The Nritya Nidhi Utsav  
- Lada Guruden Singh, New Delhi  
Photos courtesy: Sangeet Natak Akademi 

May 10, 2005 

A middle-aged man's quest for freedom from his monotonous life exposes him to his passion for dance, rekindling his zest for life and his love for his wife. Shall We Dance, starring Hollywood actor Richard Gere, and singer Jennifer Lopez, is perhaps the best bet to show the profound effect of dance on a man's life. Highly significant, since it shows a typical American male attending Ballroom dancing, the movie is a significant breakthrough in addressing the sex-divide and discrimination that rules the dance world across the globe.  

Hours after watching the movie, it was a different high altogether witnessing a riveting Kathak recital by the original Ustad, who has been performing for nearly five decades now - Pt. Birju Maharaj. The occasion was the first day of the four-day Nritya Nidhi Utsav or the Festival of Treasures of Indian Dance organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. 

What came as a welcome relief was the out of capacity Kamani Auditorium, where people jostled and pushed each other and also fought for the reserved seats - " First come, first serve." And, thankfully it was not for the Lakme India Fashion Week but for Pt. Birju Maharaj!  
The festival was inaugurated by the former President of India, Dr. R Venkataraman, who, when asked to share his thoughts, remarked, " I thought you were asking me to dance!"   

Birju Maharaj began the evening with Krishna Chalisa, "Jai man Mohan Madan chhavi, Shree Krishnachandra Maharaj" and from the very first glance he enraptured the audience. It was interesting to note that while too many sancharis in Bharatanatyam dilute the impact of the performance, the reverse happens in Kathak. As he swirled through the item, he richly demonstrated the episodes from Lord Krishna's life. This item seemed more like a warm up with the real delight waiting round the corner.  

As he has reiterated on many occasions, the central motif of Birju Maharaj's choreography is rhythm. He finds it everywhere, be it in a heartbeat or an elephant's gait. Therefore, when he applies his experience of Kathak and presents toras or tukras, he uses commonly seen and used images, events, examples and metaphors to connect with his audience. Birju Maharaj's prahant, which is filled with witticisms and swipes at free style dancing, further embellish his dance and can very well be taken as a separate performance altogether. Those dancers, who complain of lack of audience, can very well learn a thing or two from the Kathak maestro on how to hypnotise the masses.  

Birju Maharaj's presentation of teen taal, after Krishna Chalisa, was a delight to watch. He used the symbol of a jewellery designer designing his jewellery on one hand and did a jugalbandi with his accompanist on tabla on the other, where the tabla was the Nayak or hero and the ghungroo was the Nayika or heroine, leading it on!  

Saying "Ginti hai aur ginti ke peecha pura jeevan hai," Birju Maharaj presented the jugalbandi in Tisra jati, as he linked his presentation with the growth of the tree. His innovation knew no limits as he went on to present the hens and their chicks marching in the courtyard and followed it up by showing how to dial a telephone number through Kathak! Though, one has witnessed some of his compositions before, they still retain their freshness. Birju Maharaj moved on to present teen taal in reverse pyramid.  

The highlight of the evening was a Thumri "Yesoda tero kunwar kanhai," which was followed by a Surdas bhajan "Udho! Mohe brij bisrat nahin." However between the two items, Birju Maharaj once again explored the permutations and combinations of teen taal. The jugalbandi between phakawaj and tabla percussionists on one side and Guruji on the other, incited appreciative wah!wah! from members of the audience.  

Meanwhile, in the thumri, Birju Maharaj portrayed Lord Krishna as an innocent thief whose face is covered with butter but who refuses to confess that he has even tasted it! The sheer body language - wide eyes, parted lips, drooping shoulders, tentative steps, side glances - conveyed that the Lord was on a secret mission. The dancer ended his recital after performing certain numbers on public demand again!  
Birju Maharaj was accompanied by Debashish Sarkar on vocal, Chandrachur Bhattacharya on sitar, Utpal Ghosh on tabla, Jai Kishen Maharaj on pakhawaj and Deepak Maharaj on parhant. 

With three more days to go, the festival looked set for a smashing time ahead.  

