"Silappadikaaram,'' produced by the Cleveland Cultural Alliance, only touched the tip of the iceberg. But the show did have its highlights, observes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
"Silappadikaaram"... taking the old text to new eyes.
PREMIERED IN Chennai ( April 4) before its tour of a dozen American cities, "Silappadikaaram,'' produced by the Cleveland Cultural Alliance, performed by the Avigna Dance Ensemble, and sponsored by Hyundai Motors, provoked differing opinions. Those who looked for profound treatment and rich characterisation were disappointed. Others who expected contemporary insights into the ancient Tamil saga were equally put off.
But Uma Ganesan's impeccable introduction made it clear that the attempt had only touched the tip of the iceberg; the idea was to take the old text to new eyes. G. Narendra's choreography with Bombay Jayashree's score and Kanimozhi Karunanidhi's script, offered a viewer-friendly, listener-friendly spectacle for television-age audiences. In the process, epic sweep was replaced by picture strip animation. The pace was gripping, the narration crisp. From start to finish, the visualisation had a tireless robustness. The most impressive feature was that the entire show was perfectly rehearsed, no fumbling, no frayed ends.
The show began and ended with the story of how Kannagi came to be deified, told to a wayfarer by the folk of the Chera land. (The ironies of the secular tale ending in a spiritual mood had no place in this version).
The flashback had three segments the socially approved marriage of Kovalan (Narendra) and Kannagi (Mahalakshmi), and their short term wedded bliss. The simple sets and props, designed by artiste A.V. Ilango, tastefully produced by Depikka Nagaraj, came into their own from the start, especially as the choreographer used them not as embellishments, but as integral parts of his design.
The tiraiseelai (handheld curtain) served many purposes, each beautiful, flowing along with the dance across the stage; it even became the wedding canopy. (Later a hand held sari was to divide characters in time and space).
Sambhoga sringara is not easy to portray, as it lacks the variety of love-in-separation. But in the slow lyric starting with the lovely Silappadikaram phrase "Masaru ponne'' sliding into contemporary verse, with repetitions of `tene' and `mutthe', set to romantic Desh, the couple evoked a tender wedded bliss. Section two could not match the integrity of section one. The same tiraiseelai proved brittle for Madhavi's (Krishnakshi Sharma) patra pravesam. Her elaborate court dance splashed virtuosity sans heart. Kovalan's deserting his wife to partner Madhavi for many years seems all the more whimsical as the courtesan does not come through as a woman of bewitching art and intelligence. The glances, poses and friezes were reminiscent of slow motion cinema.
There was no attempt to create in-depth characters, or plumb emotions. Nor were the protagonists shaped through a process of internalisation. Kovalan seemed a puppet buffeted by the winds of fortune. Nor did you see the connoisseur of the arts in him. His misunderstanding with his paramour which makes him return to his `chaste wife', is as flimsy as his later conviction on reading her letter that Madhavi too is `chaste'. These key portions were rushed through without psychic probes.
The Madurai episode has Kovalan's execution, followed by Kannagi's transformation from a meek housewife to avenging fury. She arraigns the king for his miscarriage of justice in killing her husband. Not satisfied with the king's dropping dead in shame, she reduces his capital to ashes.
Mahalakshmi's fiery eyes and throbbing figure visualised rage in the foreground, as the flames (imaged in a group of dancers), rose, spread and caused havoc behind her. Screens tumbled down under their assault, symbolising the fall of Madurai. Here the lighting (K. Venkatesh) was commendably strong without becoming garish.
Narendra scored in the group nritta sequences starting with the celebration of Puhar. Two flags and a state umbrella were enough to paint all its magnificence over movements tensile, dynamic.
A single pipe `blown' with fervour triggered the abandon of the Indra vizha, of wild fiestas with puli and mayil attam (tiger/peacock dance) between gliding lamps and galloping drums. The drum dance was an original take off on pung cholam. Right through the show, every group sequence was performed with professional ease and youthful high spirits.
Ebullience was the main chord in Avigna's "Silappadikaaram,'' a quality underlined by Bombay Jayashree's matching score in the lighter ragas. Heavier ragas too had to shed their weight in the moods of the dance, and there was no deliberate use of the `panns' mentioned in the original text. Jayashree's own singing (for Kannagi) stood out for its emotionally charged enunciations.
Likewise, Kanimozhi's script was pared to pointed, minimalistic lines as the narration was more visual than verbal. The costumes (Lakshmi Srinath) were marked by euphony of colours and tones.
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