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Margazhi Shorts: Margazhi Medley
- Chitra Mahesh

December 27, 2023

December started with a bang.

An idea that wowed all those who were present simply because the real superstars came out shining and bright bringing cheer to a city getting ready to celebrate the December Music and Dance season in the only way it knows - the Margazhi Magic.

However and whatever may be the resolutions about bad traffic, too many programmes etc etc, almost all those who love this time find themselves heading to one Sabha or the other. Grumbling, straggling in any manner but go they will. So do I! You just cannot escape the rush of events, the lineup and the morning madness of bhajans and lec dems and super heavy breakfasts (not to forget the Sabha sapad and sleeping during concerts). If you want it all, then you just go for it hammer and tongs. Actually all that frenzy is really the best part!

Marvelous Margazhi
Marvelous Margazhi

For me, the season burst open on December 1, when singers, instrumentalists and dancers took Centre stage with Event Arts curated Marvelous Margazhi a high voltage event by Lakshmi Ravichander and Saraswathi Krishnakumar, a truly lovable duo. Instead of getting film stars to walk the ramp as the temptation might be, they requested stars of the classical dance and music fraternity (Vikku Vinayakram, Padma Subrahmanyam, Vyjayantimala Bali, Aruna Sairam, Sudha Raghunathan, Priyadarsini Govind, Sandeep Narayanan and many, many others) to don silk bling saris, elaborate glitzy jewellery, shiny kurtas and angavastrams and a swag that came despite never having done something like this before. They walked, sashayed and danced, made cutesy gestures as some came as couples. Their music and the mudras of the dancers showed how much they appreciated the appreciation from the invited audience. They were all just getting geared up for the days ahead.

And then the appearance of the cyclone! Call it whatever one wants, but its whole intention to destroy the city and pretty much raze it to the ground was achieved. As the winds howled and cut down trees and rendered animals homeless and wet, the copious rains filled the city with many many rivers and pools of knee deep water mixed with sewage water. Flooded roads, houses, people stuck all over, potholes overflowing and gushing sewage and rain water seemed to set the tone for a no-festival demeanour.

But pass it did - it left behind a bad taste, fearful memories (water has memories fyi) and one didn't quite know if shows were going to be cancelled or carried on. But the show must go on - as the days passed and the city limped back to some sort of regularity, the Sabhas went on to prepare for the zillion artistes who had been tightly packed and scheduled right through the day. It was and is business as usual!

Ensemble in Sushupthi
Ensemble in Sushupthi

Sushupthi - Universe Evolves Bliss by The Namargam Dance Company at the Narada Gana Sabha is somewhat linked to what set December off in my head. An idea that took birth during Covid, it was developed over the next few years into the core of what is The Dashavataram. Not deliberately, but the idea of Creation and Disruption and Evolution that embodies the State of Everything, was dealt with by Krithika Subrahmanian. Maha Vishnu - "the Great Universe - I am the seed of all existence - there is no being moving or still, that exists without Me" was put together in a production using sound, light, music and dance to show Vishnu in cycles of Creation, Disruption and Evolution. All the Avatars but for the last one, Kalki, was showcased using Chauu dancers and others - parts of it abstract and parts of it using the Margam and the visual imagery of Bharatanatyam.

Krithika Subrahmanian
Krithika Subrahmanian

What caused it to be a visual spectacle were the lighting (Murugan using many shades of blue), the energetic dancers using props, and an attempt to use the mindscape to bring out movements forming several tableaus, stances and silhouettes. Music by Rajkumar Bharathi was one of the highlights of the production with some lovely vocals by G Srikanth, Keerthana, Vasudha Ravi, Kalpalathika. Director and producer Krithika Subrahmanian says. "Evolution and Ecology is a cyclic cosmic reality of creation, disruption, destruction and renewal. Much of it is recorded for posterity in mythology, venerated. The Devas as conformists, Asuras as disrupters, all added to the essential evolutionary process. Maha Vishnu and his Avatarams are a grand spectacle of materiality ever changing and manifest. It is inspiring and cathartic to express my beliefs that evolving sustainable ecology and natural energy balance are the way to a positive future for mankind."

