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HEART with Arts for Humanity
- Shyamhari Chakra

May 19, 2020

The ongoing world-wide lock-down owing to the pandemic has unlocked a new world for the artistes - the virtual performances being hosted live on social media. Convinced that the virtual could never be an alternative to the physical where the performers and connoisseurs come together, I was less interested in watching these virtual dance events.

However, what attracted me to Resurgence - a two-day virtual dance festival that was webcast during the last weekend (May 9,10) conceptualized and curated by USA based young Kuchipudi dancer Pranamya Suri, a doctor by profession, and supported by 11 young and accomplished Indian classical dancers and musicians - was the objective behind the event. It was in aid of some healthcare workers across the USA whose lives have been adversely affected by the crisis and whose wishes were to be fulfilled.

The dancers who supported the mission were Odissi dancer Arushi Mudgal from New Delhi, Bharatanatyam artistes Sonali Skandan (USA), Rukmini Vijayakumar (Bengaluru) and Vijna Vasudevan from Chennai; Kuchipudi dancers Amrita Lahiri (Mumbai), Sreelakshmy Govardhanan (Thrissur), Prateeksha Kashi (Bengaluru) and Bhavana Reddy (New Delhi). The three Carnatic vocalists included in the event were sisters S Aishwarya and S Saundarya, and Keerthana Vaidyanathan - all from Chennai. They have already carved a niche for themselves in the international arena at a relatively young age.

Trained under stalwarts like Shobha Naidu and Jaikishore Mosalikanti, Pranamya, daughter and disciple of Texas based Kuchipudi dancer Srilatha Suri, emerged as a highly promising and gifted solo dancer even as a teenager. She, however, opted for medicine as her career while all her well-wishers wished her to be a professional dancer. "It was my deliberate decision to have two professions together as a doctor-dancer because I wished to serve both dance and the society," explained Pranamya who launched her philanthropic projects 10 years ago when she was just 20.

Under her Echoes of India projects, she established the first medical clinic in Kuchipudi village and installed 17 water purification plants for poor villagers in Nalgonda district of Telangana state in India. Since 2010, Echoes of India - renamed recently as HEART (Healthcare-Education-Art) - has been promoting artistes from India by inviting them to USA for performances.

"Resurgence virtual performance series was inspired by this ongoing COVID situation that has isolated the artistes and has thrown enormous risks and fears at the frontline health-care professionals like me. It has been the thought of dance that keeps me strong at this hour of crisis while working at the hospital. Thus, I thought of this event in aid of some needy healthcare workers with the help of the artistes that I admire the most. All of them instantly agreed to come together to cooperate in our mission of arts for a cause," Pranamya shared.

Setting the mood with music

S Aishwarya & S Saundarya

Keerthana Vaidyanathan

Each session of the two-day event commenced with Carnatic vocal recitals. While Chennai-based sisters S Aishwarya & S Saundarya were invited for the first day, it was Kerala-born and Chennai-based Keerthana Vaidyanathan for the second day. Coincidentally, three of them had a common reference to M.S. Subbulakshmi. While the sister duo are great grand-daughters of the legend, Keerthana has been recipient of M.S. Subbulakshmi Fellowship for music.

Sunday being celebrated as Mother's Day, almost all performers of the festival had chosen themes that revolved round the mother. And aptly, these three vocalists followed the trend and dedicated their concerts to all the mothers of the world. Mathe Malayadhwaja, Janani Ninuvina and excerpts from Adi Shankaracharya's Annapoorna Shatakam that the sisters presented were on the divine mother as was Keerthana's Devi, a Muthuswamy Dikshithar composition.

Music flows in the veins of Aishwarya-Saundarya and they must have taken to music as ducks take to water. Their concert spoke volumes of their inborn talent and the much needed training to be the worthy heirs of the MS legacy. Popularly seen as duet performers, the sisters have evolved a perfect synchronization of their voices. While two were singing, it sounded like one. Saundarya's solo concert on Sunday, set to a meditative mood, also indicated why she is now known as a worthy disciple of the renowned Bombay Jayashree.

For both the concerts, there were no accompanying instrumentalists who, usually, remain an integral part of any recital. Yet, the vocalists, with their careful selection of compositions and soulful renditions, did not let us feel the absence.

