Even as Bharatanatyam dancers the world over are re-interpreting the medium, some are going deeper to uncover its origins. Ganesh Vasudeva and 12 other dancers presented ‘Navarathna, Rare Gems of the Tanjore Quartet’ in Santa Clara, California on September 13, 2015.
The program was important not only because it unearthed rare compositions, but also because it fueled a synergistic energy among Bay Area dancers. For years, productions have been put together either by local dance schools or by visiting dancers. Anuradha Prabhashanker’s long standing Shivaratri festival and organizations such as Yuva Bharati and Sangam Arts have provided a forum for dancers to get together, but a formal program at such a scale was unprecedented. Ganesh deserves recognition for this: Well done.
An out-of-turn mention must be made about the novel highlight of the evening; an item that took us back to the 19th century. A traditional looking Snigdha Venkatramani presented a javali, Chalamelara: She both sang and danced to it. It was a surreal feeling to experience what must have been the de rigueur presentation format in the royal court then. The only thing missing was the fire-lit torches and lamps. Even though her emotive presentation was not on par with what Snigdha may have delivered were she not to be singing, the whole package was well put together.
Now, for the rest of the program: The first item was a Nrittanjali in misra ata tala composed and choreographed by Ganesh. The beginning was simple but elegant; each dancer entered the stage on her own to ask Lord Nataraja for blessings. This was followed by vivid choreography featuring agile footwork and formations. It seemed as though not once was any korvai repeated, save for purposes of symmetry. The piece set a clean, fast-paced, and beautifully traditional tone for the rest of the evening. It was a disappointment that a couple dancers seemed to forget the step or missed a beat here, but the overall piece was strong.
This was followed by a keertana (written by Ponnniah) in praise of Goddess Brihadamba; Mahadeva Manohari by Ganesh and Sweta Ravisankar, set to adi tala tisra nadai. The dancers are evenly matched in terms of energy, style, and approach. The costumes also blended well together. The choreography was brilliant; again, it felt as though there was no repetition. It was pure pleasure to watch the pure dance unfold; the dancers were holographic- as in, they seemed to fly through space and tala, making the journey through each line of verse seem both, like a discovery and deliberate thought. The poses were superbly presented, at times the dancers were diagonally across, at times together – contrasting or complementing; each leaving where the other left off, both completing the rhythm in unison. Champeya Gouradra was an insert in here but was breathtaking for all senses. Snigdha Venkatramani’s husky singing contrasted uncannily well with deep incantation of the same lyrics in shloka form by Chethana Sastry (one of the nattuvanars for the evening), creating a riveting progression of Shakti and Shiva. The only comment here is that there was scope on Ganesh’s part to be more tandava and on Sweta’s part to show more lasya.
Next was jathiswaram in the raga Hemavathi set to misra chapu tala with Jyotsna Vaideeswaran, Kavita Thirumalai, Roopa Suresh and Aishwarya Venkat. Given the diverse styles of these dancers, one can only imagine the investment made by them to smooth out the outliers in – to paraphrase what Deepa said in her introduction to the program – “different teermanams, finishing a step, and holding a gaze.” Every effort was made to redefine jathiswaram while maintaining the traditionality – kudos to this group of dancers for keeping it fresh and honest. The formations were varied; no oft-seen choreographic unit was discernible, which underscored the effort gone into making this otherwise academic item seem multi-faceted. Roopa and Jyotsna are technically good, but need to look into the audience consistently and with passion to draw us in.
The audience was treated to glimpses of three different varnams after this, reason enough to have come to the show. The first varnam, Samiyai Azhaithuvadi was in Kalyani, adi tala. In the second, Vanajakshi vani in Shankarabharanam and tisra ekam, the hero is Adi Keshava of Pandanallur. Dancers described the city of Pandanallur and the speechless feeling upon seeing Adi Keshava for the first time. In Sarasa ninnu in Karnataka Kapi and tisra ekam, the heroine implores Lord Brihadeeswara of Tanjore to not ignore her.
