Photos by Siamak Poursabahian( http://saayeh.com/) published with permission.
This review was first published (9/9/2013) in HTR dance blog, published by Hindu Temple Rhythms, a dance institute the author of the review is associated with. The version seen here was published on 28/9/2013. A subsequent version of this has also published in Narthaki.com on 19/11/2013.
Arpan of Seattle, brainchild of the ever-innovative, yet traditionally-rooted Dr. Joyce K. Paul-Siamak, presented Kumari Nivedita Potapragada in her arangetram on a warm late August afternoon. The weather was welcoming, as were the beautifully dressed young girls, sweetly offering traditional manjal and sandalwood paste at the entrance, aromatically enticing us into a world of wonder that Dr. Paul presented artfully. Nivedita is a very young, yet dazzling budding dance artiste, yet in her youthful dance, was an ancient maturity and a seasoned understanding of the ancestral heroines of the arts which she brought alive in her teacher’s masterful new choreographic works. Accompanied by established musicians in an orchestra boasting of performers Jyotishmathi Sheejith Krishna, vocalist; Sheejith Krishna on mridangam; Murali Pavithran on violin and Joyce herself as nattuvanaar, any dancer could have appeared slightly intimidated, but Nivedita owned her stage brilliantly.
Normally, one would speak of firm nritta, sweet abhinaya, and good synchronization, when speaking of an arangetram. But in the case of Joyce’s presentation, one must tip the hat to the expert mastery with which she wove a tale bringing alive the essence of the mysteries of Belur and Halebid in the gorgeously composed varnam, the heart of this brilliant performance. With new theme-inspired jathis knitted into the texture of an original composition of Dr. Meera Krishna, with lyrics by Nagashree Yagati and Dr. Gayathri Ashok, great research and care was put into the choreography of this divine work of dance. “Kinkini jhana noopura laya gati, Dhwanikita Narthana Ghunghuroo jhana” began the thrikaalajathi, bringing the audience into the virtual surroundings of sculpturesque walls of the temples in their days of greatness, as the dancer completed her arudhi and entered into abhinaya engaging viewers in the majestic tales of the legendary Shantala Devi. Reminiscent of Goddess Meenakshi, the abhinaya sanchaaris choreographed delicately by Joyce, spoke of a young warrior princess in a Jain family, whose strengths were natural in music, dance, literature and painting, as her skills were developed in the arts of battle and strategy. She grows to marry King Visnuvardhana, becoming the crown queen of the Hoysala dynasty, winning the heart of a king whose vow to never marry was overcome with the joy she brings him. He, immersed in concern for war widows and the post-battle scars of his kingdom, finds solace in his soulmate. In Belur, back then, known as Velapuri, an architect is commissioned by the King to develop the Sri Chennakeshava temple, yet the architect is depressed in his repeated failures to create a grandeur on the outer periphery of the temple that matched the beauty of Lord Vishnu and meet his own high standard of excellence. Nivedita was particularly vivid in her portrayal of this episode, where she showed the architect energized each time to make attempts to rectify his sculpture, only to fall into despair and frustration, as he also feels failure in creating proper designs for the outer walls of the temple. Queen Shantala Devi happens to visit during this time, and in pure abandon she begins to dance with joy at the resplendent inner sanctum statue she finds beyond beautiful. Nivedita brought such delight into this episode as Shantala Devi, overwhelmed with love for Lord Vishnu’s visage in the sculpture and the rapture dance she explodes into. The architect is awoken from his despair from the music he hears and when he sees the Queen dancing, he is inspired by her dance and quickly sculpts pose after pose from her live dancing, which are immortalized as the madanikas or salabhanjikas in dance poses all over the Belur and Halebid temples.
