At ‘Dvi Nethram- The Vision of Parampara’, convenor Roja Kannan, along with advisory members, Prof. Sudharani Raghupathy and Chitra Visweswaran, presented traditional dance forms from across South India. Theirs was a wide, inclusive view of Parampara — the old and the new; the classical and the folk.
Regional dance theatre was presented with the Malayalam Seethankan thullal, a type of thullal (Kalamandalam Nandakumar and troupe), the Tamil Therukoothu (Purisai Duraisami Kannappa Thambiran Paramparai), the Kannada Yakshagana (Yaksha Sinchana Trust, Bengaluru) and the Telugu Oggu Dolu Vinyasam (Eerla Mahipal and troupe, Telengana).
The Oggu Dolu Vinyasam from Andhra Pradesh was an acrobatic show by skilful drummers of the Shaiva tradition, done to collect people in the village as they make their way to the temple. The style has a katha component but it was not presented. The other regional desi art forms were of the dance-theatre genre, with a common feature being stories from the puranas making them immediately relatable. They use the local language, have impromptu dialogues and are not bound by technique, funny and colourful.
The Seethankan Thullal rendering is slightly slower than the Ottanthullal and is used for ‘Kalyana Sougandikam’. Here Hanuman teaches Bhima a lesson. Much drama and laughter follow. There are just three people on the team — the actor-singer, a cymbalist-singer and a mridangam player. The story unfolds as the performer is singing and dancing, the line repeated by the talam keeper, though one does not need to follow the lyrics to understand. The style is considered a local form of Chakyar Koothu.
Therukoothu has a bigger team — a narrator, actors, a chorus and musicians, a clarinet and a percussion. Ingenious props are used; like a piece of cloth around a child’s head with the rest twisted and draped over the arm becomes a Ganesha with a trunk. There’s full-throated music, exaggerated mime and dramatic dialogues. In ‘Hiranya Samharam’ the larger-than-life Hiranyakshipu describes how his brother Hiranyaksha tormented the Earth by rolling her into a mat, rolling his eyes to illustrate. The clarinet accompaniment kept straying into the classical domain at the end of his interventions.
The Yakshagana is as dramatic and larger than life. The Bhagavatha (Chitkala Tunga), narrator-singer, is the anchor of the show. In ‘Kamsa Vadhe’, the fierce Kamsa (Ravi Mannodi) is looking to kill Krishna. He dreams of his impending death and loses some of the bravado and gets scared. He tears up and counsels himself to be brave. Krishna arrives and runs to Kamsa’s lap with an innocent cry, ‘Mama’. The fond reunion does not happen; the two eventually fight and Kamsa is killed.
It is here that one saw the strain of truncating the all-night dramatization – disturbing the rhythm of the actors and the natural progression of the narrative. Dance steps are more prominent and the steps for female characters have suggestions of Odissi or particular karanas that may have been popular there.
The classical genre had representation from three banis in Bharatanatyam – the Thanjavur Naalvar bani (represented by Guru K.P.K. Chandrasekaran, son of the illustrious K.P. Kittappa Pillai), the Thiruvidaimarudur Thanjavur bani (from Raja Rajeswari, Mumbai, represented by gurus), and Nrithya Pillai representing the Vazhuvoor bani), and one from the Kuchipudi lineage — Kalavantulu families, Dr. Yasodha Thakore.
The Thanjavur Quartet style
Subtlety and restraint characterised the Thanjai Naalvar bani, represented by Guru Chandrasekhar and his young daughter Charumathi. Hers is the first generation of women from this nattuvanar family to be allowed to perform on stage. She is the seventh generation of Sivanandam from the Thanjavur Quartet and the fifth generation from Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. That evening their offerings consisted of a Purvikalyani kriti (‘Satilemi’, Mishra Chapu), ‘Agni Shanti’ from the Navasandhi Kavuthuvam, composed by Gangai Muthu Nattuvanar, Thodi pada varnam, ‘Mohalahiri’, and the Husseni padam composed by Dharmapuri Subbarayar.
