An ocean of natya bliss
- Shveta Arora
Pics: Anoop Arora

March 14, 2014
On the 22nd of February, Dr. Anita Ratnam gave a solo performance at the Chinmaya Mission Auditorium in Delhi, presented by Sandhya Raman of Desmania Foundation. The performance titled Neelam – Drowning in Bliss, was a blissful experience that seeped straight into the soul. Anita Ratnam had her initial dance training under Bharatanatyam Guru Adyar K. Lakshman and later went to Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Kalakshetra. She has trained in Mohiniattam and Kathakali too. She has a unique style of dance which she has coined ‘Neo Bharatam' which is an amalgam of the three dance forms that she has trained in.
Neelam - Drowning in Bliss was about the personal memories of Anita, who grew up in a south Indian Vaishnava family. She was greatly influenced by M S Subbalakshmi’s rendition of Rangapura Vihara and that is the bedrock of this production. The journey starts from the devotion of seventh century saint Nammalwar, through Andal’s songs in the ninth century, descriptive adoration of Annamayya in ragam Kurunji in the sixteenth century, resting in the Rangapura Vihara by Muthuswamy Dikshitar, in the eighteenth century in ragam Brindavana Saaranga. Neelam - Drowning in Bliss is so called since Neel denotes Krishna or Vishnu, in whose praise the verses have been sung. This is of course the bhakti or devotion that one has to immerse or drown in. Vishnu is worshipped as the ultimate male and the rest of creation is the female. The devotion requires a total surrender and submission.
Talking enthusiastically about the production, Anita said, “There was a centenary celebration for MS Subbalakshmi’s birth anniversary in 2006. MS was a friend of my grandfather, and she told my mother that I must dance to Rangapura Vihara, which was her concert repertoire. I was just 16 then. For the centenary celebrations, when I was asked to do something, I returned to this composition. I had to bring a Carnatic music composition with ragam tanam pallavi and aalaap to the dance format. So we had to break it down and take it apart and bring it back together and it took us at least three weeks. Next, it was the Andal composition. Andal has been a shadow in my life. I have always adored her. I have collected her poetry and her pictures. For my arangetram, I danced an Andal composition. Regarding these ten verses, we were told never to venture near them, since they were too erotic. But I found in them a young girl’s dreams, her monologue with the panchajanya, a sweet condensed version of her stubbornness and determination to get Krishna. I had experimented with Mahalakshmi and Jayadeva too, but then I wanted to retain the flavour of South Indian Vaishnavism and keep the vibrations of a certain area since that’s where I grew up. I wanted to be true to myself and to my work. I’ve had the support of amazing concert level singers. I gave them a lot of freedom to present their work with dignity. I always work with recorded scores and yet retain my spontaneity since I can concentrate on other things as well. For a thematic work like this, having a live orchestra on the side robs it of the mood. I have chosen to work with recorded music for the last 20 years and it has been a blessing and a challenge. People initially would not invite me to dance because I used recorded music. But things have changed and recorded music is accepted everywhere now. This is my 25th performance of Neelam, but I think I can still experiment with it. It is like a Pandora’s box, but in a good way.”
What about the props and the stage setting? “I always use props, little islands around which to work. I use the blue angavastram, the colourful wedding garland and the long garland. I used parrots because they are a pet or a playmate for both Andal and Meenakshi. The parrot has a special place in our literature. The lotus pond with mirrored tiles was used because Vishnu and Mahalakshmi would float in the milk ocean. Glass and water are akin. I used the stool for the idea of a contained space. The terracotta pieces were sourced and painted blue in Delhi. I have had an amazing journey with Sandhya Raman and we have constantly been trying to innovate. I want my performance to be an experience rather than just a dance form. Vocabulary and nomenclature should not be too rigid.”

Anita also spoke about the music. “I don’t think piano and violin are non-Indian and not pure. But I do take care to use it carefully and judiciously. I sit with sound recordists for the recordings. The composer is also well versed in Carnatic and he is a Vaishnava himself and so understands the vocabulary. The music should hold the audience. Now I get a younger audience and I see music as a co-performer in the concert.”

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Photos: Anoop Arora
The stage setting fuelled the curiosity about the performance. In one corner was a glass-tiled floor with lotuses hung on the back and scattered on the floor, and a blue pedestal. In the other corner were a few terracotta pieces painted blue, with blue terracotta parrots sitting on them. The entire production was divided into four sections, each pertaining to an era and a Vaishnava bhakta.
Srimal - the dance of Vishnu: The costume for this section was predominantly masculine, a kurta and dhoti, the kurta adorned with a heavy neckpiece and an angavastram as a prop. The legend portrayed was that of Vishnu, also known as Nambi. Once, in a small temple town in Southern Tamil Nadu, the great sage and social reformer Ramanuja arrived and rested on the banks of a river. Lord Vishnu, recognizing the saint, sat at his feet disguised as a student. From Ramanuja, Vishnu received the gift of the eight sacred syllables of Vaishnavism – Om Namo Narayana. Images of temple procession are punctuated by the distinct nadai or gait of the dancers, who accompanied the temple chariot or the Lord on a shouldered palanquin. Anita started the piece standing on the glass floor with a blue sheer odhni. On the curtain, images of shankhu, chakra, tilak emerge, which symbolize Lord Vishnu and the Vaishnava sect. In the background, the sound of chiming bells could be heard. Depicting the tale of saint Ramanuja, Anita wore the blue angavastram. When the angavastram is worn on both the shoulders, it depicts the Lord, and when worn across the shoulder, it depicts the dancers carrying the palanquin. She ended the piece with capturing the magic of the four-armed posture of Vishnu, armed with shankhu-chakra-gada-padam.
The story of Goda is told in every Vaishnav household. The costume for this section was feminine, with a yellow saree. The tale of Andal is nearly 600 years old. A young baby girl was discovered in a Tulsi bush in the home of a temple priest. She was named Goda, the one who ruled the heart of Vishnu and later worshipped as a goddess herself. She visualized herself as Lord Vishnu’s bride, weaving the daily flower garlands that were offered to the temple deity. She secretly wore the garland and admired herself in a hall of mirrors in the temple. In this selection of verses, Andal or Goda addresses the panchajanya, Krishna’s conch. “Tell me O conch, how do Krishna’s lips taste? Like camphor or the nectar of lotuses? O great conch, drawn from the bones of the demon Panchajana, your sound makes the enemy tremble. You glisten in my Krishna’s hands, you touch His lips. You sit proudly near His ear and share His confidence. Mere mortals like me have to bathe, but you are so fortunate to bathe in the moisture of Krishna’s lips. Are you not my friend, dear conch? See, I too am wearing conch bangles. Answer me at once or I will lose my patience.” Anita aesthetically enacted the entire piece, sitting on a pedestal. She portrayed the innocent emotions of a young girl in love. She chanted the refrain in- between pauses, reflecting the mood of the verses. Someone has correctly said that transcendental bliss can be attained even while embracing the sensual.

