"Traditions Engaged: Classical Indian Dance and Music"
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
Oct. 1-3, 2010
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © by Rita Felciano, 2010
Four years ago, Kathak Master Chitresh Das presented "Kathak at the Crossroads: Innovation Within Tradition", an international gathering of scholars, teachers and dancers of different generations and styles of North Indian dance and music. The success of that three-day event -- and Das' passion to see Indian dance and music thrive in India and the Diaspora -- prompted him to expand the format to the whole spectrum Classical dance and music: Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Kathakali and newcomer Guariya Nritya. This festival focused exclusively on dance practitioners--student and professional performers and their guru/teachers.
Experienced ---and much revered -- practitioners of from India presented the evening performances at the YBCA Novellus Theater; yet the day time programs at the less formal YBCA Forum by younger professionals and student ensembles impressed equally with their range of interpretations. Bharata Natyam dancer Rasika Kumar from San Jose, for instance, interpolated a taped English narration into her dance about Gandhari's lament upon losing her 100 sons in battle and her subsequent cursing of Krishna. The format made a lesser known aspect from the Mhahabarta accessible; the exquisitely performed dance acquired a haunting contemporary resonance.
Much anticipated was the first American performance of Guariya Nritya, a "revived" Bengali dance form, referred to in the Festival as "classical" and "semi-classical." In a lecture demonstration Mahua Makherjee, who is both a scholar and choreographer, presented the evidence of thirty-years of research into the literature, visual arts and surviving dance practices of Greater Bengal. It clearly has yielded a huge amount of gestural fragments. Given the number of Classical Dance experts in the audience, it would have been important to have some kind of discussion about this new/old dance style. In preparing the material for the stage, Makherjee, apparently, followed the precedent of Odissi which had been suppressed during the Colonial period and reconstructed from ancient sources after India's independence.
On stage the Guariya Naritya company, a man (Ayan Mukherjee) and a woman (Ruma Dey) performed three short pieces drawn from mythology. At the very least, it became clear that this Bengali style has little in common with any of the other Classical Indian form. The male dancing, in particular, excelled in athleticisms with barrel turns and somersaults, hard drops into deep, wide pliés and dramatic off center poses. Dey picked up a pot and used it as a pedastal while Mukherjee circled around her. Some of the style reminded me of Balinese dance dramas.
A Festival high point were Kathakli dancers Sadanam Harikumaran and Vijayan Gopinathan's in "Sapamocadam". Their story sounded about as convoluted as it can get, and yet its realization was dramatically and emotionally cogent. Urvasi, a celestial nymph falls in love with the great warrior Arjuna, her "son" though several generations removed. When he rejects her, she turns him into a Eunuch but relents and transmutes her passion into maternal love.
Since the dancers' bodies are completely encased in costumes that they wear like shells -- Arjuna in an enormous hoop skirt and huge head dress, Urvasi in what looked like hundreds of rounded folds -- the movement potential was severely restricted. He clomped around; she stood demurely with her arms close to her torso. Except for the eyes, their faces were immobile for the seventy-five minutes of the performance; what looked like masks was in fact make-up. An elaborate gestural vocabulary, bigger and bold for him, filigreed -- until she exploded in rage -- for her, more than compensated for the restricted mobility. (It was of great help that during an afternoon presentation, the two dancers had demonstrated the gestural language, some of it similar to well-known mudras, other's quite genre-specific.) In the end Arjuna, probably close to nine feet in height, folded himself so that he could put his head into Urvasi's lap. It was easily one of the Festival's most bravura but also most touching moments.
Bharata Natyam husband and wife dancers V.P. Dhananjayan and C.P. Shanta have been dancing together for over forty years. In their performance they forewent the physically demanding nritta (pure dance), focusing on telling stories from the life of Krishna. Both of them have distilled their dancing into refined and beautifully internalized forms of Abhinaya. Dhanajayan mesmerized by evoking Nandanar, an Untouchable, in front of Krishna's Temple that is closed to him. Through small facial and hand gestures, combined with minute shifts in body positions, he created a tough, humble, bitter but ultimately accepting human being. Again the lyrics were heard in English.
Last year the Chitresh Das Dance Company premiered his "Sita Haran," a Kathak-style dance drama based on one of the most beloved Hindu myths which tells the story of Sita's abduction and the ensuing battle during which Ram and his faithful brother Lakshman save her. It was easy to see why "Sita" proved popular with the Festival audience. The story was told clearly by a narrator and excellently individualized characters; the treatment also offered opportunities for some of Das' fine women dancers. Foremost among them as Das' star dancer Charlotte Moraga who again did double duty as Demon King Ravan and the Monkey King Bali. Rina Mehta's Ram could have been a Ballet prince -- a dreamer yet regal. Labonee Mohanta reprised her role as the galloping Golden Deer while Kasturi Mishra filled her Grand King of Eagles with just the right touch of pathos. "Sita" is good entertainment but the dramatization is so broad that it stepped into melodrama. Also the choreography--every multiple pirouette got enthusiastic applause--was nowhere near as subtle as when one lone dancer has to bring the story alive by himself. That's the glory of Kathak. On the last program, which I did not attend, Das apparently did just that. I was glad to hear it.