The orchestra deserves special mention here. The flute (Ashwin Krishnakumar), mridangam and damaru (Ravindra Sridharan), violin (Vignesh Thyagarajan), vocal (Snigdha Venkatramani), nattuvangam (Malavika Kumar) simply outdid each other while transporting the audience through the Quartet’s emotional verses.
This medley of varnams was choreographed by various dancers; each performer captivated our attention. It took some effort to keep track and take note of each aspect – everything was new. For this reason, it would have been a better idea to not have overlapping dancers between the medley pieces, and to introduce each varnam separately. The verses also needed to be called out, so we could discern the contrasts and similarities more clearly.
Some highlights / comments: Rasika’s first jathi showed off her dynamic choreographic style; there was one spot where the three dancers were in an interchanging triangle, which stood out. Her abhinaya did not shine as brightly, but was mature, especially the interpretation of the phases of the day. There was a line where she showed the Lord’s snakes: one felt jealous of the way they freely hug the Lord.
Janani showed the world coming alive when the Lord walks by – the elephant takes a fuller stretch, the peacock a fuller spread of feathers. The other two ideas were missed; she did not have enough time to narrate them. In another line, she showed how the glow of the lamp-light bouncing off of the idol lit her up.
Kavita was splendor struck by the lotus-eyed look she receives from her Lord. It was a fresh take on an oft-repeated gathering flowers theme. Shirni’s Parvati was seared by Brihadeeshwara’s flames and then welcomes His Ganga waters to sooth her. Everywhere she looked, Aishwarya seemed to find the Lord’s reflection – in her mirror, in the river water. Chethana’s heart and world reverberated with the damaru sounds; however, the execution lacked the passion showed by Sridharan’s drumming.
Ganesh appearing as the Lord at times, was a great punctuation on the narrative and wisely used. There was a point where vignettes were shown of nayikas in waiting – that was a good summary. Entries and exits on / off the stage were consistent and provided a go-to pattern, helping the audience process the newness of it all.
The javali segment came next. Deepa presented Chinnaiah’s Muttavaddura in raga Saveri, adi tala. She is shocked to see telltale signs that her beloved has been with the Other Woman (“My hair is straight, but I see a curly strand on you”). With dignity and a modern analytical interpretation, she systematically forms the argument: “She paraded her charms one by one for you and you fell for them, and perhaps invited them too. How then do you expect me to care for you like before?” Deepa is effervescent in her nritta – lots of positive energy; the elegant restraint shown in this piece, as was befitting her nayika, showed off her range of skills.
Ponnaiah’s Dani Bodana in raga Surutti and adi tala by Navia Natarajan was next. At first it felt as though it was the same theme as the previous javali, but it became evident that Navia’s nayika was proving the point that the Other Woman was coercive, seductive, and “My Lord, you were led astray.” Navia was at first disappointed, then in a fury, but then reasons with herself even as she does the same with the Lord, finally getting to the point “choose me, not her” and leads Him away. Navia’s expressions were so clear that one could form the sentences in the narrative along the way.
The thillana chosen was Chinnaiah’s on Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar, set in Begada raga. Rasika’s choreography made this gem shine brighter. It was an exercise for the audience too, we had to keep up with the complex maneuvering of the rhythms to finally anticipate and be rewarded with a fantastic arrival at the samam each and every time. And immediately take off again through another kaleidoscope of korvais. The energy and attention to detail were unflagging, the formations of 3, 4, 5, 6, more dancers was never the same, the synergy created seemed to feed off of one another. The finale, with 3-4 dancers cascading dramatically left the audience powerless.
Throughout, the quality for the most part was upheld, but there were places where all the dancers, at different times, did just enough rather than owning the segment. Mistakes were made, which is unexpected of senior dancers. All of this being said this concert was a huge achievement in terms of marking a milestone for Bharatanatyam in the Bay Area. One hopes to see more such collaborations between the different banis, perhaps annually!