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Manas-The Charioteer Within
- Sheela Ramanath

May 14, 2023

On April 16, 2023, the audience witnessed a unique dance production, Manas - The Charioteer Within, conceptualized by Guru Sujatha Srinivasan, the director of Shri Kalaa Mandir. This was presented as a part of the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana festival.

I was intrigued by the name of the theme - "Manas - The Charioteer Within". Manas or mind is an abstract subject to begin with. Being a dance practitioner, naturally I was very curious to see the production. Bharatanatyam is one of the classical art forms that lends itself beautifully to be adapted to any theme or concept, be it mythological or historical or a theme that is contemporaneous in nature. Sujatha's versatility and novelty were evident in the way the entire production was conceived and executed.

The recital began with six exceptionally well trained dancers entering the stage; five of them as horses and one, the charioteer. Their costumes were aesthetically designed in such a way that while most part of the costume was uniform, only one part of the costume was of a different color for each dancer, depicting the five senses. The Panchendriyas or the five senses are constantly trying to outmanoeuvre us through their powerful force. Each of them tries to entice us and play tricks on our mind, while the mind (manas) tries to rein them all together. But, self-restraint is harder to practice than it appears. To conquer the five senses and to keep them under control requires tremendous will and self-control. The journey is an arduous one, each turn and twist posing a whole new challenge. How does this chariot navigate through these adversities?

Manas-The Charioteer Within

The mind is a complex device. It is constantly battling the vices that vie to take control of it through the Arishadvargas or Shadripu (six vices). They are Kaama (lust), Krodha (anger), Moha (desire or infatuation), Mada (arrogance), Lobha (greed), and Maatsarya (jealousy). Sujatha's choreography succinctly portrayed two vices in each of the three independent stories performed by her students.

The first story is a very popular Greek fable, 'The Midas Touch'. Engulfed by greed (Lobha) and desire/lust (Kaama), King Midas asks for a boon that would turn anything he touches to gold. The insatiable greed for gold and more gold ultimately leads to turning his own daughter into a golden statue. He realizes his foolishness and how he succumbed to the vices that led to his own detriment.

The second story was titled Dheera. A little girl dreams of achieving big in her life. The inclusion of the popular song "Chinnanjiru Kiliye" by Subramanya Bharatiyar was a brilliant touch. Being an ambitious one, she works extremely hard and is ready to face any difficulty that comes her way. As she continues to grow and achieve her goals at every stage, she realizes there are glass ceilings in society; she is shrouded by the ego (Mada) and arrogance of the men around her. The patriarchal society proves to be an impediment to her achievement. Frustrated, she breaks down and asks, "Where is the respect for women that is deserved?" Remembering her ideals and principles, she overcomes her internal insecurities and rises against the odds. She encourages others to unite with her to break the glass ceiling. The story takes a stand where women continue to struggle for their rights even to this day. It ends with a question - will there be equality in the society?

The last story was about immigration and the refugee crisis. It was an interesting take in addressing a very pertinent issue and weaving it through the tapestry of the last two vices, Moha (infatuation) and Krodha (anger). The infatuation of wanting to leave one's land and go to a different land for whatever reason is certainly not without its own share of obstacles. Mother earth does not discriminate. She is a giver; yet, we find people hustling every day, claiming a piece of land as their own, shunning others from entering their land. We see division, anger, chaos, and discrimination associated with it. If only we learn to live as one big family, being empathetic to one another, and embracing each other's differences, the world would be a better place. The stories were choreographed with a lot of thought. The impact was felt by one and all.

Manas-The Charioteer Within - Sujatha Srinivasan
Sujatha Srinivasan

Sujatha Srinivasan performed a solo piece, Dasha Sloki composed by Adi Shankaracharya, and tuned by R.K. Sriramkumar. The ten verses that highlight the metaphysical aspect of Brahman were portrayed vividly. It speaks about the Atman in its purest form devoid of all attachments or forms. It is not attached to any religion or caste, nor is it of any color. The soul is nothing but a divine light and that is Shiva, the Self. The choice of this dance elucidated that one must rise above all the worldly attachments, shun the vices and seek the ultimate truth.

The recital ended with the charioteer steering the horses reminding us of our life's journey. This journey will go on forever, as it has been for eons. The mind, as a charioteer, should steer our senses in the right direction, control them, and use them only for the right reasons and in the right measure. Only then, would one lead a life of noble virtue. A production of this level of complexity cannot be elucidated without going into the nuances of it. However, I have made a humble attempt to capture it in a nutshell and to the best of my knowledge.

It takes not only skill and mastery of the craft to form an abstract concept such as this, but a high level of intellectual capability to weave stories with clarity that are relatable. The English commentary narrated by Ami Majumdar was interspersed between each of the episodes. Majumdar articulated the concept beautifully without breaking the flow of the production. To communicate such a complex subject within the span of an hour and that too without compromising the integrity of the art is commendable. Many eminent musicians have contributed in creating this riveting production. 'Manas - The Charioteer Within' is a work of high caliber that needs to be "experienced".

The concept, choreography, and direction are by Guru Sujatha Srinivasan and Shriya Srinivasan. The credit for musical composition and arrangement goes to Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan, T.M. Krishna, Sujatha Srinivasan, Shriya Srinivasan, Lalit Subramaniam, T.V. Ramprasad. The principal dancers were Sujatha Srinivasan, Shriya Srinivasan, Nithya Kasibhatla, Sita Vakkalanka, Pooja Vallampati, Janaki Nair, and Sneha Upadhyayula. The junior dancers were Athmika Raghav, Medha Iyer, Hima Teegala, and Rhea Anil.

Sheela Ramanath
Sheela Ramanath is a dance practitioner and educator based out of Virginia, US. She runs Kalavaridhi Center for Performing Arts. Sheela holds a masters degree in Bharatanatyam.

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