Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is one organization that offers its programs free for rasikas during the Chennai season. Being centrally located, these shows naturally attract a full house on most days.
Gangani concluded his Kathak recital at 6.50pm and there was mayhem after that. The hall was already full by now and there were many wanting to come in to see Sudharani Raghupathy and her troupe of 22 perform MAMMUDHA – FROM DUST TO LIFE. Being a free program, most of the family and friends of the performers had come that day. As a volunteer blocked the door saying there was no place, there was a near stampede as people pushed the man aside and moved in, most of them having to settle to standing along the walls to watch the show!
It was an almost plain backdrop of grey panels broken by the face of a half man-half woman – maybe symbolizing that Manmadha was not all macho but a bit effeminate too (As Sudharani described her visualization of Manmadha at the press conference earlier). It was refreshing to see a new theme being enacted. Mammudha (as he’s known in rural South India) or Manmatha, the God of Love, at the behest of Lord Indra trained his arrow on the meditating Shiva, only to bear the brunt of Shiva’s third eye which reduced him to ashes. Moved by his inconsolable wife Rathi’s tears, Shiva promised her that Manmatha would come back to life, but be visible only to her eyes! Through diligent research, the whole story was composed into a 1hr 45 minute long presentation, with production, concept, soundscape and direction by the talented KSR Aniruddha, the son of Sudharani Raghupathy.
Priya Murle as Indra was brilliant in her Therukoothu style portrayal. She was such a natural that she almost stole the show. Sasirekha Balasubramanian as the Therukoothu Kattiyakaran narrator was engaging. Aruna Subbiah as the narrator in Bharatanatyam style seemed superfluous. A talented dancer like her could have been used in a more meaningful role. Anusha Venkatramani as Nandi made an imposing figure. TM Sridevi was a pretty Rathi and the gorgeous guru Sudharani was an elegant Manmadha. Celebrating 60 years of her career in dance, this is the first time she is taking on a male role. The dummy horse dancers did a neat job. The well presented show was testimony to all the hard work put in over the months, but a couple of scenes, especially the dialogue between Manmadha and Shiva could have been edited a bit. Costumes of Manmadha, Rati, the folk dancers, narrators, Indra and Nandi by V V Ramani were striking. Lighting by theatre veteran Mithran Devenesan added sparkle to the production that has been running to full houses this season!
Programs at the Bhavan generally adhere to timings and (so) was 5 items on SKANDA, one of the names of Lord Muruga or Subramanya, presented by students of Chidambaram Academy of Fine Arts, conceptualized by guru Chitra Visweswaran. Though she was invited to perform herself, she could not bring herself to do so, so soon after her husband Visweswaran’s demise, so she is presenting her students during the season. She still cannot contain her tears when she announces a composition of her late husband. It was a neat and compact one hour presentation with a plain backdrop broken by peacock feathers. The dancers included Uma Namboodripad, Arupa Lahiri, Ashmita Raghavan, Supriya, Nivedha, Shalu and Jai Quehani. The supporting orchestra comprised of Sukanya and Mridul Vivek on nattuvangam, Murali Parthasarathy on vocal, Adyar K Gopinath on mridangam, R Thyagarajan on flute, G Sitarama Sharma on violin and C Munuswamy on tanpura. It was good to see the full auditorium.
Starting with an invocation to Lord Venkata, the devotee finds climbing uphill difficult but is re-energized on getting a darshan of Devi. Then follows a description of what he sees at Thirumala, the different vehicles of the Lord and the audience broke into rapturous applause especially when she pulled the chariot! After entering the sanctum, the devotee describes the 16 upacharams in “Shodashakalanidhikku.” An item on athma pooja where the beautiful description is about body being the temple, head being the kalasam and so on. “Bhavayami Gopala Balam…” that is synonymous with MS Subbulakshmi, followed by an item in sringara bhava on love between Perumal and Thayar. The swing song was composed in folk tune and so was the next item “Brahmam Okate.” As we were enjoying Padma’s mind boggling array of a myriad facial expressions for the one line, the power went off resulting in total blackout. But the orchestra continued playing, Padma stood where she was, keeping beat with her ghungroos and when the power came back on in about 3 minutes, they continued the item from where they left off! Because of the T Nagar area being such a mess now, I thought that the audience turnout of about 100 or so was fairly good, but my dance critic friend disagreed with me and was most annoyed that programs were being presented to near empty halls.
Anita Ratnam always premiers her new production of the season at Krishna Gana Sabha and so it was too this year, with FACES on Dec 28. It shows familiar and loved persona from our cultural tapestry, but through depicting them, Anita’s idea is to convey the dominant emotion connected with that personality. “These faces were already there – have always been,” says Anita. “But they have been recognized as personalities rather than emotions. So when you look at them just as faces, they become easier to relate to, the emotion becomes personal.” It is not thematic but it is a collection of her favourite dances that she had created, but never performed. Annapoorni is the face of compassion, Durga vanquishing Mahisha is the face of rage, the forgotten face is an exercise in abhinaya to “aasai mugam marandhu pochey” sung soulfully by Sikkil Gurucharan to Anil Srnivasan’s plaintive piano notes, timeless faces from the Ramayana story uses an excerpt of the Ramayana alaap of Sikkil Gurucharan, Meera is the face of blissful surrender to OS Arun’s melodious rendition. The presentation uses lot of theatrical stage movement, and the backdrop with swinging bamboo poles is quite dramatic. Anil Srinivasan’s musical arrangement uses traditional Carnatic music compositions sung as they are, not specifically tailor-made to suit set choreography or stage directions, so Anita’s choreographic inputs uses its natural flow. What is striking in the soundscape of Faces, are moments of stark silence. “The silence allows the mind to ponder, and form a coherent thought before being rushed into the next face/movement. The dance lies ultimately in the rasanabhuti of silence,” explains Anil.
he beautiful costumes have been designed by Delhi based Sandhya Raman. The idea is to bring out the classical grace of the feminine image without the heavy embellishment of traditional costumes. The costumes have been created with wraps and drapes, so the main tussar-toned basic costume is combined with green, chrome yellow or copper gold wrap, to facilitate lightning change for each item to reflect the respective emotion. The crystal-studded organza Benaras cutwork like a flowing Sufi costume for the final item is absolutely stunning. Long time collaborator Mithran Devanesen directs the lights and joining the team is dramaturg Aparna, who has worked with contemporary dance theater in Germany.
Considering that Krishna Gana Sabha is the most affected venue thanks to the messy flyover construction work in T Nagar, a fairly good number attended the program. Says Anita, “Since I danced NEELAM on Vaikunta Ekasasi day last year, Mr. Yagnaraman was so appreciative. He was so open minded and always encouraged my endeavors. I dedicate my work this year to his memory. Do you know, an organizer would not offer me a slot for ‘Faces’ since it had ‘Christian’ music?” Strange are the ways minds work!