"Images of Truth"
The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust
The Kennedy Center's Maximum India Festival
March 12, 2011 at 6 PM
Shantala Shivalingappa's "Swayambhu"
The Kennedy Center's Maximum India Festival
March 12, 2011 at 7:30 PM
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
Puppets can mimic human behavior in astonishing ways, or make it seem trivial. Fine dancing can combine techniques, but how do India's fragrances and Paris's perfumes mix? Among the Maximum India festival's presentations Saturday were two dance performances - one of puppetry and the other of Kuchipudi classicism.
It is awesome to see a mechanical thing move as if with feeling. It can even be frightening to see it respond as if with cause. The ancient puppet theaters of the Far East have cultivated this artform intensely. Crucial is the distinction between puppet and puppeteer. In Indonesia's traditional puppetry the puppeteers seem like servants, dancing servants, at the puppet being's beck and call. In Japan's Bunraku, the shrouded handlers hover like guiding spirits, helping the vulnerable doll navigate life's course. This performance showed Dadi Pudumjee's Ishara to be a contemporary undertaking that mixes media and is proud of its puppets' home made look.
There were different types of puppets, and diverse tasks for the ten human members of the company - Pudumjee and his nine young men. Bag puppets consisted of a transparent plastic bag filled with colorful objects weighing it down and topped with a doll's head. Face puppets consisted of a large piece of solid white plastic cut and painted with orange lines to resemble a head in profile. The one naturalistic, anatomically segmented puppet was reserved for the hero of the story being told - "Images of Truth" is about the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
The Gandhi figure gestures, it reclines and rises, and finally it sinks into death with an eloquent modesty that reminds us of the Gandhi caught on newsreels during his life. Pudumjee shows not only Gandhi in action but how the figure is made. Starting with a faceless doll, he forms it into an indentifiable entity. Only when this entity is being handled by Pudumjee are there, in this production, instances of a relationship between puppet and puppeteer. I suspect that Pudumjee appears more godlike as the puppeteer than he intended.
The company's young men manipulate the other puppets rather impersonally. They also also dress up in body masks to portray symbolic figures and, in their India white tunics and trousers, dance simply, pleasantly. On occasion, too, they interact with the audience. Good intentions are apparent throughout this tribute-biography but only at the Gandhi-Pudumjee interface is the production potent.
The Classical Dancing
She leaped into view like a lithe deer, a slim young woman wonderfully poised for further action. In my Eurocentric memory she triggered an image of Yvette Chauvire's entrance in Lifar's Paris Opera ballet, "Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle" but I dismissed it, not yet having read Shantala Shivalingappa's bio in the printed program. That this was the festival's only example of Kuchipudi classicism, I did know but in trying to differentiate it from the Odissi, Bharata Natyam and Khatak styles, doubts arose. How could I tell the dancer from the dance with only a single example? What I saw had the form, steps and stances of the other classical styles. Yet the quality of its movement was lighter. Not that the dancing was fragile, for it had tenacity. Either it continued quickly or was poised to do so. Jumps were airy without, though, Odissi's plushly cushioned landings or Bharata Natyam's pronounced vigor.
Shivalingappa's feet are finely arched and her stepping has exquisite detail. She uses the sole, heel or a side of the foot with distinct clarity. Those who refer to this dancer's touch must, I suspect, have her feet even more than her fingers in mind.
Two of the panels in "Swayaambhu" were based on 8-beat rhythms, there was a 7- beat pulse in the opening invocation to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, and a 5-beat unit was the base for a pantomimic dance. Shivalingappa's dancing is enveloped by music - flute, percussion and voice. The musicians, all men, are seated traditionally on the left. Often the flutist, K.S. Jayaram, opens a set. The two percussionists, B.P. Haribabu and N. Ramakrishnan, also played a bravura duet in which they started with a regular "heartbeat" and varied it, each diverging in his own ways to generate a kaleidoscope of sound that is then resolved into the original heartbeat. The vocalist J. Ramesh was not the sole singer. Shivalingappa, while she was dancing slowly in one panel, sang solo. Her voice was mellow, her enunciation of the lyrics seemed clear. I think she was doing lip sync, but of her own recording.
The mime dance was a bedroom yarn, about dreaming and waking up not alone. Its characters were from India's pantheon but it could have been a French bedroom farce. Shivalingappa was charming as the dreamer-narrator. Every expression, gesture and motion registered narratively and as dance. In another panel, she moved unusually - ever so slowly from pose to pose - before accelerating for the finish. In still another panel, she danced while balancing on the rim of a metallic dish - such a borrowing from folkways isn't unusual for Kuchipudi.
At its core, though, the Kuchipudi style is classical. Shivalingappa learned it, first from her mother (the dancer Savitry Nair) and then studied it intensely with master teacher Vampati Chinna Satyam in India. However, although born in Madras, Shivalingappa grew up in Paris where, it seems, she also worked with Maurice Bejart among others. So, the influence of ballet is not irrelevant. Is the finesse of her footwork the result of Kuchipudi training, French ballet (which is famous for this aspect) or of both, and how much is it due to a natural predisposition?
"Pasayadan", the final part of "Swayambhu", is a prayer that leads to an out-of-body experience. This panel is not scriptural Kuchipudi. Although the dancing starts classically, clearly, it becomes ecstatic. At the climax, the stage's back curtain begins to ripple and unlatch, falling down to cover the pulsating dancer. Shades of Bejart, Pina Bausch, Peter Brook, Bartabas and others of the modern European stage!