for me. It is an idea that has revealed itself to me in my life as well. Once I found this common thread of thought between the author and I (I spoke to the author's close friend about her approach to life and her ideas behind the writing process as well), I became more comfortable in the protagonist's skin. The protagonist is a woman who loses with potential to lose more. With her faith in God shaken, the same God appears in the form of compassion in her life. For me it could not be a verbatim word-to-word depiction of the story, otherwise, it would have been a drama. It could not have been totally partial to the dance aspect either or the characters would have been lost. So marrying the two and making it a dance-theatre piece was my approach.

The music could not use any lyrics as per Natyarangam's instructions. So I decided to go with existing pieces that would communicate the mood of a particular scene effectively. I chose to present the positive, the togetherness of the family unit using the kamas dharu varnam. I used Asai mugam as a refrain when she loses her husband to relate to how one doesn't forget the experiences shared with a loved one. I composed a jati and contrasted it with a swaram for the conversation between the brother-in-law and the woman, to contrast the evil of one with the helplessness of the other. I used a tiruppugazh in hamir kalyani which can be transferred from her despair to the ray of light that shines in her life in the form of the brother-in-law's son.

I did not want a literal depiction of the story. First and foremost, the characters would be the woman, her daughter, her son, the brother-in-law and his son. The woman is the thread through the story. I decided to start out with the daughter, a teenager doing dance practice at home and quitting half way through to start admiring herself in the mirror, something I did as a vain teenager and my daughters do. Then the son was playing basketball. Then the mother was cooking with the help of her husband. They all sit down to eat after several times of calling the children to dinner. Just a normal day in a family's life. But today, he collapses, changing their lives forever. In choosing to start this way, I decided to do away with the history between the man and his brother working in the factory together etc. I wanted to depict their close-knit, usual family unit first before I showed its breaking in order to show her sense of defeat. I had also blocked the space so that each character had his or her own space in the joy and sorrow. The brother-in-law had to be evil to harass her for the loan he had given her husband and to threaten to take away her home at the most vulnerable time of her life. For his son who embodies the element of God, I decided to show only her reaction to him rather than that character himself. Throughout the piece, I sprinkled the voice of God and narrative from the story itself as a constant presence that we question, discard, accept and subject ourselves to at different times in our lives. In the mythological parallel of Sudhama-Krishna, God again gives without being asked.”

The parallel story of ‘Krishna-Sudhama’ is a popular one. They are childhood playmates. After marriage and children, Sudhama is still poor while Krishna is the king of Dwaraka. Sudhama’s wife urges him to seek Krishna’s help and not wishing to go empty handed, he sets out with a bagful of beaten rice. Dwaraka looks rich and flourishing. Sudhama is not sure if Krishna would even recognize him, but he does and welcomes him happily. He asks Sudhama, “What has my sister sent for me?” and happy to have his favorite food item, he starts eating it. They spend a few happy days together after which Sudhama, embarrassed to ask for any favor, leaves quietly. But on reaching his home, he sees it has been transformed into a palace, his kids are well dressed, his wife is bedecked in finery and jewellery. None of this matters to Sudhama. For him, his memories of Krishna are sweetest! Verses from Kuchelopakhyanam were used.  Music was composed by Asha Ramesh.

Aug 16
US based Navia Natarajan was given the story of ‘Asalum Nagalum’ by Indira Parthasarathy. It was narrated by Thirupur Krishnan. An artist, who goes to great length to keep the promise given to his young friend, is in for a shock. The only company for artist Sarangan is 8-year-old motherless girl Usha who lives with her father and aunt who usually taunts her for ‘swallowing her mother.’ How can that be, wonders the bewildered child. She gives Sarangan the newspaper, straightens his living room, stares at the paintings in his studio. Is he busy? Yes, he has to complete paintings for an exhibition next month arranged by Chawla. He’s in need of the money. Can he make a painting of her mother? Since Sundar looks like his mom, maybe she looks like her mom, she says. Sarangan asks her to pose for him after school and she tells him not to tell her aunt as she would be scolded. A beautiful painting full of soul is the result. Usha asks him to safeguard the painting till she and her family return from a trip. When he refuses to exhibit this portrait, Chawla insists that this could be used as publicity at least and would help to sell the other paintings. A buyer comes forward to buy all his paintings, but he refuses since he can’t part with the portrait. The buyer leaves his card in case he changes his mind and Chawla thinks Sarangan is a fool to let go this opportunity. But Sarangan has kept his word to little Usha. She returns and he proudly hands over the portrait to her. But she looks at it for just a moment and breezily tells him she has no need of it since she is going to get a real new mother! The unpredictability of children is sometimes beyond adult comprehension. Even without hearing the story, one could make out that Navia was portraying a little girl, wide eyed and prancing about. Music and vocal was by D Srivatsa, sitar by Suma Rani, violin by Eswar, nattuvangam and rhythm pad by Prasanna Kumar, mridangam by Lingaraju, flute by Venugopal.

