Silapathigaram: The justice of the anklet
- Rita Winters

November 5, 2011

‘Silapathigaram: The justice of the anklet’ featured Sunanda Nair, Uma Murali, Madurai R Muralidharan, and students of Sunanda’s Performing Arts Center. Before the curtains opened on this presentation of Silapathigaram, the audience was treated to a refreshing video introduction of the artistes.  Festive and engaging music accompanied the video, a welcome departure from the usual vocal introduction.  After the tone was set, men hoisted a large, heavy stone onto the stage.  This was an innovative reference to the heroine Kannagi, as her image was carved into Himalayan stone by a Chera king.  These elements set the tone for a unique rendition of the ancient story about justice.

Long before Kannagi made her way to Chera, she lived a contented and prosperous life with her husband Kovalan in Puhar.  Sunanda Nair and Muralidharan bring Kannagi and Kovalan to life onstage.  With strength and dexterity, Muralidharan creates a Kovalan who is a tender and indulgent husband, enjoying the delight on his wife’s face as he lavishes gifts on her.  In the market scene, Nair charmingly portrays Kannagi’s innocence and wonder at life.  The music and choreography create a felicitous setting, and the pair dance together harmoniously as the young, happy couple building a life together.

By chance, or fate, Kovalan accepts an invitation by the Raja to attend the arangetram of an enchanting dancer, Madhavi.  Madhavi’s arangetram brought us back to a time when devadasis performed for the royal courts.  As Madhavi, Uma Murali embodies the qualities expected of a devadasi – grace, agility, confidence and beauty.  She is at once confident and shy, coy but not haughty.  Her abhinaya is sure to capture the eye, whether it is the wandering eye of a husband or an unsuspecting audience member.  Uma’s beautiful face created mesmerizing expressions, and her Kuchipudi background added elegance to her swift Bharatanatyam elocution.

One of the gifts given by the Raja to Madhavi for her arangetram is an emerald necklace.  Madhavi’s mother takes the necklace and goes in search of the highest bidder.  Kovalan steps in and buys the necklace.  To the audience’s disappointment, the necklace is not for his devoted wife, but for the enchantress Madhavi.  Madhavi’s charms were the bait, her mother provided the hook, and Kovalan was sunk.

Muralidharan, a gifted dancer, musician and choreographer, brilliantly shows the nuances of a man in love with life, enchanted with the beauty all around him.  Bewitched by Madhavi, Kovalan surrenders to the object of his affection, and Muralidharan displays this infatuation convincingly.  He and Uma portray the tender and fragile love of Kovalan and Madhavi, which takes the sting out of the fact that theirs is an illicit relationship.   

Uma performs many sumptuous dance sequences.  From her arangetram to her group dances with Sunanda Nair’s students, she displayed a quality of movement and stamina found only in those who deeply love dance and savor the music.  She brilliantly depicts the ambiguities of Madhavi, capturing the delicate balance of an enchantress who is also virtuous.  This is an artiste, who could easily take over the stage, but she is far too generous to throw her star status around – she shares the stage with the other dancers and creates pure magic with them.

Interspersed with the lovely classical vignettes danced by Sunanda, Uma and Muralidharan, were vibrant folk dances.  From cowherdesses to hill girls, Nair’s students perform these numbers as if they grew up in village life.  Bedecked in colorful costumes, the celebrants threw themselves into the folk dances with great abandon.  Much praise goes to these dancers, for every one of them gave their best effort.  It did not look like a performance – it was a village festival the audience happened upon.

After waiting for Kovalan’s return for a long time, Kannagi’s countenance is that of a woman whose life was shattered.  When Kovalan returns after his breakup with Madhavi, one would expect the betrayed wife to greet him with anger and resentment.  Instead, Nair poignantly unveils Kannagi’s deep loyalty.  When her friend announces that he has finally come, Kannagi is at first in disbelief.  Without words, Kannagi conveys, “Please do not play with my feelings!  Has he really come?”  When she realizes that her dream has finally come true, she rushes to prepare herself.  Shedding the layers of grief and longing, she is once again the happy bride beaming with joy and newfound hope.

Kovalan gingerly enters the scene, unsure of his status with the woman he has so sorely wronged.  Muralidharan’s abhinaya here is important, for a Kovalan to return with any trace of pride or self-righteousness would have turned the audience off.  Here, Kovalan is clearly humbled before his wife.  When Kannagi takes him back without question, Muralidharan displays the nuances of a husband realizing the treasure he once capriciously cast aside.

Kovalan’s reluctance to take his wife’s anklet is as touching as her magnanimous insistence that he do so.  Having spent all their money on Madhavi, he goes in search of a fair price so that he and his wife can rebuild their life.  And so enters the goldsmith.  The dancer who portrayed the goldsmith gave a believable performance, from his sly sideways glances, to slinking about the stage, to moustache-twisting as he plots his treachery to blame Kovalan for his own thievery of the queen’s pearl-filled anklet.  His lumbering about the stage was a great contrast to the refined nritya of Kovalan.
When the news of Kovalan’s death reaches Kannagi’s ears, this is a perfect opportunity for Nair to demonstrate her brilliant abhinaya.  Overcoming convention and protocol, Kannagi fearlessly storms into the king’s court demanding his audience.  Here, Kannagi is still the very human wife, with Nair portraying her grief and indignation poignantly.  The king allows her to speak, as he is certain of his righteousness in executing Kovalan for stealing the queen’s anklet.  The tension builds until Kannagi throws her anklet onto the ground, which shatters, revealing precious gems.  When the king realizes his fatal mistake, he falls dead to the ground, and Kannagi’s indignation takes on a life of its own.  This is where Kannagi begins her transformation, and Nair takes us on a frightening ride.

Kannagi’s rage turns her into a destructive force of Kali proportions.  Here, Nair’s Kathakali training gives her the ability to transform from the demure wife to devastating goddess, larger than life and terrifying.  As an audience member, I went from feeling heartbroken for her to being afraid of her.  However, I could not turn away from her terrible beauty.
There were many pearls in this presentation of the famous Tamil poem that revealed themselves in unexpected moments:  the Raja and his glittering entourage parading to the stage through the audience; lively folk dancers giving a taste of village life; Uma’s enchanting abhinaya drawing us in; and then Nair shattering us with her dramatic finale.  Holding all of this together was the music and choreography of Muralidharan.  His masterful touch was everywhere, and his effervescent music flowed like a sacred river.