For the third section, the costume was a pink sari with golden lotuses strung together on the back. The prop used was a vibrantly coloured garland for the marriage (varmala). In the famous temple town of Tirupati is the shrine of Alamelumanga, an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi. This famous song, beloved to many South Indian families, extols the many aspects of Lakshmi, the giver, the warrior, the wisdom carrier, the brave one, protector of children and lives, the light of our homes. Emerging from the churning of the ocean, Lakshmi represents purity, well-being and abundance - a vision of beauty surrounded by a bed of lotus flowers and petals. Anita portrayed the emergence of Lakshmi during the churning of the ocean. She's picturesquely beautiful, with lotus eyes, beautiful bosom and cheeks, holding a lotus in her hand. She puts the wedding garland in the neck of Lord Vishnu in marriage. The music for the piece was soft, with the piano playing.

The fourth section takes the audience to Srirangam. The costume was a blue sari and her prop an open-ended long garland. At Srirangam, Lord Padmanabha is reclining, with the lotus of creation springing from his navel. Gods and saints are in his service, and his consort is by his side. Muthuswami Dikshitar, the great poet, ventures into the tale of Lord Rama. Anita, while depicting the story of Rama, begins when Lord Rama accompanies his guru Vishwamitra to rid his ashram of the demons. They go further to the dhanushyagya, where Rama breaks the great bow of Lord Shiva during Sita's swayamvar. Sita weds Rama, the garland adorning the groom Rama. After their marriage, Rama and Sita are sent to vanvaas (14 years in the jungles), when the issue of Rama's inheritance to the throne is brought up. In Panchavati, Sita sees the golden deer and Rama goes after it to shoot it down, but does not return. Sita sends Lakshman after Rama, and Lakshman draws the rekha with the garland and goes to rescue Rama. Meanwhile, Ravana comes disguised as a brahmin asking for alms, and kidnaps Sita. Jatayu comes to the rescue of Sita, but is slaughtered by Ravana. Rama roams the forest in search of Sita and reaches Lanka. He is victorious in the war with Ravana. Sita goes through the agnipariksha (trial by fire) and all three of them return to Ayodhya. Rama is anointed as the king again and the garland adorns his neck. Next, the garland forms the throne on which the king is seated. The sound design draws upon the Carnatic music tradition. Finally the garland is used as a prop to assume multiple meanings to portray the dashavatar of Lord Vishnu.

On the whole, it was a captivating performance with the interludes in the four sections being filled in by G Raghuraman's melodious flute. Concept and choreography were by Anita Ratnam, music design  by Anil Srinivasan and KSR Anirudda, voice by Sikkil Gurucharan, Subhiksha Rangarajan, sacred chant by Pradeep Chakravarthy and Revathy Sankkaran, visual design by Rex, costume design by Sandhya Raman and Rex, lighting by Victor Paulraj, brocade garland by Hema Ramani and VV Ramani.

Sandhya Raman is the co-owner of the Desmania Foundation, a design outfit. Excerpts from an informal chat with her:

“The idea is to portray a whole concept, while marrying tradition with modernity. It takes an effort to not only portray a dance form, but also to create an image as in this case of Vishnu or Lakshmi. I was very happy when a 94-year-old woman came up to me and told me that each time she thought that this was better than the previous one. So each time, I try to carry my work to a greater height. This recognition is the magical moment.”

Talking about the Vishnu and Lakshmi costumes, Sandhya said, “The neck piece of the Vishnu costume is what Tirumal wears in Tirupati. For the Lakshmi costume, the golden lotuses strung at the back add a touch of modernity and bling without looking ugly. The garland for Lakshmi in different colours breaks the simplicity of the costume. The fabric that I use is mostly silk, but like for the Lakshmi costume, I used a light lycra-like fabric on the yoke to give her a younger look. And the slight shimmer symbolizes water. I am not rigid with fabric. I like to accentuate the mood of the dance and the dancer and that is what takes priority. I do sit in for the rehearsals to get a grasp of the production. I know Anita and her body type well and I am aware of what she wants. Of course, there are always improvisations to be made.”

Shveta Arora is a blogger based in Delhi. She writes about cultural events in the capital.