Going to Krishna Gana Sabha has the usual challenges of intense traffic and finding it difficult to reach on time especially being a Mylaporean. But persistent and a dogged desire to see Spanda by Leela Samson led me to that space in T Nagar, where shoppers shop along with strollers and two wheelers and what not. Once seated, the whole production with its classic, clean, geometric lines was worth all the trouble getting there. The Varnam was impeccably performed by the group of students who Leela mentors and teaches and a lot of times it looked like a beautiful flower unfolding.

Afternoon shows - dance or music, have people trickling in post lunch. One supposes that this calm atmosphere, the air conditioning and the general darkness lulls most of them to sleep. It was so at the Narada Gana Sabha especially in the side and back rows for Aryamba Sriram, a recipient of the KS Subramanian Endowment, a young Kalakshetra student whose performance was visually very pleasing. Every item chosen was pleasant for the way she adhered to the style and sobriety.

What draws V Balakrishnan to the kind of themes he promotes? This is something I have been meaning to ask him for a while. Without fail, he sends out invites for the plays he does with such consistency and at the Alliance Francaise that I felt compelled to ask. They tend to be a bit dark (an assumption perhaps) and women centric is what I feel!
"I am drawn to conflicts that are multi layered, reflecting all aspects of human endeavour. Theatre Nisha has always had more women - and that has facilitated working on plays and stories which they have been felt closer to."

Do you find doing Theatre tough?
"I find solace in it. It makes me find purpose for myself to get up each morning."

And what are the challenges in these?
"Space and money have always been major factors, but we have learnt to embrace their challenges and continue work."

Have you felt that you could enter the film field and probably get better traction for your work?
"Films take too much time and the process is slow. I do not have the patience for it. Theatre keeps me dynamic and alive from its seed to the last show."

What next?
"Relentless, is a new play I have written in English and Exit Wounds is another to be done in Tamil. I am also writing Grave, which has the final resting place of Dara Shuko as its subject."

V. Balakrishnan is an alumnus of Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts (New Delhi) and the National School of Drama (New Delhi), is the founder and artistic director of Theatre Nisha (Chennai), and has staged over 130 plays in the past 23 years under its banner. He was awarded the Charles Wallace Scholarship to attend an International Residency for Young Directors with the Royal Court Theatre, London. He has directed over 210 plays, acted in over 160 plays and written more than 30 plays. 10 of his plays have been published by Zero Degree Publications and Dhauli Books. He won The Hindu Playwright Award 2019 for 'Sordid' and the Sultan Padamsee Award for Playwriting 2022 for 'God's Will'. In 2023, he won the Being Association's Samhita Manch 2023 (English category) and is one of the two selected playwrights for Bhasha Centre and Goethe Institute's @Brecht 2023.

Why She Did What She DidWhy She Did What She Did
Photos: Sivanesan

This whole conversation also came up with him as Why She Did What She Did was staged. Based on Medea, the Greek tragedy written by Euripides directed by Shakthi Ramani who holds a Masters in English Literature and a Diploma in Movement Arts and Mixed Media from Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bangalore. She has been an actor with Theatre Nisha for 12 years now and has participated in over 40 plays. Her debut direction was Bhasa's 'Urubhangam' that premiered in 2019. She recently directed the Tamil translation of Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Tin Soldier and the Paper Ballerina for the Goethe Institut's regional project 'Contemporary German Drama in South-Asian Languages'.

"This story is because Bala wanted me to perform Medea for almost 3 years now. The fact that she reflects the darkness in all of us is the point of engagement. Life enriches everything we bring to the stage; the fuel is from every day of all aspects of life. We continue working on more shows and more plays for 2024, both solo and ensemble."

Why She Did What She Did centres around the actions of Medea, a former princess of the kingdom of Colchis, and the wife of Jason; she finds her position in the Greek world threatened as Jason leaves her for a Greek princess of Corinth. Medea takes vengeance on Jason by murdering his new wife as well as her own two sons, after which she escapes to Athens to start a new life. There is an entirely distinctive side going on along with the music and dance and lecture demonstrations all over Chennai.

