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Dwita - Of Parallels and Paradoxes

(Image courtesy: Organizer)

Among constant dilemma and questions of cultural identity that any Indian artiste coins with today, the solace somewhere comes from within a deep reiteration of the inherent flexibility of a historical tradition. When this is further dealt with by the global Indian (artiste), away from the country, he/she dabbles with the plural reality of contemporary genealogy and conflicting ideals. As much as this subjectively refers to the artistic community, the audience at large to which Indian art caters to are also at the receiving end of very similar experiences. How then does the art, artiste (performer), artiste (viewer) and the audience manifest themselves across the world? Well, they were some reflexive outcomes of a yearning mind during my first socio-professional interaction with the ‘art liking’ community of Austin which gave its best attired presence for ‘Dwita’ the much awaited production presentation of Rama and Dakshina Vaidyanathan. The question above was countered by many more through the 90 minute performance, but together with those were lots of sublime elevations towards an ascended connect to Bharatanatyam in all its content and visual presence.

An unassuming first person attribute explanation of ‘Lakshmi’ and ‘Saraswati’ preceded the first depiction of ‘twoness’ by the mother-daughter duo. I could write in the bookish way of how the two goddesses were depicted so similarly yet in contrast, how the movement and stillness worked towards visual geometry, how the verses were embedded musically, and how the last dual rotation on an axis was executed without the smallest sound of the ankle bells and so forth, but apart from that, there was something more deeper that was meant to be conveyed. While in a conversation with Ms. Vaidyanathan (Rama) the next day, the question came up of why the choice of an item as stern as Alaripu to dance the ethereal qualities of feminine deities. “Alaripu, because I just wanted to do something quirky. I could have worked with swara passages, it would have been easy and pretty as well but it had to be Alaripu”. Dwita within dwita? I ask and she agrees saying that she wanted to do the typical Alaripu and yet juxtapose the thematic thought process without breaking the thread.

The production of such labor has traced a long linear graph with focal points constituting family background, conscious persistence of traditional beliefs and practices, a body steeped in training, and an evolving personality and thought process.
“My mother used to take, she still does classes on Bhagavadgeetha, Narayaneeyam and Namasankeertanams listening to whose commentaries I grew up. I questioned the importance of these scriptures and how these were rendered shallow through dance presentations. There were numerous depictions of ‘churning milky ocean’, ‘krishna stealing butter’, and the varied mythical stories surrounding Hindu deities, but I started trying to locate the philosophy, the spiritual connotation behind these stories and that is when I created my own identity through dance.” And this definitely did not spring out one night, as she rightly describes it as an organic process.

Rama and Dakshina Vaidyanathan

“My journey with Bharatanatyam instigated an unconscious dialogue to guide me further. I wanted to make the presentation less narrative and more secular from the confines of the Hindu religion.” An evidenced outcome of this was the piece that dissected the relationship of a mother-daughter. The item traversed through the social and psychological axes to take an audience closer to emotional realities. A ‘happy go lucky’ daughter elated to have found her love, a concerned motherly instinct, the similes and metaphors to justify the mother’s travel from knee-jerk reactions of insecurity to realizations of how the fragrance of her daughter should be let out at large, and that she had gained her identity were all in their brilliant best. However some questions still lingered from some scenes – she plaited a (really) long hair of the daughter, which I expected would be followed by a conversation with a teenager. Drastically, she showed an almost toddler whom she walked tucking her finger? May be she should have played ‘Pandi’ (Tamil word for lack of an English one) with her? And why the inclusion of Jathis after every metaphor? Strangely though, I did not pose these questions. I was keener on the inception of the ‘game of ball’. “ In the piece, if one observes after the first metaphor, mother lets go off the daughter’s hand, the next she lets go a hug and the third, she is shown cutting off the umbilical cord. The message here was that I set her free and she still remains mine. I did not want to end it there, but wanted to do so in a happy note. The ball was the baton of future, of life that I wanted to symbolize by giving it off to her. A ball game is visually striking, outdoor and strong activity, which in itself would send out a message apart from the fact that using it would also help me induct a jathi. Finally, by that stage in the choreography and the end of the piece, I had taken the audience to a different zone where the play and the players are universal – a parent and child!”

