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Janaki Nair, Pooja Vallampati, Maya Rao,
Divya Venugopal, Sujatha Srinivasan

Vivarta by Shri Kalaa Mandir
- Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas
Photos: Srini Ranganathan

August 19, 2019

Shri Kalaa Mandir Center for Indian Performing Arts (SKM) performed an original piece -Vivarta / Transformations - choreographed by Sujatha Srinivasan. Given our limited knowledge of Bharatanatyam, the form of Indian classical dance taught and performed by SKM, we were unprepared for the many multicultural, secular, and contemporary aspects of Vivarta.

We had always thought of Bharatanatyam depicting ancient tales of Hindu gods, but Vivarta depicts a situation ripped from today's headlines, "humankind's irresponsible use of natural resources and the pollution of the land, water and air," in the context of a grand retelling of the history of the universe from "the Great Big Bang" to a hopeful future in which people are transformed to "mindful and responsible inhabitants of the Earth." In the program notes for Vivarta, SKM reaches out to general audiences by quoting from Abraham Lincoln and Genesis as well as the Atharvana Veda.

Moment by moment, Vivarta presented much the visual spectacle we expected from Indian classical dance. The costumes, credited to Aahaaryaa Tailors, were brightly colored with traditional tunics in vivid greens, blues, and reds over bright gold shirts, skirts, and leggings. The dancers were made up with vivid eyes and lips and their facial expressions were even more vivid and surprisingly varied. Mother Earth's expression varied from beneficent to distressed to adamant. The ensemble's faces were serene as they jumped and pranced as the elements, alert and innocent as they depicted animals. The 4 dancers who assailed Mother Earth with slashing movements maintained stylized facial expressions that seemed cruel and inexorable as they drove the other dancers away and threw Mother Earth to the floor. "What have you done to me?" asked Mother Earth in a taped voice-over.

Perhaps a factual narrative would have ended there with the earth and humanity in a state of irreversible degradation. That's the slippery slope we're sliding down now, right? But Vivarta ends by presenting a hopeful turn of events in which Mother Earth vents her fury in hurricanes and droughts and the people come to their senses. The stage lighting by Wes Calkin flashes red and Mother Earth dances until her 4 assailants lie prostrate in submission. If only reality could take such a turn.

Vivarta is danced to recorded music by 4 prominent Carnatic musicians based in India. Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi are brother and sister violinists in a musical dynasty. M.S. Sukhi and T.M. Krishna are easy to find on Amazon and Spotify. We watched Shri Kalaa Mandir at Cleveland Public Theatre on June 15, 2019.

(The report originally appeared in Cleveland Concert Dance on June 20, 2019. Reproduced here with permission)

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