The fourth edition of Puducherry Sri Geetagovinda Pratisthan’s ‘Nritya Bharati’ festival curated by Dr.Subas Pani and held at the Kamani, was unique in interpretative dance riding over pure dance and nritta virtuosity. And for an event which initially projected dance expressions based on the poetry of Jayadeva alone, this year’s event noticeably was bereft of any Gita Govinda concern. Also, when group presentations are the toast of the audience, this festival, happily still retains its solo status.

I missed the opening performance by Sreelaxmi Govardhan, whose recent recital in Bhubaneswar one was quite taken up with. Not much known in Kuchipudi circles of New Delhi, this dancer, trained under several masters including Rattaiyya Sarma, while limited in her repertoire and dance experience, would seem, from reactions gathered, to have utterly charmed the audience with her commendable grace and very winsome abhinaya. Apart from much performed items from the traditional repertoire, her Pootana item, which I have seen earlier, and which she shares with all Keralites performing Kuchipudi (whose deep association in regional art forms with this character would seem to have prompted its fervent Kuchipudi version) was much appreciated, for the way conceived and rendered. In a form revelling in the most seductive women characters as part of its orthodox repertoire, Pootana is unconventional. Conveying the demoniac character, without veering away from the Kuchipudi identity or resorting to the Kathakali type of facial expressions, is an achievement.

Aditi Mangaldas as a solo dancer has evolved greatly – her dance getting away from the orthodox structured solo format to a personalised expression of poetry full of manodharma. But grammar and Kathak technique with the intra forms weaving in and out as an extension of the interpretative treatment, has become a part of Aditi’s solo renditions. “Seeking the Beloved” revelled in the poetry of Amir Khusro, portraying the intoxicated seeking for the loved one. Immersed in passion, the devotee describes the beauty of the wondrous lotus like large eyes - its glances compared to the graceful leaping gazelle and to the buzzing bees, sending out myriad messages. In true Sufi philosophy, the romantic and the devotional unite as two strands of yearning. “Blessed are those in whose soul you reside”, says the devotee for in the merging of both, all individual identity is erased “for you have become me and I have become you”. High emotion and quietude alternated through movements of pace against contrasting silences, the sudden freezes on the ‘sama’, the soliloquising, the way a passing ‘takita takitaDhin’ phrase of tablist or gat bhav or a tukra effortlessly entered the narrative, with the musical refrain evoking the yearning call for the loved one, against which all moods are expressed. Very emotively sung by Faraz Ahmed, the melodious flute tones by Devendra Raj Bhatt joined in - the mingled tones having a flow without creases - with interludes of exiting rhythmic interventions through hand clapping and syncopation with rhythmic syllables woven into fractional intervals, the final chant of ‘maula’ seeing the pirouetting dancer in ecstasy – making a varied creative tapestry. After a very sensitively played percussion interlude by Mohit Ganguly on the tabla and Ashish Ganguli on the Pakhawaj, came the item based on Kabir’s lyric - very intense, but debatable in how the words “Jeenie Chadariya” were understood and interpreted (with the dancer in the squatting position). Showing life as frail and momentary as the poet’s hand- woven “çhadar’’, the gestural visualisation showed examples from Nature of a massive tree dying, of the suddenly extinguished life of the soaring bird in the sky, of the grace abundant leaping gazelle soon to become the lion’s prey. Experts however feel that the deeper meaning of the poetry of what means transparency rather than frailty, is a whole philosophy of Kabir - of the body covering like the chadar (which must die and can acquire marks of wrong doing), while the soul which is eternal needs to find its union with the cosmic identity, remaining untouched by all the dust of impurities . This higher philosophy remained unrevealed in the abhinaya. There is need to work more on the text and its dance translation.

Tethered to a theme of vatsalya or motherly love, Odissi dancer Aloka Kanungo’s neat presence, had fine musical support, assembled with care, comprising Haripriya Swain’s lilting singing, Abhiram Nanda’s tuneful flute, and Ramesh Das on the violin along with Kalindicharan Parida’s fine mardal. Even so the starting point was low key, based on a lyric of Abhimanyu Saamanta Singhar, “Dhire Ghena Kananare Krushna Bilambita” set to music in Khemta tala by Ramesh Das and Kalindi Charan Parida. Anxious Yashoda worried that child Krishna, grazing the cattle, had still not returned so late in the evening has the mind playing tricks on her. Thinking of his fear of the dark, and imagining the lurking forest dangers with thorns hurting his bare feet, and all the evil forces roaming at will after dusk, Yashoda’s anxiety mounts. Aloka’s expressional interpretation started off convincingly. But as the tension of the mother grew, what finally was shown as a crying, sobbing Yashoda was more suggestive of sorrow than motherly anxiety. The next item based on a Lokanath lyric with music composition by Dhiraj Mohapatra in Misra Khamaj “Mo Krishna Pari”, described Yashoda trying to feed Krishna, holding out a bait that after finishing he could go to the Jamuna banks to play with his friends Subala and Sudama , waiting for him. Dressing up the child lovingly she leads him on to dance to the syllables “Ta thei Ta thei”, a line which provided space for weaving light nritta into an otherwise purely expressional item. The best of the recital was the much tried “Braja ku chora Asichhi” choreographed by late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra woven round the poetry of Bhakta Charana Das with the musical score by the legendary Bhubaneswar Mishra in Ananda Bhairavi raga and Jati tala. The concluding passages of lulling the recalcitrant Krishna to sleep, after narrating a story of the thief who carries away children who are still not in bed by a certain time at night, were rendered with involvement.

