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The Loving Rivals
- Prachi Saathi
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May 28, 2022

Tamrapatra series

One afternoon I got a call from Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant, inviting me as a guest writer and observer for 'Tamrapatra' series. The name caught my attention instantly. Not knowing what to expect I nervously accepted the invitation. Month after month, the series unfolded shades and hues of all things Annamacharya such as literature, scholarship, imagery, imagination. It gave us a glimpse of the metaphorical world of Annamayya's poetic genius. His songs abound in detailed description of nature, characters, beauty, psychological effects of characters and much more. The Tamrapatra series spilled gems and experiences for students of natyam which they can carry for a lifetime. This series is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully curated, designed and executed online ventures which came to life during the pandemic, brainchild of the dynamic Dr.Ananda Shankar Jayant and team Natyarambha.

For those who haven't heard or read about it, Tamrapatra is a yearlong series of learning rare Annamacharya Sankeerthanas composed by well-known musician Sathiraju Venumadhav; with abhinaya envisioned and taught by leading dancers across dance styles. One has the unique opportunity to add to one's repertoire rare works of the 15th century poet. The icing on the cake is that renowned dance scholar, Dr Anupama Kylash, presents an in-depth analysis of the literature of the songs which in itself is like a treasure trove of imagery and propels our artistic imagination in diverse directions. She is absolutely brilliant when it comes to dissecting compositions and what is endearing is how she explains it with this childlike enthusiasm. Adding to this, senior dancers and gurus from the firmament of Indian classical dance - Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant, Dr. Anita Ratnam, Dr. Anupama Kylash, Bragha Bessell, Deepika Reddy, Geeta Chandran, Gopika Varma, Dr. Methil Devika, Rama Vaidyanathan, Sathyanarayana Raju, Sharmila Biswas, Vaibhav Arekar - across the dance styles of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Mohiniattam and Neo Bharatam, create and teach their unique abhinaya choreography exclusively to registered participants for Tamrapatra.

The 11th Annamayya composition:
savatainā nāpe melu sari nīkanṭe,
avala nāpe ceppinaṭṭe seyavayyā
She is my rival, yes, she is still, better than you!
It would do you good to follow her advice!

Bragha Bessell
Bragha Bessell

It was choreographed by none other than Bragha Bessell, the doyen of abhinaya and one of the few gurus who is carrying forward the precious legacy of revered Kalanidhi Narayanan. Bragha is known for her nuanced abhinaya which is so subtle, so relatable, so real, yet adhering to the tenets of the art form.

Being a huge fan of hers, I was eagerly looking forward to this session for many reasons but the primary reason being that the composition that was chosen for her was a very unique one dealing with polygamy, involving the so called "other woman." You may ask why this is unique because this is a common concept when it comes to compositions in the Bharatanatyam repertoire, but this particular composition showcases the two women on very friendly terms with each other and that is something one hasn't seen before. The title read "The loving rivals" hence my enthusiasm heightened even more to hear from Bragha Bessell as to how she would treat this complex relationship. To my utter surprise, she in her very impish and approachable manner confessed how difficult it was for her to arrive at the sthayibhava. As a student of dance, her confession gave me a glimpse of her struggle to arrive at that point where she was convinced about how she wanted to portray their relationship and made me feel how even at this stage of her career she spends sleepless nights to strike that one chord. She shared that after days of mulling over the sahitya, one day a line just struck her like a flash of lightning and something unlocked for her and things just started falling in place. More than learning the choreography, what excited me were these revelations and her artistic discoveries that led her to arriving at the depiction.

Coming to the composition, when one reads the sahitya there are so many things that seem inappropriate and questionable in today's context. Anupama Kylash explained the existence of polygamy and polyandry being the basic essential characteristics of any indigenous culture. Even the Abhinaya Darpanam shows sa-patni hasta in the baandhav hasta establishing the existence of these relations. Several husbands and wives has been a common concept to tribal cultures connected to land and fertility. This explanation made me comfortable about why Annamayya would have penned these verses.

But in spite of hearing all of this, I was still curious to see how Bragha Bessell would expound this piece which is not going to show 'the other woman' in a negative light. They are not antagonistic towards each other. On the contrary this uttama nayika speaks highly of the other woman / wife and praises her. The biggest challenge also lies that the piece will be presented to an audience of the contemporary timeline where polygamy is condemned.

To begin with, Bragha Bessell said beautifully, "We need to switch off from the current concept and scenario and go back to that timeline and then it's easy to accept it. They are not ordinary human beings but devatas." After that opening note the following 2 days were complete anandam soaking into the beautiful ideas that Bragha kept sharing line after line. Her sancharis took us into a world that she wove around these characters. With such ease and simplicity she developed these 3 characters making us feel as though this is the best way to portray them. She unfolded layers and layers of each emotion experienced by the characters, my most favourite being how she showed Sreedevi and Lord Venkateswara being one soul by depicting them playing a veena together. That was an 'Aha' moment for each one of us. I also marvelled at how she brought out the significance of Bhoodevi in Lord Venkateswara's life by reminding him of her constant support and presence in fulfilling each of his avatars. We all sat there starry eyed as Bragha Bessell in her warm and exuberant style delineated the most profound ideas leaving us wanting more. What she shared with all of us that day will take a long time to understand and internalize. Like slow cooking it needs to seep in and assimilate.