In a befitting tribute to the contribution made by Indian cinema in popularising Bharatanatyam dance form in fifties and sixties, the SNA presented well-known actor and classical dancer, Vyjayantimala Bali on the second day. One of the few superstars who has maintained the sanctity and discipline of dance, Vyjayantimala ruled the silver screen for nearly two decades. It was therefore interesting to watch a packed hall once again, with her film and dance fans, trying to out do the other in a bid to appreciate her convincing performance. That the dancer retains her ambition to stretch her creative limits was evident from the fact that she chose to adapt a solo production to the Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP) format of the Carnatic music.  

A vital part of Carnatic music, RTP helps in judging a singer's grip and mastery over rhythm. It demands musicians to be versatile and imaginative. In itself, the number has ragam, tanam, niravals, swaras with anulomam and pratilomam. A musician has to display the creative aspect of the tala pattern as well. Keeping that in mind, Vyjayantimala successfully used the medium within the structure of Bharatanatyam. 

She presented a thematic recital on Sri Krishna Jananam from Srimad Bhagavatham by dividing it into three parts. With a slow start during Raga Alapana in Ragamalika, where she depicted the mood of the nature when Lord Vishnu reveals himself as baby Krishna in Devaki's womb, Vyjayantimala's performance gained momentum as she went on to narrate the story of Krishna's arrival in Gokulam and his childhood days, in Tanam and Pallavi parts respectively. 
Vyjayantimala's control over her body and her strict adherence to laya, even if it meant giving directions to her orchestra by glancing at her accompanists, could be an inspiration for a number of upcoming dancers. Her recital was also significant in driving home the point that even within the strict confines of tradition, the format of Bharatanatyam is flexible enough to adapt to innovation and fusion. And, what better way to achieve it than when you can successfully demonstrate Ragam Tanam Pallavi.  

Through most of her performance, Vyjayantimala negotiated her space in the centre of the stage. Instead of usual diagonal and vertical movements, which are the hallmarks of most Bharatanatyam choreographies, she performed horizontally across the centre.  

In the Tanam part of the choreography, Vyjayantimala showcased Devaki and Vasudeva in bliss when they see their newborn, who shines like a jewel in their eyes. However, Devaki begs Lord Vishnu to take away all signs of divinity from her child's body - who has four arms and holds a conch, mace, wheel and lotus. Soon the avataar turns into a normal child. This particular episode had rich theatre element, with the dancer presenting at length, Lord Krishna's journey to Gokulam through river Yamuna.  

The final part Pallavi, began with Yasodha waking up and seeing baby Krishna, left by Vasudeva. Just as with the mood and tempo of the Pallavi in raga Kharaharapriya, this particular part of the recital was distinctly similar to Birju Maharaj's recital the earlier day, in terms of the impact it left on the audience. From stealing butter, to mesmerising his friends, the gopikas and even the animals with the magic of his flute, Vyjayantimala raced through Krishna's childhood, cautious of not repeating her sancharis often. Interestingly, she presented the Pallavi in varnam format. A word must be said here about the dancer's stamina. Despite her age, Vyjayantimala tried to be vigorous and spontaneous through her nritta portions. With neat araimandi and hand gestures, she still retains the grace that has been the defining characteristic of her film and dance career.  

The dancer was supported by Dr. Saraswati on nattuvangam, Preeti Mahesh on vocal, Ramakrishnan on mridangam and the amazingly talented Sivaraman on violin.  

After two days of full house of rasikas at the Nritya Nidhi Utsav, the third and the fourth day of the festival, witnessed a half empty Kamani Auditorium. The last two days of the festival were dedicated to Kathakali and Kuchipudi dance drama productions. It was interesting to note a number of vacant seats reserved for the VIPs! Though the listing of reasons behind the lack of popularity of dance forms other than Kathak, Bharatanatyam and to some extent Orissi, do not come within the purview of this article, one expects that other dance forms are also given credence and should be encouraged more vigorously to check any imbalance vis a- vis their rich cousins. At least, the organizers of the Nritya Nidhi Utsav did attempt that.  

It was a pleasure to witness a traditional Kuchipudi dance drama recital, on the penultimate day. And to top it, the production was led by renowned Kuchipudi exponent, Dr. Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, whose role of Satyabhama, queen of Lord Krishna, was so convincing that two members of the audience, sitting nearby were overheard saying that though the dancer had beautiful eyes, she had to reduce her weight. They didn't know the 'she' in question was 'he' in reality! The central theme of the drama was Satyabhama's separation from Lord Krishna and her lonely state where she seeks help of her sakhi to get a message across to her Lord.  