Arushi - The right choice to represent Odissi

Arushi Mudgal

From among the eight Indian classical dance traditions, the festival featured just three styles represented by nine soloists. Arushi Mudgal was the only but apt choice to represent Odissi. The youngest dancer to claim the coveted Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Prativa Puraskar for Odissi - the national award for young artistes - she has been the worthy heir of a glorious family tradition that has great contribution to Indian dance and music. Grand-daughter of Pandit Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya who founded the famed Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in the national capital and daughter of veteran musician Pandit Madhup Mudgal, Arushi has been the disciple of her aunt Madhavi Mudgal, who hardly needs any introduction.

Dance apart, Arushi has also excelled as a writer on dance matters. Though familiar with her growth as a dancer and writer for nearly two decades, it was my first introduction to her as a choreographer. Of the three presentations that she made, two were her choreographies - Bageshri pallavi, a pure dance number and Krishna Leela, an expressional dance piece - with music scored by her illustrious father. With her grip on rhythm and understanding of the space and time, the pallavi has been brilliantly crafted in which we witnessed the most judicious exploration of the stage-space. Similarly, Krishna Leela shunned an overdose of theatrical elements often seen in expressional numbers that blur the thin line between dance and drama.

The Bharatanatyam trinity

The three Bharatanatyam artistes of the event - Sonali Skandan, Vijna Vasudevan and Rukmini Vijayakumar -carry their individual signatures that make them the faces in the crowd of countless dancers.

Sonali Skandan

Living in New York since 30 years, Sonali, who has been trained under stalwarts like Prof C.V. Chandrasekhar and Bragha Bessel in India and Maya Kulkarni in America, has evolved her approach to choreography combining sensibilities of the east and the west. This has made her dance look different transcending boundaries and winning critical acclaim. Her presentation of an excerpt from her latest work - The Four Horsemen - indicated her depth as a thinking dancer and visionary choreographer.

The production tells the story of four female protagonists who exemplify resilience, courage, strength and hope and the piece that she performed was the Red Horse of War. The touching tale of two lovers on the eve of the war, who had to be separated the next morning and the woman had to wait for her man amidst uncertainty for reunion was brilliantly portrayed. It was also a meaningful metaphor and a timely tribute for all the COVID-19 front liners fighting the global pandemic and their family members. The touching plot apart, the strength and beauty of the work was its thoughtful treatment through juxtaposition of the movements, the music and the moods portrayed eloquently the elements of vigor and the pathos.

Vijna Vasudevan

Chennai based Vijna Vasudevan has the rare fortune of being groomed under the two most celebrated stalwarts of Bharatanatyam - first with The Dhananjayans and then with Prof C.V. Chandrasekhar following her marriage to fabulous dancer Renjith Babu. Often seen as duet dancers - the young couple has been awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Prativa Puraskar of the nation jointly - it was a wise choice by the curator to present Vijna as a soloist in the festival as solo dancing offers the dancer an opportunity to prove one's potential. The three pieces that Vijna performed were thoughtfully and organically linked to portray the spiritual journey of a devotee from prayer to salvation. Commencing with a Tulasidas bhajan choreographed by C.V. Chandrasekhar as an invocation to Lord Ganesha, she moved to her husband Renjith's brilliant choreography of a poem penned by Mahakavi Bharatiyar about freedom that uses the metaphor of a sparrow for soul and concluded with the popular bhajan of sitar maestro Pandit Ravishankar - Prabhuji daya karo. Sublime would be the apt word to describe the dance and the dancer, who, literally, became the dance and lifted her audience on a spiritual journey along with her recital.

Rukmini Vijayakumar

With enough exposure to traditional and contemporary dance traditions in addition to the composite medium of cinema, Bengaluru based Rukmini Vijayakumar has established herself as a successful soloist since several years. She studied Bharatanatyam under great exponents like gurus Narmada, Padmini Rao and Sundari Santhanam and acquired degree from the Boston Conservatory in ballet and modern dance. She also studied acting at the New York Film Academy and acted in films. Performing on Sunday, when the whole world was celebrating Mother's Day, Rukmini aptly selected her choreography Devi Stuti, an ode to the divine mother, to suit the occasion. Her body kinetic coupled with her involved dancing and duly complemented by evocative music did justice to the powerful portrayal of commanding characters like Mahakali, Durga and Parvati.

Kuchipudi's fabulous five

Sreelakshmy Govardhanan

Of the nine dancers that the festival featured, Kuchipudi alone had the lion's share of five, apparently as the host has been a Kuchipudi dancer. However, to this writer, the curator's choice holds enough justification. Kuchipudi needs an aggressive promotion worldwide to project it at par with other popular Indian classical dance styles like Bharatanatyam, Kathak or Odissi. To achieve the mission, it has to project its potential dancers to attract more number of connoisseurs and promoters. Indeed, the first Resurgence performance series did this by including five such fabulous dancers who are set to keep the Kuchipudi flag flying high in future.

