Gita Govindam  
- Kanchana Sastri, Toronto 

May 18, 2005 

Gita Govindam, an expressional dance ballet hosted by Bharathi Kala Manram at the Lester B Pearson Auditorium, was an artistic feast for the abhinaya connoisseur. Choreographed by the famed Kalanidhi Narayanan, the ballet was executed purely in mime, focusing on vachikabhinaya (communicating the story using narrations) and satvikabhinaya (expressions of bhaava, or mood). The three dancers, hand picked from Narayanan’s school, enacted the romance of Radha and Krishna set to select ashtapadhis composed by 12th century poet Jayadeva. Radha is known to be a Parakeeya, or married woman who falls in love with another man, in this case Lord Krishna. Their union is professed along the lines of the Hindu philosophy whereby a mortal realizes the self as one with the lord. Here the mortal being Radha and her lover Krishna is none other than lord Vishnu. The Sanskrit verses were set to music and prerecorded in India. The songs are sung in the narrative of either Krishna or Radha or by Radha's maid.  

The ballet was performed by three principal dancers, all highly trained in Bharatanatyam and well established in the Indian dance arena. The main role of Radha was depicted by Priyadarshini Govind. In portraying the ardent nayika (heroine), Govind focused on two emotive contexts of the female heroine: the Virahotkanditha (she is one who is separated from her lover and is yearning for reunion) and Khanditha (she is one who is angry with her lover for causing her disappointment).   Govind’s performance was filled with Radha’s yearning for Krishna, showing her body and mind quivering like a bird as she languished for her lover. She exquisitely showed her longing for union using the imagery of a bee pollinating a flower. Govind’s Radha was somewhat angered, very much saddened, and then she became bitter upon finding her lover kissing another woman.  Her interpretation of Radha was controlled and subtle in these sections with her depiction utilizing mainly facial expressions and hand gestures. She struck many seductive poses that were accentuated by her long limbs. Govind definitely conveyed a great deal of depth, and the intensity of her acting was enhanced by her luminous eyes. 

Sangeeta Isvaran, the youngest dancer, portrayed the role of Lord Krishna exploiting his mischievous characteristics, and playful personality. Isvaran took on the challenging role of playing a male character and brought out the gender specific traits in her Angikabhinaya (communicating the meaning of the songs using the body).  Her costume and wild curly hair were a contrast to her subdued and more serious counterpart Radha. Krishna’s main states of mind were shown as Vilakshalakshmeepatihi (abashed Krishna) and Mandamukunda (languishing Krishna). Isvaran’s Krishna was finally able to coax and cajole Radha back into ‘his’ arms for a beautiful finale that celebrated the union of the couple. Radha enjoyed the ministrations of her lover, as Krishna took pleasure in dressing and adorning the woman of his heart after their tryst. The mood was romantic, and closeness of the dancers with their poses on the floor of the stage with legs outstretched and arms intertwined showed the love and closeness of the couple. Radha’s contentment and happiness as she lay back in Krishna’s arms was a befitting finale for the show. 

The outstanding performance of the night was delivered by Radha’s maid, known as the Sakhi. This was done by the mature and confident Indira Kadambi. Her ease in communicating to the audience using the Bharatanatyam vocabulary of Shirobhedha (head movement), Greevabhedha (neck movement), Drushtibhedha (eye movement), Paadabhedha Mandala (standing posture), Utplavana (leaps), Bhramari  (circling movement), Chari (leg movement), Gatibhedha (characteristic walks) and Hastas or Mudras (hand movements) left the audience with the appreciation of what encompasses the art of  being a great Narthaki. Kadambi illustrated the use of the entire body in abhinaya. She stretched her legs, and her arms to convey larger movements, her quick and lithe leaps brought younger girls’ movements to mind, and her fluidity showed that she was unconsciously feeling the meaning of her gestures. Perhaps Kadambi’s training in Mohiniattam also helped extend her range of movements in the waist, torso, and hips. 

Kadambi opened the show with a short Dasavatharam, on the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu. Here she switched effortlessly between the various bhaavas or moods of Veera (heroism), Roudra (anger), Bhayanaka (terror), Adbhuta (wonder), Karuna (compassion), and Shanta (tranquility).  Kadambi’s mastery was displayed in her ability to connect with the other artists on the stage, her movements were seldom in one place on the stage, but were constantly moving. She made eye contact with Radha and Krishna as she convinced them both to reconcile after their lover’s quarrel. She did not hesitate to move closely and boldly with Radha as she adorned her with jewels and flowers in preparation to meet Krishna. The Sakhi’s role of advisor and confidant to the nayika Radha, enlisted her to depict various forms of the heroine. In doing so, Kadambi was able to bring out the various other emotive contexts that Govind did not focus on. These extended to the Abhisarika (she is one who boldly goes out to meet her lover), Kalahantarika (she is one who is repenting her hastiness in quarrelling with her lover, which has resulted in their separation), and the Vasakasajjika (she is one who is preparing for the arrival of her beloved, by decorating herself and her surroundings to provide a pleasant welcome for her lover). 

The show was a unique presentation of the modern Bharatanatyam repertoire in that there was very little nritta (rhythmical and repetitive movements) but focused solely on natya (language of gestures, poses and mime), and some nritya (combination of nritta and natya). As a student of abhinaya, the program gave me an opportunity to see the masters at work and compare the styles of three very good artists. This program is a must see for any young student of Bharatanatyam, to enjoy the range of the artists, and simply to see how much training is required to be fluent in abhinaya.  Having taken a workshop with ‘Kalanidhi Mami’ a few years ago, I was a lucky member of the audience who had learnt the meaning behind many of the gestures. Her choreography lends itself to be developed by the artists themselves. Narayanan herself embodies a generation of South Indian women that have grown up in a culture full of the mannerisms that permeate modern Bharatanatyam abhinaya.  The difference in upbringing between all the women was apparent in each one’s interpretation of the gestures, and facial expressions. Naryanan’s choreography isn’t by any means tame and explicitly delves into the amorous undertones of the dance while maintaining an elegant dignity in what is today’s society. 

Narayanan herself mentioned in a short speech post show, that an audience would be bored with an abhinaya program that lasted any longer than an hour and a half duration. The production would benefit from more variety in the abhinaya, and the uniformity of the bhaava was probably due in part to the selection of ashtapadhis. Understandably it is more expensive to tour with a live orchestra, but I think that as far as highlighting the mood with music and the extemporaneous element involved in dance (especially in abhinaya), a live orchestra would have made a tremendous difference. As the wealth of local artists grows in North America, it would be nice to see more classical dance programs using live orchestras. I don’t think anyone would disagree that Bharatanatyam’s glory definitely lies in its diversity of movement and expression. 

Kanchana Sastri has been learning dance for many years in Toronto, Canada where she lives. She and her sister have formed Sastri Performing Arts, and together as dancer and singer they have created and showcased many new and classical works in Bharatanatyam.