Grand presentation of temple festivals in Bharatanatyam
Natyaranagam, the dance wing of the Narada Gana Sabha Trust, conducted a ten-day festival titled “Utsava Bharatham”, which was their silver jubilee show. Such thematic presentations have been the hallmark of Natyarangam’s annual calendar of events. The choice of themes over the years has been unique, and this year, the focus was on temple festivals. The ten-day feast brought out all the myriad aspects of Bharatanatyam and the fruits of the extensive research that the various participants and their choreographers had put in to make each presentation a special one. The uniqueness of this festival was the pre-show talk/ presentation by the resource person or archival clips of the various temples, which brought the temple atmosphere alive to the audience. Some of the oral presentations were indeed wonderful.
The festival was inaugurated on 14 August 2022, and as is the custom of Natyarangam, many honours and citations were distributed. This year’s Natyarangam Guru Award was presented to Bharatanatyam exponent of yesteryear and senior guru Savithri Jagannatha Rao for her contribution to the art. A number of endowment awards were given during the inauguration to persons who have given much to the art form, like— Leela Venkataraman (senior critic and writer), Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy (senior Bharatanatyam dancers), Christopher Gurusamy (talent promotion), Bhavani Prasad (veena accompaniment for Bharatanatyam), Kuttalam M. Selvam, (nattuvangam) and Gayathri Kannan (proficiency in music for Bharatanatyam).
Kapali Arupaththu Moovar of Mylapore was presented by Jayanthi Subramaniam and group. The dance performance was preceded by a talk by Sriram V, who, in his inimitable style, described the splendour of the utsavam.
Three striking scenes in the dance that followed deserve special mention: first, the scene depicting the origin of the name Mylapore. Next was the immortal composition of Papanasam Sivan, Kana kannkodi vendum, in Kambhoji raga. This masterpiece was beautifully choreographed for the group presentation, and the scene of Adhikara Nandi in the chariot/’ther’, being pulled through the streets of the old town was well done by the dancers. Then came the legend of Tirugnanasambandhar and the Poompavai Pathigam depicting the miraculous rebirth of Poompavai from the ashes as the composition was recited by the saint. G. Narendra, as the great saint, was wonderful in this enactment; the scene left a lasting impact.
Music composition was by Rajkumar Bharathi, vocalised by Abhishek Ravishankar, Rithi Murari and Samanvitha G. Sasidaran. The group dance choreography was excellent, with the dancers in perfect coordination. The overall presentation gave the rasika a colourful experience, bringing the festival alive before our eyes.
Aranga Tiru Ula in Srirangam was presented by dancer-choreographer Manjari and group, and the preceding talk was by historian Chithra Madhavan. Listening to her was a treat and thoroughly enjoyable and had us in a sense of awe about the magnificence of the shrine.
The opening scene had the dancers portraying the legend about the temple’s origin and how the reigning Chola king came to know about it, which led to his ordering the excavation resulting in the wonder before us today. The dancers enacted the excavation part beautifully. At first, it was difficult to understand what was going on, but repeated movements clarified what was being depicted. The river Kaveri in all its beauty, also showcased during this scene, was performed to instrumental music. This temple has festivals throughout the year, a ‘Nityotsava Kshetram’. The depiction of Arayar Sevai and the Serthi Sevai at the Panguni utsavam needs special mention. The musical lyrics were taken from the famous Divya Prabandham.
The finale was Manjari carrying the footwear of the Lord, which represents the beginning and the end.
Conversely, His feet also could be said to represent no beginning and no end. This is a profound philosophical statement ascribed to Ramanujar in his verse Saranagati Gadyam.
The impressive music was composed by Jyothishmathi Sheejith and Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar. Vocal by Jyotishmathi was very good. The orchestra was led by Saikripa Prasanna—nattuvangam.
Tiruvavur Brahmotsavam by Sangeeta Isvaran was a solo presentation. The preceding talk was by Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan, who gave a glowing account of the city’s history and traced the glory of the fine arts that flourished in this region while describing the significance of the annual festival. He also came between pieces to knit the whole narrative, speaking in chaste Tamil; very impressive.
