Dancers break the walls of solitude

Four exponents of four classical dance styles perform thought-provoking pieces at the Anvesana festival

It was a joy to watch stalwarts of four Indian classical dance styles, Bijayini Satpathy (Odissi), Methil Devika (Mohiniyattam), Rama Vaidyanathan (Bharatanatyam), and Aditi Mangaldas (Kathak) at ‘Anvesana: Reflections in Solitude’, a digital dance festival.

“It is fascinating to look into the minds of a creator. Does a physical lockdown mean a lockdown of spirit and creativity?” asked Lata Pada, artistic director, Sampradaya Dance Creations, Canada, which organised the festival. While providing opportunities for young artistes with virtual projects such as the one based on Maya Angelou’s autobiography, A Caged Bird Sings, and ‘Danceconnects’, which invited videos from dancers across the globe, Lata conceived ‘Anvesana’ for senior artistes, who have had forced periods of solitude in the absence of performances and tours. The dance festival was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, City of Mississauga, and Department of Canadian Heritage.

The dancers were given about six to seven months to come with new works of 30 to 40 minutes. Part of the proceeds of the festival was given for Covid-19 relief efforts in India.

Leaving behind none of the fleet-footed sensuality of Nrityagram’s Odissi, Bijayini Satpathy’s style is evolving with a slower intensity, broader chaukas, one-legged positions held longer, and less groundedness. Almost like a flower blooming, petal by petal.

Gradual build-up

Her production, the ‘Call of Dawn’ has three pieces in raag Ahir Bhairav; Bijayini challenging herself to not make them sound or appear repetitive. The dancer is in fine shape, going au naturel with grey hair.

Bijayini presents the narrative of a young girl who, while worshipping Shiva, experiences her own sensuality behind the imagery of Ardhanareeshwara. With confidence she decides in the subsequent Nazrul Geeti ‘Aruno kanti’ that she cannot marry the awe-inspiring Shiva, and chooses the charming Krishna instead. The Pallavi (Sukanta Kumar Kundu), is a celebration of anticipation, just like the Chakravaka lovebirds.

The short performance gradually picks up pace, as does the music (Bijayini, Srinibas Satapathy, Shivashankar Satapathy and Bindumalini Narayanaswamy) and lighting (Sujay Saple). The haunting melody of ‘Ta nom ta ta nom’ cuts through the darkness as the Ardhanareeshwara sloka unfolds. This is the slowest piece, filmed in partial darkness, with little reflections of the ripples from an uruli adding lighting effects on the dancer’s face as she portrays the Ardhanareeshwara imagery.

The Nazrul Geeti has less embellishment and is sung at a brisker pace. The aerial shots during the raas segment are interesting. The last, a traditional piece, is the most colourful and vibrant. The camera (Mahesh Bhat) is unobtrusive except for some excitement during the pallavi.

Strong on abhinaya

Methil Devika banks on her exceptional abhinaya to present the story of Ahalya from Valmiki Ramayana. She spoke of how Valmiki had treated Ahalya briefly but sensitively, unlike later commentators whose interpretations came from a harsher, male-dominated socio-cultural standpoint. According to Valmiki, she was cursed to remain invisible, subsisting on air, until Rama steps into her hermitage and blesses her.

Clarity and simplicity are the hallmarks of the session. Devika is as graceful and minimalistic as Mohiniyattam is meant to be. We can see calmness in the most dramatic of moments — during the lustful Indira’s entry and when Gautama catches the erring couple. Strong emotions are shown without losing the grace of the style.

The beginning is rather poetic — Rama questions Viswamitra about the deserted hermitage. As the translation of the Sanskrit text scrolls across the screen, the camera focusses on the hasta abhinaya (hand gestures). Devika’s ekaharya abhinaya, a soloist playing different roles, is on point and clear. Her facial expressions keep up as Devika switches characters. She delineates the story and has explanatory texts running across the screen as well.

The music flows smoothly, with the ragas changing at opportune moments. Devika breaks the storyline into melodious swara passages every now and then, gliding gracefully through the dipping movements without disturbing the mood. The lighting (Madhu Ambat) is restrained, most ingenious when showing the passage of time when Ahalya is invisible. The jerky camera work is the only spoilsport that creates abruptness in an otherwise seamless piece.

Beyond the grammar

A result of the “time spent without the urgency of performance-oriented practice” is Rama Vaidyanathan’s ‘Moving Boundaries,’ which tries to negotiate the boundaries of her dance. Bharatanatyam has a rigid grammar, so the adavus are a good starting point. Dramatic opening — Rama in an araimandi position patiently executing the basic first Thattu adavu, ‘Thayya thai’. She later tries to explore the same beat through multiple movements. The same goes for the ‘Tha thai thai tha’ adavu adding a tisra twist and for the elaborate theermana adavu ‘Kitathaka tharikitathom’.

The process of unlearning continues with songs from Thirumular’s Thirumanthiram (second century), an ode to Shiva as the Brahman. Rama keeps to the literal meaning of the songs, which suits her theme — freedom in the dance arena (Ananda aada rangam), when boundaries merge (Bhootanda peydanda), and when boundaries lead the way (Addangathai yennai addaki). Especially striking is ‘Bhootanda’ (Mayamalavagowla raga, Adi tala), the song peppered with dramatic elements such as a tanam, layering in the neraval, and swaras, the dance included bits of a tisra alarippu alternating with the song, steps set in khanda beat following the rhythm within the words and more.

She uses free-style non-traditional steps that follow the upper, middle and lower octaves of the beautiful music (Sudha Raghuraman). Metaphors like a soaring kite, raindrops, a peacock’s happy dance, symbolising a dancer without shackles, are effectively used and caught on camera (Inee Singh). The last scene is the most dramatic — the dancer in araimandi practising ‘Thayya thai’ illuminated by the same band of light (Gyan Dev). A return to the fold perhaps?

Camera keeps time

‘Lost…in the forest!’ is all about the sthayi of the pandemic. As Aditi Mangaldas says, “Dance needs to breathe the air of the now.” Stunning music (Shubha Mudgal), arresting visuals such as eerie, empty frames moving in the wind, and brilliant tatkaar in ‘Naav mein nadiya’ (Boat in the river), a poem by Kunwar Narain. It is about the chills of a gloomy night, a dark river, life and loss. The camera seems to be in a frenzy. When the dancer twirls, it twirls too and at some point it looks like both may collide. Aditi explains that the camera’s movements were intentional, to add to the sense of being lost.

She stands by the window watching helplessly, waiting, or sometimes reaching out as Shubha sings, ‘gehra hai, andhera hai..’ (it is deep, it is dark). The fleeting moment of hope is gone. Hope building up and dwindling, is a constant through the piece, as the dancer searches for safe ground.

Aditi’s next piece is lighter, a Bharatendu Harishchandra poem, Chhan chhan chhip chhip (translated as ‘now seen… now not), tells of the moon rising and hiding. The protagonist is a deer that is startled by the appearance of two moons, one in the sky and the other, a reflection in the water. The tihais in teen taal are brilliant, the dancer turning into a deer on the sam every time. The camera seems excited with aerial angles, but when it tries to keep pace with the dancer at eye-level, it’s disturbing.

As she leaps across the forest as a deer, Aditi’s energy is unstoppable — she executes a 33-chakkar sequence as the deer sees the moon emerges from the clouds.

Overall, a festival with thought-provoking pieces during these times of despair.

The Chennai-based author writes on classical dance.

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