Song of Surrender

Friday, 21 April 2017

Stillness in movement

SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance 2017

By Sruti Rao


It hits you with a sudden jolt that the SIFAS Festival has started as soon as you enter the campus. The usually bare and yellowing walls are decorated with an abundance of marigolds, strings of flowers and blue silk streamers. Just as a proud family extends a red carpet welcome to its guests, adorned in their best saris and kurtas, with bright smiles but anxious brows, the SIFAS Principal Vidhya Nair and her loyal entourage of staff and festival committee members take turns to receive the first attendees at the steps before scurrying down the halls towards the humble auditorium.

At the inauguration, the crowd collects, for what proves to be a momentary stillness compared to the 16 days that follow. Committee members, students, loyal festival followers and even a couple of new faces fill the temporary seating construction.

Dr ST Kasinathan welcomed the crowd to the 14th Annual SIFAS Festival of Music and Dance. The evening began with a customary musical welcome from the SIFAS gurus, as Carnatic and Hindutstani vocal gurus Bhuvaneshwari and Shibani Roy took the stage with other gurus Srikanth (mridangam), Mihir Kundu (tabla), along with Praveen Kumar on the violin and Nabendu Bhattacharya on the harmonium.

The gurus introduced themselves with an alapana and slokam in Kalyani raga, even as the evening winds merge with the melodies and the rhythmic accompaniment of the percussion. Somewhat of a musical experiment followed. To my dismay it didn’t particularly work in the artists’ favour. Songs in both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles were interspersed with each other—Sarasa mahamani followed by ‘um bin more, but felt forced and didn’t quite meld in synergy. 

Shortly after the musical performance, the audience was in for a mesmerizing Bharatanatyam performance by Jyotsna Jagannathan. While the organisers and committee members socialized during a 15-minute break to congratulate the gurus, dance students (including myself) scurried to the front of the auditorium to ensure they could study the dancer’s perfection in clear view. I hadn’t heard much about Jyotsna beforehand, and was simply looking forward to a decent dance performance in the cosy comfort of the SIFAS auditorium. What I saw was, however, magnificent.


Jagannathan sprang confidently on to the stage with a Gambhiranata mallari, filled with statuesque movements that couldn’t but remind us of the style of Malavika Sarukkai, the dancer’s guru. The resemblance was admirable and refreshing. In the varnam Innam en manam in Charukesi, Jagannathan brought a whimsical confidence in to the characterisation of the nayaki. 

There were admittedly moments of the seeming light-heartedness in the nayaki’s conversation with Krishna didn’t allow me to connect to the emotions of the character poignantly as in other presentations of this varnam, but that didn’t stop my wide-eyed appreciation of the way Jagannathan carried herself through the piece. She tirelessly glided through long and complex jatis, and ascended to the lyrical expressions with the same poise. This careful balance of controlling the body, while letting go to immerse yourself in the piece, gave us glimpses of how much more there is to master in a dancer’s presentation. Another admirable quality was the quick switches in characters throughout the repertoire. From the confident lover in the varnam, Jagannathan morphed into the gentle mother of Lord Rama, in her subsequent presentation of Tulsi Das's Tumak chalat. While some of us were glued to the beauty of her control and professionalism, younger members of the crowd were enamoured with the precision of her taihat taihi which they had just learnt in their previous dance class.

Confidence came in the form of Singapore talents as well, with local artists grasping the opportunity and platform to develop their own performance skills. SIFAS alumni Sai Vigneshwar, Sushma Soma and Nishanth Thiagarajan, did the institution proud, with their bold rendering of heavy compositions in their vocal concerts.

Young dancers of the Singapore arts fraternity also held their own on the SIFAS stage, with Bharatanatyam and Kathak repertoires that brought traditional margams to light. Popular senior dance students like Preethi Devarajan, Varsha Vishwanath and Gauraangi Chopra gave endearing performances, their diligent practice showing in their nritta and stamina, while their abhinaya may still have scope to bring forth deeper connotations of the characters they were portraying.