Sangeeta presented the piece in the form of a thematic Bharatanatyam margam. Starting with a mallari in Gambheera Nata followed by an Appar Tevaram Sankeerna kavuttuvam in ragamalika, depicting the devotee’s anguish and eventual profound understanding of Siva and His form. The third piece was a Muthuswami Dikshitar kriti, where the full majesty of the festival was enacted. Here the ‘Ajapa Natanam’— the highlight of the Tiruvavur festival was well presented by Sangeeta. The concluding piece was again an Appar Tevaram in ragamalika where the nayika surrenders to the Lord.
Music by Carnatic vocalist Brindha Manickavasakan was brilliant and was the highlight of the performance. Music for most of the pieces were composed and sung by her, with the orchestra giving able support.
Tirupati Brahmotsavam was the theme assigned to dancerchoreographer K.P. Rakesh and troupe. Instead of a speaker preceding the event, an audio-visual presentation describing the festival and its various events was played.
Rakesh approached his subject in a refreshing, unique manner. He neatly described the celebration of the annual festival in a straightforward manner; there was no story or philosophical angle to the presentation. It was a pure description of the joyous atmosphere of the holy hills during this great festival. From the ‘Dhwajaroham’—hoisting of the flag, to the ‘Chakrasnana’ on the concluding ninth day— depicting the immersion of the idol of Chakratalwar in the pushkarini, the dancing group was able to convey effectively the joy and fervour that pervades the precincts of the holy hills during the nine days.
Even the choice of music was uncomplicated. Rakesh used Annamacharya’s compositions for all the events portrayed. Such songs as Brahmamokatey, Adivo alladivo, Tiruveethula merasi, and Itu garudani, the absolute gems, were rendered beautifully and performed exemplarily by the group. Stage decor was also tasteful and colourful, which helped create the right mood for the performance.
The ‘Chinna-sesha vahanam’ was wonderfully performed by four dancers who showed us how a serpent moves with grace. Then it was the ‘Rathotsavam’ that caught the eye. The pulling of the chariot and, more specifically, the joyous dancing of the accompanying crowd—using the folk tradition of the region, which happens in reality during this festival, these folk dances were performed wonderfully well by the group. It was truly a group effort, and all the dancers contributed equally to the spectacle, which was good to behold.
The music sung by Sivasri Skandaprasad and the orchestra led by Girish Madhu (nattuvangam), was of a very high standard which enhanced the whole performance. A memorable day for the rasikas.
Kancheepuram Sree Varadarajaswamy Brahmotsavam by Harinie Jeevitha was a solo presentation titled Varadarajam Upasmahe. Chithra Madhavan’s talk about the great temple and its history and the various events that happen during the festival, was wonderful and left one yearning for more.
Harinie’s presentation was in the classical Bharatanatyam margam format. She commenced with an invocation depicting a visiting devotee who has come to see the ten-day brahmotsavam known as “Irandaam Kappu”. This was followed by the main piece, the varnam. The lines for this piece were intelligently chosen from the works of Vedanta Desikar, Bhoodathalwar, and Doodacharya. This piece covered all the events of the festival with a detailed depiction of the various mounts used by the Lord for his processions through the city streets. The dance for this was impressive and efficient, but some movements were repetitive. The dance describing the ‘sthala puranam’ and ‘Garuda Sevai’ were well choreographed and executed.
The varnam was followed by a keertanam, whose lyrics were adapted from the compositions of Venkata Narasimhacharyulu and Pothana Bhagavatam. This depicted an important event of the festival, the ‘Ekanta Sevai’ of Lord Venugopala. In this segment, Harinie had woven in the narrative of ‘Gajendra Moksham’—both very well done.
The concluding piece was a tillana depicting the different vahanams used by the Lord. Music composition for this piece was by Abishek Chandrasekhar.
Music composition for the varnam and keertanam, was by Srikanth Gopalakrishnan, who also was the lead singer. Nattuvangam was by Harinie’s guru Sheela Unnikrishnan, who conducted the recital with competence. The entire dance choreography was by Harinie herself, and it must be appreciated that she has, at such a young age, put together such a magnum opus singlehandedly. The music, however, was noisy, taking away the sheen of the performance to a certain degree.