Hailing from the land of Kathakali and Mohiniattam where Bharatanatyam continues to be the first choice of majority of aspiring dancers, Thrissur based Sreelakshmy Govardhanan's saga of struggle and success as an exceptional Kuchipudi artiste has proved that sadhana matters the most to be the winner. Besides rising as a globetrotter solo dancer, coveted honours like the Kerala State Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Madras Music Academy Best Dancer Award and Adithya Vikram Birla Kalakiran Puraskar speak volumes of her achievements and future.

On Saturday, Sreelakshmy staged Soorpanakha that she has conceptualized and choreographed with a difference. Her Soorpanakha won hearts, aroused compassion and claimed respect from the rasikas. Unlike the popular notion that she was a wicked woman as the sister of demon Ravana, we came across an innocent and honest young woman whose natural desire was mocked at and whose beautiful face was deformed for expression of womanly love for a man "Can't a woman have desire?", the dancer-choreographer asked at last with a personal statement, "That's my Soorpanakha."

Amrita Lahiri

Amrita Lahiri, who also performed during the first day of the event, has established herself as a popular soloist at a relatively young age in addition to her reputation in arts management with prestigious institutions like NCPA in Mumbai. Growing up in the USA, she started at the tender age of seven under well-known exponent Anuradha Nehru and later got trained under stalwarts like Leela Samson and Jaikishore Mosalikanti in India. Quite fond of experimentations and innovations in her choreography, Amrita, presently based in Mumbai, presented two of her such much admired works on Saturday. Murchhana was the mystical story of Tungavidya who was transformed to the percussion instrument of mridanga by Krishna. It was the Kuchipudi adaptation of an Odia folklore that Odissi exponent Sharmila Biswas has discovered and choreographed in Odissi style. Amrita's Tillana set to raag Desh was experimentation with fusion of two distinctly different music genres - Carnatic and Rabindra Sangeet - with Kuchipudi dance tradition.

Prateeksha Kashi

Daughter and disciple of well-known Kuchipudi exponent Vyjayanthi Kashi, Bengaluru based Prateeksha Kashi has been a young achiever and thoroughly professional in her approach to her career. Winner of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Prativa Puraskar, she has played the lead roles in feature films Nitya Sumangali and Priyamanasam - world's third Sanskrit movie - that bagged the National Award. With early exposure to theatre, dance and cinema under the watchful eyes of her mother-guru who is known for her powerful portrayal of strong characters, Prateeksha's enactment of various characters has been eloquent and powerful. Her impressive portrayal of Chitrangada, the valiant queen of Manipur and wife of Arjun, an excerpt from her production 'Pratidhwani - Echoes from the Palace,' proved her inherent talent. Further, her meticulous design of the stage indicated her high degree of professionalism.

Bhavana Reddy

The younger torchbearer of the Reddy tradition, Bhavana Reddy, belonging to the New Delhi based celebrated Kuchipudi family of Raja-Radha-Kaushalya Reddy, has already been one of the youngest recipients of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Prativa Puraskar after her elder sister Yamini Reddy. Bhavana's choice of choreographies for the concert was unique that added to the attraction of the event. She selected two compositions which were exclusive to her famed parents as globetrotter popular performers, long before she was born. While her first presentation - Shiva's dance - had earned her father the title of Black God, the second one was poet Jayadev's ashtapadi "Kuru yadunandana" that had earned Radha Reddy much fame.

Pranamya Suri

Host Pranamya Suri was the lone dancer of the event whose principal profession has not been dance - a deliberate decision that she has already explained earlier through this write up. However, it was difficult to believe that despite the demanding profession of a doctor, especially in these trying times of the pandemic - she could excel in the multiple roles of the host-curator-anchor-performer. She even made her mark as a choreographer. Her concert comprised choreographies by both of her gurus - Jaikishore Mosalikanti and Shobha Naidu - apart from her own set to a Surdas bhajan.

Notwithstanding the inadequacies of the virtual medium that the artistes encountered during their live performances, all of them were unanimous in their appreciation for this debut initiative of HEART that was hosted for a noble and timely cause. The best compliments came from the last artiste of the series on Sunday - Bhavana Reddy. "What better way could it have been to be happy by dancing during this hour of distress!" she exclaimed as the event concluded.

A former journalist for cultural affairs with Indian Express and The Hindu for nearly 20 years, Shyamhari Chakra is a New Delhi based independent writer specializing in writing on dance.

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