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Margazhi Shorts: Margazhi Medley -2
- Chitra Mahesh

January 7, 2023

In this entire December Delights, I went for a show much earlier than expected and ended up being rather enthralled by the last bit of Ramya Ramnarayan's recital at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I managed to catch the Thillana, a lovely, lively piece by Dr Balamurlikrishna in Ahir Bhairavi that as Ramya said, had touches of Kathak (an explorative move for her).

Ramya Ramnarayan
Ramya Ramnarayan

Somehow this blend added to the energy of the piece done with such neatness and verve, that I wished I had seen her entire programme, Lila -The Divine Play. Ramya, a US based Bharatanatyam artiste, has tutored students there and a few here, impeccably. The costume in shades of purple and pink was visually very appealing, and their formations and synchronized movements gave the Thillana a sheen being smooth and seamless but emotional in its content. Ramya Ramnarayan began learning at the early age of 4 from SK Rajarathnam Pillai and then Kalanidhi Narayanan and is one among 9 artistes in the state of NJ to have participated in the Dodge Dance Lab, part of Dance residency 2022/2023, a teaching laboratory to recommend, design, revise, structure, and implement culturally responsive strategies for better student learning at the NJ public schools to impact elementary dance education. As the Artistic Director of Nrithyanjali, Ramya has taken leadership roles to help the community during times of need. Over the years she has raised over $200,000 for various charities. According to her, post mid-30's, a dancer needs to move out of exacting grammar and the efforts on the body towards content and connect. While it's important to keep the body trim and flexible, maintain the grammar at its perfect best, it is imperative to take the content and rendition to another level to be able to connect with the rasika and get the rasika in turn to receive that experience that moves them and remains with them forever.

Waking up Free
Waking up Free

Lavanya Rajagopalan's Waking Up Free narrates India's journey for Independence and the celebration of the heroes who made it all happen - all through the use of the Margam. Right from the early days of the rebellion of suppression to pre-colonial India, oppression of the British Raj, to the hard hitting stories of the non-violent resistance, each item had at its core, the conventional repertoire of Bharatanatyam. The stories narrated also had the diversity and progress in present-day India showing that you can take up any theme and use the idiom of the classical dance form -- the sancharis and the abhinaya. Case in point, the Jallianwala Bagh episode! No matter what and how it is done this is an emotional part of history where the angst and the terrifying violence come across strongly. Along with Priya Murle and students, Lavanya Rajagopalan and students, Shri Silambam Academy of Fine Arts here and that of Silambam, Houston, it seemed like a timely reminder for the need for World Peace through the song Shanti Nilava Vendum. I thought right now, that is what is most needed! With lyrics by Nirmala Jayaraman, music composition and direction by Nandini Anand, it was a solid team of musicians who enabled the life of the choreography and direction by Priya Murle and Dr. Lavanya Rajagopalan.

Anitha Guha's disciples

Anitha Guha's disciples
Anitha Guha's disciples

Any production of Anitha Guha is splendid to watch for the pure joy of superb dancing by the students and the impeccable symmetry with which they execute their stances and footwork. Add to that the stories and themes this Guru (very unpretentious and upfront about what she knows she can do well) takes up, appeals to lay audiences as well as those who are following the dance world either as teachers or students. Whether it is The Ramayana or Srinivasa or Krishna, every bit of the production (costumes, props, crowns and jazzy jewels etc.) is driven with a passion for perfection and eye candy elements.

Parishvanga Pattabhishekam performed for Indian Fine Arts at the Ethiraj Kalyana Mandapam which when I asked, Anitha said, "It is such a basic stage - there is nothing there, do you still want to come?" Frankly, the perfection of a great stage or performance space being absent didn't make an iota of difference to the quality of the dance and the way her students performed. The audience was huge - overflowing as a matter of fact - and the compering of Revathi Shankaran and her little bits of wisdom and sayings had the audiences glued to their plastic seats right till the end, never mind that it was approaching 9.30pm. Kishkinda and Sundara Kandams were the focus of this presentation - the cries of Rama Jaya Jaya Rama seemed the right sentiments for those present as the year coming to a close and the opening of the Ram temple at Ayodhya were imminent!

