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Journeying into woman dancer's inner world

July 21, 2016

An uncharacteristic evening in more ways than one sponsored by Aim for Seva, as part of its fund raising efforts, 'Antar Yatra', conceived by Odissi artist Sharmila Biswas, was premiered in Chennai at the Music Academy auditorium on July 16. Woven round three dance forms of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi from contiguous regions of the Indian Coast of the Coromandel, Antar Yatra is in the nature of a journey delving into the inner recesses of the woman dancer's landscape of mind and thoughts.

Providing free board and educational succour to myriads of impoverished Indian children through over a hundred hostels, ever since its inception on the 27th of November 2000, Aim for Seva, late Swami Dayanand Saraswati's dream child for providing support to Indian children from extremely deprived backgrounds, through commissioning art ventures for its fund raising activity (Antar Yatra is slated to tour seven cities) is simultaneously providing a much needed prop for creative dance activity of this type, for which sponsorships are hard to come by.

What is the nature of that space where the mind of the dancer operates? Can the inner dancer be known? From the Apsaras, neither divine nor human, to the dark corners of the temple's inner sanctum wherein the dancer, consecrated to the gods as the ever auspicious 'nitya sumangali', rendered seva and created her own world of surrender to the unattainable, the dancer has existed in the twilight zone. Her inner vision perceives of colours which come and go. Are her eyes and her mind playing tricks where even the mundane seems extraordinary? That which she seeks is elusive - appearing and vanishing. When she perceives it, she has an intimate dialogue with that energy. She guards that invisible presence within her as her secret and that is her private sacred world. It is that energy the poet eulogizes in his poetry, and the dancer invokes through her sringar. As she applies kohl in the eyes of that idol, and sings and dances to it, it is a special world of maya or illusion and she plays with that as her heart's desire. Between the real and the imagined, the dancer creates her own world.

That not the entire heart warming gathering (not withstanding expensive tickets) could be one with what was happening on the stage was not surprising. Too abstract for many in the audience who were baffled by the symbolism which was not always understood, and unable to come to terms with the absence of a clean narrative which spelt out each aspect, many sat politely mute while the odd few walked out in the middle. But for those who managed to go along with the creative artist, without preconceived notions on what each scene should be, Antar Yatra was a fascinating experience. The main dancers led by Sharmila herself, Lakshmi Parthasarathy Athreya (Bharatanatyam), Amrita Lahiri (Kuchipudi) and Sashwati Garai Ghosh (Odissi) made an excellent choice of dancers along with supporting dancers Monami, Tri Paul, Ankita and Rohini, and while each form retained the identity of the style the dancer represented, the integrating of the dance forms was excellently achieved. Given Sharmila's intense research into other than classical traditions of Oriya literature and performing art and using these influences to enrich classical dance without destroying the grammar and technique of Odissi, her subtle use of puppetry and pinnal kolaattam were in true form. The absence of a defined linear narrative was what made the dance true to the spirit of creativity arising from the inner dancer -- too will-o-the wisp to be caught and held. It will not admit of a clean narrative with the i's dotted and t's crossed. By its very nature, creativity cannot be pinned down or objectified. It exists in the abstract - expressed in the fleeting glimpses of something which will not be caught for eternity.

Slide show
Photos courtesy: Aim for Seva

The stage props with myriad hanging screens opening out and rolled up as required, and the innumerable bits of textile making sudden appearances and then vanishing were all beautifully woven into the choreography of the dancers who appeared from behind scenes and then vanished behind them, often wielding coloured veils in innumerable ways to create patterns. The opening scene, where Bharatanatyam sollus, Odissi ukkutas and Kuchipudi rhythms came together in a natural togetherness saw the dancers of various forms integrate and separate smoothly. The ocean churned by devas and asuras, creates many forces -and from the churning waves come the Apsaras. The exquisite music in Oriya, which had mingled flavours sounding like the echoing boatman's song sees the apsara asserting that she belongs to no one nor is anybody hers ("Nihe se kaharo, Kenunai taharo"). Dancing to the Mardalo (mardal), these maidens are neither from heaven nor from earth. Thus, she is Apsara (tenukori apsara nama taharo). Dancer Sashwati is a delightful mover and the other group of four or five dancers joined her, weaving in and out of the sets. But the off white costume of the Apsaras (in keeping with old texts mentioning the Apsaras always clad in white) seemed drab, lacking magic and Sharmila has to think of some way to play up the appearance of these maidens more effectively. As the devadasi, Lakshmi Parthasarathy from inside the sanctum maintains that as nitya-sumangali she is not immortal. He to whom she is wed is. But after being tied to Him does she need any bond with a mere mortal? In Begada the song goes "Munnavanai ananidapin innoruvan vendumo?"

