Seven days of harmony  
by Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 

October 21, 2003   

Thrissur, the cultural capital of the state of Kerala, India, languishing since the introduction of TV got a fillip recently. Thalam, a nascent cultural organization celebrating its anniversary combined with Hari Sree Vidyanidhi in its silver jubilee year, administered the revival medicine.  
The inaugural ceremony itself was unique: invoking the mystic-number seven in a symbolic way for a seven-day art fete. Six dance teachers of Thrissur danced and lit the lamp together with the Veena maestro, Anantha Padmanabhan of Thrissur and Kalamandalam Kshemavathi, the cultural ambassador who revived and took Kerala's own Mohiniyattam to different parts of the art world.  Kshemavathi choreographed the item.  

The art fete brought nostalgia to old timers. The Sangeetha Nataka Academy Hall rang with the jingling bells of dancers of Odissi, Manipuri, and Kathak. And a contemporary dance that mesmerized the audience was a revelation. Top-ranking artistes brought their troupes and performed a range of items from the classical to folk as well as modern innovations. Truly it was a dance-music fiesta for the art lovers of Thrissur.  

Odissi is a classical dance form of temple origin, performed in front of Lord Jaganath in Puri, and at the famous Sun Temple at Konark, in Orissa. With social and political changes in Indian society, these forms moved out of the temples to take their place in the wider Indian society, performed by individuals and traveling troupes.   
The famous dancer Aloka Kanungo, disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, led the troupe. Odissi is noted for its foot positions, head movements, eye movements, body positions, hand gestures, rhythmic footwork, turns and jumps. 

The most beautiful among the poses is tribanga position-three bends in the body: the neck, waist, and knee. The audience feasted on Battu, a pure classical form based on sthayee vaya and embellished with sculptural poses of great beauty. Aloka Kanungo's choreography, in the line of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra conveyed the essence of Odissi. Abhinaya, based on Jayadeva's Ashtapadi, followed Dasavathar, the ten incarnations of the Lord being the usual theme.

The second half of the evening featured a performance of Manipuri by the Kalavati Devi troupe of Manipuri Natrtanalaya, Kolkata. Manipuri has two distinct forms: the forceful, vigorous thandava, and the soft, delicate lasya. The performance started with invocation to Lord Krishna, the master of geeth, vadya and abhinaya. This beautiful piece was followed by a ball game played between Krishna and Balarama, in which Krishna loses. Even a god loses is a comforting thought in our times of cut throat competition. What is important is that one should play the game gracefully. And hence they reconcile and dance happily.  
Then came Radha -Krishna love, the mystical piece. Indian imagination seems to have run riot around this fascinating, multifaceted character of Krishna: his pranks, his romance and his philosophy. Intensely devotional in mood, and presented as a group dance with colorful and gorgeous costumes, gentle swaying and petal-soft movements, the Manipuri troupe created a hypnotic impact. Its gossamer veils, cylindrical mirrored skirts and ornaments dazzled the audience. 
In Pung Cholom, the dancers played upon pung - the drum - and danced while playing the intricate time cycles executing somersaults and breathtaking acrobatic feats. The finale was truly novel in which both Odissi and Manipuri dancers came together to perform a jugalbandi, a friendly competition. Vaishnavism, the common spirit of both these dance forms, inspired the artistes to perform a single theme in two styles together. Aloka's interaction with Guru Kalavathi Devi led to a harmonious blend of Manipuri and Odissi. The message is loud and clear that the dances of India weave a multi colored, beautiful pattern as a unifying force amidst the apparent diversities of the subcontinent.  

The leading artistes are internationally acclaimed dance exponents whose mission is the perpetuation and propagation of their passion with their devoted group of dancers and musicians.     
The second day saw a scintillating performance of Kathak by the Maya Rao group. Kathak, the classical dance of northern India was born, evolved and grew to become a unique style of performing art in the present Uttar Pradesh, India.  From the temples of Ayodhya and Benares it moved to court circles under the patronage of royalty. At the courts it interacted with Krishnaleela that came from Mathura. And thereafter, the Mughals wove into it a different texture and content. Ever since, the form is associated with Anarkali in popular imagination. Pandit Birju Maharaj, intimately linked with the culture and city of Lucknow for two centuries, saw the birth of the modern form. 

The group led by Madhu Nataraj Heri, the daughter of Maya Rao, took the audience through its historical evolution. Two male dancers enacted Rama Katha, the original form, in its traditional costume. 