A conversation at the Natya Kala Conference 2023 at the Krishna Gana Sabha at the coffee queue midday went like this:
Let's have coffee!
Not coffee, it's Kaapi
Kaapi? The Ragam?
No silly, it's Kaapi
- pointing to the hapless person behind the coffee counter waiting for the conversation to get over to take their orders.

The festive air like last time, made Krishna Gana Sabha a must do for those interested in dance and dance thingies - even if just to linger about talking, trying to shop at the stalls put up outside the auditorium - saris, dance saris, temple jewellery, bags, blouses what have you, eating, bonding or just being seen! It is also about what goes on inside that made it a draw for the theme was to honor and place an Ode to the late Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan and to bring out the old as the new! The Conference that ran through the gamut of topics - from pure dance to states to countries to art and artistes across the board had sessions of varying degrees of interest quality and distinction. The ones very meaningful for me were: Sohini Chakraborty, Hrishikesh Pawar and Ambika Kameshwar - not just because they are artistes par excellence, but because of what they do, can do and will continue to do for those who need it for their well-being and happiness. I am truly grateful for such mentors for they make the world a better place with empathy and dedication.

Sohini Chakraborty
Sohini Chakraborty (Photo courtesy: NKC)

'Diary of a Dance Healer: Dance Movement Therapy for Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Well Being' by Sohini Chakraborty was heartwarming for the way she works with children and young adults. An Ashoka Fellow, Sociologist, Dance Activist and Dance Movement Therapist, she is the Founder Director, Kolkata Sanved. She has authored the 'Dance Movement Therapy Psychosocial Rehabilitation - the Sampoornata model' and her work is all about freedom, change, liberation, gender violence, saving lives through dance.

Sampoornata takes up all kinds of breathing techniques, rhythm, meditation, choreography and the entire psychosocial process - the DMT, a diploma programme with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and has authored many papers and books, won accolades and awards for her innovative leadership. Everything done involves practice for healing, well-being, empowerment focused approach, a feminist model, about the body not being objectified and a whole lot of things where this can be a Collective Care Space for awareness and co-creation as per the prevalent culture. Many clips were shown to demonstrate these ideas and towards the end when they asked the audience to get up and join in the movements the energy palpably shifted. "See the world with these eyes - Is man se hum sabko pyaar karte hain and say thank you to the whole body," explained Sohini and her student.

Hrishikesh Pawar
Hrishikesh Pawar (Photo courtesy: NKC)

'Some Dance to Remember Some Dance to Forget- Pursuit to make Dance Education Accessible to Seniors Living with Parkinsons' by Hrishikesh Pawar was powerful in the way he showed how he worked. It cannot be easy as the motivation, overcoming the difficulty and the desire to conquer the inertia to do classes regularly, are challenges they face every day. But then when they see and understand how much fun and joy they can have with movements, it spurs them on! The session was all about showing the step by step process of working with an ageing population - not many would want or are inclined to do so - especially those with cognitive issues. The movements include warm up routines, Kathak and Contemporary movements, cardio and choreographic routines. His bio is super impressive but what stood out was his empathy and love for what he does and his constant efforts to make the world a better place somehow!

As the Artistic Director of Centre for Contemporary Dance, Pune, Hrishikesh Pawar has learnt Kathak under Rohini Bhate, a journey that led to Palucca Hochschule, Germany, Guru Neelima Adhye, visiting Faculty Memer at NID, Interdisciplinary Dance University, Berlin, FTII and Riverside School in Ahmedabad, a speaker at TEDX and an affiliation with the Mark Morris Dance Group (especially to work with those with Parkinsons and the great impact all of this has on those he tutors and mentors). There is a qualitative difference to their lives. He started with making everyone get up and move around with great joy actually and after everyone settled down satisfied and happy having literally stretched their body and legs, he said in the course of his presentation, "If I have a skill, I can do great things. How do I talk to people about ownership? Leadership? Address loneliness? I want to be their friend, not parent."

