December diary
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

January 8, 2011

For me, the season starts with Carnatica's Bharat Sangeet Utsav in the first ten days of November, taking place in the huge Narada Gana Sabha auditorium just 10 minutes walk from my house. I managed to catch a few of the programs, always entertaining because they are theme based. S Sowmya's 'In the steps of tradition' took place on Halloween day, so it was interesting to see lit Halloween pumpkins lined up along the front of the stage! Plus she sang 'suitable' numbers that included a pasuram of Pei Azhwar! It was a very enjoyable recital. The elegant Prabha Atre's Hindustani vocal concert was presented with such virtuosity that it was a pity the hall was not even half full. What happened to the north Indian population of Chennai? Nrithyasree Mahadevan sang songs on Hanuman. The joy with which young talents Abhishek Raghuram (Carnatic vocal) and Jaytirth Mevundi (Hindustani vocal) presented their jugalbandhi was infectious.

Visaka Hari's sangeetha upanyasam on Prahlada's story was delightful with her singing prowess interspersed with many small anecdotes and viewpoints that one would not normally think on those lines. Hiranyakashipu was not Prahlada's enemy, it was the other way round, she said! In 'Ellame Sangeetham,' duo Sriram Parasuram and Anuradha Sriram presented film songs based on classical ragas. Though at times, Aunradha's voice was a bit screechy, the audience hummed along happily. The popular Sanjay Subramaniam presented 'Thithikum Tamil Isai Virundhu.' He's so restless on stage, constantly shifting, but I like his lopsided smile that pops out every now and then!

When ghazal king Anup Jalota and group presented bhajans, the hall was filled with cries of 'Hare Ram' - wonderful audience participation. The touch of humour in his introductions kept the audience in a good mood all through and he got a standing ovation. TM Krishna's theme was 'Compositional forms in the Carnatic classical idiom.' To begin with, he announced that he was not going to render the compositions in the accepted format of delivery, that is pallavi, anupallavi, charanam. Instead, he chose to deliver compositions as they were obtained before the accepted format came to be adopted.

Rajasthani folk music by the Manganiyar group was lively but the volume was so loud that it sounded sometimes like a cacophony of sounds with this one performer who tried constantly to upstage the others! Ranjani and Gayatri's concert had full house and was extremely pleasant to the ears. The finale featured the trio of M Balamuralikrishna, Sudha Raghunathan and Chitravina N Ravikiran. The hall was overflowing. Those who came expecting some scintillating music were disappointed as the two vocalists spent more time in mutual admiration remarks and the music content itself was less!

After reading the rave reviews, I went to see Anitha Guha's 'Mahadevam Mahasenam Bhaje' at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan on Dec 12. The previous Kuchipudi program by Sailaja was going on. I could not believe my eyes to see the hall overflowing, people standing along the sides of the auditorium, seated along the aisles and the entry jammed with people craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the action on stage. Plus about 50 people outside wondering how to get inside. The balcony was similarly jam packed. Instead of 7.30pm, Guha's show started at 8.20pm and I miraculously managed to get a seat. Revathy Sankkaran kept the audience entertained while the stage was being set to depict Kailash. People watched in rapt attention, bursting into applause every now and then, and were present in full strength till 9.50pm (something unheard of in time sensitive Madrasis!), giving the troupe a standing ovation.

Kapila Venu presented Nangiar Koothu program Shivashaktyayukto on the following day at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. It was interesting to listen to the maamis first wondering aloud about what dance form it could be and then trying to decipher the events Kapila was portraying on stage. This was followed by a Bharatanatyam thematic dance Prapatti Marga by Roja Kannan, Aswathy Srikanth and Priya Murle that included a raas, an item on Andal and one on Meera. Srikanth played the sutradhar and his witty dialogues thrilled the maamis so much they felt he would be good at katha kalakshepam!
Ananda Shankar Jayant

Despite running a fever, Ananda Shankar Jayant presented an elegant solo recital of rare Annamacharya kritis titled 'Taala Patra – Hymns from the Hills' on Dec 18 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to near full house. The props were simple – a tambura and a bunch of palm leaf manuscripts on a stand, and the program notes in the shape of palm leaf manuscripts were interesting (all designed by Pratima Sagar). Ananda 'wrote' on the manuscripts at the end of every item. The excellent orchestra comprising of the evening's composer Venu Madhav on vocal, IV Renuka Prasad on nattuvangam, TP Balasubramaniam on mridangam, Sai Kumar on flute and Uma Venkateswarulu on violin had the audience shaking their heads and keeping beat with the music. It was an evening where the audience enjoyed the music and the dance!

Nirmala Rajasekhar gave a veena recital from 2pm on Dec 20 for Karthik Fine Arts at Bhavan's mini hall. She was accompanied by Delhi Sairam on mridangam and S Krishna on ghatam. I have never been to the mini hall; it was surprising to see really how mini it was! Her recital was melodious and soothing and I was almost nearing a state of slumber when a foreigner jumped up, raised his hands and exclaimed 'Sabash!'
Hari Krishnan and Srividya Natarajan

