The Fifth Nartaka Festival
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

October 19, 2011

In keeping with her late mother Jayalakshmi Sadagopan’s wishes, Prema Satish of Natyanjali Trust continues to present the annual dance festival that features only male dancers. The fifth edition took place at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai, from October 14 – 16, 2011.

The evening started with the conferring of the Nartaka Award on Guru MV Narasimhachari. Present on the dais were Malaysian Odissi dance icon Ramli Ibrahim and Ashish Mohan Khokar, who have been mentoring the festival to evolve for the last couple of years, Guru CV Chandrasekhar, who christened the Nartaka Festival, and chief guest Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao, a renowned scholar and musicologist. Having just returned from a successful tour of the USA for a special exhibition of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection accompanied by performance by 4 male solo dancers, Ashish Khokar in his brief and eloquent speech said the past two years has seen male dance festivals taking place in Bhubaneswar, Bangalore and Delhi. He hailed Dr. Rao as one of the last resources of knowledge and icons like Ramli Ibrahim who has helped popularize our art forms outside India. Prakriti being more popular than purush, a platform was needed to present purush on par with prakriti and he lauded the Nartaka Fest as fast gaining recognition as a national fest for male dancers.

From left: Ramli Ibrahim, Ashish Khokar, Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao, Guru MV Narasimhachari, Guru CV Chandrasekhar, Prema Satish

In a speech from the heart, Guru Narasimhachari spoke about how he started his life in dance under his father’s rigorous training along with his elder brother Krishna Kumar. He made his debut at the age of 5 in Rajahmundry. When the young Narasimhachari presented a burra katha in Chennai, he met Rukmini Devi. Apart from Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, he has also learnt Odissi, Kathak and Mohiniattam! He is a well versed Carnatic musician and has composed and choreographed over 25 dance dramas along with his dancer wife Vasantalakshmi. “All my life I have been singing and dancing. I don’t want to do anything else.”  Dr. Rao said to know music, dance and literature makes one a complete artiste and hence MV Narasimhachari was fully deserving of the Nartaka Award.

At a time when it is difficult to take up dance as a career, especially for a male dancer, it is heartening to note that today there are more than 200 male dancers in Chennai. Guru CV Chandrasekhar is not only a role model for male dancers, but for all dancers. With so many young male dancers disheartened after having their bios rejected by organizers, he feels platforms like Nartaka Festival are important to continue its unique and singular mission in promoting male dancers.

KB Madhusudanan
KM Jayakrishnan

Renjith Babu

CG Ajeesh

The performance of the evening featured 4 dancers who have been trained in Kalakshetra style – Renjith Babu, KB Madhusudanan, CG Ajeesh and KM Jayakrishnan. The announcer Krishna Kumar set the performance rolling by starting off the show as the dance teacher and the items progress to portray the full fledged dancer. The program started and ended with the group with 4 solos in between. The first item chatusra Alarippu was done in a combination of eye and neck, hand and leg movements of varying pace and positions. Jayakrishnan’s solo “ananda nadamidum padham” sung by OS Arun in ragam Kedaragowla was choreographed by Leela Samson. Madhusudanan’s solo “Jaganmohanane Krishna” sung by Hari Prasad in ragamalika was a Purandaradasa composition choreographed by Renjith Babu, whose own solo that followed depicted the raudra roopam of Shankara to remove the evils of the Kaliyuga. “Shankara rudra rupa diklao” was in Shankara ragam and adi talam, choreographed, composed and sung by Renjith’s guru CV Chandrasekhar.  Ajeesh, a Muslim learning Bharatanatyam, presented the popular bhava laden Jayadeva ashtapadi “Priye Charusheele” sung soulfully by Hari Prasad in Mukhari ragam. The flat lighting throughout this piece did nothing to enhance the mood. The finale saw the 4 dancers present a brisk thillana like item titled Adhvay about the 10 types of gunas as specified in Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpanam. It was choreographed by Madhusudanan and had earlier been staged for the IDA festival where it received rapturous applause. Seated on the left side of the stage, Krishna Kumar strung the presentation with his enchanting Tamil commentary and won over the audience! But the dancers themselves went through the motions in a mechanical fashion, looked tired and bereft of energy. Since they are mostly doing group work for corporate shows and in the productions of other dancers, they have rare opportunity to do solos and should have made use of this platform to shine. Even the group items showed lack of rehearsal.