"Years ago, when I started work on Parkinsons afflicted people, I observed, understood and figured out how I can address balance and stability and also how do I Indianize these movements for the 70 and 80-year olds? Initially the classes were in the hospital itself but then later shifted out of it into a dance studio. We have not medicalized what we do." The loveliest way of ending this truly gripping session was the passing of a gift through a dance movement from him to those on stage to the entire audience. It not only made many teary eyed, but brought hope to all that there is joy in challenges too!

Ambika Kameshwar with dancers
Ambika Kameshwar with dancers

The dancers with some audience members
The dancers with some audience members
(Photos courtesy: NKC)

'Natyam with a Vision and a Mission: Bharatanatyam Pedagogy for the Differently Abled' by Dr Ambika Kameshwar was time spent on something I find difficult to put in words without sounding like clichés. Also without going into jargons and tossed about expressions, this session made many look within themselves to see how much of what she does we could. It provided a window to what dance can do for the body, especially for the differently abled.

"Growing up learning dance and music, I realized there was much, much more to what I was doing. I started getting glimpses of what I could do with my art, especially for those with special needs. I started working with the Sri Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind. And those children… they feel so much and wanted to do everything. They would painstakingly measure the steps, use their other senses to understand the emotions and the drift of the natya and perform. I was very ambitious for them. I started 43 years ago and I'm still amazed at what is possible. I see everything as full and the children also have grown so much and so beautifully."

The Hymn of Swami Sivananda on Ganga was heartbreaking beautiful for its portrayal and the effort put in on stage; what superstars, I tell you! Ambika says, "I found my calling. Dance IS a holistic method and I keep seeing students charged and confident - having a purpose, creativity and good changes in their personality." Ambika also volunteered at the Spastics Society, now Vidya Sagar and "I started documenting what they could do given time and attention. I did a lot of research." To demonstrate that, a film clip showing Balaji and Vishnu Priya doing the Kolattam surmounting plenty of challenges drew long applause. "I use natya, dance, drama, storytelling, theatre for a holistic development and while all this is worked on, the focus is also on enjoyment."

The story of Thyagaraja was done with aplomb and at the end the RASA song was sung with gusto with everyone joining in - Arputhama kalai aadi padalam ondru seruvom. Dancer, choreographer, singer, music composer, teacher and educationist, Ambika straddles many worlds. Armed with a PhD in Natyaabhinaya, her Post-Doctoral Fellowship was on the 'Application of natya as a holistic tool of development.' Her patience and work have benefitted several children and young adults in the last 4 decades. And her institution, Ramana Sunritya Aalaya-RASA, Chennai, is like a one stop forum for flowering and finding the inner self.

Meenakshi Chitharanjan
Meenakshi Chitharanjan
Srekala Bharath
Srekala Bharath (Photo: Varun Khanna)

As part of the Sangam Festival at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Meenakshi Chitharanjan presented When The Arrow Strikes - the arrow can kindle love just as it can kill too. It was a sedate but filled with intense classicality that is the hallmark of Meenakshi's dance. She is one of those who has adhered with great dedication to the Pandanallur style and sometimes that is just what one needs to unwind and remain in quietude. Srekala Bharath's Kutrala Kuravanji for Kartik Fine Arts at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan told the age-old story of the Kuravanji with students who performed well and displaying good training by their Guru. Some of these age-old stories in the repertoire don't lose their sheen no matter how many times they are performed!

Chitra Mahesh
Chitra Mahesh is a senior journalist based in Chennai.

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