Rukmini Devi’s Shyama

” It had no props of any type whatsoever and the dance visualisation never aimed at cleverness or ornamentation. “says Leela venkatraman in her Hindu review…
Dialogue between regional cultures is not a strange phenomenon today in the world of dance. But imagine a work emerging in 1947 having Rabindranath Tagore’s libretto in Bengali, sung by Carnatic music trained voices with percussion effects crea ted by instruments indigenous to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and the dance language a blend of unalloyed Bharatanatyam on the one hand and Kathakali on the other ! Rukmini Devi’s production of Shyama was a tribute to Tagore, and the then very feeble old poet is said to have been delighted to watch in the privacy of his home, Rukmini Devi herself dance what she had envisioned from the work of the great Master.

Shyama represents the poet’s view of the same stream of life living in all of us and as one passes through “this crowded market of this world” one carries the pangs of sorrow in dreams and wakeful hours. Shyama is the story of love that cannot live in the ecstasy of the present, for the pain and ache of how it was brought about are too big a burden for memory to overcome.

Shyama, the beautiful court dancer, loses her heart to Vajrasena the merchant prince who, thanks to his unwillingness to sell his rare necklace to the King, is imprisoned. Arranging to have the prisoner substituted willingly by a silent admirer Uttiya, who is later executed, Shyama gets united with Vajrasena but only till the latter learns of how his freedom has been gained. Thereafter the agony of guilt and sorrow for a life lost to enable their togetherness, tars the relationship.

With no props of any type whatsoever and dance visualisation which never aims at cleverness or ornamentation, ‘Shyama’ is the very epitome of simplicity. And yet the manner in which Bharatanatyam movement goes so naturally with the elongated drawn out Bengali words is amazing. Even more unselfconscious is the Kathakali used for the male dancers, the nritta in typical Kalasam fashion seeming to follow so inevitably after each interpretative sequence.

More or less embalmed into non-existence since 1980 or thereabout, Pushpa Shankar’s endeavour at recreating the work must have entailed quite a few curdles. What must have greatly aided the process is the vocal support of an old Kalakshetra veteran Seetharama Sharma, who after the show was greeted by an Australian admirer who recollected hearing his singing for the production in Melbourne in 1966! It is a heartening sight to see old Kalakshetrans like Chinna Sarada, Adyar Lakshmanan and Seetarama Sharma revisiting their alma mater for it is through interaction with such persons that the young students will get an inner feel of what Kalakshetra represents.

While Seetarama’ Sharma’s singing could not completely sound Bengali in intonation, it caught the musical and melodic essence of Tagore faithfully apart from combining well with the female voice of Swastika Mukhopadayay of Santiniketan. The Hindustani ragas whether Behag, (Sindhu) Bhairavi, or Desh, with the Begali words, have a distinct flavour. The nattuvangam by Seetarama Sharma and Jyolsana Menon, and the rest of the music crew were their usual well rehearsed selves.

Hari Padman made a fine Vajrasena, a role as different from his swashbuckling musketeer character in Masquerades as chalk from cheese. From his ecstatic “E ki ananda” and his “Esho Priye” to the rejection of love in “Jao Priye Pao” he was most communicative. Sheejith Nambiar as Uttiya and Jayakrishnan as the Kotwal played their parts well. Haritha acquitted herself well in the main role as Shyama. The dancing quality of the entire troupe was of a high standard.

What needs to be noted is how a production eschewing virtuosity of any type or speed, still manages to hold audience attention. In today’s love for padding which takes up more space than the main framework of the narrative, such stark simplicity would be considered simplistic!

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