Narendra Kumar and group
Narendra Kumar
Day two took off with a group presentation by L Narendra Kumar and his Anusham ensemble, who were called in 12 days before the fest since the artiste signed on for this slot could not make it. He chose to  depict different types of abhinaya. The percussionist was seated on one side of the stage, the flautist and vocalist on the other side. Starting with the melodious strains on the flute by Devarajan, angika abhinaya was portrayed through the Panchatantra story of the lion and rabbit, with Narendra having his face swathed in a bandage so as not to automatically emote with his face! Hasta abhinaya saw the dancer seated behind a screen held by 2 dancers and depicting the story only through his hand movements. The story of Vali and Sugriva was chosen for vachika abhinaya.  Narendra was quite convincing as Vali and the fight sequence with Sugriva brought a flash of interest into the item. When in the throes of death after the arrow from Rama pierces him, Vali says, “You did not kill me, you killed dharma…” The lower tones of the spoken dialogues in Tamil (written by Prof. Raghuraman) were audible only to the first few rows since he did not have a body mike.

The dressing up started behind a tirashila to portray aharya abhinaya. Narendra emerged from behind the screen in his dhoti costume and continued to make up his face looking into a rectangular mirror held by a dancer. Wearing the horns on his head, he then danced the Nandi chollu (words by Lalitha and Srinivasan, students of Ranganayaki Jayaraman and Suryanarayanamurthy), aided with brilliant percussion by NK Kesavan. The finale saw the satvika abhinaya rendered as a solo by Narendra to an annamacharya kriti “naanaati bratuku” sung soulfully by vocalist Srikanth. It is an interesting concept, but except for the last item, the presentation was more suited to a lec-dem and not for a full length performance. Labeled as a work in progress, the program held the audience interest only in parts and the main dancer totally overshadowed the rest of the ensemble. According to long time dance observer Ashish Khokar, “Classical dance is the art of suggestivity. Somewhere in Narendra's depiction the lokadharmi aspect took over natyadharmi. While his thinking and concept were original and refreshing, its execution by his group was lacklustre with Narendra undertaking nearly all stellar roles.” 

Those expecting the usual lively choreography by Narendra and his energetic young group of dancers, were rather disappointed and disjointed announcements by the compere were more a hindrance than help. Says Narendra, “People expect only fast paced items from us, so I wanted to show that I am a thinking dancer too. I love animals and always watch channels like Discovery and Animal Planet. For hasta abhinaya item, I made up my own story of a happy pair of deer in a forest. The male goes in search of food. When a lion appears on the scene, the pregnant deer hides behind a tree. When the male deer returns and sees the lion, it fears for the life of its mate and chases the lion, eventually wounding it with its fearsome horns. I saw one such incident on TV. Even in the last item, I have given a contemporary interpretation to the lyrics to convey the message of doing no harm to man or beast, not to disturb animals and to protect our forests.”

Murali Mohan Kalva
Tushar Bhatt
The Kathak performance by Murali Mohan Kalva (director of Nadam ensemble) and Tushar Bhatt from Bangalore was scintillating and energetic with nothing overdone - just the right measure of chakkars and a short interlude of pure Kathak. Murali and Tushar both presented a solo on Shiva – “Nataraja kshitiraja” and Shiva tandava stotra respectively. The duo’s pure dance technical piece started from vilambit and progressed to a fast pace. In “Hari tum haro,” Tushar depicted the story of Prahlada, with scope for abhinaya, especially in the scene where Hiranyakashipu is killed! Murali Mohan closed the presentation with a Ram bhajan “Kabhi kabhi bhagwan ko bi bhakton se kaam pade” in which Rama, Lakshmana and Sita ask the boatman Kevat to ferry them across when in exile. With his touch, Rama transforms Ahalya from stone to a mortal again. What would happen then if Rama treads on his boat, his only means of livelihood? Murali’s adept changing into characters was hugely enjoyed by the audience. His slick announcements touched with humour, the wonderful costumes that were changed for the different items and the overall aesthetics made it a treat to watch them.