The parallel story of ‘Dhruva’ was the second piece, where the 5 year old child after being hurt by the harsh words of his stepmother Suruchi, goes to the forest to do tapas. The Vedic name of the Pole Star is Dhruva Nakshatra, named after Dhruva, the son of King Uttanapad. The story is taken from the Bhagavata Purana. A ruler of ancient India, King Uttanapad had two queens, Suniti and Suruchi. They both had children named Dhruva and Uttaman respectively. The king loved Suruchi and her son Uttaman more and wasn't too fond of his first wife Suniti. One day, he was fondling Uttaman on his lap, when Druva came in running hoping to be fondled by his father, who was very indifferent to him and didn't welcome him. Suniti sees Druva hesitating, laughs and tells him that he should pray to Lord Vishnu, so that he may be born as her son in the next birth, to be fondled by his father. Dhruva made up his mind to go deep into the jungle to meditate on Lord Vishnu till the Lord answered his prayers. On the way he met sage Narada, who tried to dissuade little Dhruva by warning him about the danger from wild animals, but Dhruva did not budge from his resolve. Satisfied about the boy’s mental strength to remain in the jungle, Narada taught him the art of meditation. Little Dhruva meditated for many months, giving up all worldly comforts, even food. Amazed at the little boy's determination, Lord Vishnu finally appeared before him, blessed the boy and told him to return to his kingdom. In the meantime, heartbroken at the thought of little Dhruva being devoured by wild beasts, King Uttanapad repented the injustice done. When Dhruva finally returned safely home, his parents welcome him with joy. In course of time, Dhruva was crowned king, and ruled wisely for many years. The dancer switched with ease from dance movements to yogic poses, without losing balance! 

“Choreographing the short story initially was quite a challenge as there were no lyrics. But as I kept hearing the story (since I can’t read or write Tamil), I started framing visuals of the story, started working on lines that gave me more information on the characters, then tried to think of suitable music that would enhance the mood of the story. The parallels that I had to draw between the short story and the puranic, posed a challenge, but having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed my journey with my characters. It has definitely been an enriching experience and I have gained a lot of confidence. D Srivatsa's music helped me all the way, along with the resource person Dr. Sudha and the author, Parthasarathy uncle. The past few months have been so full of Usha and Dhruva that I am now going to feel rather empty!” says Navia. 

Navia Natarajan
Narthaki Nataraj

Narthaki Nataraj presented a highly inspired dramatization of ‘Poo Udhirum,’ a short story by Jayakanthan that was narrated by Sudha Seshayyan. Periyasami Pillai is an ex-army man who has participated in two world wars; that is his favorite topic. He loves to reminisce and feels young men should serve at least 5 years in the army, if not 10. No surprise he wants his son Somanathan to join the army though his wife Maragatham is against it. Why is he sending his son to his death? Army does not necessarily mean death, which anyway is for everyone, he says, so better to dedicate that life to a cause. Whenever Somanthan is home on leave, he does not relax but develops a beautiful garden. Young ladies enjoy plucking the flowers and one such girl Gowri becomes Somanathan’s bride. The garden blooms even more profusely. He spends every moment of the two months leave with her and departs, promising to take her back with him next time. Letters are their only mean of communication. She is pregnant. He promises to be back for the ‘poochootal’ function and be with her till delivery. As expected, he sends a letter that he can’t make it for the function as he has to be at the war front. ‘Like the flower blossoms, it also withers. Likewise, man is born only to die,’ writes Somanathan. The ‘poochootal’ function takes place. Somu dies the death of a hero, leaving his wife with fragrant memories. The child that is born will be a hero’s son. He too will be a soldier one day. Flowers may wither but new flowers also bloom. Narthaki’s picturization of a moustache twirling army man who also smokes was a good touch! Flute and violin were used to play army tunes to establish the army man connection. The smiles on the faces of the orchestra members showed how much they enjoyed playing to Narthaki’s dance dramatization. The final scene of the father giving the hero’s salute to the photo of his dead son to the plaintive strains of “sare jahaan se acha…” was a moving touch in the  background. It was a compact presentation, with nothing overdone. The accompanists were Nandini Anand on vocal, Kalaiarasan on violin, Rathnasubramaniam on nattuvangam, Nagesh Narayanan on mridangam and Srutisagar on flute. The voice over was by Sakthi Bhaskar, Arabhi Perinbanathan and Thirunavukkarasu.

