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Saturday, 28 May 2016

A saga retold

Ranjana Gauhar in conversation with Shrinkhla Sahai

The story of Nala and Damayanti was presented in an absorbing and novel format by Delhi-based dancer-choreographer Ranjana Gauhar in her latest production, which premiered in Delhi. Blending animation with the Odissi and Chhau dance forms, the production presents the age-old tale as a dance-drama for the younger audience. The Odissi exponent collaborated with her animator-film-maker son, Sidharth Daniels, to create a visual treat that integrates with the classical dance vocabulary to capture a unique mode of story-telling. The dancers interact with the visuals in a computer-generated ambience, accompanied by the script in English, and instrumental music to match each scene and mood. The role of Damayanti was elegantly portrayed by Ranjana Gauhar’s disciple, Vrinda Chadha, while Rakesh Sai Babu as Nala, skilfully moulded his Chhau repertoire to depict the righteous king. 

What inspired you to work on this combination of visual art and performance?

There are certain limitations in live presentation, especially when the story is so complex, and realistic description is difficult. I was discussing this with my son (Sidharth Daniels) who is an animator and that is how the idea originated. I also realised that this might turn out to be an important medium to connect with youth. Today, young people are so techno-savvy, classical dance becomes more exciting for them when there is a medium that they connect with. I wanted to explore this way of contemporising the story and the form. The classical arts are called ‘classical’ because they are constantly reinventing themselves. The project we undertook was extremely expensive and difficult, but it is important to explore new ways of telling stories.

How did you find working with your son?

It was such a lovely experience! During the production I gained more insight into his thought process. I realised that you never truly understand your children till you see their work. 

Why did you choose this theme for the production?

This timeless fable has hardly been performed in classical dance. Though in Kathakali it is not an uncommon theme, in other forms it is quite a rare story. I find it a very beautiful love story where two people come together in a true union of the souls, and are separated by the force of circumstances, to be reunited later because of their undying love and devotion. The story was told by an old sage to Yudhishthira when he lost the game of dice. Like Yudhishthira, King Nala was also an honest and kind ruler, but was overwhelmed by momentary temptation and lost his kingdom. This is quite relevant in today’s world where we are bombarded by so many distractions and temptations and we have to make choices.  I hope the story will touch a chord with the audience, awaken the inner consciousness of the common man, and make all of us more aware about the choices we make in life.

How was the process of choreographing with two forms?

Mayurbhanj Chhau and Odissi both originate from Odisha and have a common essence. Even though Chhau is primarily a martial art form, it has a lot of lasyanga. The body language of the dance form is very powerful and I felt it would be able to depict the movements of animals, and the masculine aspect in certain scenes very well. 

What are the important aspects of choreography in a piece like this?

Choreography is very instinctive and you cannot plan this. I work by responding to the mood and situation of a particular scene. For instance, in the rehearsal I just sense it when the scene is not coming out right. I take my answers from within, I don’t find solutions outside.

Choreography is primarily a Western concept. Do you think it truly melds into the Indian classical genre?

Actually Indian classical dancers work with much heavy choreography right from the beginning, in terms of space, time, design. It is handed down from generation to generation. You inherit it in many ways. It is a Western word, but for an Indian classical dancer, choreography is a natural thing. 

You are also trained in other dance forms like Chhau, Kathak and Manipuri.  How does that affect your work?

I learnt all those forms when I was very young, when I was still searching for the art I could make my own. I went through this process of searching, trying, moving on, and when I came to Odissi I knew it was my purpose, my passion and devotion. I also dabbled in theatre for a few years and the training has been a great asset to me. Maybe it is my theatre training that draws me to story-telling. I try to bring in aspects of theatre in dance and I find it very exciting to take up different characters and delve deeper into the shades of the plot. This inspires me to do something different.

Did the music and animation come later after the choreography or was it a parallel process?

The music has been composed by acharya Bankim Sethi. The music and animation were initiated with the first draft of the script. I had already visualised most of the piece, and the medium and methodology came in much later. A lot of the process was trial and error. The set, design, costume, visuals and movement, all had to blend harmoniously. We hope we have been able to provide an enthralling experience to the audience.

My Guru, Dr. C.G. Balachandran

By Sunil Kunnakkat

Bad news comes in threes, they say. My paternal grandmother passed away in 2014.  Then my maternal grandmother in 2015.  It had been a difficult couple of years, what with my parents, especially my mother, going back and forth to India and all.

Then came last Thursday.

"Oh, no." said my father.  That's never a good sign, for he only says it if something bad has happened.

I turned around, and he looked distraught--in retrospect more for me than himself.  

"Sad news, Sunu," he said, using my nickname.  "Sreenadh uncle (of just sent an email saying Dr. Balachandran has passed away."

I didn't react at first. I didn't want to. Dr. Balachandran was a hero to me in ways I wouldn't come to grips with until the forthcoming days. In hindsight, he was relentlessly selfless, a quality that came with being a teacher. He carried no ego, nor elaborated on his qualifications as a highly respected acoustics engineer. He was a Ph.D after all.

