Music Academy Dance Festival: Day 1
- Veejay Sai
Photos: Siddharth Chandrasekar

January 12, 2014

Like every year, the Margazhi season’s signature dance festival was inaugurated at the Madras Music Academy on the 3rd of January. Talking of signature festivals, the world of dance, dancers and dance enthusiasts hasn’t yet gotten out of the spell ‘Purush’ festival for male dancers had recently.

L - R: Ramjee, Sreedhar Potarazu, N Murali, CV Chandrasekhar, Chitra Visweswaran, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Kala Ramesh
Photo: Thanthoni

The holier than thou stage of the Madras Music Academy’s main hall was decorated on either ends with exquisite Kalamkari murals. This year’s ‘Natya Kala Acharya’ award was given to guru Chitra Visweswaran. Speaking on the occasion, Chitra in her acceptance speech quoted Keats’ saying of ‘The Little Done and the Undone Vast’ to the effect of her own contribution to the field. She mentioned the risks that full time dancers take to make a profession and that the Music Academy could volunteer out to help veteran dancers.

Even as he tried hard to convince us that he was after all a ‘devotee of the arts,’ the sponsor’s arrogance flashed through his speech when Sreedhar Potarazu sounded highly agitated and angry with the media and critics about something, which only he could understand. Talking in the tone of a threat, his menacing glances kept everyone in the hall wondering what was bothering him so much. Chief guest, veteran guru C V Chandrasekhar expressed his concerns over maintaining traditional Margam and preserving its age-old beauty. He commented on how today’s dancers end up telling endless stories in a Varnam and how percussionists end up adding mridangam chollus forcibly when they didn’t suit the dance. Guru CVC’s concerns are genuine and thought provoking to many who are out there to define things in their own way for no apparent reason.

The hall wasn’t suitably full for the occasion. Wonder why dancers don’t show up to support festivals organized for their own benefit. Let us all agree that every other dancer is dying to perform in the Music Academy at some point or the other in their career. In such light, the community needs to introspect on the bad attendance. It makes one think if Chennai as a Mecca of Bharatanatyam was just an overhyped myth. Dance festivals in other cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and even Kolkata get houseful audiences, if curated properly. The few senior gurus who attended the opening ceremony, promptly left as soon as it concluded, and along with those gurus, their respective students also breezed out. Is this the attitude of dance gurus? Is this what they want to imbibe to their students? This was the same attitude observed at the Purush festival where dancers breezed in and out like they did a favour to the world. The dance world severely lacks a sense of community and ownership towards their art form. Hopefully they will come ahead in large numbers when someone genuinely does something for them.

Anaaharya Nityananda

Aishwarya Nityananda
After the inaugural ceremony, one expected the academy’s festival to open with a bang. Unfortunately, it opened with a whimper. The opening dancer for the festival was a little known Aishwarya Nityananda, a student of Guru Radha Sridhar from Bangalore.  The first thing one observed about her on stage was her over-costuming. Aaharyam is such an integral part to a dance presentation and Aishwarya seemed to have taken an over-dosage of it.

She opened her performance with a Pushpanjali and an invocation to lord Ganesha composed by Saroja Natarajan and set to ragam Amritavarshini. While one could see her pleasant demeanor on stage, the aggressive use of mood lighting was distracting. She continued into the famous Tanjore Quartet varnam “Saami ninne kori” set to Ashtaragamalika. Starting at a rather relaxed pace even Pulakeshi Kasturi’s nattuvangam trailed along. In her sancharis, a strong lack of balance was seen. In some places she was subtle and good while in other places she overdid. At one point the nayika goes gracefully to the well to draw water. Before we knew, Aishwarya flooded the entire entrance with so much water that if the Shiva she was pining for had come, he would have had to carefully maneuver his way and not slip and fall or break his hip. Even before the second half of the varnam, Aishwarya’s sancharis became monotonous and repetitive. Added to that was singer Balasubramanya Sharma blurring words into a long ramble. In the second half of the varnam, describing the line “Prema meeraga,” the nayika observes her reflection in the waters and enacts a butterfly or a bee sitting on a lotus that she plucks eventually. Aishwarya needs to explain what the metaphor for the love there and the connection to the sahityam of the composition was. The saving grace was the melodious flute by Jayaram. Even in the following lines “Sarasaguna vanita,” the singer blurred them beyond recognition. The whole effort of the varnam seemed highly hesitant.
Aishwarya continued her performance with a Devaranama “Yamanelli kananendu kelabeda” written by saint poet Purandaradasa and set to Shivaranjani ragam, adi talam. While her abhinayam was very normal, at several times literal to the words in the composition, she efficiently delivered the entire Geetopadesam sequence as a part of this piece. Even there, the transition from Vishwaroopam back to the rest of the piece was hurried. The Ghanam Krishna Iyer padam in Saveri ragam once again remained pedantic with repetitions. Aishwarya needs to work a lot more on her abhinayam. But before that, she needs to rework her Aaharyam. Being small in build, the current costume only made her look shorter. She had a large fan, topped with three small fans and another complimentary fan to her pants. All this made it look cumbersome. Hope Aishwarya doesn’t bring in such ‘fan following’ next time on and instead creates new fans in the audiences she presents her dance to.

It is not that Aishwarya isn’t a good dancer. She certainly hasn’t the quality or stature, as yet, to open such an international festival. One wonders why the Academy opened on such a slow note. Or going by her performance at the Academy, one must say she got the chance of her lifetime and threw it away like an unopened gift.

A Mess and a Message

Sutra group of dancers
The first group presentation every year on the opening night usually ends up being very exciting for everyone. This year too rasikas sat with their expectations high. Why not! It was the great Ramli Ibrahim and his famous Sutra group of dancers performing. Titled ‘Krishna – Love, Re-invented’, the whole theme of the presentation was lord Krishna and Krishna bhakthi. Based on the compositions from three stellar superstar gurus - Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Debaprasad Das and Guru Gajendra Kumar Panda - Ramli worked various ideas of choreography into these compositions that have become traditional with time, presenting an array of items from an invocatory ‘Mangalacharan’ to a final ‘Moksha’ via others like ‘Sthai’, ‘Mohana Deli Chahi’, ‘Krishna Tandava’, ‘Pallavi Vajrakanti.’  “Krishna is too busy falling on the Gopis, and when he is not, they are falling on him! What kind of intelligence is needed to assume this is good choreography?” said an audience member very close to where we were sitting and we all had to nod in agreement.

What one expected was a blast like never before. What Ramli presented was a collective mess.  There were a few good ideas presented within these sequences, especially in the orchestration of the music, parts of the choreography and formations, but even those got lost in the chaos of unsynchronized dancers, an out of form and shape Krishna and a Ramli whose once dynamic dance had slowed down with age. Ramli might be dealing with his own set of problems but when putting together a show for such a prestigious international festival inaugural, he could have been more careful in what was presented. Overall, this wasn’t one of the best shows Ramli and his group performed. Hopefully they would rectify what went wrong and sort it out soon. There is only one Ramli Ibrahim in the world of dance and the image of him, his productions and works is what many others aspire to reach. We will wish him better luck for the future. Knowing Ramli, he will soon return with a bang!
Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic. He is the official reviewer for the Madras Music Academy’s annual dance festival.