Telling tales anew
Rajika Puri's presentation of Sutradhari Natyam and Flamenco Natyam in New Delhi the other day deserves praise for her conviction and courage, but debates are inevitable.
Rajika Puri performing Sutradhari Natyam accompanied by flautist Abhiram Nanda. Photo: Sandeep Saxena.
RAJIKA PURI gave an interesting solo performance at the India Habitat Centre the other day. Trained in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and other forms, Rajika presented her interpretation of the Indian classical dances as a contemporary language.
In the first half, in what she terms Sutradhari Natyam, based on the traditional natya technique - an amalgam of song, instrumental music, dance and speech - she took up three stories: The Story of Sati, Love Song of the Dark Lord and The Cowherd and the Dancing Serpent. Recounting the tale in English, using dance movements and percussive syllables, mostly from Odissi, and occasionally singing the Sanskrit verses too required a great deal of stamina. The partnership with flautist Abhiram Nanda, without using any other melodic or percussion instrument, was an effective idea. The dancer's acting went down well with the full hall, and her powers of memory and ability to sing while moving were to be admired.
She could have made better use of the movements of Odissi, which were discernible but seemed as if half-heartedly executed. One could imagine a well-trained stage actress doing sonorous justice to the oratory, an opera singer to the music. But it would not be so impressive to see an opera singer dancing. So, while the idea of Sutradhari Natyam is commendable, the project required prodigious skills in the singing, acting and recitation departments.
The second half was christened Flamenco Natyam, which, as the name signifies, blends movements from the Flamenco dance of Spain with Bharatanatyam. In this the dancer's movements were much clearer, the lines strong, the angashuddha (neatness of postures) in evidence. This part was performed to recorded music, and one wondered whether it was the freedom from having to sing and speak that enabled her to put all her energies into dancing. The themes were taken from the bull fighting tradition of Spain. Rajika mentioned her affinity for the arm movements found in Flamenco, and the emphasis on her own arm movements was aesthetic.
Storytelling, then and now
The Indian classical dances, not to mention a number of other traditional arts, evolved as storytelling techniques. There is no doubt that over time, forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Odissi and the like have become somewhat alienated from contemporary urban audiences. This is due in part to the stylisation that informs such dance traditions, but also to our education system, which tends to lead students away from India's indigenous cultural heritage, so that - unless they make an extra effort - the more successful they are academically, the less seems to be their knowledge and even curiosity about the country's living traditions. So it is understandable and also essential that thinking dancers explore new methods of performance to link with their audiences.
But they will continue to generate debate. For example, the stories chosen for Sutradhari Natyam were those whose characters are recognisable to anyone who has grown up in India. Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha, and the poisonous serpent Kaliya whom Krishna vanquished and banished from the River Yamuna - all of them are familiar, yet the myths woven around them carry a mystic symbolism.
They are in a sense, stylised tales, just as the classical dance forms are stylised portrayals of real life actions. And this `stylisation', it might be said, raises a story from the level of an everyday episode between husband and wife, between friends, between lovers or enemies, to an abiding cultural memory with many resonances. Therefore, the English narration in everyday prose seemed less than appropriate. Or was it just a reactionary tendency?
Bridge or inappropriate?
Some might have felt a jolt when the haughty King Daksha, Sati's father, was described as sneering at Shiva's being "not even a page three person". There was laughter in the audience no doubt, and some must have felt the script worked as a bridge between the ancient and the contemporary.
What there can be no debate about is the need for more such experiments. It is a healthy sign that more dancers are able to resist the draw of simply looking pretty on stage and state forthrightly whatever they have to say.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu