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Shri Kalaa Mandir affirms Bharatanatyam's storytelling prowess
- Ganga L. Srinivas
Photos: Jeff Norman

April 8, 2022

Artistic director Sujatha Srinivasan and her troupe Shri Kalaa Mandir presented 'Vivarta / Transformations' as one half of the 'Worlds Allied' program at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio on March 25th that played to a satisfyingly full auditorium, especially in these times. Vivarta goes from the Big Bang to the climate perturbations we are living through, in a choreography that never had a dull moment. The second half of the program was 'FEAST: a ballet' that merged visual art and dance to more narrowly explore the colonial exploitation and the culture of consumption.

Can Bharatanatyam speak to the modern audience without losing its identity? This production answers with an emphatic 'yes'. There was no compromise in the technique or the music.

Vivarta / Transformations

It is easy to feel dissociated from the consumption that has driven the overuse of resources. We speak in passive voice and in the third person, and the conversation either devolves into someone else's problem, or feels too big to be handled by each of us. Sujatha's choreography will have none of that. Bharatanatyam is designed to pull in the audience to savour, and at its highest, the audience should become one with the artiste and the story. Sujatha's choreography used the full vocabulary to draw us into the wonder of the creation of heavenly bodies and evolution as fish emerge from churning waters and forests teem with birds and deer and elephants. We rejoice with farmers enjoying bountiful harvest. And then are too enmeshed to distance ourselves when the same dancers move the story forward to greater and greater wants that culminate in relentless exploitation. By using dance phrases that for generations have conveyed the despair of Draupadi and the wrath of Kali with immediacy, Sujatha as Mother Earth makes us feel the destruction of Earth at the same time we identify with the despoiler. The result is hair-raising cognitive dissonance.

Sujatha Srinivasan
Sujatha Srinivasan

Guru Sujatha has taken Bharatanatyam's most often used devices to create a fresh, mesmerizing, powerful narrative to tell this very contemporary story of the consequence of heedless human manipulations of the environment.The depictions are powerful, and unsettling, reminding us that we are complicit, and that those terrible rampaging figures represents each one of us in the audience.

Music by the eminent violinists Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi GJR Vijayalakshmi and backed by what sounds like a full orchestra of Indian instruments, was an excellent complement. Assistant choreographer Shriya Srinivasan's narration between scenes carried the audience forward in the narrative without condescension.

Did I mention that the troupe did not lose an ounce of their tradition? Shri Kalaa Mandir's senior dancers are a tribute to the Vazhuvoor tradition of their Guru. The talented cast of Shriya Srinivasan, Nithya Kasibhatla, Sita Vakkalanka, Janaki Nair, Pooja Vallampati, Sudhiksha Ramesh, Sneha Upadhyayula, Yuvha Karthikeyan and Sristi Ithychanda brought the music alive, and their abhinayam was beguiling. All the dancers, junior and senior, had really crisp synchronous footwork, and one could see in the younger dancers the foundations that would mature into the expertise we saw in their seniors. The harmony is remarkable in that the young ladies who are senior dancers are also accomplished scientists, each living in a different state.

Vivarta / Transformations

One final note - It was a delight to see the conveniences of the modern stage put to good use. The sound was great, and the production made excellent use of lighting to really frame the pieces and the mood. This element of modernism only serves to polish Bharatanatyam's beauty when used as a complement to virtuosity instead of as a gimmick or a crutch for mediocrity.

Ganga Lakshmi Srinivas
Ganga Lakshmi Srinivas is a practicing pediatrician living in the Greater Cleveland area in Ohio with an abiding interest in the Indian performing arts from growing up in a family that reveres music.

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