Narthaki says, “When I was a kid, my female relatives were isolated during their monthly periods and their only pastime then was to read books that I brought from the lending library. I would read them too. So I am familiar with all these stories from childhood, including Jayakanthan’s works. His stories always have difficult subjects and this story was a challenge. I have seen many retired army men in the villages, so I was familiar with their mannerisms. Their houses used to be referred to as “pattaalathukarar veedu.” They would look so tough, they would do panchayat too and we would be scared to even go past their houses, we would run! The flower is what binds the narrative for me. In the garden, the girl Gowri asks her ma-in-law, ‘The house has flowers, but when will you get a daughter-in-law?’ and she says, ‘Why not you?’ In the second instance, the couple spends happy times in the garden amidst flowers. In the third instance, I do not show the actual ‘poochootal.’ She measures her flat tummy, stuffs it with flowers as if pregnant and runs into the garden. When reading out Somu’s letter also, I let her imagine his face reading it, like in old films. I did not use any mudra at all, only facial expressions to depict the dialogues. He is the voice and she reacts to that.”

The evening concluded with the parallel story of ‘Abhimanyu Vadham’ presented by Narthaki in her inimitable style. Abhimanyu was the son of Arjuna and Subhadra, the half-sister of Lord Krishna. When Subadra is pregnant with Abhimanyu, Arjuna explains to her in detail, the technique of attacking and escaping from various vyuhas (an array of army formation). After explaining all the vyuhas, he explains about the technique of how to tackle warriors when they surround you in a chakravyuha or maze during a battle. By now Subhadra is asleep, so he does not explain how to exit from the chakravyuha and leaves. As a result, Abhimanyu was born with the knowledge of how to enter a chakravyuha, but not how to get out of it. Even as a lad, Abhimanyu was very brave and strong, skilled at archery and was the pride of the Pandavas. He married Uttara, the daughter of King Virata. She is pregnant when Abhimanyu goes to the Kurukshetra War where he is made to enter the powerful chakravyuha battle formation of the Kaurava army. Arjuna, the only warrior aware of the secret technique to break this seven-tier defensive spiral formation used by Dronacharya, is away with Lord Parthasarathy, so Abhimanyu is asked to invade the chakravyuha. The 15-year-old is killed before he can get out. News of the despicable acts committed on Abhimanyu reached his father Arjuna at the end of the day, and he vows to kill Jayadratha the very next day by sunset, and if he failed to do so, would take his own life. Uttara’s son Parikshit later succeeds to the throne of Hastinapur.
“In those days when they fought wars, there was a sequence – the foot soldiers, elephant army, cavalry, then chariot brigade. I showed the appropriate weapons. Abhimanyu goes to war on a chariot pulled by 7 horses. I used sandha chollukattugal from Thiruppugazh for this sequence. When Abhimanyu leaves for the battlefield, I imagined his taking leave of his pregnant wife Uttara and wrote my own lyrics, Mounamum pesumo...pesumay… There is no hugging and crying. The lyrics say, ‘Who am I to say don’t go? Seeing the pain in your eyes is painful for me.’ All this in silent pathos, where only the eyes speak and there are no hand movements. Dharma and Bhima send him to war. He stumbles as he leaves, an ill omen. Brahma has not given long life to a brave person like him. Amaravathi is a place where noble, brave souls go after death. Arjuna laments on hearing of his son’s demise. ‘Did they show you Amaravathi? Did they show you the karpaga vriksha? Tomorrow I will kill the one who killed you, or I would go to hell as a bad man.’  So as not to end on an inauspicious note, I showed Uttara giving birth, like in olden days when someone steps on the stomach to ease the baby out,” explains Narthaki Nataraj about her interpretation of the story. Lyrics from Villibharatam were set to music by Nandini Anand.

