Navarasa Nayaka and Neerasa Nayika
Text & pics: Veejay Sai

October 12, 2014

There is an old saying that goes, “It takes thirty seven muscles to frown and twenty two muscles to smile.” If one were to go by this, a packed hall of rasikas smiled joyfully and later frowned, thanks to two dancers who triggered off these contrasting situations. The first morning of ‘Nitya Nritya 2014’ festival organized by Bharatanatyam guru Lalitha Srinivasan and her Nupura School of Bharatanatyam opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore.

Sadanam Balakrishnan
Speaking on the topic of ‘Navarasa in Kathakali’ was the famous exponent Sadanam Balakrishnan. Those of us who have seen his performances in the past have felt nothing else but a state of pure bliss. Balakrishnan becomes the medium to a different world altogether once he begins performing with his sense of precision and immaculate perfection. At the current talk, like most of the legends of his stature, he spoke less and demonstrated more. We all heard him in rapt attention. After an invocation to the gods of the stage, obeisance to the fellow musicians and the omnipresent lamp, he began his talk saying he would lead us step by step through the movement. First his eyes, next his eyebrows and eyelids followed by cheek muscles, mouth, lips, full face, neck, shoulders, torso, arms, hands that use gestures and so forth.  Each muscle moved to the beat of the chenda and maddalam like an obedient student would listen to a master. The ease and flexibility with which he displayed every contraption was something that one could achieve only after a great amount of sadhana. In Kathakali, abhinayam is as much a feeling as it is in the involvement of the muscles and physicality of it.

Stating that the Natya Shastra cited eight rasas first and ‘shantam’ as a rasa was added later, he demonstrated one by one. This is an interesting observation as several scholars in the past have said ‘bhakthi’ as a rasa was added later while the rest of the eight were strictly adhering to basic human instincts. Clarifying this stance later Balakrishnan said dancers, musicologists and scholars have debated over this for ages now and haven’t come to any conclusion. He also clarified the difference between ‘karuna rasa’ and ‘karunya.’ Karuna comes from the sthayi bhava of sorrow. This is far different from ‘karunya’ which is compassion. Balakrishnan said how he often sees dancers confusing the two because their names sound alike.

An excerpt from ‘Nala Charitam’ made for the demonstration of shringaram. The scene is that where Nala has heard about the beauty of Damayanti and falls in love with her. Another excerpt from ‘Draupadi Vastrapaharanam’ made for a quick demonstration of roudra rasa. The subtlety of expression and perspicuity of style was worth watching with a thousand eyes. Sadanam Balakrishnan is a genius in his own right and every minute of watching him perform is worth treasuring.

Right through this piece the audience heard a lady talk loudly over her mobile phone in the first row of the auditorium. It was none other than the guru and organizer of the festival Lalitha Srinivasan herself! She generously received several phone calls, disturbing everyone in the audience and the performers on stage. Is this the sort of example a senior guru like her wants to set to the next generation of rasikas?

And from the high heavens of ecstasy one fell with a thud into the mundane reality. Guru Lalitha Srinivasan constantly receiving her phone calls and Rukmini Vijaykumar’s Bharatanatyam performance eased our fall without much effort.  Rukmini has probably the most beautiful looks that girls of her age could be envious of. She has a stage presence and her taste for fine costumes and jewelry are something that others can learn from. Alas! Her performance spoke of how easily she was victim to a chaos of confused ideas and an intense engagement with acrobatics assuming it was dance.

Rukmini Vijaykumar
Dancing to recorded music, after an invocatory piece she performed Papanasam Sivan’s famous Nattu Kurinji pada varnam “Saami Naan Undan Adimai.” From the very first adavu what became noticeable was Rukmini’s lack of laya. The relentless mismatch between the jathis being recited and her footwork made it seem like they had nothing to do with each other. Next came the jathis themselves! If you are going to keep every jathi to the tune of ‘Om Tha Dheeng’, ‘Om Namah Tha Dheeng Gina’, ‘Om Namah Shivaya Tha Dheen Gina Thom’ and so forth, one wonders how does the dancer return to the mood of the varnam and the nayika herself who was supposedly pining for the lord. This went on for a while and when she wasn’t doing this, Rukmini added liberal doses of karanas from Padma Subrahmanyam’s Bharata Nrithyam, like fillers. It stuck out like a sore thumb and aesthetics took a backseat for the rest of the show. Rukmini’s dance is too filmy to fall into the classical category and too kitschy to fall into the filmy category. If she made her dance any more acrobatic, she could participate in Olympics instead of dance recitals.

In the second half of the varnam, Rukmini stood as Nataraja with the left leg hanging down, eagerly waiting for a reaction. As the singer went “Nataraja Deva,” the leg kicked out, like it would kick an imaginary football. By end of the varnam, one sees less of the nayika pining for the lord and more of Rukmini panting for breath, like a sprinter reaching the end line of a marathon run. Her next piece “Apasara Niranuradha Shambho” was themed on the newly married young couple Shiva and Parvathi. A sudden contrast from the serious Shiva of the varnam, the current Shiva remained incomprehensible through the course of the choreography. Shiva and Parvathi are a newly married couple that constantly fight. She demands him bringing flowers for her while he gives excuses saying his pet bull Nandi was unwell and so he wasn’t able to venture into the forests for that work. (Seemed like the great lord couldn’t find a decent veterinary doctor in Kailasam nor could he invoke his own  healing powers!). Parvathi throws tantrums that he no longer dances with her and he has some retort. Going by the choreography, you wouldn't know the difference if Shiva and Parvathi were replaced with Shahrukh Khan and Juhi Chawla from some 90’s Bollywood flick. The treatment given to the whole piece lacked a sense of cohesion in ideas and in implementation. Srivathsa’s exuberant voice was unfortunately paired with a deeply nasal female voice that didn’t seem to realize her missing link with the basic shruti.

Rukmini followed this with a piece on the mother goddess Devi. Taking scraps from Adi Shankara’s ‘Annapoornashtakam’ and ‘Ardhanarishwara Stotram’, slokas from the ‘Devi Bhagawatam’, Dikshitar’s kriti on Ardhanarishwara in Kumudakriya ragam, Rajarajeshwari Stotram and few other slokas, Rukmini churned this deadly Devi mixture, into an end product that would make even the great mother goddess wilt in confusion wondering why she even bothered to take so many incarnations. Added to the existing confusion, while depicting goddess Kali, Rukmini stuck her tongue out, which seemed more comic than any Kali iconography can depict. By the end of her performance we only saw more of acrobatic Rukmini and less of her dance.
The dignity of Balakrishnan’s performance gave a darshan of pure navarasas…his dance was to die for to understand the aesthetics of presentation. From a mythological fantasyland we landed into mundane reality with a thud!  This critic has no clue of what might have happened in the rest of the festival but sincerely prays and hopes that Guru Lalitha Srinivasan took her phone calls out of the concert hall to give rasikas a better experience of her own festival.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.