I never thought of my Guru’s age; rather I always thought of him as young and vigorous, not someone of my grandparents' age.  I would learn that Dr. Chetlur G. Balachandran was born in 1931, the same year and almost the exact date as my paternal grandmother. At times like this, one tends to look back, as I did about the decade or so that I spent at his feet. 

When I was a child, my parents took me to Carnatic music concerts, mainly because my sister was working her way up as a classically trained dancer and singer. During one of the shows I saw a musician with a barrel drum, hands moving rapidly, producing rhythms and notes that sent my head spinning. I asked my dad what it was, and he said it was a mridangam and asked if I wanted to learn how to play it. The answer was a swift yes.

Within days I was in the apartment of Dr. Balachandran, who became my first and only mridangam teacher. I was seven  years old. I saw him almost every Sunday morning until the end of high school.

My guru wasn't just a mridangam teacher. He taught me life lessons, unspoken by the way he carried himself, and the way he made me feel, like my drive was worth something. I am in large part the person I am because of my Guru. I was also learning about the intricacies of Carnatic music, the stalwarts of the genre (KVN and T.K. Govinda Rao, to name just two) with whom my guru played, and so on. More than that, I could talk with him about anything. As a kid we would discuss politics (our distaste for the Iraq war). We would watch tennis games together (he was a huge fan of Roger Federer). I loved trying to make him laugh and see the familiar twinkle in his eyes. Sometimes my guru’s son, Murali Balachandran, would join us and play the mridangam, or ghatam, or khanjira. Those days were a blast.

We were more than teacher-student; more often than not, I felt he and I were great friends despite the age difference, and that he was essentially raising me on those Sundays. He was the reason I developed an innate confidence when it came to playing drums of any kind. And then that expanded to the violin, and then piano, and now guitar. He could make me think, he could make me laugh, and he could make me practise until my hands were calloused and my lower body was numb. He is the most important teacher I have ever had, or ever will have. No one has come close and no one ever will.

He stressed listening to tons of music, to understand the meaning of the words and structure, analyze pitch and rhythm, and connect to the song until I was lost in it. I loved the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer but he would temper my fascinations, explaining that it was not just about having the most elaborate solos, but creating a backbeat for the song as well. I still unknowingly bite my lip the way my guru did when I perform. I can now close my eyes and see the patterns like puzzle pieces, where to place the hits and where to let the beat breathe. I didn’t think whether I was good enough or whether I could play or if this would lead to anything. I just did. There were no existential worries, only fun. His ability to instil confidence in me is what has struck me the most. I hope to write music for a career, and to this day I still get conflicted over what I am capable of. These doubts never surfaced when I was with my guru. He must've seen that I had something, or maybe he chose to believe in me. Now I'll never be sure what it was.

Sunil, at age 11, with his Guru in 2004
There is one memory that sticks with me the most. When we played together, I would have to replicate his "riffs" or fills. One time he pulled something out of his hat that was impossible for me to replicate at the time. I was quite young but didn’t want to fail, and tried as hard as I could to recreate it. My hands went stiff, and after relentless attempts I started to cry. I was so frustrated that I was failing, but I remember his entire demeanor changed. He went from playful and energetic, to sympathetic and caring. He knew how to shift his persona to let me know it was OK if I didn’t quite get it, and that I wasn't any less of a player because of it.

If I remember correctly, he gave me some water and time to relax, and we tried it again. I don't think I got it that day, but I wasn't mad anymore. Within a few weeks, after practicing with him and on my own time, I got it down. 

In that one session with him, there were at least three life lessons: 
  1. Practise 
  2. Don't be hard on yourself, and 
  3. Don't give up. 

He would impart these sorts of lessons for over ten years. The more I think about our times together, the more I regain my confidence pursuing what I love, and the more grateful I become. After I went off to college, I saw him only twice.  I always regretted that I didn't reach out to him in recent years, but work or something else always got in the way. What I wouldn’t give to spend more time with him, exchanging riffs back and forth like the sparring partners we were. 

I saw my master one last time at the viewing. It was then that I fully realized I would never see the twinkle in his eyes again, and the emotions I had been repressing this whole time began to bubble up. I wanted to feel numb but couldn’t. I sat down with my dad and watched a photo slideshow of my guru over the years, and suddenly I saw a familiar face on the screen.

There I was, probably 8-10 years old, with my master behind me, his hand on my shoulder. We were both smiling, at a party with a bunch of kids, but somehow I made it into the slideshow. I don’t know why, and while I am sure I was not the deciding factor in choosing that picture, I took it as some sort of sign. I was grateful that it was up there. It summarized everything. In a sea of people, through whatever gigs I did or whomever I met, there was my master and I, and he was always looking out for me. When I got back into the car, I finally cried.

Though I've been avoiding it since the announcement of his passing, perhaps I will sit down and play my mridangam, this time with no partner in crime, and try to practise without my eyes welling up as it has so many times over the past few days.  Maybe through going back to where it all started, I will find the answers that I need.

Rest in peace, Guru. And one more time, thank you for everything.

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