Aug 17
On the final day of the fest, Sangeeta Isvaran’s theme was the importance of nature and the selfishness of man. The story of ‘Anilgal’ written in 1982 was read out by its author Sivasankari and is based on experience, just as most of her creations are. The young couple move into a house with a lush garden with different types of trees, home to many birds and squirrels. Her greatest delight is to watch the garden and squirrels at play. She can make out which one is strong, good, brave, a glutton or a Casanova and gives them names accordingly – Bhima, Hanuman, Sita, some Arjunas and some Krishnas too. She remembers her landlady yelling at the gardener for letting the squirrels roam free. Whatever measures he took to get rid of them did not have any effect. The next year, the landlady got a gypsy to catch them, but he was ineffective and even left town.  The girl is upset over such happenings. One day, she sees 2 squirrels fallen by a tree. Bhima is struggling on the asbestos roof. She panics and asks what the matter is. The gardener says he has strewn the garden with poisoned puffed rice, and that’s why the squirrels were dying all around. With tears pouring down her face, she runs into the house.

Sangeeta was the only artiste to have sets for her presentation. Suspended clumps of ropes, some sack material covering a mound and a pot were arranged on the right side of the stage. To the soulful strains of the flute, Sangeeta made a spectacular entry, clad in a beautiful turquoise and purple costume, brandishing burning incense sticks sticking out from her fingers like the long, curved fingernails of Cambodian dancers.  She set those into the empty pot where they continued to spread fragrance through the show. Her depiction of the squirrels and the beautiful garden, the young lady’s love of nature and horror at the senseless harm done to the squirrels was well portrayed with effective abhinaya, without any lag of pace. Music was composed by MS Suki. The accompanying artistes were many – Murali Parthasarathy on vocal and konnakol, Kalaiarasan on violin, Jayakumar on tabla, MS Suki on mridangam, Devaraj on flute, Srividya Vishwanath on veena, M Balasubramanium on nagaswaram, Rijesh Gopalakrishnan on ganjira.

“When I first read Anilgal, I was struck by Sivasankari's rich descriptions of the trees and squirrels. I soon realised that the core rasa of the story, while being deceptively simple, hinged on one vital point - how can I make the audience identify with the squirrels. Only if I could draw them into the world of the squirrels - love pretty Sita, laugh at gundu Bheema and mischievous Krishna - could I then make their unjustified death a complete shock. So very early on, I set up the scenes on an emotional graph rather than a logistical one. Making the music with MS Sukhi was a delight. He listens to the needs of the dancer perfectly (even when some of them are unreasonable!!) and works unceasingly, with flashes of true genius when it comes to changing the mood. It is no joke when one has to make instrumental music for an hour with no lyrics!

We searched for a variety in sounds, emotions, energies and techniques.  One of my favourites is a superb composition in Hamsadwani describing the antics of the various squirrels. Sukhi didn't turn a hair when I told him that I wanted the composition to begin with the squeaky sound that the nagaswaram produces when you clean the pipe - evoking the sound squirrels really make! The final effect when we juxtaposed the squeaks with the quick-running notes on the flute produced an instant image of the lively squirrels. Right in the middle of this lively composition where the heroine is completely enchanted by these small, lively animals, we used dead silence for her husband, to show his complete indifference to the life around him - he sees nothing, he hears nothing, he is absorbed in his small world.

My challenge was to make these squirrels come alive within me, so I watched hundreds of squirrels and invented loads of movements that I then distilled into a coherent choreography. I had to make the spectators identify with the love the heroine has for her squirrels, to the point that when she finds them poisoned, her shock echoes off each person in the audience; her anger and incomprehension become ours. Why do these animals have no right to live? How insensitive and incredibly egotistic can humans be, killing these beautiful creatures to save a few guavas? That bewilderment and rage came through in an inspired composition in the last minute in Lavangi. This Lavangi thillana was composed with the technique that my gurus have passed on to me - abhinaya from Kalanidhi Narayanan, technique and precision from Savithri Jagannatha Rao and minute knowledge of the body and angika abhinaya from CV Chandrasekhar sir,” explains Sangeetha.
In the parallel story ‘Krauncha Vatham,’ (Killing of male crane) Ratnakar is a cruel hunter and thief.  Narada tells him that stealing and killing animals are sinful and people associated with him like his family can share the fruits of his bad actions but they can’t share his sins. Ratnakar asks Narada for his advice. Narada asks him to chant the sacred name of ‘Rama’ but he is unable to and instead says ‘Mara’ that becomes ‘Rama’ when told continuously. The hunter gives up his old ways and becomes the peace loving sage Valmiki, who builds an ashram by the banks of the river and lives peacefully.  One day, Valmiki sees two ‘krauncha’ birds flying about happily in togetherness. Suddenly an arrow from a tribal hunter hits the male bird and he falls dead to the ground. The distraught female is beside herself with anguish. Valmiki's heart melts with pity and he unintentionally utters a poem rich in grammar and new in metre. This confuses him.  Brahma, the presiding deity of letters, appears and ordains Valmiki to author Ramayana, the story of Rama, his joys and sorrows for the benefit of the world.