Grace with good geometry and timing, along with quiet confidence marked this dancer’s performance. Nothing was overtly dramatic. It seemed matter of fact but there was so much happening below the surface. Chandrasekaran’s sollus were soft but rendered fast at times, misleading with the deliberate mismatch between sollus and adavus. They were in no hurry either. As Guru Chandrasekaran said, “Pada varnams are mostly in chauka kala, we have to maintain that. The slow pace is maintained throughout the varnam.” The trikala jathi opened with vilamba kala single syllables with pauses in between, ‘Tha a tha ri tha…’
Mridangam accompaniment (Thirukadaiyur G. Kamalakannan) was restrained, adding to the enjoyable music (Bhuvanagiri R.K. Kumar).
Guru Chandrasekaran’s cymbals produced flat toned beats, turning over for the sharp sounds only during nritta passages. The aural landscape was well taken care of and nothing assaulted the ear. The anupallavi jathi had old-world sollus, ‘Thadhinangudu, dhimmi thakita kita thaki, dhimi thadhinatom, dhimi titalangu tom’ with faint pauses in between to add up to 16 matras. Another quaint aspect was the circular ‘ta tai tai ta’ step. Five jathis before charanam and none thereafter is their way. Mridangam accompaniment (Thirukadaiyur G. Kamalakannan) was restrained adding to the enjoyable music (Bhuvanagiri R.K. Kumar).
A sense of music pervaded the presentation of the Thiruvidaimarudur Thanjavur bani from Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir, Mumbai, led by Guru K. Kalyanasundaram Pillai and his nephews Gurus G. Vasanth Kumar and Viswanath Mahalingam. It was not just the musical team of Mumbai Shilpa (vocal) and the expert accompanists, but the teachers who joined in to create unforgettable melody; their sollu delivery, with soft intonation, was just as lilting. There were times when the three gurus recited a jathi in turns, perfect harmony all around. They are true nattuvanar-musicians.
Guru Kalyanasundaram’s granddaughter Sruthi Natanakumar reflected this calm. Her adavu execution was clean and graceful. She took up the Thanjavur Quartet (Sivanandam) Thodi varnam, ‘Danike’ in Rupaka tala, a heritage piece of the family. The sakhi tells King Shivaji about her friend who is in love with him and worthy of him in every way; it was supposedly two courtesans in the Maratha king’s court. Interestingly Sruthi’s abhinaya would keep coming back to the friend, bringing back into focus the who and the what of the varnam.
Sruthi’s support team were distractingly good but she held her own, performing with conviction. In ‘Netrandi nerathile’ (Husseni, Subbarama Iyer), she brought in Subramanya in the pallavi itself, the guilty hero denying his romantic adventures. Quaint ‘kais’ like sun down shown with a tripataka hasta and something covering it was interesting. Krishna leelas in the concluding ragamalika ‘Krishna Karnamritham’ were well brought out.
There were interesting nuggets regarding the subtle rhythm. Usi, offbeat, and karvais, as Guru Kalyanasundaram explained, “The trikala jathi looks different because it starts with the madhyama kala, durita, madhyama, vilamba, and so on.” Every jathi had a catchy tattakaram prelude rendered by him. What about the pancha nadai sequence in the thillana in Hindolam, Adi. It was in the first Mei adavu sequence itself. Subtlety was the buzzword.
Nrithya Pillai, granddaughter of the renowned Guru Swamimalai K. Rajarathnam Pillai, identifies herself as an artiste belonging to the Sadir dancers of a bygone era, beyond banis, and is inspired by T. Balasaraswathi and others. She has a a commanding presence and a great sense of timing.
Nrithya’s performance opened with a Vazhuvoor Todayamangalam, ‘Gnana sabesa stothram’. She presented a sabdam (‘Sami ninne’), Ragamalika, Mishra Chapu, Ponniah Pillai), Khamas swarajathi (‘Mohalahiri’, Rupakam), and ‘Kadigai Namashivaya Pulavar’ tuned by Subbarama Dikshitar and part of the opera ‘Vallibharatham’) ‘Ariven Ayya’ padam(Atana, Subbarama Iyer), and ‘Ela radayane’, a javali in Bhairavi.
The swarajathi sparkled as her eyes danced with the beautifully rhythmic jathis (some by Guru S.K. Rajarathinam and most by Guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai) to Parur M.S. Ananthashree’s accurate and lilting nattuvangam and music. Nrithya has a scholarly background and every piece was introduced with a historical perspective. The javali was especially noteworthy as the dancer sang some of it and emoted seated on the stage. It had,
Focus on padams and javalis
Another hereditary artiste, Dr. Yashoda Thakore, from the Kalavantulu, presented Kalavantulu Nrithyam, with padams and javalis that she had researched and learnt from the traditional artistes themselves. They are the Sanis, who served temples and courts, and recorded from about 200 BC in the Amaravati sculptures, according to scholar Dr. Arudra. They renamed themselves Kalavantulu and formed guilds and initiated social reforms when the Anti-Nautch movement started in the late 1800s.
