I have never experienced a Thillana like this, writes Suguna Sundaram, on the final performance of the evening It was a stupendous end to the evening, elevating one’s being to a state of pure joy.
The second day of the Pravaha Dance Festival held at the Tata Theatre of the NCPA featured Svakranti (the revolution within oneself) by Mallika Sarabhai & Troupe and Anekanta (Multiplicity- or multiple outcomes) by Geeta Chandran and Natya Vriksha Dance Company.
In an intensely personal performance, Mallika Sarabhai used multimedia, theatre music and dance to trace the journey of women seekers of truth and to contextualise them in the world today. The concept, script, direction, choreography and performance was by Mallika Sarabhai.
The troupe featured via use of multimedia- two screens on either side of Mallika, which played on film the entire theatric action by other members, the women on one side and the opposing men on the other, without having the dancers travel (Though used very effectively, real physical presence may have actually enlivened the performances which felt a tad flat).
In an imagined conversation with Mahatma Gandhi (who she kept calling Gandhiji, never Bapu), Mallika traverses the lives of women who have struggled (using non-violent means) with truth through the ages, questioning the relevance of this path today.
Mallika stood alone, centrestage (looking far younger than her age), clad in a red lehenga kurti (symbolically, a rustic bridal outfit even), and performed the story of Saduba, a young Satyagrahi woman, from Ahmedabad, who willingly chose death to defamation. The locals later erected a temple to Saduba in Shahpur. The story is from the times when Ahmedabad was under the Maratha rule in 1753. There was hardly any dance is this story.
The second story she enacted was based on a true incident in Kerala (ironically a matriarchal society) from 1989, when four educated young daughters of a poor working class father, committed suicide because they were rejected by suitors on grounds that they could not afford a dowry.
The four daughters’ characters were effectively delineated and defined by Mallika via dance (from Bharatanatyam basics, to pop music to ek do teen…), each one of them presenting their reasons to ‘live life my way…or not at all’. The youngest girl is the only one who chooses death because she never wanted to be separated from her sisters. The sisters’ death notes, pinned to their blouses were a desperate plea for change in societal attitudes.
Mallika also included the story of Meera, one of our country’s earliest rebels, Mallika called her a warrior – who went against everything to lead the life she wanted to with her beloved Krishna. She gave up wealth, status, husband, royalty, and family, leaving everything behind, to go singing on the streets in abandonment, praises of her Lord as she experienced him. Here, Mallika dances in Meera’s ecstasy to Daras Dikhao Piya, O Mere….
She then cited examples of women fighting the system from across the world… Amsterdam, London, Khandwa, to the Dalit farmers’ families. Mallika said she had been entrusted with the privilege of speaking against injustice, and performed her favourite song Jaago Jaago Man, Mat Sote Rehna… ending with inspiring words –‘Our time has come. We need to seize this moment together.’
The narrative was in English, flawlessly enunciated by Mallika. The entire performance was less than an hour. She would periodically break the narrative to talk to the statue of Gandhiji, seated on a chair, stage left, asking questions and sharing her concerns. Overall, it was less dance and more theatre- giving the flavour of regional street theatre performances. But effective and inspiring, even in its starkness and austerity.
The second and concluding performance of the second day and of the Pravaha festival was Anekanta, Bharatanatyam performances by Padmashri Geeta Chandran & the Nritya Vriksha Dance Company.
The sutradhar (compere really) for the performance explained very well the concepts of multiplicity that were going to be explored – how there were multiple aspects to all of life’s truths, and multiple interpretations. The performance of Anekanta was rooted in the Jaina philosophy, recognising that there are multiple realities to every issue. It was exploration via dance and ragas, rhythm and silence, convergence and divergence, part versus the whole, and a cosmic view of the interrelatedness of existence.
The choreographies were initiated by Geeta Chandran after interactions with Jaina Scholar Sudhamahi Reghunathan. The music was designed by K Venkateswaran and Dr S Vasudevan, along with the participation of Karaikudi Sivakumar and Lalgudi Sriganesh. The lighting was designed and executed by Sharad Kulshreshtha
The stunning costumes were by Sandhya Raman. They were modified Bharatanatyam costumes, classy in the colour palette, devoid of frills and too much gold or zari work, the most adornment being on the face and hair ornaments, highlighting the expressiveness of the dancers. And a studded waist belt, in typical Bharatanatyam jewellery style. The costumes were in browns, reds and khaki and rust shades, mellow subdued greens- the typical fall colours you’d see in a forest.
