Shivaratri is a busy time for the Arts, with almost every Hindu association putting on a showcase in homage of Lord Shiva. February 7 had four Bay Area dancers channeling our Shiva-bhakti through their BharataNatyam renditions at the Shiva Vishnu temple, in Livermore, California.
The program began right on time at 2PM (kudos to the organizers), with a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, Abhinaya Dance Company’s guest dancer: Sweta Ravisankar. She started the Kamboji-Adi Ananda Natanam with an impressive backward angled pose, immediately heralding Lord Nataraja in our midst. The choreography was innovative, with asymmetric steps breaking the usual do-right-mirror-on-left korvais. What was also note-worthy was the use of overhead space, reminding one of the Nataraja’s ring of fire. Sweta’s dancing was flawless, taking the audience through the Panchabhuta: the depiction of water and wind was especially memorable. However, the piece was introduced as a dance of Shiva and Parvati; Parvati’s portrayal was missing. It also felt as though Sweta’s own stamp on this piece absent.
Ganesh Vasudeva followed with his very own GangaAvatharana in Purvi Kalyani-Rupaka. There is only one word for it- Brilliant. The choreography left us speechless, there are simply no words that can do justice to it. Here is an attempt anyway: The piece depicted Ganga, Bhagiratha, and Shiva. Ganesh’s evocative angika abhinaya left no doubt about which role he was playing: His Ganga was fluid, prideful, and playful; his Shiva was majestic; Bhagiratha was dutiful. At the beginning, Ganesh showed Ganga– the trick of using the stage on the diagonal successfully created the illusion that the powerful waters are flowing down. Shiva’s dancing is interrupted and he unleashes his matted locks to soften her descent. Aided and abetted by Chethana Chidambara’s nattuvangam/ sollu kattu and SnigdhaVenkatramani’s singing, Ganesh’s Ganga seemed unstoppable even as Shiva seemed invincible and His locks unbind-able. The attention to detail left the audience riveted throughout, Ganesh kept the narrative “flowing” with dramatic pauses which brought home the rise and abate of Ganga’s waters and pride.
What followed was even more masterful, which was Ganesh’s interpretation of Ganga wanting to prove herself as superior and in a sense, getting her way. He showed a vanquished but unrelenting Ganga attempt to manipulate Shiva by ever-so-slowly trickling down his forehead, closing his third eye, lidding his eyes, descending his nose to…At that moment, Shiva wakes up to Ganga’s intent and realizes that he did her a disservice by keeping her bound. He releases her, allowing Ganga the satisfaction of declaring the battle to be a draw. The only negative feedback in the whole piece would be that Ganesh tone down Ganga’s coyness: It feels repetitive and “dam”s her. This negates her portrayal as a powerful force in the piece.
Kavita Thirumalai held her own after this heady piece. She has definitely matured from a dancer to a performer over the years as was evident in the Revathi Ananda Natamadinar. Right from the beginning, she drew the audience in with an expression of secret joy. Her energy was on display in the many jumps and enactment of the navarasas. Especially noteworthy was the bhibhatsam at the skulls adorning him (and how they came to be) and the violence of ripping the tiger skin and wearing it as a garment. High marks to Kavita for her portrayal of Nataraja, which was multi-hued, a rainbow of emotion, grace, force, and joy.
Next, Rasika Kumar, Associate Artistic Director of Abhinaya Dance Company, chose to do a retrospective piece, guru Adyar Lakshman’s Kamas Thyagaraja varnam. The recording was in his voice and it brought an unexpected and warm nostalgia with it. Rasika spoke with feeling about him, sharing also, that it was a varnam her mother learnt and passed on to her. The choreography had some classics, such as the basic natadavu and a progression of speeds within the same movement. The sentiment in this varnam is not complex, but Rasika’s gravitas made it a stirring experience. Noteworthy was her portrayal of the incomprehension that the love note came back un-opened; and when she showed the nayika’s journey from disbelief that this ash-laden man with matted locks could the Lord to a still recognition that this is indeed is her Lord. Rasika is a performer and effortlessly beckons the audience to follow wherever she goes.
Kavita’s choreography of Swathi Thirunal’s Husseini-Rupaka Pahimam was true to the sthayi bhava of bhakti and kautwam. Her eyes had a luminosity (Sarasijaksha) that brought out the benevolent (Jaggatjanani) Devi. Kavita’s sense of timing and communication with the audience brought Sri Bale to life. Her high technical standard uplifts any piece to an experience in laya and thala; in a couple places though, the recorded music was out of sync with the footwork.
Sweta ended the program with the Kamas Theruvil Varano, where the nayika wonders if the Lord will pass through her lane and will he acknowledge her? The choreography was remarkable- especially the depiction of getting the waters to be the message and the messenger deer being shushed by Shiva.
All in all, the event whet one’s appetite to see more from these performers!