This review of some performances at the NCPA Mudra Festival (April 2013) was written for Avantika Magazine and was supposed to be in the June issue, but the magazine folded up (again). I normally do not write reviews, but I spent some time thinking this one through, so I decided to put it up here. All photos courtesy NCPA Mumbai.
THE MANY SHADES OF MADNESS
“I could no longer show; I just had to be,” says dancer Sanjukta Wagh of her engagement with Kabir’s poetry. In allowing the beauty of the poetry to reign supreme, Wagh, the youngest performer at the recently concluded NCPA Mudra Dance Festival in Mumbai, articulates a choreographic journey that could be true of many other dancers at the festival. The festival was conceptualised by poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. Held in the last week of April, Mudra delved into the boundless world of bhakti poetry through discussions, poetry readings, film screenings and performances.
The festival, called Stark Raving Mad, after a line from a Tukaram poem translated by Arun Kolatkar, is a fitting ode to the eccentricities of a tradition that sought to democratise the space of the divine. Bhakti encouraged forms of devotion that were essentially monotheistic, but extremely secular in their approach to god. Making devotion an elective process, it brought within its scope hitherto unconventional groups of devotees, who were not mainstream or privileged temple worshippers because of their caste or gender status. It was not bound by the harsh rules that defined devotion in an orthodox tradition.
In choreographing to bhakti poetry, some dancers at the festival found opportunities to step out of their comfort zones. For Bharatanatyam dancer, Rama Vaidyanathan, costume is a significant marker of departure. Portraying two medieval women mystics, Janabai and Lal Ded, she dresses in the Maharashtrian style and then in the Kashmiri style. Wearing a nine-yard sari, she interprets Janabai, an important 13th century poet of the varkari tradition. Janabai was born to poor parents and entered the household of the poet Namdev as an attendant at a young age. She sees Vithal as a friend; he becomes part of her daily existence, helping her with all her strenuous chores. In her Marathi abhangs, her relationship with Vithal is one of flippant reverence.
The opening abhang, Utha Panduranga, is framed by a projected sketch of the arches of the Vithoba temple. In this first piece, Vaidyanathan’s impression of Vithal’s posture makes for a striking image. Her stance is informed by the quality of boldness, almost calling the dance style to question as she stands - hands on her hips, legs unbent and slightly apart.
As Janabai, Vaidyanathan’s Bharatanatyam takes on an exaggerated element of swaying and bouncing, responding to the cadence of the Marathi abhang. The abhangs, however, are sung in the Carnatic style of music associated with Bharatanatyam.
If Janabai could be called bubbly, Lal Ded, in comparison, is stark. In the second half, clad in a flowing white tunic and churidar, Vaidyanathan enters the life and poetry of the Shiva devotee Lal Ded. Leaving an unhappy marriage, Lal Ded casts off her clothes and her hard life, for they are of no consequence in her realm of devotion. From exhilaration to inward-looking gravity, Vaidyanathan’s portrayal of Lal Ded spans a wide emotional register. Reciting Lal Ded’s vakhs and then depicting incidents from her life that relate to them, her interpretation is not unlike a Bharatanatyam varnam. The vakhs are separated by passages of sharp nritta. The nritta clearly stands for the singlemindedness of Lal Ded’s devotion; yet, in the choreography, one is assuaged by doubts about its presence.
While bhakti inspires new motifs in Bharatanatyam for Vaidyanathan, it takes Sujata Mohapatra closer to the repertoire of her guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. The renowned Odissi dancer performed abhinaya to Sanskrit, Oriya and Awadhi poetry in her recital. In the ashtapadi, sakhi he, Mohapatra gracefully stretches out her movement, elongating it to fill the most complete extent of time possible. Filled with desire, Radha entreats her friend to bring Krishna, the slayer of the demon Kesi, to her. She recounts the story of their first meeting; whether this is for real or only a fantasy, no one knows.
