River — agony and ecstasy
Malavika made movement and rhythm tell the story of the Ganga, while Shijit communicated through jati.
PERSONAL JOURNEY: Malavika Sarukkai (left) and Shijith Nambiar.
Teertha Bharatam the on-going, week-long festival of Bharatanatyam, celebrating the rivers of India, conceived and mounted by Natyarangam, the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha, has once again hit upon a theme which binds the collective consciousness o
f the land. More than just water nourishing and preserving a multiplicity of regional life styles, rivers and their lore have guided and inspired the physical, mental and cultural well being of our people.
The festival this year opened with Secretary, Sangit Nataka Akademi, Jayant Kastuar, as chief guest. Tiruvidaimarudur Guru Kuppaiah Kalyanasundaram (Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya kala Mandir, Mumbai), was honoured.
The festival authorities would do well to tighten the inauguration formalities which took almost two hours thereby denying dancer Malavika Sarukkai, the festival curtain-raiser of more than half her audience.
‘Shambhu Jata Vibhushana Mani’ (the jewel adorning the matted locks of Siva), the Ganga, for India has been the eternal river and Malavika Sarukkai’s treatment of the theme made for unusual choreography. With her unique feel for nritta, Malavika made just movement and rhythm largely tell the story of the Ganga, words minimally used — the abstract treatment, full of symbolism.
In tracing this journey, she was accompanied by one of the most evocative vocalists Vasudha Ravi, whose singing along with Malavika’s dance became a sangam with both arts powered by the same creative imagination, the swaras and tanams of one keeping pace with the improvisational inspirations of the other. Sukhi’s mridangam, and the nattuvangam and violin were also of a piece with the rest of the artistic effort.
Avoiding a very structured canvas, Malavika opted for areas of free wheeling exploration for both dance and music. The rhythm, reminiscent of the Kathak “Na Dhin Dhin Na” rather than the typical Bharatanatyam nadai-s marked the ‘sama’ to great emotive impact. Tracing the Bhagirathi and Alakananda sangam at Devaprayag, Malavika used a complementing contrast of strong and soft movements melded to music of solfa melody and rhythmic syllables alternately.
Some of the crowning moments of the recital comprised Ganga’s lamentation “Punar pavitra karega kaun” at the impurities that weighed her waters, constricting her flow. Entering the stage as a polluted shadow behind a cloth, the dancer restricting herself to a short area on one side of the stage marked out by the folded cloth boundary, danced out her distress, the small area symbolic of a cabined river clogged by impurities. The frenetic rhythm in the same space, and the agitated hand movements brought out the urgency of the message.
Finally set to C.V.Chandrasekhar’s score in Revagupti followed by a Tillana in Puryadhanashri, Malavika traced the many moods of the river as she traverses terrain to finally merge her identity with that of the sea. Drops of water becoming larger bodies, the circle of life shown through Mei adavus symbolising waves and recurring cycles, floor terrain rapidly traversed showing Ganga’s gushing ease — all ending with the quietude of complete submersion, symbolised an involved personal journey, the search finally attaining a different level of consciousness.
The male river Brahmaputra, with Lalitha Ramakrishnan as resource person, had for dance exposition a strong male dancer Shijith Nambiar. Born, according to the Kalika Purana, from the spilled sperm of Brahma which sage Shantanu ordered wife Amogha to consume, the river has its origins in a small glacier of the Himalayas in Mt. Kailash. Parasurama by way of atonement for his sin of committing matricide, through benefiting mankind, cut a route with his ‘parashu,’ channelling the Manasarovar waters as Brahma’s son (Brahmaputra) eastwards and then southwards into Kamarupa (Assam).
Using the narrative mode in a very traditional Bharatanatyam vocabulary to trace this episode and other myths associated with the river, Shijith’s dance visualisation freely used jatis very innovatively at punctuation points to stress emotions. Daksha Yagna portraying the enquiring, anguished and enraged Siva in turns was one such.