Its rare that one gets to witness a Kuchipudi performance where men essay all the roles. While there always are apprehensions on how well a man can masquerade as a woman, Vendantam Satyanarayana Sarma set all doubts to rest. Though a woman portrays a female character naturally, a man suffers from exaggeration in abhinaya and in the body language while enacting the role of a female character. Guru Vedantam Sarma deftly handled that.  

The dialogue between Madhavi or the sakhi (played by Chinta Ramamurthy) and Satyabhama incited peals of laughter from members of the audience, especially where the sakhi forces Satyabhama to reveal Lord Krishna's name and chides her for being so coy. The most poignant moment was where Satyabhama has to give her nose ring to her sakhi so that her Lord can immediately remember his beloved. Though certain passages seemed deliberately stretched to test the patience of the audience, what saved the production, was its rustic feel. 
The episode involving Krishna's return and his attempt to cajole Satyabhama was entrancing. The chemistry between the two artistes, Dr. Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma and Chinta Ramamurthy, was startling.   The episode had portions of pure nritta as well as natya, with both the Lord and his beloved covering the length and breadth of the stage.  

The dancers were supported by Mahakali Sreeramulu Sarma and Pasumarthy Kesava Prasad on vocal, Josyula Krishnamurthy on mridangam, Pandyam Venkatarama Sarma on violin and Indrakeeadri Sarma on flute.  

The Kathakali dance drama on the last day, based on excerpts from Bali Vijayam written by Kallur Namboodiripad could have been a tighter production. Captained by veteran Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, the dance drama was divided into three scenes. Ramankutty Nair, who is known for his roles as Duryodhana and Ravana, had a tough competition from Kalamandalam Balasubramanian, who essayed the role of Narada. The performance was centered on Narada instigating Ravana to teach Bali a lesson of his life for having addressed the demon king, as a straw.  

The best part of a Kathakali performance is the ambience that is created by the musicians and the props. Essentially a dance form suited only for an open-air performance, the dance drama is preceded by the lighting of the lamp and the beating of drums. In earlier days, the lamp was used to highlight the faces of the actors since there were no lighting facilities.  

As the drums (madalam and chenda) and cymbals began beating in unison, the mood was created to witness the advent of royal characters. A todayam was performed where the main character, Ravana, invoked the blessings of the Gods.  Performed behind thirasseela or a curtain, held aloft by two people, Ravana slowly revealed himself from behind the curtain. The entire stress was on creating curiosity and suspense among the members of the audience. This episode, which is an integral part of the beginning of any Kathakali recital is known as tiranokku. This was followed by the actual drama.   

Unfortunately, the first scene depicting Ravana and Mandodari (played by Kalamandalam Kuttykrishnan) in sringara rasa with the learned demon king longing to kiss Mandodari, lacked intensity. Interspersed between long percussive musical passages, it paled before richly demonstrated scenes involving Ravana and Narada, where the latter convinces Ravana into committing a folly, by deciding to fight with Bali. Both the actors twitched each muscle of their face to convey varied expressions. However, one wondered if the only way of depicting sage Narada was by dancing horizontally with a veena, more than five times! The most exciting part of the drama was the last scene where in the climax, Narada holds Ravana's hand and convinces him that he is with him and that he firmly believes that he will win over Bali. The rich costumes of a Kathakali performance are always an attraction, but they sometimes do take away the attention from the performance itself.  The actors were supported by   Madambi Subrahmaniam Namboodiri and Kalamandalam Sreekumar on vocal, Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan on chenda and Kalamandalam Ramankutty on maddalam.  

A word of praise for Asha Rani Mathur who compered the festival. Her voice and diction were near accurate, but the same opening paragraphs for the evenings reflected rather sadly on the lack of imaginative writing. Also, was it necessary for the compere to read through the entire synopsis of the Kathakali recital on the last day, even when two or more brochures were available with almost every member of the audience?  

The four-day festival was indeed a successful attempt but as written in the brochure, it's the first of the series of festivals of dance honoring the acknowledged masters of classical Indian dance. One hopes that Orissi (which has suffered a terrible loss after Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's demise), Manipuri, Mohiniattam and other dance forms are also featured soon. 

Lada Guruden  Singh is a Bharatanatyam dancer, poet, journalist, writer and a regular contributor to