G Ramanathan
G Ramanathan

And then at Vani Mahal, was the really lovely saxophone concert by G Ramanathan that I didn't think would turn out so good. I didn't expect a crowd either as from four in the audience it swelled to over 75 for the 4pm slot. While this instrument sounds beautiful when a note is held for long - in its soft sensuous manner, doing the gamakas and swaras shows the grip and talent in handling the instrument with panache. Many times, the violinist (Suresh Babu) and the main artiste went off key and they had to keep coaxing the notes to be in order. It was one of the most satisfying concerts I have attended so far. The Devi Neeye Thunai in Keeravani was beautifully rendered with long alapanais interspersed with swaras just as the Varnam in Abhogi skipped along joyously. Basically this concert did not allow anyone to fall asleep. The tabla interludes (Sunder) added much to the flavour along with the wafting scents of the bajjis and masala dosas in the canteen close by.

Hareen Loganathan
Hareen Loganathan
(Photo: A Prathap)

The last day of the Natya Darshan curated by Roja Kannan had a stunning display of mastery over the art form in someone so young. It was Ramli Ibrahim's student, Hareen Loganathan who etched out Odissi in the most impeccable manner. Talk about clean lines, energy and the display of great mentorship and teaching, this boy did more than justice to what he has been taught. The compering was by Ramli in a manner of gentle drama and the student outlined the Navarasas with some stories of Rama, Ravana and then moved on to the Dashavataram (seems to be the favourite this season, just saying). Every movement and gesture done had everyone in the audience awestruck. It spoke loads about his discipline and adherence to the Master by way of training inculcated in him. Each of the Avatars garnered plenty of applause, but the last one of Hareen galloping across the stage as Kalki, is still in my mind's view. How amazing it was to watch!

Janaki Rangarajan
Janaki Rangarajan

The phrase - Lightness of Being - came to my mind as I found another gem in Janaki Rangarajan, who presented her take on Andal at the Krishna Gana Sabha. The loss of her grandmother, who had been a steadying and strong force in her life, is something she had written about on her Facebook page. It was one of the saddest stories to read when she lost someone so precious. The grief was so palpable, and I recall feeling so incredibly moved by her account of her love for her grandmother. But through it all - as we wade through grief - something beautiful emerges and her production was dedicated to her, she danced for close to 2 hours nonstop, without falling short of sloppy moments or drooping fatigue.

"It has been 2 years in the works since I was first introduced to this amazing text by Sri Surendranath, who was also instrumental in a nuanced understanding of the text. Once I had a fairly good understanding of the text, I chose a few select verses from Chapter 5 (it is a huge text) to just focus on and highlight Andal's journey as imagined by Krishnadevaraya - which is quite different from what is usually rendered when it comes to Andal and also, absolutely exquisite in terms of imageries! Next was to create music that brought out the essence of the words and the context - Hence, the use of Graha Bhedham and Sruthi Bhedham at appropriate points. I also wanted to experiment with the Margam format to see if I can weave this into that format without losing the essence of what was conveyed. However, I did not consciously intend it to be without breaks - It just happened as I started choreographing. I just could not, rather did not want to break. It was a challenge to go 2 hours at a stretch without a sip of water or a quick stretch but this was something that excited me to see how far I can push my boundaries as a dancer. It was a great learning experience, mind and body and I am thankful to all those who have collaborated with me during this process, especially Sri Surendranath, who guided me during the initial stages to make sure I really understood the poet's intent with every word that was used; music composers Rohith Bhat and Nandini Anand, who stepped up to creating music according to my very, very specific requests and of course, the musicians who accompanied me on stage.

When it comes to stamina- I just practice which I do continuously for at least 3-4 hours every day, of course with short water breaks. However, this is the first time, I have performed 2 hours on stage without any break and even though it was tough at first, it is amazing to see how the body adapts with time!"

She chose to use a Krishnadevaraya poetry loosely based on the Margam format - right from Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Varnam and so on that seamlessly worked upon the personality of Andal and her devotion to the Lord. The Dashavataram came about through the eyes and emotions of Andal weaving in her own life running parallel to her longing for the Lord who came in 10 different ways to save the world. Her style is a bit different in the way she executes her nritta (very aligned, geometric, precise, energetic without being acrobatic). Altogether, it looks rather like poetry in motion. She had a great accompanying team who performed equally well. I really hope to see more of her in Chennai.

Chitra Mahesh is a senior journalist based in Chennai.

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