One very effective communicating device was using the first person narrative. If the initial “Aham Brahmaputra nama” established the identity, the later Navarasa imaginatively portraying the river in nine moods reinforced the conflicting sides of an unpredictable river – both generously life giving and cruelly destructive. It was a joy to see the high vaulting leaps, the full stretches and the veeshara adavus of Shijith as perfect in geometry as he was full of energy. The dance visualised Brahmaputra joined by the female river the Ganga becoming the Padma, a manifestation of Ardhanariswar in male/female melding.
No celebration of the Brahmaputra can omit a song from the repertoire of poet/musician Bhupen Hazarika whose songs are a treasured legacy for the Assamese. And Shijith by deftly tying the typical Assamese white with red border scarf round the head and with light steps caught the flavour of the region, the song extremely well sung by Deepu Nair whose entire vocal effort was an asset along with Shijith Krishna’s excellent nattuvangam – very exact in timing, never needlessly hyped but always tonally very evocative. Vedakrishnan’s sensitive mridangam touches were joined by distinct individual brief interventions by Sashidhar (flute), Anantanarayan (veena) and Satish (violin) and not the least Koteeshwaran (tabla) Simple aesthetic costuming and suggestive lighting were other also features.
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Contrasting scenes of life
“A dance festival on the rivers of India is a brilliant idea,” says Malavika Sarukkai, appearing calm and composed as a river after a high tide (read a successful recital). Through “Ganga” Malavika intended to recreate her observations, impressions and reactions during her many visits to Varanasi. The production is the last in her unintentional trilogy on the river. First she did “Astham Gatho Ravihi,” then came “Kasi Yatra” and now, “Ganga.”
“The contrasting scenes of life that exist in simultaneity on the banks of the eternally flowing (mahakal) river have impacted me deeply. There’s hope (its water rejuvenates the body and soul), lament (the last rites of the dead are performed in the ghats) and celebration (the enchanting evening aarti). The river has been witness to these cycles of time. This was the essence of ‘Aastham Gatho Ravihi,” which I have included in “Ganga” too. I don’t base my productions on mythological narratives. A reason why I didn’t look at the many legends associated with the river. That would have detracted from Ganga herself. I wanted to be with her and within her,” explains Malavika.
Referring to the sangam, she says, “I have been there [Devaprayag] four or five times and have carried the image in my mind for long. I intently watched the rivers in confluence. They reflect different moods. To me, the Bhageerathi appeared stately, broad, little brownish in colour while the Alakananda quick, young and sensuous. The first piece ‘Gangavataran,’ the holy descent of the river from the mountains, captures all this along with the devotees’ desires.”
What sets Malavika’s works apart is the unique mix of contemporary intelligence and traditional insights. So if you have the meditative, picturesque, moving images of the Ganga, there is also the darker reflections — the pollutants, the filth — that are trying to discolour its pristine waters.
“I told my poet-sister Priya Sarukkai Chabbria to pen a few verses that I have used as the voice of the Ganga asking how much she can cleanse herself. It’s a more metaphoric and suggestive visual. I confine myself to a small space on the stage to show how the river feels stifled and her desperation to hear her solitary voice amidst the many voices of the pilgrims. I use a lot of angika abhinaya in this piece.”
Malavika feels that more than the technique, lyrics and music, it’s the intent that matters the most while choreographing. “Bringing to life a particular moment requires a lot of internalising.”
The last piece, traces the river’s journey to the ocean, where as it merges it loses its individuality. This marks the highest philosophy of life. “Like the river, human life goes through boulders and crevices, ups and downs, twists and turns, adjustments, cutting through and keeping cause to reach where it wants to,” she philosophises.
Ganga is a fulfilling personal journey not just for Malavika but her team of competent musicians too. “It’s the outcome of many rehearsals, endless discussions, exchange of ideas and constant search for the perfect ragams and movements. It happened the way we visualised it collectively because they are as creatively thirsty as I am,” she smiles.
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