Date:31/03/2004 URL:
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Classic in a new idiom

It's Silappadikaram with a contemporary touch. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN on the forthcoming production

A challenging experience... Kanimozhi Karunanidhi and `Bombay' Jayashree. Pic by M. Moorthy

"IF OUR parents and grandparents had read the Silappadikaram instead of only the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, they would have understood us better," smiles `Bombay' Jayashree. "Good to recover our secular literature, which has a sacredness of its own," agrees Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. Writing a script based on the ancient Tamil saga and setting it to music for a dance drama have been an exhilarating challenge for both. This is the first time the two of them are trying out something like this. Choreographed by G. Narendra, and produced by Uma Ganesan (Cleveland Cultural Alliance), the show will be premiered in Chennai (April 4, The Music Academy) before going on a two-month U.S./Canada autumn tour.

Silappadikaram has the eternal love triangle located in the Chola, Chera and the Pandya kingdoms. Happily wedded to beauteous Kannagi, Kovalan deserts her for the enchanting courtesan Madhavi, but returns to the forgiving wife who follows him to make a new life in Madurai. Mistaken for a thief when he tries to sell Kannagi's anklet, Kovalan is beheaded by royal command. Kannagi's righteous fury reduces the entire city to ashes. Her deification follows.

"I stayed close to the original in characterisation and emotional tones," explains Kanimozhi. "The language is contemporary, but I've retained lines and phrases like "Masaru ponne" and "Tera manna" to evoke the resonance of the epic." For the poet, scripting a ballet was to break fresh ground, as teamwork demanded constant rethinking and rewriting. The words had to flow and inspire sound and visual. Jayashree would say that she wanted a particular rhythm pattern for a dialogue between Kannagi and her friend, choreographer Narendra and dance director Mahalakshmi would want a certain lilt for Madhavi's dance.

Kanimozhi adds, "I also discovered for the first time how music and dance can build their own layers on the text!"

Jayashree made similar discoveries. "I noticed how indispensable the mridangam was and how crucial the song rhythms were. Narendra would say `I'm using a piece of cloth to contrast and correlate the experiences of the two women, I want a dreamy effect here' and so on. Dancer Mahalakshmi wanted more than just one raga to express her range of feelings as Kannagi, telling Kovalan not to vacillate. Or a higher octave at some point. When I saw the song being interpreted in dance I found out what they meant."

Kannagi's confusions in shifting from Puhar to Madurai, or her state of mind when she learns of her husband's death, Madhavi's enchantment, the repartees, descriptions, dialogue — all demanded a new kind of thinking about music itself.

No sentiment was simple; each had its membranes and tissues. "How many kinds of sadness — sad regret, sad anger, sad hopelessness, sad frustration, sad self pity, sad nostalgia... The music had to have those strands," Jayashree smiles. She had to find ragas for Kovalan's silliness (Chandrajyoti) when he apologises to Kannagi, his dumbness (Abhogi) when he admits that Madhavi had been true to him. In matching melody to verbal content, Jayashree used many ragas, but also saw new shades in familiar scales.

Aesthetically the project might have satisfied both. But what about their emotional response to the women in the tale? "Both broke the norms of their society," says Kanimozhi. "Kannagi was a reticent woman, but when her husband was killed she strode into court and questioned a king. Hers was not just personal anger, she raised a public issue about the miscarriage of justice." Jayashree nods and adds, "As a courtesan, it was not easy for Madhavi to brave family disapproval and stay with a single lover." Betrayal and disloyalty did not end their love for Kovalan. Paradoxically, Kovalan's death makes the retiring Kannagi emerge into the public sphere, while Madhavi becomes a renunciate.

"Accepting this project was a mad moment in my life! Lots of trepidations but now I'm not scared. The great music and great dance will cover up for me," Kanimozhi laughs. "Strange and moving that men and women could feel, act and write like this 2000 years ago!" sighs Jayashree. "I think I found their music because I found both Madhavi and Kannagi in myself."

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