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The flavour of the season

THE FLAVOUR of the Season this year, 2003-04, is not only "Silappathikaram", Elango Adigal's epic of the anklet, but also its surprising strong American connections. Presented as a dance drama, it started the Season a couple of days ago. Presenting the opening production, with three more programmes scheduled, are the India Study Group of Colgate University and Sudharani Raghupathy's Shree Bharatalaya. The Colgate group, led by Prof. William Skelton, has been coming to India every year for several years now and his 40-year friendship with the Indian dancer has led to interaction between the two groups, the visitors annually getting an introduction to dance and music. Two years ago, Prof. Skelton and Sudharani Raghupathy felt that the interaction would be more meaningful if the students of both institutions teamed up - and, so, the idea of presenting the story of Kannagi, Kovalan and Madhavi was born. The most difficult part of the exercise, say the producers, was the editing of the original text (in translation) and choosing the essential scenes that would, in a two-hour production, present a dramatic story cohesively.

For four months, the 18-member Colgate group and Sree Bharatalaya dancers and musicians have been preparing for this fusion dance-drama. And what the two presented is a true partnership. Kovalan is played by Vijay Palaparty, an Indian settled in the U.S. and who was with an earlier Colgate group, while Kannagi and Madhavi are from Yuva Kala Bharathi. Sudharani Raghupathy features as Kavunthi, the Jain saint, while Skelton is the English narrator. The kattiyakarar, the storytellers, are Nathan Smiley and Aruna Subbiah from the partnering institutions, while the corps d'ballet includes dancers from both. The most interesting feature of the production is the playing of Vidwan Madurai N. Krishnan's score. Apart from the traditional vocal, nattuvangam, mridangam and violin offered by Yuva Kala Bharathi students, there's a seven-member band contributed by Colgate with guitar, drums, saxophone, keyboard and flute. Getting to grips with the ragas of Carnatic Classical has been one of the most challenging parts of the whole experience, say members of the band.

Ending the season too would be a production of "Silappathikaram". This one, organised by Uma Ganesan of the 12-year-old Cleveland Cultural Alliance (CCA), which has taken a Classical South Indian Music Season to Cleveland, Ohio, every year since 1991, is scheduled to premier here in April and then tour the U.S. from September. In the past, the CCA has done two major multicultural productions, "Jungle Book - The Adventures of Mowgli" with the Ohio Ballet in 1995/96 and, in 2001, The Living Tree, based on Shel Silverstein's book inspired by the old Indian fable "The Mango Tree".

CCA's "Silappathikaram", much more India-centric compared to the other two, promises to be as epic as the story, for this will see a large and experienced cast and musical accompaniment in a richly-mounted production. But classically traditional as it will be, sets, costume, lighting, etc. are likely to introduce a considerable influence of modernism.

This `modernist' influence, particularly on choreography, left me with mixed feelings about the performance that opened the `Season' - an exposition of the rhythms of Sri Lanka by the National Dance Troupe of the Island. The kolattam (likeli) and other group dances were so stylised as to be far removed from the rural traditions of the country. Typical of this unreal transformation was the tea-pluckers' dance which, instead of offering the kummi, was trivialised by being allowed to degenerate into burlesque. As for the masked dances, they deserved a commentary on what the dancer was trying to convey; the audience certainly did now know.

S. MUTHIAH

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