In the climax of sakhi he, as Krishna and Radha kiss and the percussionist Ekalavya Muduli beats up a frenzy on the mardala, Mohapatra assumes a slow and deliberate final pose before leaving the stage. Measured, contained movements are the hallmark of her Odissi style. Subtle escalations in the tone of a movement are harnessed to great dramatic effect. In ahe nila saila, a poem dedicated to Jagannath by his ardent devotee Salbeg, a Muslim and a leper who is not allowed past the temple gates, Mohapatra portrays a crocodile. One leg leaves the floor and her body tilts forward at an angle. There is nothing extraordinary about her stance; yet, as she slowly raises her head, showing us the evil glint in the crocodile’s eyes, it is powerful enough to blur her connection to gravity, if only for an instant.
She ends with a new choreography set to an extract from the Ramacharitamanas. Shabari, after waiting for a lifetime, finally meets Rama and learns about the nine paths to bhakti. After watching her embody some of Jayadeva’s most compelling ashtapadis and the moving poetry of Salbeg, this finale is slightly mood-killing. The abhinaya is flawless, but Rama’s preachy message to Shabari, and by extension, the audience, inspires much fidgeting. Classical dance is deeply rooted in Indian culture, but as a performing art, it is also committed to telling engaging stories, and Mohapatra’s final piece is far from being one.
The next day, seated behind an unlit brass lamp in a nod to fire safety regulations, Kapila Venu uses the layered and intricate narrative of the Saundarya Lahari to reiterate one of its core assertions – Shiva possesses the power to create only when he is one with Shakti. The young and immensely talented Venu is one of the most popular actors of Kutiyattam, an ancient Sanskrit theatre form. Mohapatra stretches time; Venu strikes it senseless. As Parvati, when she witnesses the opening of Shiva’s third eye and its aftermath, her eyes vibrate with the burden of perceiving such a destructive force, as the world around her quivers for an indefinite span of time.
This interpretation of the Saundarya Lahari is one of many new Kutiyattam choreographies derived by Kapila’s father, G Venu. While adhering to the narrative and the tenets laid down by an acting manual specific to the story, the Kutiyattam actor is free to improvise endlessly.
Venu started her training under Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar at a young age. “People imagine that I grew up in an ashram surrounded by lotuses. That is far from the truth,” she giggles. In the post-performance discussion, responding to gushing enthusiasts in the audience, she goes to great lengths to explain that there is no such thing as a trance-like state in acting. Even in her trance-like meditation as Parvati, who undergoes penance because she wants Shiva as her husband, Venu is acutely aware of being in performance.
Performing a day later, Sanjukta Wagh, in her presentation of contemporary Kathak, interprets awareness in a different way, as she lets the space around her shape her movement. In Bheetar Bahar, the first part, she improvises to Kabir’s poetry. Her arms curve around space, periodically evoking images of music-making, as vocalist Makrand Deshpande sings yeh tan that tambure ka (this body is the scale of the tanpura). In an earlier incarnation, this piece focused on the creation of movement; now, Kabir is the star.
Moving from nirguna to saguna, the second part of Wagh’s recital is Ubha Vitevari, a necklace of abhangs by various poets of the varkari tradition. Each poet understands Vithal differently, but the image of a standing Vithoba in the Pandharpur temple, hands on hips, binds these interpretations. Wagh occupies the same patch of stage space throughout her performance, never moving from it to traverse space. She begins with her back to the audience, turning to face them in the second abhang. Even then, she continues to stand still, only letting her face reflect Vithal’s sentiments for his various devotees. Midway, Wagh begins reciting extracts from some of the poems; this brings the piece together and suddenly makes it feel complete in how she embodies the poets, their poetry and the image of Vithal or Vithoba.
Classical dance and bhakti poetry go back a long way. Yet, for some of the performers at Mudra, choreographing to bhakti poems meant making radical shifts in language and treatment. How did they go about this? Each dancer had different answers. Vaidyanathan and Wagh let the poetry wash over them and then responded to it. For Mohapatra, the tryst with bhakti reaffirmed the pleasure of performing and preserving the repertoire of her guru. Venu chose not to think about the process, lest she lose it on trying to break it down. Just as there are different paths to the divine, there are innumerable methods to the madness.