Following this, the final major episode in this varnam focused on a pair of Nandi statues, too heavy to transport once they were carved. Lord Bahubali, a Jain god, it is said brought the bulls to life to herd them into town. During this time, Queen Shantala is inspired to perform an endless ritual dance, until she collapses. The entire town comes to a standstill, reminiscent of the Sleeping Beauty legend, until she arises again and comes out of the temple. The charanam deepens the richness of our picture of the Queen, who grows more spiritual until the end, a most unusually choreographed varnam ending, extremely chilling, as Nivedita as Shantala Devi, literally backbends into giving up all her material belongings to merge with the eternal soul at the end of her life. Dramatically performed by this young artist, the varnam in purvikalyani was stunning and inspiring. It is of great merit that a dancer of Joyce’s choreographic capability supported the idea of bringing to life the dream of this varnam, which was a seed of hope from Nivedita’s mother, one of the lyricists. Such choreographic works are badly needed in an age where strong women of great art, spirit, affection and courage are lost in the wave of popular portrayals of women as objects. Applause to the entire team that brought this amazing work to life, most wholeheartedly to Joyce.
Intermission was anachronistic following that amazing immersion into an ancient kingdom rooted in the tradition we dancers all have spirit connections to. The second half of the arangetram also presented the audience with beautiful new dance directions from Joyce. Sri Adi Sankara’s Guru Ashtakam was a very mature philosophical work, uninterrupted with the kind of typical distractions of changing ragams and talams that modern choreographers prefer, more focused divinely on the actual lyrical questions raised by this great composition. The importance of the guru in context of family, friends, recognition, wealth, power, body, even one’s mind, was clearly and vividly raised in the choreography, lovingly rendered by the shishya in her dance debut of this artistic work. Here, Joyce transcended the traditional arangetram to uplift viewers of the dance, challenging us to wonder about our own intentions and place in the world, and our devotion to teachers who have grown each of us. A great piece, again one which is an example of what we need to see more of, in our world, overpopulated with obsession over technique, and enslaved by popular opinions on costuming, music and all the distractions. Joyce clearly loves her gurus and it shows in her dance compositions, making each of us dancers miss our gurus as well. Nivedita is deeply blessed to have performed this enormously difficult piece with sensitivity and thoughtfulness.
One could not possibly end a review of a dance program without some discussion of the thillana. Nivedita’s thillana was also a departure from the traditional mindset, so lovingly choreographed by Joyce with the thillana’s sanchaari being the Malayalam Hail Mary prayers on Mother Mary, drawing on Joyce’s Orthodox Syrian Christian faith. The nritta in this thillana was beautifully stylized, Nivedita’s attention to detail extraordinarily rendered. But when the Hail Mary sanchaari began, the devotion and love in the expression of this prayer was so personal, it drew tears on many faces, as if the Mother was present, blessing the sacred stage. Beautifully choreographed, to this day memorable to viewers, the entire arangetram was enchanting and ethereal.
I am now excited to witness Yavanika, Joyce’s upcoming choreographic full-length work, which will be featured at the Kirkland Performing Arts Center in Washington in the first quarter of 2014. It is a pleasure to have moved to such an enlightened community of artists in the Seattle area and to have been acquainted with an artist like Joyce, who plays a role locally, as a beautiful artistic Georgia O’Keefe, driving the passion of local dancers and musicians to newer levels in this locale. Blessings to Nivedita for a wonderful dance journey ahead of her, and looking forward to seeing much more from this young flower.
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About Vidya Sekhar
Natya Kala Shiromani, Sri Vidya Chandra Sekhar, commonly known as Diya, is a 2-time world record holder for longest Bharata Natyam performance (24 and 48 hours), having studied under the legendary late Guru T.K. Mahalingam Pillai, his father, the celebrated Sri Thiruvadamaradur Kuppiah Pillai, and the other equally renowned teachers of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir. She is the daughter and student of Bharata Kala Sreshta, Sudha (Doraiswamy) Chandra Sekhar, whose school, Hindu Temple Rhythms in Detroit is nearing 50 years of Indian dance education in America. They are both featured in Sunil Kothari’s Bharata Natyam book, published by Marg in 1988, and Hands Across America, by Detroit Free Press photographer, Alan Kamuda. Diya teaches Bharata Natyam live and online for advanced performers and teachers, in addition to performing nattuvangam and vocals for the Vidyanjali Orchestra which supports dancers across North America. Diya lives in Seattle and works for the Microsoft Malware Protection Center, co-authoring the twice-yearly Microsoft Security Intelligence Report. For further information, see http://www.srividya.us.