As the temple bells toll during the 'sandhya samayam', the Kuchipudi dancer in her Krishna vilas sees colours which seem to appear and fade. He she lives with, in her mind is both adult and child. She exists in her thoughts in that magical space - is that a mirage or real - here one minute and gone the next? The music was created round Late Nataraja Ramakrishna's composition in Arabhi.

The dancer's created world of pain and pleasure spells the enchantment of maya. Using symbolism - the maya aspect was sensitively brought out through the sequence of the magic deer - visualized in Odissi. The period reverts to the great Lord Rama of the Treta yuga when what Sita covets as the golden deer is but a trap to ensnare her. "Emo Harini" says the song and the mudra shows several hands in this mudra, at varying levels held on top of all the doorway frames - the deer which beckons, lures and repels - the entire background music visually expressed through just one mudra played around with, brought out powerfully the concept of maya.

The bard, who creates the magic of poetry and music for the dancers to interpret variously, was impersonated by vocalist Srijan Chatterjee melodiously rendering a sringar thumri - like creation based on verses from Vidyapathi - "Kahe mohe sambhashinii taase, aparupa dekhiya Yuvati". The next sringar scene winds up with the acme of the nayika's sringar desire - in the poetry of Jayadeva's "Sakhiye keshi mathanam udaram" with the dancers taking turns interpreting lines from the ashtapadi.

The wonderful music, amalgamating six languages, three main styles of dance and such a varied vocabulary of rhythmic syllables in one unified identity flowing smoothly without any jarring note, could never have been achieved without involving the musicians right through this long journey of preparation. Srijan Chatterjee did a wonderful job of developing and putting together the music. Providing the rhythmic scaffolding (the mardal tones were particularly expressive and melodic) and execution were ace percussionists Dhaneswar Swain, Bijay Kumar Barik and Guru Bharadwaj. The enormity of the task can be gleaned from the number of voices in the vocal support -Vasudha Ravi, Krittika Kuttti Shyamomani, Ramahari Das, Haripriya Swain, Dukhishyam Tripathy and Rupak Kumar Parida, Sucheta Ganguly and Srijan Chatterjeee.

But knowing the mixed experience and knowhow of audiences, the opening introduction needs to be more informative with more explanation on the text of the songs than what was given in the printed brochures so that more people can enjoy the experience of Antar Yatra.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

Responses to Antar Yatra
I attended the Mumbai presentation on 20th July. The concept director and choreographer Sharmila Biswas introduced the concept of the presentation and encouraged the audience to interpret the presentation in their own way for it presented a journey within oneself. And she assured that the storyline presented a magical world where each one of them had a space and could make or find a space for oneself. Here's my program analysis.

Antar Yatra is a contemporary presentation using the idiom of three classical dances namely Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Odissi. For once, there is an attempt to merge all three styles in a harmonious whole in a presentation; though in the beginning one feels was it required, couldn't the theme be presented in one idiom only. Again there was no heavy dancing of any of the idiom and one realizes that these are being used as three different artists trying to express themselves in their unique ways or arts. Of course it presented a picture of national integration as also poems or songs of six different languages were used to get the idea through to the audience.

The epical quality in the presentation was brought out with references to apsaras as metaphor to the present classical dancers. The mythical story of their birth as rising beauties form the milk ocean as it was churned for amrit manthan was enacted. The apsaras turned into the historical devadasis who were wedded to the gods and lived their life through service to god as the temple dancers, thus the art of dance becomes a metaphor to God for the present generation of classical dancers. The philosophy of life was shown through the spiritual growth of the dancers.

The dancers as artists look up to their creativity for divine experience. They look for the divine experience of art in the twilight, the various colours and shades of the flowers, garlands and the different diffusion of lights. And also rhythms of the bells, the drum beats, the temple sculptures and the bells of the anklets. At times they are dejected and sometimes they find that divine experience which they want to enjoy for themselves. But they understand that it is the sharing of their divine experience that gives them the actual fruition of their creativity. Till then, their creativity would be like the elusive deer which Lord Rama went chasing.

Finally it was moving from the abstractness of creativity and to the concreteness of social life that brought meaning to the presentation. And thus dawns the realization that the divine is there in every living being and we interact with them throughout life in various ways. This was illustrated by placing puppets of Lord Krishna on all the screens put up as props. It is when you look within oneself and one's fellow beings that one can experience the divine at every moment. It was living the life in harmony with each other that one found happiness. The presentation was beautiful with dancers performing with abandon and every stance had a lively sculpturesque quality. The apt use of costume, props and lighting enhanced the presentation.
- Chandra Anand (July 22, 2016)

Sharing my response to ANTAR YATRA
- Ashwini Kaarthikeyan (July 27, 2016)

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