The happy birds were depicted in an enchanting sequence, a delicate piece of material serving as wings, and the agony of the slain bird and the anguish of the surviving bird were well depicted.  Hers was a neat and concise presentation.  “I chose not to focus on the soka of the death of the Krauncha bird - all the opparis (laments) in the first half were enough, I thought - but take the leap to Karunya. I chose rather to question the difference between the unenlightened human, killing without a second thought and the enlightened one who knows the interconnection of all living things. So I consciously chose to start with Valmiki as a hunter and his subsequent transformation into a sage - where 'Mara Mara' becomes 'Rama Rama.' Subsequently when he faces the hunter who has killed one of the Krauncha birds, Valmiki curses him for destroying their happiness, replacing love with death. I intentionally chose this meeting as the focal point of this piece. Valmiki realises that the hunter is only a reflection of himself as he used to be, killing for a living. The only difference between them is that Valmiki has realised Rama, he knows that every atom in this universe is a manifestation of the Divine.

In the beginning, I was tearing my hair out wondering what to do with these stories. But slowly the strength of the emotions in each story took shape, the sets grew, the music became powerful. I really owe all the musicians a great deal. Without music there is no dance - they were fantastic! I also have to thank Mr. Gunasekharan, Murielle Lapinsonniere and P Jagan for making the sets with me. I had no idea that building a termite mound can be fraught with such peril, that my dog could help me twist the ropes to make the roots of a banyan tree - suffice to say, I learnt a lot in every aspect of angika, vachika, aharya and satvika abhinaya in this project!  Natyarangam's webcast ensured a lot more people saw it - in fact, I already have 3 requests to repeat the performance by people who saw the webcast. How weird and wonderful is this world!” Sangeeta is eloquent with her dance and words!
Sangeeta Isvaran

Karuna Sagari

The festival ended with Karuna Sagari’s performance about two women with the same indomitable spirit though from different backgrounds. The first story ‘Maattram' by Poomani was narrated by Sudha Seshayyan, about how a village labourer raises her voice against unfair compensation for the work her group has done in the field. Marimuthu and Gomathi, the ripe old couple has few exchanges to make having been relegated to their own corners in life.  Their only anxiety is the marriage of their daughter Muthupechi to whom the burden of earning a livelihood is transferred.  She generally keeps to herself.  As soon as she returns from the field, she is engaged in the housework. When the landowner pays her wages by way of grain she takes it in her hand and shows the worm infested grain.  Amidst the murmur of an angry but helpless crowd, a clear voice of defiance is heard. Muthupechi refuses her share saying that it is not alms they have gathered for but their hard work’s rightful remuneration. She demands to know, “Is this my wage?  What am I to do with grain infested with worms?” which surprises everyone around. A baffled mason tries to pacify her but she slowly convinces him that the landlord is as dependant on them as they are on him. She hints at a boycott and makes him agree. The landlord is caught between his conscience and ego, but his capitalist instincts tell him that the boycott might hinder his market share. So, he goes to the humble home of Muthupechi, to request her father Marimuthu who used to head the clan as a kothan, to sort out the situation. He promises that the clan would be given clear grains. When the father asks her if there was no man to raise the protest, she demands to know why women can’t protest against injustice.  Marimuthu reassures the land owner that she would report for work the next day and turns to look at his daughter.  There is no regret in the wide open eyes as the laughter implodes in his mouth. His daughter has inherited not only his hard work but also the virtue of standing up for what is right.