In this set of choreographies, collectively titled Anekanta, it celebrates acceptance of multiple truths, embracing diversity and of universal acceptance, portrayed through the dances. The production was created using the traditional compositions from the repertoire of classical music and dance, skillfully woven together to represent the philosophy of Anekanta through conceptual and body movements.
Each choreography translates into how there can be multiple interpretations of the universal truth, and dissembles by incorporating multiplicity in conflicts between the real and imagined, celebrating opposites, experiencing differences and unity though aural processes and celebrating the coexistence of multiple realities and approaches.
The programme began with Tridhara – which gave a spin to the traditional Alarippu (the first item in the Bharatanatyam repertoire) – it was a Tishram Alarippu, with three variations of pace (tishra gati). The dancers numbered nine, not counting Guru Geeta Chandran, who danced in equal measure as her students, gracefully allowing them to lead the limelight too. In an extremely innovative choreography of rhythm by Geeta Chandran, the dancers were divided into three sets of three, three and four dancers- the movement sprightly, the effect visually very attractive.
The second piece performed was Maaye (Illusion) – exploring Vyakta and Avyakta– the said and the unsaid, in saguna and nirguna, form and formlessness. This exploration was set to Maaye twam yahi, Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s kriti (composition), where the devotee prays to be released from maaya– this life- depicting internal and external conflict, tangible and intangible. The body movements of the girls were strangely aggressive at points and graceful and sylphlike at points.
The lyrics and swara alapana arrangements of musical notes in patterns) were excellently rendered. The act was divided into Geeta performing solo, and a follow up by the group. The set of steps with the puppeteers and puppets movement was an excellently performed segment and brilliantly choreographed. The emerging symbolism cannot be ignored, even by the smallest creative intelligence.
The dancers were extremely feminine- and graceful, every last one of them, and these young women have all been training from Guru Geeta since childhood. The third piece they performed was Jati Vistara– a choreography of gati teermanam (arrangements of speeds) exploring rhythm and silence – via a different approach to rhythm. Opposites attract. Or one can be represented by many.
The dancers were so light on their feet. This choreography was a happy one and one was constantly reminded of the dancing Tanjore dolls. The audience cheered loudly at the end of this one. The swara veda – structure of music, was played out where one note position changes the entire raaga. – This was aural anekanta– and the note was pushed to different positions repeated in the octave, creating an echo effect. Oh, this was sooo dramatic and dynamic!
The dance was traditional and pure Bharatanatyam, but the choreography was totally contemporary. It thrilled one to see this combination so effectively rendered, from the traditional to contemporary concerns, moving beyond the paradigm of existing performances.
The concluding item was titled Navagunjara– and it was a performed to the Annamachar kriti, Entha matramuna eevaru talachina, antha matrame neevulu, (immortalised by the melodious rendition in MS Subbalaksmi’s voice) This version was a male version. This piece explored anekanta of one God and many forms.
It went into an old folk tale from Orissa where Arjuna whilst in the jungle, meets a strange fearsome creature that is an amalgamation of the body parts of nine beasts, including a human hand. (There was a pictorial demonstration by way of a painting- the strangest ever depiction, a brilliant execution of an imaginative mind…the animals were rooster, peacock, deer, elephant, lion. Cobra, camel, horse, and the human (hand)) All ready to kill the beast, Arjuna is then revealed the Vishwaroopa ( cosmic form ) of Vishnu. The gist being that truth has multiple forms, it may be unfamiliar, but it is the eternal truth.
This performance was beautifully divided into a format where Geeta Chandran performed to the kriti and the dancers performed a lovely thillana, each of them depicting one of the beasts that formed the limbs of the Navagunjara, eventually coming together to form the whole, in the Vishwaroopam.
This performance was proof that the whole can sometimes be more than the sum of its parts. I have never experienced a Thillana like this. It was a stupendous end to the evening, elevating one’s being to a state of pure joy.
Suguna Sundaram belongs to the rare breed of writers in English who review Indian classical music and dance. A trained classical musician and dancer, Suguna has over three decades of experience as a writer. Interestingly, her day jobs over the years have been with all things commercial, including being editor of some of the most popular (and boldest) film fanzines. Suguna Sundaram reviews Indian classical music and dance on Xyngr.