An evening to remember
- Usha Ganesan
September 2, 2023
Uma Palam Pulendran returned to Chennai, her beloved hometown, for a special performance to commemorate her Arangetram that was held 30 years ago. Her repertoire consisted of some of the popular items exclusively in Tamil choreographed by her gurus. She began her performance with the Mallari in Naattai followed by "Devi neeye thunai" by Papanasam Sivan in Keeravani set to adi talam in praise of Goddess Meenakshi. The lyrics describe her birth, valor, boldness, and her charming beauty. According to mythology, she was born to King Malayadhvujan from the fire of the huge Yagam he conducted to have a child. Being the only child, she was trained in warfare, and she conquered many kingdoms. When she reaches Kailasa she instantly falls in love with Shiva - love at first sight. Uma's bhakti abhinaya was subtle yet deep in this uncomplicatedly and elegantly choreographed piece.
She presented "Sakhiye inda velayil", a Tanjore Ponnaiyya Pillai varnam in Ananda Bhairavi ragam set to adi talam. Separated from the lover, the Nayika (heroine) yearns to meet the latter and asks her Sakhi (friend) not to make a big fuss or be indifferent. She requests her to go and fetch her lord. The lyrics praise the glory of Rajagopala. Although Uma was dancing after a gap of a few years, she was able to hold her stamina and the ubiquitous araimandi (half-seated posture) well in her nritta.
Many poems of Bharathiyar are performed in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic concerts. One of the most popular ones is "Asai mukam". Often it is performed in lieu of a padam in Bharatanatyam performance as the Nayika is sad that she cannot remember the face of Krishna. Bharathi's analogies in this poem are highly imaginative and interpretative and are very suitable for exploration and varied interpretation in Bharatanatyam. The Nayika tries to draw the face of Krishna but had forgotten how he looks. She goes on to further compare the lotus to his eyes, his face to the shining moon, and his lips so red like the coral. She asserts that although she had forgotten his face, the depth of her love for him had not diminished even a bit. She questions, does a bee fly away from a flower or does the sunflower turn away from the sun, how can this happen to her? How can she forget her beloved? Uma performed this piece seated which gave her the ability to focus totally and immerse herself without hurried movements in the rasa bhava. Her facial expressions had such depth and soulfulness.
The Tillana that Uma performed is a well-known and signature choreography of the Dhananjayans where the sahityam has the dance institution Bharat Kalanjali mentioned. Tuned in ragam Behag and set to kanda chapu, it is a vibrant piece. One can clearly see Uma's strong foundational training in her clean lines accented with nuanced movements with maturity and grace.
The last piece termed by Uma as "Prayer for Humanity" which she herself had choreographed was a piece that had new interpretations for verses of the famous bhajan Maitreem Bhajatha. Written by scholar V. Raghavan and scored by Vasant Desai, it was first sung at the United Nations by M.S. Subbalakshmi. The new interpretations touched subtly and succinctly on current issues such as religion, gender, violence, war, mass shootings, laws or practices that bar certain people from entering countries or places of worship, and the spread of mis and disinformation. The piece concluded by urging all to remove the shackles of hatred. In this item, Uma brought her passion for social justice activism into dance.
The musical ensemble was led on the cymbals by none other than Acharya Shanta Dhananjayan, crisp and elegant, with Vishwajit Vinod on the vocals, Durga on the violin and Vishnu Prasad on the mridangam.
While introducing the dancer, Acharya V.P. Dhananjayan talked very fondly about his Sishya (student) and described her as a "multifaceted" personality detailing her double professions and passions. He also aptly noted that she did not get into the rat race of conducting numbers of Arangetrams that are usually presented so lavishly in the US. Uma spoke about her days at Bharata Kalanjali, beginning with how she first started there when she was a young fifteen-year-old and recollected some interesting anecdotes from her days during the '80s and '90s with a touch of humor. She made a point to say that she traveled 1 1/2 hours one way to dance class from her part of the town by bus spending a total of almost 5 hours per class. While thanking all those who made the event possible, Uma got emotional about her Guru Shanta Akka (as she addresses her) spending up to 3 hours every day the preceding week traveling an hour each way at the age of 80. It was lovely to see some of the alumni and the current students of Bharata Kalanjali coming together for this very joyful and emotional event.
Hailing from Chennai, Usha Ganesan had her Bharatanatyam training with Guru Ranganayaki Jayaraman, and is a head of Digital Learning at IIM Bangalore.