Singing The Texts, Dancing The Stories

Rajika Puri's lecture performance inspired from the Ragamala paintings and Pahadi Kangras on display at the museum at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum
Rajika Puri in her lecdem at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

In the intimate ambience of the performance area of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, a delightful and culturally vibrant space in the heart of old Mumbai (the Jijamata Udayan in Byculla), the articulate storyteller Rajika Puri, a Bharata Natyam and Odissi exponent, wowed a miniscule gathering of culturally galvanised folk, with her inimitable style of narrative (sarcastic asides and all…), as she sang the texts and danced the stories. It was a lecture performance inspired from the Ragamala paintings and Pahadi Kangras on display at the museum and bringing the miniatures from the museum to life.

We have a heritage we should be so proud of, and it was  heartening to see the efforts from the curator and the Museum’s cultural staff. To host this show, was a beautiful idea, and such efforts may be drops in the ocean. Oh! But how they count!

The museum’s collection of Ragamala Paintings from Jaipur depict various ragas from classical Indian music, personified into paintings. The Pahadai Kangra miniatures depict episodes from the life of Krishna and multiple mythological stories narrated in a single painting.

Rajika Puri had hurt her foot at her previous evening’s show of the same, at the NCPA, and despite that, managed to drum up the enthusiasm to perform that evening, though her performance lacked a leg (pun intended). But she is a wizard with words, and as she strung various concepts , thoughts and paintings, elaborating upon the myths and wonderful stories (many of which we’ve heard from our grandparents and parents, and some which we never had), interspersed with strains of songs and bursts of dance, the miniatures gained life as the audience visualised the slide presentation, from the museum’s collection.

Rajika is well-known for a form of danced storytelling she has developed and called ‘Sutradhari Natyam’, and is often invited to be the narrator or ‘Sutradhar’ for dance festivals in New York, of which she herself co-curates and co-presents a number. Rajika’s slide presentations on Indian ‘miniature’ paintings arise are an extension of her sessions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in which she danced alongside Rajput miniatures in the museum’s galleries, which have become quite the rage there.

The miniature paintings that Rajika explored were the multiple personifications of the Ragas Kedar, Hindola, Kamod, Vasant (or Basant), showing different images for the same Raga, except for the unchanging and fascinating Asavari.

She expounded at length, interspersing the narrative with the relevant or associated dance movement, but while the slide lectures may help the uninformed audiences make connections between a range of aspects of Indian dance – music, theatre and cultural contexts, this particular evening was wanting, for both, more of music and dance.  Despite her gift of the gab, the miniatures took centrestage.

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