Tiruvannamalai Karthigai Deepam by Medha Hari was also a solo presentation. The speaker introducing the theme was Dr. Sudha Seshayyan. She gave a scholarly account of the origin of the holy hill of Tiruvannamalai, its importance in the region, the speciality of ‘Karthigai Deepam’ and the festivities surrounding the event—from the preparation of lighting the deepam on the hilltop to its significance in our religious heritage.
Medha Hari explored the “pancha bhoota sthalam” that is Tiruvannamalai. Using only chollukattu and the phrase Om Namah Sivaya, Medha described the various forms of the Lord and His attributes. She went on to vividly explain the origin and significance of Tiruvannamalai and how it came to being a hill that is the embodiment of Lord Siva, taking the form of Arunachaleswara.
The ‘Karthigai Deepam’ festival was well presented, but greater emphasis was given to the sthalam than the festival itself. The lyrics for the songs were taken from verses from the Skanda Puranam, which were set to music by R.K. Shriramkumar.
Music was good and complimented the performance; vocalist Hariprasad needs special mention. The orchestra led by Sudarshini Iyer was excellent.
Madurai Chithira Thiruvizha and Azhagar Sevai were choreographed by ‘Parashah’ comprising Priya Murle, Roja Kannan, N. Srikanth and his wife Ashwathy. Parashah is an amalgamation of these four senior dancers-teachers who are also good friends. The accompanying big group of dancers made a mark with thorough preparation, themes, and execution.
This presentation had no speaker preceding the dance. The Chitira Tiruvizha was shown in a video clip describing the events at the festival.
The live narrative was carried by a sootradhar, a narrator who, in this case, was the river Vaigai itself, wonderfully enacted by Sasirekha Balasubramaniam, who would come before the commencement of each scene and describe what was to unfold. This was done in typical Madurai Tamil with a lot of humour to embellish the otherwise very informative description.
A unique beginning greeted the rasikas in the auditorium. All the women were given flowers and bangles at the entrance. The flowers (malli poo) were from Madurai, with their unique fragrance found only in that region. This was followed by Madurai Meenakshi, in a small palanquin, taken in procession by the parents of the dance students. It was indeed a special touch prior to the commencement of the show.
The group had no less than 17 participants, all disciples of the three schools. Though large for the stage, they exhibited good coordination among themselves and performed in harmony, despite being from different schools. The entire show was well choreographed, but four scenes are worth highlighting. First was the introduction and description of the Vaigai river and its importance, words taken from the great epic, the Silappadikaram, performed by Roja and Priya. Second, Meenakshi, as a gem of Madurai performed by Roja and Priya with music composed by R.K. Shriramkumar. Next was Srikant and Ashwathy performing the scene of Meenakshi digvijayam, when the goddess goes to war and meets Sundareswarar, and is smitten by him. The last and probably the defining moment of the performance was the ‘Anal punal vatham’ scene, where the young Gnanasambandhar played by little Sudarshan, recites verses from Tiruneetru Pathigam and Tirunallatru Pathigam, also known as “Pacchai Pathigam” as this was the verse that did not turn to ashes in the fire where it was placed in response to a challenge from the Jains. The recitation was impeccable, coming from a young child, truly amazing.
While the dancing was good, the props could have been better designed. The headgear used by Sundareswarar and the “poikaal kuthirai” come to mind in this context.
Music with Srikanth Gopalakrishnan (vocal) and orchestra led by M.S. Ananthashree (nattuvangam) was excellent.
Tiruvananthapuram Sri Panguni Uthsavam and Aippasi Uthsavam were presented by dancerchoreographer Sheejith Krishna and the group. An audio-visual clip was played, giving details of the temple and the events during the festivals.
Both the festivals are ten-day events in the temple, and Sheejith combined them into one presentation since in both the festivals, the events are identical. The presentation was well conceived and executed by Sheejith and his team. The introduction paying obeisance to the Lord Padmanabha— danced to lyrics composed by Maharaja Swati Tirunal was well done. Two events of the festival presented that caught the eye were the ‘Palliveta’, a ninth-day event when the Travancore Maharaja goes on a symbolic hunt to vanquish evil in the form of a coconut which he shoots with an arrow. During this sequence, there was absolute silence for almost two minutes till the arrow hit its mark. The second event was on the tenth day when all the deities were carried in a procession called “Arat”, using various vahanas, by priests on their shoulders. The procession culminates with the holy immersion in the sea, after which the procession returns to the temple. After this event, the festival flag is lowered.