The folk item brought life to the romance and merriment of Holi, the festival of spring. The innovative modern piece, Yasodhra, the deserted wife of the Buddha meeting her Lord was a poignant one. The sequence was rendered in the lasya anga style of Kathak by one character portraying the various roles in the narration. Yasodhra is confused about their new relationship. How is she to meet her husband, as an estranged wife? A devotee? Finally as the reality dawns she asks him two questions: why did he leave her in the middle of the night. Of course when the call comes one simply leaves no matter if it is the midnight or mid-day. Willing to follow the path of her husband, she offers to be his devotee. But the Buddha says women are not given Diksha. The rest is a very poignant rendering of her grief, perhaps, of that of Indian womanhood caught in its ethos. Yet another modern piece, in simple modern costume, is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's saying that all religion is one. The choreography explores the concept of harmony and echoes the message of non-violence and peace. The finale celebrated the beauty of human form. The dance and music blended the elements of the Spanish dance Flamenco and Kathak. The change in costumes pointed to the turning points in its historical growth. Kathak's swirling movements, lightening-quick pirouettes, its sudden poses, its rapid stamping of feet, and subtle gestures express a wide range of emotions. The heartbeat of Kathak is its footwork in combination with ankle bells, accompanied by percussion instruments that produce a special harmony, bewildering yet exhilarating. This special effect was missing here as the troupe danced to the music flowing from the CD. Of course Manipuri dances were edited for the concert platform to suit urban audiences during its journey at one point of time. Even now it retains its essential aspects of nritha and nrithya. Yet the growing expense robbing it of its charm is a sad commentary on our times.  
The third day saw a unique show that astounded the viewers of Thrissur. Daksha Sheth and company presented an internationally acclaimed contemporary dance. The feats and body movements of Kalaripayattu, the martial art of Kerala, have been incorporated to create this dance form. Excerpts from the dance compositions, Sarpagati, and Bukham were staged. Sarpagati was inspired by the system of snake worship in Mannarsala, Kerala. The Kundalini, performed by Isha, was magical in effect. Music surged; soft light rained on the form of the young girl twirling around a hanging rope simulating the rise of kundalini in transparent darkness. The trance like poses, its very special music, and the surrealistic light effect elevated this dance into the realm of the abstract and the conceptual. Under the spell, the audience strove to grasp the vision beyond the visual, all passions subdued.
The fourth day witnessed popular Bharatanatyam by cine artiste Vineeth and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy. Once again the C D substituted the orchestra. And the performance was a success because of its star value. But the students of Hari Sree Vidyanidhi did receive the message that one has to follow the passion of one's heart amidst peer pressures to perform.  

On the fifth day, the troupe of the legendary Chitra Visweswaran retold the tale from Mahabharata - an eternal theme of modern relevance. The emphasis was on the game of dice, which evoked political intrigues beyond the barriers of time and place. The inter-play of good and evil that leads to war was the highlight. All dancers wore the same costume; they enacted various roles. Women dancers played all the major roles. Dancing from corner to corner of the stage, displaying the might of evil, anger, and spite, they recreated the dark world where all intrigues are born.  
Truly a modern presentation of an old theme! Panchali, beautifully rendered by Chitra herself, is a powerful, yet graceful woman asking questions about the right and wrong, asserting her individual of choice. But all the notions of moral values are of no avail before the selfish designs of the evil and its brute strength. The good takes a beating. Only spiritual strength (Krishna) saves the situation, after a lot of tragic loss. It's as if man could learn only after a catastrophe. Led by Visweswaran, the singers and orchestra competing for excellence was a charming feature of the performance.
The interactive sessions between the artistes and connoisseurs after the performance each day were revealing in nature to the lay audience. Local celebrity Nalini Chandran, the Founder-Principal of Hari Sree Vidyanidhi and the chairperson of Thalam, was the driving force behind the renaissance.  

The next two days of gana mela entertained the students as well as the art lovers. Trinity, a troupe from Tamilnadu and Trance, another from Kerala catered to the tastes of three generations. From the melodious numbers of Mohammed Rafi to the fast, body-swaying, erotic, rhythmic beats of modern filmy stuff, they sang a mix of the old and the new in three languages: Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. The seven days of splendor, with its special significance, raised the hope of a revival of art and culture in the heart of Thrissur.  

Padma Jayaraj retired as a college teacher in Kerala. She is a freelance journalist, who has contributed articles to Transitions Abroad, an American magazine and to The Hindu Metro magazine.