The final day started with a serene solo Manipuri dance recital by Sinam Basu Singh from Imphal, Manipur. He is a disciple of gurus Y Hemanta Kumar, N Tiken Singh and W Lokendrajeet Singh. He started with a guru vandana to the trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara. Nritta prabanda depicted pure dance movements. In the lasya item Radha Abhisar, we see Radha adorning herself, making up her face, braiding her hair, wearing bangles, all for Krishna. In the Jayadeva ashtapadi “Haririha mugdhavadhu nikare” we see the sakhi report to Radha about how Krishna adorns himself delicately with ornaments and sandal powder to flirt with Chandravali. In a small costume change, the sash turned from white to green and the head dress from saffron to white. Khandita ashtapadi had a combination of tandava and lasya.  Struck by Cupid’s arrows, Radha waits the whole night for Krishna, who appears in the morning with apologetic words. Sinam concluded his recital with Jayadeva’s “Pralaya payodhi jale…” on the dasavatara. Not only is it rare to see Manipuri performed in Chennai, it is rarer to see a Manipuri solo, especially by a male dancer, so the serene countenance, the beautiful fluid movements, ebbing and flowing of the fingers and arms and the many turns made it indeed a sweet performance to watch. The costume was also very pleasant and the jewellery simple and minimal.

Sinam Basu Singh
N Srikanth
The finale of the Nartaka festival was a dignified Bharatanatyam performance by N Srikanth. He started with a kirtanam in praise of Lord Dattatreya in ragam Ranjani, misra chapu talam, a composition of Ganapathy Sachidanandaswami. The main piece was ‘Amma anandadayini” composed by Dr. M Balamuralikrishna in Gambiranattai, adi talam. After Srikanth had graduated in dance in 1998, he had choreographed this item and presented for Natyanjali Trust that November. In “Vishamakaara Kannan” composed by Oothukadu Venkata Kavi, we saw the pranks of little Krishna. Srikanth concluded his recital with an elegant “Thaa thai endru aaduvaar” by Gopalakrishna Bharati in Sindhubairavi ragam about the cosmic dance of Lord Nataraja. The beautiful recorded music featured Hari Prasad on vocal, Srikanth on nattuvangam, Sikhamani on violin and Muthu Kumar on flute. 

“To do solo format Manipuri is a huge challenge. This is because either the group Raas is core to its being or other traditions like Lai Haroba. The dancer surmounted all such limitations and made Manipuri solo male depiction, very watchable. Chennai sets benchmarks in Bharatanatyam and Srikanth’s performance has been a singular high point in this festival. It was a refreshing recital of a high standard of Bharatanatyam, without any excessiveness of the style,” summed up Ashish Mohan Khokar.

“The two performances of this evening were of different dance styles but equally wonderful where the art sits very well with the artistes. It was mature and balanced in which the art has given dignity to the artistes,” said Ramli Ibrahim in his concluding comments. 

Though the drab grey backdrop is not suitable for dance performances and looks washed out, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is a good venue where a non-dance crowd drops in to watch the many performances. A lady doctor was a regular and so was an elderly couple, with the man who has lost 90% of his eyesight but is so interested in the arts. He thought dancers must be busy with Diwali shopping and hence their absence! There was this young girl who came every evening with her parents and sat in the first row. One gentleman said he had been to Manipur and was so impressed with the sweetness of the Manipuri people that he came to watch the Manipuri dance. 

It is indeed a laudable effort on the part of the organizer to put together this festival every year. But care must be taken to give advance publicity and ensure some good lighting standard. Better lighting would have made a considerable difference to the presentations. It was a pity that many events were happening at the same time, resulting in a diluted audience for all these events. In Bangalore and Kolkata, large crowds come to attend events of other dancers and so many dance students make it a point to attend performances, but drawing audiences in Chennai seems to be getting tougher by the day. On one hand, we hear of dancers not getting enough opportunity to perform, but ask them why they don’t attend performances of other dancers, the reply is that they are having too many commitments! More than dearth of performance opportunity, a valid topic for discussion would be how to tackle dancers’ dance fatigue! 

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of