Neelam: Stream-of-consciousness
- Kiran Rajagopalan, Chennai

Photo: Briana Blasko

October 27, 2011

This informal article blends my thoughts on ‘Neelam’ with my deep personal reflections on my experiences as a young artiste in Chennai. ‘Neelam’ was one of the best productions by Anita Ratnam that I have seen.  I told her it made me proud to be raised a Vaishnavite and that all the songs, sounds, and images really resonated with me.  I never realized how much Vaishnavism has influenced me growing up.  And it was all done in such an aesthetic and suggestive manner.  I never felt that any particular point or conviction was being “shoved down my throat.”  It was a celebration of Vishnu and a reflection of how people have extolled him over the centuries. 

The narration was perhaps the best that I’ve heard for a program because it was revealing without being laborious.  More importantly, the narration gave just enough information for the audience to understand without giving away surprises!  That is exactly how they should be done, and young dancers and rising stars should take note of this technique.  It is not about how much you say, but how you say it.  What should you reveal and conceal in order to elicit rasa?  I normally put a lot of thought into what I write for my piece descriptions, but then I end up explaining the whole story – which means that the audience already knows what to expect.  I’ve got to change that!  Why do some dancers insist on long, tedious explanations replete with hasta explanations when they are often not necessary – especially for an informed audience?

A friend of mine told me about Anita Akka’s talent for creating powerful images and narration in her productions.  The clever use of minimal, but multifaceted props is also another signature of her work.  In that sense, the mala used in “Rangapura Vihara” was an excellent addition.  It was unobtrusive; yet, it was an essential component of the piece.  She used it to great effect to outline the contour of Rama’s bow, the boundary marked around Sita, Sesha, and – my favorite image of the evening – the Vadagalai Thiruman.  I was a bit puzzled by the use of a large pink dupatta as a prop in the first piece.  What was it meant to represent?  Also, the choice of color was a bit off – especially when the other props and costumes were so aesthetically designed! 

Photo: Chella

I especially liked the cleverly designed kondai which seamlessly gave the impression of both Andal and Krishna with just the addition of a peacock feather to denote the latter.  Andal’s costume in the second piece was the best of the evening.  The hot pink pavadai set captured Andal’s youthful exuberance but was extremely apt for a mature artiste like Anita.  However, the first yellow costume was a bit bulky and looked somewhat unflattering until I realized that she must have hidden a large costume underneath it.  How the hell does she change costumes SO QUICKLY?

My favorite pieces of the evening were “Paanchajanyam” and “Rangapura Vihara.”  Both compositions are very close to my heart.  The latter I had danced on Vaikunta Ekadasi during one of my first programs in Chennai.  Hariprasad sang the song SO divinely that I froze on stage for the first two avartanams because I just had to listen to him.  There is something about that song that strikes your heart immediately.  The clever use of Ragam, Tanam, and Pallavi to showcase flashes of the Ramayana was exceptionally done and the M.S blue costume was absolutely fitting!

However, the best piece was Anita as Andal enacting and reciting the “Paanchajanyam.”  The fact that these pasurams were recited rather than sung brought out the beauty of the older Tamil language (which I could actually follow and finally understand somewhat)!  More importantly, the moments when Anita recited the refrain herself (and that adorable moment when she showed her annoyance with the conch) were perfectly timed!  These moments made the piece feel intimate and expansive (if such a thing is possible in a piece where one is seated in one position throughout).  The final image of Andal standing on the stool was extremely powerful!  That caught me by surprise! 

Having performed “Priye Charusheele” myself, I was curious to see Anita Akka’s interpretation of this piece.  Rather than cluttering the beautiful composition with lengthy sancharis and numerous kai(s), she went for showcasing raw emotion.  I understood the gist of the piece but I could not make out the facial expressions per se, whereas, the angika abhinaya was evocative.  Ultimately, I felt that the piece got “lost” on such a big stage and with the dim lighting.  It is not necessarily the fault of the artiste because I was also seated a bit far from the stage.  That ashtapadi would shine so much more brightly on a more intimate stage.  I hate to admit it, but I saw excerpts of this piece on Youtube.  I could see the abhinaya very clearly.

I hardly saw any other Bharatanatyam dancers in the audience besides the senior dancers.  What a shame!  Just because an artiste chooses to do something different from the norm does not mean that her work should not be appreciated, scrutinized, critiqued, and reflected upon.  I always come back learning something from Anita Ratnam’s programs.  There is a way to make Bharatanatyam into a performance art – which is what I feel she achieves in ‘Neelam.’  There was clarity of thought in the choice of props, lighting, costumes, and pieces.  More importantly, the symbolism of these accoutrements was readily apparent.  Maybe that’s why I appreciated it so much. 

I’m hoping to do the same thing with my dance, but I still haven’t figured out how!  My strength as a young artiste lies in my training and love for literature and writing, but there is also a yearning to translate all of this into performance art of international standards.  I want to make a Bharatanatyam piece with the same relevance and intensity as some of Pina Bausch’s most visually striking choreographies or with the startling sophistication of Salvador Dali’s surrealist paintings.  At the same time, I want to make my art readily accessible to audiences like Lady Gaga and Lucille Ball have done!  How do I do it with limited funding and infrastructure in Chennai?

I’m always looking for fresh inspiration in Chennai – and these days I find it increasingly more difficult.  I still love the traditional Bharatanatyam margam, and I enjoy learning and performing the items that are part of it.  Still, I try to go to performances like Anita’s mainly because there is something different that I could learn and perhaps seamlessly incorporate into my own art.  As I had mentioned before, Anita always showcases other ways of interpretation. 

As far as being a male dancer is concerned, gender and sexuality have never been a huge concern for me.  That is where my teacher, A Lakshman, really inspires me the most.  It is about conviction in one’s art rather than a certain image to be projected of the artiste.  Such strong conviction can only be cultivated through extremely thorough and extensive training, and that is the phase that I’m still in right now.  I have an idea of what kind of artiste I can and want to become with more experience and training.

I end with this thought:  ‘Neelam’ really showcased Anita Ratnam’s conviction in not only her art but also in Vaishnavism, itself.  The dance was bigger than the dancer in a glorious way!

Kiran Rajagopalan is a Bharatanatyam dancer and writer originally from the United States but now based in Chennai.  He is a disciple of gurus A Lakshman and Bragha Bessell.  He graduated with a B.A. (honors) in Behavioral Neuroscience and Spanish from Boston University and an M.A. (honors) in Bharatanatyam from Madras University.