The style she performs were learnt from traditional artistes in the East Godavari district. Yashoda’s presentation was part autobiographical as she lays claim to her background, and part historical, as she led us down the ages. The prayer ‘Swari vedalenu’ used to be performed by temple karmakartas and kalavantulus when the god was taken in a procession. A Salam Daru on Pratapasimha with lyrics like, ‘Hara hara… chira chira…jaga jaga….’ had minimal steps, but there were interesting side steps. The Arabhi swara pallavi (Adi) was another delicate piece-attami, arms circling on either side to end in a Natyambharam with a side patakam, another step with tripathakam, etc. Yasodha says her grandmother, Chinaagandham Kausalya, from a family that made sandalwood paste for the deity, was able to sing the popular Navroz varnam at 95. She learnt it from Guru Annabattula Mangatayaru. Here, she showed the passage of time with changing audience tastes influenced by Victorian ideas of morality. The Kalavantulus used to be seated, and would emote the lyrics in a chamber setting. Dr. Yasodha says that showed the confidence of the dancer and the discerning audience. The second half was done standing. The second chittuswara had a plate dance, as it is today, to keep the attention of the rasika.
The seated dancer emoting the first half of the varnam, expands a word, that keeps repeating while she shows various interpretations of it, much like a niraval. The word this time was ‘bangarecha’. Yashoda is such a graceful and expressive dancer that she made the Kshetrayya padam ‘Raayabaramampinada’ (khandita) and the suggestive javali ‘Samayam manchirera’ (Virahotkhandita) come to life so naturally. She concluded with an impromptu segment, ‘Gaptu varasa’.
The contemporary productions, ‘Don Quixote’ by Sheejith Krishna and ‘Tales from the Bull and the Tiger’ by Shankarananda Kalakshetra and Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant, also had full houses.
Sheejith Krishna has had a head for new themes since his Kalakshetra days. But ‘Don Quixote’, an adventure story set in Spain, is quite something else. His ingenuous steps, not quite Bharatanatyam and music, international sounding, Indian in parts, and international costumes, made for a fascinating experience. It was not an opulent show, but one that was creatively done.
While he was true to Don’s adventures, there were occasional adaptations, which did not detract from the story, but made them more suited to today’s context. When fighting the windmills that he takes as giants, Don believes that good should prevail. ‘Like Gandhi, Mandela… fighting something bigger than themselves,’ went the narrator (Akhila).
There was a lot of dancing, particularly footwork. The Sahrdaya group were well-rehearsed and perfect in adapting to a non-traditional costume and movement. The story is long and so was the dramatic production. Except that for a Dance Conference, it was too long.
The title ‘The Tale…’ was quite misleading. The dance theatre was not about forests but as Ananda explained, “It was about Him at the core of our being.’ With aesthetic costumes, beautiful visuals and excellent dancing, it was almost like a sing along. The music scape, if a bit too loud, was replete with known mantras, familiar songs and rhythmic jathis. Every scene was otherwise well-planned and executed.
They promised us a story and didn’t deliver would be the complaint. The storytelling between the ‘Tiger and the Bull’ and ‘Ganesha and Subramanya’ was a warm, fuzzy idea. What followed was logical — their wedding, Parvathi’s birth, Nataraja dance in Thillai, etc. Then? The story didn’t move forward. And ended soon after with a cute family portrait — the four of them and their vahanas.
Every scene was otherwise well-planned and excellently executed by the group dancers — no missteps, no panting. They were flexible, and agile. The stunning lighting added one more dimension to the visual treat.
The little child as Ganesha and a devotee gave a wonderful opening. Each is introduced thereafter, Subramanya and his peacock swathed in a sea of blue lighting. The tiger and the bull, once in the picture, begin to tell stories to the children. Electrifying show with a disappointing end.
While Lakshmi Viswanathan inaugurated ‘Dwi nethram’, V.R. Devika and Usha R.K. enlightened the audience with expert comments.
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