The morning activities in a village house, work in the fields, carrying the grain sack over the shoulders, protesting against the rotten grains and so on were performed suitably, a stick was used to signify the old people, but there were too many exits and entries in the 20 minute item. Vocal was by Jyothishmathi, nattuvangam by Karuna’s guru Sheejith Krishna, Ramesh Babu on mridangam, Ananthanarayanan on veena and Suryanarayanan on flute. For Karuna, the challenge lay in portraying the two women. The lady in the first story comes from an underprivileged background as against the heroine of the second story. “I used konnakol to show the village waking up. There are 4 main characters in the story, so I characterized each character with a form of music - raga alaapana for the main character Muthupechi, thanam for the not so sure kothan, jathis for the landlord and dialogue and music for the girl’s father. To establish her hard work, I used the themmangu. The author had written it and wanted me to use it. Editing the story was difficult. The scenarios were different every time and also necessitated the presence of the 4 characters, so that meant many entries and exits. My teacher Sheejith Krishna gave me the jathis but choreography is my own. He believes in allowing his students to experiment but is always there to guide us,” says Karuna.
The parallel story of ‘Manimekalai transforms the king’ is from one of the 5 great epics that Tamil is renowned for. It was written by Seethalai Saathanar around the 2nd century AD as a sequel to Ilango Adigal’s Silappadhigaram. The daughter of Madhavi and Kovalan, Manimekalai grows up into a beautiful woman accomplished in music and dance (her grandmother Chitrapati and mother were renowned courtesans) but refuses to be a courtesan and chooses to become a Buddhist nun and serve humanity. This noble thought amuses Udayakumaran, the Chola prince who vows to force her to his palace in his chariot. The first scene is laid in the garden of the capital city Puhar.  He persuades Manimekalai and her companion Sutamati into the garden. Manimekalai encloses herself in the crystal pavilion whose gate can be opened only for people who know the secret entrance. Manimekalai faints inside as Udayakumaran waits outside. A miracle happens. Her fairy godmother Goddess Manimekala appears, carries Manimekalai away from Poompuhar to the southern island of Manipallavam, where she wakes up from her trance, mystified at the alien surroundings. Here she learns the doctrines of Buddhism and the true purpose of her life.

Tivatilakai, the divine protector of the land commands her not to rest till every mouth is fed, and to collect the Amudhasurabhi, the cornucopia that would never deplete as she continues to serve the hungry. As soon as Manimekalai collects the vessel floating in the Gomukhi River, she finds herself back in the crystal pavillion.   Manimekalai starts feeding the poor and needy with her magic bowl. She serves the ailing and the aged and is reminded of the criminals in prison. At that juncture, the Chola King Maavan Killi, hearing of Manimekalai’s selfless service calls her to find out if his reign is keeping his subjects happy. She humbly puts forth the thought that the prison is not the place where criminals can be transformed. The king agrees to her proposal to turn the prison into a hall of charity where Buddhist monks could meditate, a hospital for the poor could be established and prison cells turned into centers of learning.

The sweet voiced narrator gave one half of the story first and the next part midway through the recital. As against the cotton sari in the first story, Karuna was clad now in a rich yellow Bharatanatyam costume, and used a saffron cloth as top garment to show Manimekalai as a Buddhist nun. The item seemed longer than the 30 minutes and again too many exits and entries. The artiste drew on the original meter in Sathanar's work and ‘Manimegalai Venpa' by Bharatidasan. “Manimekalai is not a fictional character and the story is relevant to today’s times. Hundreds of years back, she fought for education of the people, and basic needs like food and health care for the poor and deprived. Why do people become culprits? Because their basic needs are not met. These people become worse after being imprisoned. So Manimekalai transforms the jail into a place where the poor are fed, health care is provided and the place becomes a learning centre. It’s a contemporary theme, that’s why I made this item longer. Manimekalai was a very meaningful experience for me. It allowed a contemporary idea to be expressed through ancient Tamizh. Artistic challenge was how to portray radically different characters through dance, costume and props like the dancer Manimekalai, the saint Manimekala, the lustful prince Udayakumaran, the noble Chola king and the angel Tivatilakai,” says Karuna Sagari. 

There were mixed reactions about the selection of stories. While all the new stories were narrated, and beautifully too, even a brief synopsis of most of the parallel stories were not announced, so it was a bit difficult for a better part of the audience, including dancers, to follow. At least a basic storyline could have been given. Also, the announcements and story reading were all in Tamil and with the story booklet also being in Tamil, it would have been difficult for non-Tamils to understand what was being done on stage. Availability of an English booklet would have been much appreciated. Mercifully, the sound system was at a decent decibel level and we saw smooth transition of orchestra from one performer to the next. The stage décor was kept simple and elegant. It was a treat to see the beautiful costumes of varied designs on all the days. The accompanying artistes for all programs were exceptional and rasikas including eminent gurus and dancers turned out in large numbers. The presence of some of the authors of the short stories like Asokamithran, Sujatha, Indira Parthasarathy and Sivashankari added to the feel good factor. 

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of