Sheejith and his team of dancers, comprising some senior dancers from Kalakshetra and students, performed exceedingly well with discipline and precision. The choreography was excellent, as was the execution. This performance had a subdued and divine feel, unlike the flamboyance, colour, and fanfare of other festivals.
Music was competent with Sheejith Krishna’s wife Jyothishmathi and Sneha (daughter) as the vocalists, and the orchestra was rather large with the addition of nagaswaram and tavil. This was ably led by Adith Narayanan, who did the nattuvangam.
Tiruchendur Skanda Shashti utsavam was presented by Karuna Sagari with her Bhakti Natya Niketan (BNN) dance ensemble. This was preceded by an audio-visual presentation that described the temple and some aspects of the festival.
Karuna divided the narrative into five scenes that provided better clarity on the philosophical aspects of celebrating the victory of good over evil. The first scene depicted the geographical location of Tiruchendur on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The second was the flag hoisting marking the beginning of the festival, and the following three scenes described the vanquishing of the three demon brothers, which is what this festival is all about. Karuna approached the subject with the philosophical import of the evils represented by each demon and stressed the need to overcome all in our daily existence. She drew parallels with human failings that could be ascribed to each demon. A concept well brought out and performed by her group of seven dancers, including herself. The Soorasamharam was enacted to a recording from the original festival, and the Viswaroopam scene was from Arunagirinathar’s Tiruppugazh.
The costumes were well chosen, and the props were very apt without being garish. Karuna used many genres in her choreography—Bharatanatyam, martial arts, and folk—blending very well to deliver a fine experience. All the dancers were well-matched in ability and stature, making the show very attractive.
The eclectic music showed the effects of the research that had gone into the compilation. The singing, however fell short of expectations for such a production. The voice of Subhiksha Rangarajan (composer and the lead singer) was too shrill, completely overshadowing the secondary male voice of Amrit Ramnath.
Mysuru Dasara festival was the finale of Uthsava Bharatham and was presented by Bengaluru-based exponent Parshwanath Upadhye. The introduction to the theme was by Vikram Sampath, who, since he could not be present, sent a video recording of his talk on the grand Dasara of Mysuru.
Parshwanath presented his subject as a solo in the Bharatanatyam margam format. He started with an invocatory piece followed by Todayamangalam, a composition of Veena Subbanna. The centrepiece, the varnam, was a composition of Muthiah Bhagavatar. Parshwanath performed this very well, going into precise details about what transpires during the grand spectacle of the famous Dasara event. Apart from describing the sights and sounds of the actual procession, he included amusing events like spectator behavior, amusement park activities, various animals used in the procession, a young child’s curiosity and the father carrying him so that he could see better, wrestling matches, and decorating an elephant—all this was depicted in a way that the audience enjoyed. Parshwanath also visually narrated the story of the origin of the festival—the victory of Chamundeswari over evil which is the core reason for the celebrations. This was shown as a father narrating the mythological story to his son.
Parshwanath concluded with a Devi stuti—a composition of Mysuru Vasudevachar followed by the Mysuru Anthem, Kayo Sree Gauri. The entire performance was beautiful as it was distinct from the normal Bharatanatyam margam that one sees.
Music was excellent, with Srikanth Gopalakrishnan (vocal) and Adithya PV (nattuvangam) ably led the orchestra.
The ten-day feast transported us to the various temples and vividly described the events that occur during the festivals conducted each year with great devotion by the temple authorities and provide a visual treat to the local devotees.
The efforts of Natyarangam (Narada Gana Sabha’s dance wing) and its committee members must be recognised for their meticulous work in bringing such a festival to us. Young dance students should attend such festivals in large numbers, as true learning and appreciation can only come when one sees more such shows.
(A connoisseur of music and dance)