Indance represented by Hari Krishnan and Srividya Natarajan from Toronto presented 'Fallen Rain' inspired by the courtesan performing traditions in the Kaveri delta region in Tamilnadu and coastal Andhra region, at Chandramandala's Spaces on Dec 21. It's a small intimate rectangular space and guests were seated on three sides of the gallery (of 3 rows), with nearly a hundred fragrant garlands suspended from the ceiling, rose petals and green leaves bordering the steps on the far side, little lamps and incense sticks giving an atmosphere fitting to the sensual nature of the numbers! Hanging decorations made of thazambu decorated the sides of the path from the gate to the performance space. The color scheme was arakku red, for the carpet, clothes of the orchestra and the performers themselves - the brainchild of designer Rex, who also sported a big red thilakam on his forehead! The items performed included jatisvaram, viruttam “Madanan vidu” from Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji, varnam “ni sati dora” so charmingly performed by the duo, a zesty Thanjavur Lavani performed by Hari, javali “Varijamukhi vitthalana” by Srividya and the final thillana. Be it the brisk jathis, soulful romantic, lovelorn glances, or looking into each other's eyes, Hari and Srividya had the audience mesmerized. They maintained their energy level throughout the performance. The excellent orchestra comprised of Davesh Soneji and L Subhasri on nattuvangam, Lata Ramachandran on vocal, percussion by NK Kesavan, violin by Sikkil Balasubramaniam and flute by E Devaraj. Victor Paulraj handled the lights.

Dec 23 saw me heading again to Chandramandala's Spaces for the Abhinaya Sudha fest organized by Swapnasundari. I was curious to see the Mohiniattam performance by PN Krishna Kumar from Thrissur. Does a male dancer wear a female costume or does he just perform Mohiniattam as he is? We got caught in a horrendous traffic jam and reached the venue just in time to catch the last 5 minutes of the performance. The male dancer was clad in full regalia of a female dancer's costume and jewellery! The next performer was Bragha Bessell, who presented a delightful program based on abhinaya items to an appreciative audience. This took place in a small stage with open air seating and a couple of bats were swooping over our heads as well as the performer every now and then. It is admirable, how a dancer is able to ignore such distractions and continue with her performance!
Anita Ratnam
Photo: Kanakaraj

Anita Ratnam presented the premiere of her latest solo work 'A Million Sita-s' choreographed by her along with Hari Krishnan, on Dec 25 at Krishna Gana Sabha, where she always premieres her new productions. It was an interesting mix of people from various walks of life that one does not usually see for dance programs. As is her wont, a musical prelude set the tone for the evening's performance. The distinguished orchestra (Lakshmi and Subhiksha Rangarajan on vocals, Viji Krishnan on violin, percussion by NK Kesavan, nattuvangam and narration by Priya Murle) was seated interestingly on two sides of the stage facing the audience. Anita wore just one costume through the performance, adding an accessory or two depending on the character she portrayed – Sita, Ahalya, Manthara, Shabari and Shurpanaka. Anita's body language for each of the female characters showed her command of dance and theatrical silences. The imaginative and magical set design by Rex added to the ambience of the show. More than 500 people turned up that evening, which according to Y Prabhu of Krishna Gana Sabha, was the second largest attendance for a dance program there, the first being cine fame Shobana's show that ran to full house!

The next evening, I headed again to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan supposedly to watch a Kathak performance by Nirupama and Rajendra and was puzzled to hear Carnatic style of music from behind the curtain. I thought I had made a mistake in noting the program, but it turned out that the duo's program had been cancelled for personal reasons and instead Gopika Varma would be performing Mohiniattam. The Kathak show would have us tapping our feet in energy, but the languorous Mohiniattam movements made for a very relaxed experience. Gopika looked trim in her beautiful cream and gold costume. She performed a new piece this season, the popular Kuchipudi item Bhama Kalapam adapted to Mohiniattam with sopanam music.
Gopika Varma

Next was a Vilasini Natyam performance by Swapnasundari. Her plait fell down below her knees, really long! I usually like to watch her show every season when she does elaborate abhinaya, rather mind boggling in their unimaginable variety. I still remember a few years back when she performed after a show by Nirupama and Rajendra. Her show started before the special backdrop could be removed (and the artistes had a train to catch!) and it was a drama going on at the back of the stage with the stage hands trying to slowly remove the backdrop that fell in a heap raising a cloud of dust and Swapnasundari seated in front of the stage blissfully doing abhinaya! I wondered how the vocalist and violinist who were seated on either side of her kept a straight face as they could see the backdrop collapsing, plus the audience staring and yet go on with their music! The evening’s show saw Swapnasundari wind up with a dance based to the Simhanandanam tala of 128 aksharas. There was elaborate preparation for it, with the plain white sheet laid out on stage (no drawing on it, she pointed out), rectangular containers with wet red powder placed along the edges. She took a long time over the item as the audience waited patiently (it was past 9.30pm) to see the drawing of a lion take shape under her feet moving across the sheet. When the sheet was finally held up, the drawing looked more like an animal from an Indus Valley seal, the face was too small for the body and it had only 2 legs! She did warn us that it was the first time she was trying out this item, and to forgive her for any errors!!

Rushing from the Natya Kala Conference on Dec 29, I managed to catch about 40 minutes of a performance by Chirag Sumathi and Dhruv Sumathi (they have their mother's name as surname!) from Los Angeles, again at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The two young lads have received meticulous training from their guru Malathi Iyengar as was evident in their coordinated movements, and confident bearing. The elder boy Chirag is 13 and has been learning from her for 6 years and the younger one Dhruv for nearly 4 years and judging by their skills that can be further honed, they will definitely be worth watching out for. For a 1pm slot, it was nice to see a sizeable audience, and that would definitely have been very encouraging for these young artistes.

After watching so many programs and attending the Natya Kala Conference too on all mornings, it was time for some much needed rest and a quiet new year!!

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of