Guru Rhadha stages Nauka Charithram in Bay Area

Guru Rhadha staged her Nauka Charithram to a Bay Area audience on May 9, at Los Altos, CA. It was a fantastic showcase of the Vazhuvoor style, Thyagaraja compositions, and Rhadha’s choreography. Thanks to Yuva Bharati for bringing the event to us.

In a refreshingly all traditional – sans stage props or folksy costumes – presentation, six dancers transported us to an enchanted time when gopis had the luxury of abandoning their chores to follow Krishna’s sweet melodies. Three of the dancers were Rhadha’s own students: Vibhushitha Chandrasekaran, Samyuktha Narayan and SangitaVasudevan. Two were independent artists Navia Natarajan and Kavita Thirumalai. The dancer who played Krishna was a young, freshly arangetram’ed Samhita Kadiyala, a student of Sugandha Sreenath.

The opening act introduced us to the gopis, each immersed in their lives – de-husking rice and grinding spices, tending to cattle, getting dressed, plucking flowers – till they hear the flute. Navia smoothing her tresses was particularly memorable; one could picture her unruly hair. Rhadha would cadence her sollukattu to match the actions, which heightened the effect. However, given the high quality of choreography it was dissatisfying that there were only two gopis doing shringara.

The next scene had a young Krishna waiting, confident that the gopis cannot resist his company. Once the gopis gather around, they want to prolong the pleasure of companionship discussing if, perhaps a boat ride on the serene Yamuna would be a good idea. Thyagaraja’s insight into the inner workings of women is amazing: the time spent in anticipation of the joy has to be commensurate with the actual event, it seemed – Rhadha got the dancers to elaborate on Choodare beautifully. The gopis indulge in delightful descriptions of the scene before them, they then debate whether to take Krishna: Kavita brought to life the more cautious gopi, saying, “He is young, privileged, won’t it be better to leave him behind?”

Samhita is young for real; the reaction at the prospect of being left behind came through solidly, ably borne by Thyagaraja’s words, as Krishna tries negotiating: “Surely, you need a man to steer the boat? Need I remind you that I vanquished Kalia and am an avatar of Vishnu?”

The scene was particularly interesting because most often than not, a production comprises students from a single school, lending a homogeneity to portrayals. Here though, since it was a mix of ages, performing experience, and tutelage, the “Girls’ Evening Out” from yesteryears was wonderfully nuanced. Through Emani Nera, they argue with Krishna that he is not a suitable companion, the highlight being, Vibhushitha and Samhita showing, “When I wanted to adorn your forehead with a tilaka, you tried to bite me.”

Finally, they heave the boat on the waters and vocalist Subhapriya Srivatsan’s beautifully rendered Odanu Yaripe mesmerized us into going along for the ride. The dancers gave their all to this scene: Sangita was miffed and then cajoled into sharing an intimate moment, Samyuktha it seemed, did not stand a chance to Krishna’s flirtations.

The next transition, when the gopis turn prideful and make fun of Krishna needed a different treatment. It needed an “aradhi” in the rhythm, metaphorically speaking, since it is a significant turn in the narrative. Krishna’s decision to teach the gopis a lesson in humility was understated, as it should be, since he doesn’t need to work himself up to do anything; flirting, mischief-making, disarming, coercing – to him, it’s all in the blink of an eye.

Rhadha’s command over the narrative came through at all times. She had interspersed the program with crisp jathis. It was a treat to hear and see the familiar Vazhuvoor jathis set to such engaging choreography. She had each dancer execute a short piece and then be joined by one or more dancers, sort of like a prolonged conversation in rhythm. Navia uses her whole body to highlight every single movement, Kavita has a clean and crisp grace, Sangita executes with a fullness, Samyuktha used her upper body to greater advantage, and Vibhushitha stays faithful to her guru’s style. It was apparent that each would have had to work hard at blending in. Rhadha’s attention to this detail too was appreciated. It would have taken much away from the narrative had this symmetry not been maintained.

The scene where the boat starts to spring leaks unfortunately showed a dip in the quality of the performance: the dancers seemed to go through the motions of fear rather than panic truly and be nonplussed at the situation. Their status was on the ascendant thus far and then their belief in their own supremacy is shaken. There needed to be incomprehension or disbelief before the descent into fear; each dancer could have reacted multi-dimensionally – one could pray, another be immobile, a third sob, etc. All of them, it seemed, were clutching their head / hands / bosom at various times.

However, this was made up by Subhapriya’s excellent Allakalolla and the choreography. The extreme roll and sway of the boat was masterfully portrayed by the dancers criss-crossing with a rolling gait to collapse at the other end; they held hands unable to steady themselves, and each one’s attempt at finding their balance – in all senses of the phrase – was in vain. While the dancers could have done better in their abhinaya, the effect of the scene was compelling enough that one wondered if, in an effort to plug the leaks, Krishna would offer to take off his dhoti before he urged the women to disrobe. But then of course, this is a metaphorical disrobing; Thyagaraja was alluding to the obsession with self-worth, rather than selflessness.

Krishna makes good at last by fully clothing and adorning the women. It must be mentioned that the women seemed overly happy to get their jewelry back, which after a near-death experience, was baffling. Was Thyagaraja saying people or women lose sight of what is important in a flash, or was this scene not thought through enough?

On the whole, the 90-minute experience was satiating to the senses as well as to the mind. It definitively showcased Thyagaraja’s poems and the theme of Divine surrender. Rhadha’s directorial mastery was evident at all times. The orchestra was skilled. A special mention must be made for violinist Keshavan Srivatsan, who at only 13 years of age, is already on the path to becoming a vidwan.

(published in

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