Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

REMEMBERING RUKMINI DEVI

By Impana Kulkarni

The year 2016 marks a milestone in Kalakshetra’s performance history. The Margazhi festival having mellowed down, the annual festival bagged a few extra performances, making it eleven days long. And the best part:  all six parts of the Ramayana series choreographed by the founder Rukmini Devi Arundale since 1965 were once again shown in their entirety. 

Young love

The festival commenced with Usha Parinayam – the story of young Usha’s marriage. Choreographed by Rukmini Devi in the Bhagavata Mela style in 1959,  and interspersed with dialogues in Telugu, it narrates the story of how Banasura’s arrogance was subdued by the combined efforts of Lord Siva and Krishna; while his daughter, enraptured by Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha, takes the help of her sakhi Chitralekha to unite with him.

Rama’s story

The famed six-part Ramayana series ran on  from 22 to 24 and from 27 to 29 February. The use of rare ragas and complex teermanams bore the stamp of the music greats Mysore Vasudevacharya and his grandson S. Rajaram. Vasudevacharya even composed a new raga Chittabhramari to emote Dasaratha’s grief in Vanagamanam. The sollukattu for Soorpanakha’s scene in Sabari Moksham was set by Rukmini Devi herself. There was awe at Ravana’s scene in Seeta Swayamvaram, terror in Hanuman’s Lanka dahanam in Choodamani Pradanam, and marvel at the vanarasena’s bridge building scene in Maha Pattabhishekam. The staff and students of Kalakshetra who made up the cast performed gracefully. Senior alumni like Pushpa, Balagopalan, Ambika Buch, Prof.  Janardhanan, and many others, who were part of the audience, must have relived their Ramayana days, when they directly learnt from Athai and brought the characters alive on stage. 

Dance with a difference

Day five of the festival was lit by Sonal Mansingh, who chose to narrate and sing out verses before she danced in her Natyakatha on Krishna. Her booming voice and magnetic abhinaya were accompanied by a projection of Krishna paintings. Following this was a Bharatanatyam presentation called Soukhyam by the Dhananjayans and their students of Bharatakalanjali. Their performance of the invocatory alarippu was refreshing, with just the tambura playing in the background of the sollukattus. 

Day six broke away from convention  –  Astad Deboo arrived on the scene with his band of Manipuri drummers from Sri Sri Govindji Nat Sankeertan,  titled Rhythm Divine II – River runs deep. He combined their classical Pung cholom technique sans the drums with his contemporary moves, and layered it atop jazz music, in an attempt to portray the social unrest in Manipur. Beginning with the monotonous ring of church bells, his signature deep back bends and countless chakkars marked the end of the fascinating choreography. 

Alapadma – The Lotus Unfolds, a performance by Satyalingam’s Apsaras Arts Company from Singapore was next. Centred on the lotus, they showed its various representations across countries and in gesture through the stories of creation, the seven steps taken by Budhha, its occurrence in Hindu mythology and its philosophical significance in contemporary poetry. Finally with an effulgent tillana they demonstrated its spiritual significance. Beautiful dancers, creative costumes and good music made it a pleasure to watch.

Concerts

The morning of 22nd the campus was filled with melodious music – a wonderful blend of Sufi, Hindustani, and Gospel music; and Sonam Kalra’s bold voice explaining the purpose of her ‘Sufi Gospel Project’. A band with artists of different faiths, they preach one language, that of truth and faith. A medley of religious prayers, Hallelujah, and Man manam a poem by Hazrat Shah Nyaz were part of their repertoire. Accompanied by a sarangi, piano and tabla, and led by the flute, she finished spiritedly with the audience joining in on Bulleh Shah’s poem Alfat unbin inbin, the teachings of my guru. 

The Malladi Brothers’ concert welcomed the new month of March. They presented the rare raga Balahamsa, and a striking Idadu padam in Khamas. Soothing music, impressive raga alapana, and an enrapturing rendering of  a ragam, tanam and Ananda natana prakasam, the brothers lived up to their reputation. 

Birthday of the founder

Each day of the festival began with a student reading out excerpts from Rukmini Devi’s writings on art, animals, and theosophy. On her birthday, 29 February, the morning college prayer saw the attendance of Kalakshetra’s oldest students to its youngest. Athai’s seat under the Banyan tree was beautifully decorated with her favourite parrot motifs by Ekambaram, an employee since her time. The evening of her birthday had a panel discussion on the textiles woven at Kalakshetra CERC titled Korvai, between Gowri Ramnarayan, Jyotsna Narayanan, Prof. A.  Janardhanan, Simrat Chadda and Baradwaj Rangan. It closed with her grand production of Rama and Seeta’s Maha Pattabhishekam, the last of the Ramayana series.

The festival ends

The last day of the festival, 2 March,  was graced by the talk on A century plus of Indian dance: 1888-2010, by dance critic and historian, Aashish Mohan Khokar. His presentation highlighted the ways in which, over the past hundred years, his father and he documented Indian dance. He paid tribute to Rukmini Devi, by screening rare videos of her dancing, talking to the students and teaching dance, all retrieved from the Mohan Khokar Dance Archives of India. His crisp speech and inspiring video pleased everyone. The festival closed with a violin recital by M. Narmadha, daughter of violin maestro M.S. Gopalakrishnan. Trained in both Carnatic and Hindustani music systems she interspersed her recital with explanations about the raga or song, making it an enjoyable experience. 


Across the span of eleven days, this festival celebrated the vivacious, loving and creative spirit that was Athai. Be it her idea of combining Bharatanatyam with the Bhagavata Mela tradition and using Kathakali veshams or her gentle and respectful way of interacting with her co-artists. Rukmini Devi’s creations are a direct reminder of her personality, they hold her aspirations and memories. Their beauty is such that no matter how old they are you want to watch yet again. This festival has tried to keep that spirit alive, that vision that created an art centre that is Kalakshetra.

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