Bragha not only explained how she read the lines but also what Annamayya propounded in between the lines. Anita Ratnam (in the Tamrapatra Conversations that preceded the session) also beautifully expressed "how the two women in this piece negotiate the space for each other. The fullness of experience although they know that they are sharing him." And she ended by adding that, "only the complexity of a woman can handle this complex emotion."

Tamrapatra series

On a lighter note, Anupama Kylash also shared how she on purpose aptly chose this challenging piece for Bragha Bessell. I would also like to acknowledge the singer M.S. Ananthasree who gave beautiful vocal support through the session, bringing to life this beautiful composition in Madhyamavathi ragam by the late Sathiraju Venumadhav.

The closing notes were shared with clarity, precision and passion by Aravinth Kumarasamy. He succinctly articulated all our thoughts and also threw light on certain observations which made us appreciate the experience even more. He described Tamrapatra as a divine 'Yagna' held each month where each one is blessed by Lord Venkateswara, Annamayya and Natyam and ended by complimenting Ananda Shankar Jayant and her team for setting a huge benchmark for a wonderfully curated year long series.

Tamrapatra is truly the most beautiful offering at the lotus feet of Annamacharya and I feel blessed to partake in this experience.

Session highlights

Prachi Saathi
Prachi Saathi is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and a professional voice artiste. Prachi is also the creator of the YouTube series Raaz Riyaaz Ka highlighting the importance of riyaaz in classical dance.

Congratulations, Ananda Shankar Jayant, for this amazing series conceived and curated with so much attention to detail - you have set a template and benchmark for an online learning experience for dance.
Congratulations, Anupama Kylash, for explaining the many nuanced layers of the composition of Annamayya - a boon for dancers and young aspiring choreographers to understand the importance of seeking the intention of the poet, and the key messages within the composition.
Congratulations, Bragha Bessell, for the inspiring session and sharing your wealth of experience as a master choreographer of abhinaya - this session unravelled the importance of extending one's imagination taking off from the poet's ideas, establishing the sthayi of the composition and the nayika and most importantly creating an opportunity for the audience to experience rasanubhava. What a treat indeed.
Thank you for taking all of us into the magical mind of Annamayya and into the mystical world of Venkateswara and Alamelu Manga.
Wishing Ananda and Natyarambha many more successful initiatives in propagating our rich art forms and enabling our next generations of performers and creators.
- Aravinth Kumarasamy

What a beautiful portrayal, Bragha akka!!
Was so struck by how easily and simply you brought the content through. My pranaams!
- Methil Devika

OMG! Absolutely astonishing session all round - Bragha, Anupama, Aravinth! Heart, soul and mind are full and swirling. Have to digest and revert.
- Chitra Sundaram

Hi, Bragha, just saw your TP session. Lots of little KBH (kyaa baat hai) moments - BUT oh my that ending! Total goosebumps! How you tied the idea to the concepts from Dasavatara segments was sheer GENIUS! What an imagination and ability to connect thoughts and ideas into a neo avatar! I LOVED it. You are a true original!
And Anupama, as usual you keep surprising me with newer and newer perspectives. I think that at some point I am going to hear something from before ... but you always have something new to give. After TP, I am changing your A for Anupama to A for Akshayapatra.
Thank you, Ananda, for generously sharing these sessions with those of us who can't join live.
- Ramaa Bharadvaj

Such good work you are putting out for the dance fraternity, Ananda, with Tamrapatra. The students as well as all of us get to listen to Anupama's beautiful and knowledgeable explanations and the different perspectives of each choreographer. Really enjoyed the session, Bragha. Keep up the good work, Ananda and Anupama.
- Minal Prabhu

My salute to Ananda garu and Anupama garu for this wonderful Tamrapatra series. Bragha akka, I have no words to express my feelings. You are outstanding…would love to meet you in person and express my appreciation.
- Sathyanarayana Raju

Bragha, really enjoyed. Anupama, as usual, you are superb. Thanks, Ananda.
- Sharmila Biswas

Quite an unusual sankeertana, once again beautifully interpreted by Anupama with so much background info and passion. And such a sensitive portrayal by you, Bragha- your sweetness indeed shines through your characterization of Sridevi, the prelude and finishing avatara sections so original and beautiful. Loved every sanchari too. Thank you so much for sharing this lovely composition and choreography. And thanks to Ananda for bringing all these wonderful artistes together for the sessions.
- Mythili Kumar

Bragha akka, thank you very much for that mind blowing session! You transported us…
Congratulations Ananthashree. What a beautiful voice…
Ananda akka, can't thank you enough for this experience.
- Aditi Rao

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