A performance marked by maturity and precision amid the series of daily performances at the campus was that of SIFAS guru Geethanadhan. Kalakshetra came to Singapore on that breezy Monday evening, as Geethanadhan represented his alma mater’s aestheticism through his clear and energetic movements throughout the margam, beautifully accompanied by the traditional rendering of the live orchestra of SIFAS gurus. The neatness of his every movement—from the swastika of his feet to the tripataka of his hands—was a dance student’s delight to watch and process.

The offering of workshops and interactive sessions was a wonderful addition to the festival this year. One session was by the bright-eyed rising star of the Carnatic music scene, Ramakrishnan Murthy. On the eve of his concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the humble musician brought to a mixed audience of young and experienced vocal students and music teachers, a workshop on using compositions to render raga alapana. The atmosphere of the enclosed rehearsal room allowed for a casual and interspersed Q&A with the artist, while he presented examples of how sangatis of age-old kritis can be referenced when rendering alapana. For instance, the anupallavi line Neela sareera from Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s Balagopala in Bhairavi can be pulled upon as – in the artist’s own words – a “magnum opus” for setting the tone of Bhairavi, as he skilfully translated the sangatis of the pallavi into phrases in an alapana. While the structured insights of Ramakrishan Murthy were indeed thought-provoking, the commentary and varied questions that came from the audience were just as interesting to hear, bringing to light what we as students of music can learn not only from professional performers, but from each other as well.

The key big-ticket performance that I was anticipating the most was Mythili Prakash’s Jwala, presented at the Esplanade Theatre on the penultimate day of the festival. Mythili and her musician brother Aditya Prakash are no strangers to the Singapore stages, already enjoying quite a loyal fan-following here, and they did full justice to their expectations through their presentation of Jwala – the rising flame. The production allowed the audience to see a side of Mythili’s that it hadn’t before. The flame signifying memories of a loved one, and its role in the emergence of new life and love, was portrayed with a genuineness in the way it brought out personal parallels of the dancer’s own life experiences. The courage with which Mythili allowed herself to be vulnerable to this truth on stage was admirable and soul-stirring. Familiarity came through nonetheless in the dynamic fast-paced choreography of Mythili’s dance. Time and time again, the inspirational dancer has shown an intelligence in her varied interpretations of movement, knowing when to enthrall with brahmaris and hovering speeds, and also when to stand still and enrapture the audience with her mature and relatable expressions. Though certain components of the production felt superfluous, such as the attribution to Sivasakti in the middle, the performance in its entirety still kept the audience engaged and in complete awe of the dancer’s grand energy.

The musical ensemble in this show especially brought an elevated dynamic to the dance more than any other presentation in this year’s festival. From Easwar Ramakrishnan with his  superior rendering on the violin, Jayashree Ramanathan with her clear and precise nattuvangam, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram with rhythmic synchronization on the mridangam, and Krishnan Venkatesh with some  incredible lighting, to Aditya Prakash and Sushma Soma’s melodic and mature navigation of the music with each member, gave the entire production a beauty that allowed us to internalize the visual elements of the dance in ways we could not have without them. Aditya Prakash’s rendering of the Sufi poem Ji chaahe to sheesha banja at the end was especially poignant and graceful.

One Esplanade performance that disappointed however, was Rajendra Gangani’s Kathak presentation Rachna. The craft and ability of the dancer cannot be questioned, as he showed great skill and a natural laya or rhythm in his form, the format of the presentation failed to captivate. Following a brief introduction with the Siva panchakshara stotram, Gangani followed a near lec-dem format throughout the remainder of the evening, with explanations of bols and chals followed by their presentation. This felt simplistic, and inadequate for the Esplanade stage, while a more solid conceptual presentation might have engaged the audience in a better manner. While this show in essence didn’t move me, I could stand corrected, for the hundreds of remaining audience members were applauding vociferously to each of his pauses and tattakaras.

The SIFAS Festival is at its core a celebration of art, its present and its future. It gives aspiring artists a platform to grow while presenting a plethora of established performers to represent how much more there is to explore and appreciate. This year’s festival certainly grounded us art-lovers in appreciating the vastness and diversity of the classical Indian arts. The depth of the compositions, the intensity of traditional choreographies and the engaged rapture of the generations of audiences that sat through a continuous array of performances persuaded even ambitious professionals constantly looking for the next move of success, to stand still, and appreciate the beauty and the generosity of the classical arts, for their roles in our lives and in the society we live in.

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