Reviews by Pratima Sagar  

Photos: Lalitha Venkat

December 21, 2008

Diaspora... discovering Rama across the shores
In his innumerable travels across the world, Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance critic and historian, has painstakingly documented his observations for over three decades now. For the present Natya Kala Conference, Kothari brought out one such paper based on a Ramayana performance at Minneapolis. The screening of the footage shows a unique open air platform for an audience of 2500 people. Weaving through the masses, over a hundred Kecak dancers of Bali climbed the stage, personifying the monkey military of Ramayana. What surprised was the entrance of a group of petite Bharatanatyam dancers headed by Aparna Ramaswamy dancing to numbers such as "bhavayami raghuramam..." This fusion Ramayana saw the very tribal like monkey dance of the Kecak performers as against a refined classical idiom of Bharatanatyam. Despite the contrasting elements, complementing each other or not, the critique's observations were basically based on dancers branching out in further lands to discover newer forms and celebrate the epics by juxtaposing against their own technique.

The golden movements of Sonal
The legendary Odissi diva, Sonal Mansingh, clad in a pleasant yellow costume staged the unforgettable episode of Sita Swayamvaram. Backed by the soothing lyrics from Ramcharitamanas, Sonal Mansingh danced to her choreography created in 1973. In the monumental yet subtly penned poetry of Tulsidas, Sonal endorses his metaphorical language with her expressive dance. For instance, at the Sita Swayamvaram, Lakshmana's displeasure is symbolized with the Seshasai (the multi hooded serpent seat of Lord Vishnu) whose rising causes an earth shake, until Rama is signaled to proceed towards the mighty bow of Shiva. Not to mention Sonal's intermittent pure dance that complimented the choreography. In fact, the dancing of this episode was itself fulfilling in the present symposium based on Ramayana, where every other presenter explored varied other facets of the epic. 

Befitting Mandodari...
Alekhya literally showed how the befitting queen of the ten headed Ravana would have been! The dusky doe eyed Kuchipudi dancer from Hyderabad, won over the hearts with her lucid portrayal of the queen. The traditional Mandodari Shabdam of Kuchipudi actually tells a fairy tale of a frog turning into a gorgeous young woman, wooed by the omnipotent Ravana. This sprightly rhythmic Shabdam, had the dancer also reciting the stylized dialogue drama, giving us a sample of the evolution of Kuchipudi from the Yakshagana tradition. Alekhya proceeded with the contemporary poetry of Mallemala where Hanuman in his search for Sita, mistakes the divine looking Mandodari as Sita herself, while the heart rending last narrative shows the queen contemplating over the lifeless body of the mighty Ravana. Alekhya made a picture perfect Mandodari!

Way to Rama bhakti
"Garuda Gamana Ra ra...," with a deep throated voice, O S Arun made the audience sit up and sway to his devotional renderings. With "Thumak chalet Ramachandra...", and more such gems from the poets of the Bhakti movement, the much acclaimed singer was a delight to listen to. 

What they said... 
"Vibrant, energetic, dynamic and the like (!), this year' Natya Kala Conference rose to a different level. I congratulate Ananda Shankar Jayant for her excellent synergy in bringing out the theme. In fact, I predicted the same in advance by knowing Ananda’s enthusiasm and dedication towards art. There is so much of beauty in treating the conference as a whole, including the lovely backdrops, excellent catalogue, this very newsletter... all that takes the conference to an international standard!" 
- Y Prabhu, Secretary, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha

"I am happy to see a lot of NRI dancers participating in the conference, but missing the local dancers, especially youngsters. Well... talking of today's screening of excerpts  from Aparna Ramaswamy's video, I thought it was patchy to put a refined classical dance against Kecak monkey dancing. This diaspora collaboration should have been to the Kecak rhythms itself which also have thisram, misram, khandam etc. instead of pushing the pure art of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music against a tribal like idiom..."
- Arvind, dancer (Singapore)

"Most of us are busy during the December art season in Chennai. And we happen to choose from the varied programs offered on the platter. The word has passed across that this year's Natya Kala Conference is quite happening. I have come today to attend only to have repented for missing the earlier sessions." 
- Suresh Sridhar, Bharatanatyam teacher 
Pratima Sagar is a cultural commentator and critic based in Hyderabad