When evocative poetry, most sensitively scored music and Alarmel Valli come together, one expects nothing less than a most evocative presentation. And Valli did not disappoint. For the opening, which was an ode to Prithvi, the Sahitya base was provided by both medieval and 20th century poetry, passionately gushing moods contrasted by passages of meditative quiet. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala carries a description of Nature as Divine, while the poet’s Ritu Samhara verses describing the seasons portray Nature in all her romance and bounty during Spring. Bharatiyar’s poetry catches Nature in a cataclysmic mood, as lighting and thunder split the skies. The Silappadikaram verses compare Nature to a beautiful woman sensuous and full of allure. The verses from the Atharva Veda are an exhortation for harmony on Earth. Bringing out all the subtle tonal variations was the musical composition by Rajkumar Bharati, and of course the dance interpretation by Valli. Valli’s deep love for Aham and Puram Sangam poetry was next on view – evoking a very sombre mood. The lines from Purananooru are in the nature of a dirge for a young fallen hero in battle. In the now deserted battlefield, looking at the body of this young chieftain, a woman agonises over the heart-break for the yet uninformed Mother. Comparing him to the large Banyan tree, the sanctuary of the birds, she wonders what life for people will be, bereft of the great chieftain. Addressing a blooming Jasmine creeper, a mourner queries, “Oh, Why do you bloom now when our leader is gone and your blooms will not adorn any woman’s coiffeur, nor will your scent be enjoyed by the ballad singers.” Prema Ramamurthy’s music, as when switching over from the mournful to a lilting Bilahari while reminiscing on the youthful exploits of the slain hero, or to the sensuous appeal of Kamas while showing (very alluringly caught in the dance) the provocative gait of young maidens trying to catch the attention of the chieftain they have lost their heart to, or Darbari Kanada when the Jasmine creeper is addressed - proved how music and dance in an interwoven mesh can create magic. And here, Valli’s abhinaya, intense in conveying sorrow, without ever losing stylised restraint needs to be lauded. The concluding item, an oft presented favourite of the dancer, again based on Sangam poetry, portrayed the responses of the young girl just beginning to feel the stirrings of romance for the young teaser from childhood, an irritant who had erased her sand castles made with such care, and by pulling her hair braid constantly had ruined all the lovingly pinned flowers. So contemporary in how it paints human situations, Sangam poetry speaks across cultures and time. Again Prema Ramamurthy’s score and Valli’s ability for creating dance moments, so relevant to the present, out of this ancient poetry, made for a rich experience. Nandini Anand the vocalist sang with sensitive care for bhava. And the rest of the musicians too were fully involved in the emotive journey of the dancer’s recital.

Watching the Sattriya presentation of Bhabananda Barbayan, the feeling that training inside the Sattras alone could guarantee such excellence, was reaffirmed. Trained under legendary names Parmananda Barbayan, Tuniram Barbayan, Cheniram Barbayan, Kamal Barbayan, Baluram Barbayan and Gupiram Barbayan at the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra for all the disciplines of nritya, bayan, gayan, Ojaalli, separately, one could feel the integrated strength of Sattriya - which whether in the quietly elegant Isha Vandana of the Sutradhari expressing salutations to the Guru, or the Jhumura Naach vigour followed by Sankara Deva’s Ankia Nat Kaliya Daman, showed the anga-suddha along with the internalised power of the dance. The last abhinaya item based on the Ojapali technique was Saruravingsati Avataar based on Srimanta Sankaradeva’s kirtan gosha excerpts ,ending with the Dashavatar with some text from Mahadeva’s Naam Ghosaa added on in a version specially designed for purposes of proscenium presentation by Guru Parmananda Barbayan, followed by the clarity of the Kohl playing, while dancing of the performer, showing the class of the performer. This kind of quality is rare amongst dancers trained in institutions outside Sattras. The cymbal playing, percussion and sur faithful singing by the musicians were all evocative of art as an offering to a higher reality.

There is a focussed clarity about Mohiniattam dancer (now at her zenith) Pallavi Kishnan’s abhinaya , where word and gesture come together with a sense of inevitability. In the Shiva Panchakshara start, apart from description of the attributes of Shiva worshipped with the Mandara flower, the Daksha Yagna episode in just a fleeting outline caught the entire narrative. Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s score for the Shankaracharya hymn in Saveri, Reeti gowla and Revati ragas sensitive to the mood of the poetry provided an excellent take-off point for the dancer. The pick of the recital was ‘Pingala’ conceived round the story of a courtesan of Mithila who transcended her world comprising pursuit of pleasure to one of a spiritual character, by becoming an ardent devotee of Lord Rama. Inspired by Namangalam Namboodiri’s lyrics based on the Bhagavata Puranam and poem Pingala composed by the Malayalam poet Ulloor (1877-1949) for which the music composition was in a variety of ragas, Arabhi (while the vasakasajja adorns herself for the male suitors she expects), Kamboji, Behag, Athana, Vasantha, Natakuranji, Hindolam, Ranjani, and finally a very moving ‘Sama’- each melodic mode evoking one among myriad moods in which the courtesan was visualised. Pallavi’s dance composition and rendition whether in catching Pingala in an expectant mood or vain gloriously conscious of her beauty making her irresistible to all male suitors, with the transformation to meditative quietude with her life pursuit changing, came out very effectively in the presentation.

The recital ended with a Tillana composition in Bagesree by Palakkad Surya Narayanan with Pallavi doing the dance visualisation.

Delhi audiences, offered so much fare on a platter are blasé - and one sensed this in the dwindling audiences – which during other years used to be larger.

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