Contemporary touch to the classical
Indira Kadambi's "Vamshi" and Shobana Bhalachandra's "Meera", which premiered recently in the city, were noteworthy not because of new themes or a new dance genre, but a different focus, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
WHEN OUR mothers and grandmothers went to a Bharatanatyam performance at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha or the Music Academy, they knew that the alarippu would be followed by the jatiswaram, sabdam by varnam. A `kurathi' may appear now and then, or an eerie snake dance, but the show would climax on a tillana.
Today, we never know what to expect in a dance show. Fusions have ceased to surprise us. We have seen short stories read aloud in English and mimed by a bejewelled classical dancer, the `Narmada Bachao' struggle depicted by another, or a Marxist tale of a village victim.
Most of these experiments are prompted by audience demands for innovation. (Nothing outre to disturb, or avant garde to challenge, but `contemporary' enough to be talked about). Some of them are impelled by the availability of funding easier to access for melding, say, Kabuki and Kuravanji, than for reclaiming an old swarajati.
Some of our senior dancers have found a way out of this impasse without compromise. Alarmel Valli has evolved a repertoire of Sangam poetry, narrativised in the traditional Bharatanatyam mode. She has managed to maintain the gossamer imagery of the verses in the more sensuous medium of the dance. Malavika Sarukkai has woven her vision of Khajuraho, and painted scenes on the ghats of Kasi, combining drama and lyricism. These are works reflected and refined over a period of time, not fly-by-night novelties subscribing to changing trends.
In this context, Indira Kadambi's "Vamshi", and Shobana Bhalachandra's "Meera", premiered in April, were notable efforts. The themes were neither new, nor was the genre (Bharatanatyam). What made them different was the focus.
"Vamshi" was a take off on the flute, the primordial instrument of nature. Kadambi sees this instrument of the Blue God as simultaneously embodying life, creativity, art, and the magic of nature. In its surge of music, the flute becomes the meeting point of the divine and the human, it is both the human soul (jivatma) and its message bearer (duta), the object of envy and adoration. We see the flute humiliated, stolen, and consoled. While it is confined, and confines breath, the flute symbolises freedom, rejuvenation.
These abstractions were concretised through the Radha-Krishna-Brindavan myths, with suitably composed music by T.V.Ramprasadh. (It was a canny touch not to have used the flute for song accompaniment, but only for mood creation). To depict the birth, techniques, and the impact of the flute, Kadambi used multi-lingual verses old and new Periyalwar's Tamil was flanked by Sreekumar Varma's English verse and a Kannada song by P.T.Narasimhachar. The nayika implored the flute to carry her message of love in "Karmuhil vannan" with a lightsome lilt, and the more serious varnam in Amritavarshini on Venugopala, the high point of the show. The sancharis were bright, lucid, the tirmanams arrested audio-visual attention without flashiness. The structure was a polyglot assemblage English, Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit and Hindi were interwoven in song (T.V.Ramprasadh) and recitation (Deesh Mariwala, P.Akhila), and not without unevenness. The two-hour show had repetitions and imbalances. The pre-varnam prelude was over long, minus tautness. The tillana had no mystique, only superfluity. Better alignment with lighting and audio elements would have enhanced production values. But what "Vamshi" had was freshness and good taste.
Paradoxically, "Meera" was both more conventional and more daring. Only an abiding obsession with the songs of M. S. Subbulakshmi in the 1944 film "Meera" could have made Shobana Bhalachandra use them to depict the legend of the Rajasthani princess. Look at the challenges here. The songs are not Meera bhajans, but by Papanasam Sivan and Kalki Krishnamurthy, and in Tamil. The music by S.V.Venkatraman is cinematically conceived, orchestral interludes are part of the songs.
Instead of replicating the film sequences, Bhalachandra wisely created her own structure with three segments: the child Meera who believes that she will wed her `playmate' Krishna, the unwilling bride and queen who longs for freedom from human bonds, and the questing saint poet united with the Lord after death. She changed the order of the songs, retaining only those suitable to her purpose. She had seasoned Bharatanatyam accompanists to produce live music, her backscore was traditional Carnatic.
Bhalachandra went about her task in a conventional costume (Meera-white and Krishna-blue), unfussy adornment, and little by way of nritta. (Even the building of the Krishna temple, highlighted devotion rather than laya fireworks). Short vocal narration in fine Tamil served to link the episodes.
Except for some literal realism of childplay at the start, the abhinaya evoked the spiritual nature of her protagonist. Bhalachandra's movements are neat, her mudras beautifully shaped. Whether the plaintive "Engum niraindaye", or the wonderstruck "Leelaigal seivane", keeping the adavus and hastas simple helped evoke the sattvika bhava untouched by artifice. There were deft touches in "Brindavanathil kannan valarnda". Meera is overwhelmed by her own physical presence in hallowed Brindavan, and proceeds to recreate its past with Krishna and the gopis sporting in the woods. Bhalachandra played with two dimensions of time past to actualise them in the present.
The orchestra's contribution was immense. Neela Sukanya's nattuvangam was subdued, while T.K.Padmanabhan (violin) and Vijayaraghavan (mridangam), Muthukumar (flute) maintained the control born of feeling. Vocalist Radha Badri gave a bravura performance. The viruttham "Udal uruha" (Purvi Kalyani, Sahana, Mayamalavagowlai) brought tears of appreciation and nostalgia.
The `Meeras' in the show had many apprehensions. Radha admits, "Is it possible to sing like M. S.? These songs are embedded in people's minds. I could not change a single note! I heard the original songs day and night, tried to understand and internalise the bhava in each, before notating and learning the lines. It was a great honour to sing M. S. Amma's songs, but what a responsibility!"
Bhalachandra declares, "I did not do this `Meera' to be `different' but because the songs haunted me and the only way I could express my rapture was through the dance. But I had to show the difference in the moods. As you know bhakti offers limited scope for dancing. Avoiding repetitiveness was my main worry."
In "Meera" the dancer and the musician worked together to strive for something higher than themselves.
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