That said, extending contours becomes so important in such presentations mostly addressing diverse expectations. And how do you colour such tailor made presentations to carry equivocal shades of ‘changing’ tradition and tradition. The placement of the ‘Mohamana – Bhairavi’ varnam could not be more accurate. A quartet composition (Ponnaiah), the piece has adorned the center spot of many a concert ranging from stalwarts to amateurs and has been the idiom of extensive research (Saskia Kersenboom’s detailed study under the T. Balasaraswati School and Nandini Ramani). Kersenboom writes about the ‘lakhsya’ and ‘lakshana’ of the varnam and enumerates how the varnam’s nature defines the inherent flexibility of tradition. A varied angle of re-definition of varnam was mapped by Ms. Rama Vaidyanathan. While the Trikala jathi allured the essential perfectionist through its simplicity, the charana swara passages were hand-picked from the most basic adavu patterns. Except these, it needed a devote soul to decipher the rest of the varnam. The ‘modi sheyyalamo’ passage yearning for Him through the unreachable, the ‘bhogam-anubhogam’ through internalized embrace and the post-half aradhis incorporating lucid portrayals of ‘cupid’ and above all, her amazing stamina gave enough of a learning to the American home-grown and Indian home-sick dance professionals!

I owe it to the patience of Ms. Vaidyanathan, that she buoyantly sat through my entourage of questions (basic, senseless at times!!) a day after such an overwhelming presentation. My next shoot out was the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ of creating a niche and style for oneself and its necessity and this came much in the background of her varnam and her persona as a whole. “As I said earlier, I wanted my dance to go deep, wanted it to become a ‘katha-vaachakam’. And thus finding and then creating a niche is necessary. I have to be convinced with what, how and a way I want to present. Thus I have to be connected to a literature in the reading stage itself. The varnam is a result of an extended period of reading of scripts and research of the Tiruvarur temple. This varnam was in the prescribed format, I did not leave alone any of the hard core adavus. I like to bring in a combination of trademark adavus of my Guru and trademark adavus of mine. In the vistarams though, it was my individual connect. In the instance of the ‘ajappa natanam’ – dance which has Shiva in the chest of Vishnu, I did not get into extended vistaram and instead concentrated on the central theme of the breath - Shiva swaying vertically and Vishnu horizontally, bhogam showing the union of the heartbeat.

To answer the ‘Why’- it should happen for the dancer and for the sake of dance. Audience is incidental, yet necessary. I like to seek through my dance with several stages of seeking. I am sharing this spiritual journey with my audience and in turn this creates a positive aura and happiness around and within me!And for the ‘when’ question, well I have gone through that stage of showing ‘ganapati’s pot belly and dancing’, ‘krishna stealing butter’ etc and now that is obviously not enough. And that is a path every dancer has to go through only to know what you do not connect to. That’s why it is very important to know what you do not want to do! Only then will the niche happen.”

Courtesy: Organizer
Dwita reflected dual facets of cushioning further a legacy in the family. There was a young daughter on stage, dancing alongside her ‘renown’ mother, matching every step and living up to the aggrandized set up! When Dakshina Vaidyanathan presented a highly cogent solo piece of imaging ardhanareshwara, the inevitable contrasts that she represented were ‘star kid’ v/s ‘heavy responsibility’, something she would have been accustomed by now. However, this tickled in concerns of reach out of dance for the young, proportional accessibility of the art and creating a young audience for the classical. I coupled this concern with a question on broader onus of dance education and pedagogy in India and asked her to share her views. “Going through the first ten years of typical, arduous training in authentic foundation is the key. The next ten years, would be for the dancer to strive towards perfection where one invests in practice to figure for yourself what is for your body and how much you can push for excellence. The third decade is when it becomes internalization”. I had to interrupt to ask, if this hard routine would move towards sustaining the existing youngster or losing him/her to the world of instant gratification? “Definitely sustaining, comes a very positive assertion”. How? “Dance will give you what you give to dance. It is a work of investing time, energy, effort, money and patience and giving ‘up’ of societal pressures, fat salary packages, and sometimes even relationships! Dance will then take care of everything”.

One scant look at the audience of the Austin program would give more than a clear picture of nature and type of audience that classical dance attracts globally. The ratio swung larger towards the students of dance – either forced or voluntary (the parents are sometimes default entrants since they have to drive the children!!), the ‘take-away’ seekers (there is only the given number of performances hosted) and the socialites (for connecting to the Indian community). It is a pointer but not in the least a sarcastic one, for these are people who are investing all of that said earlier. In comparison, the issue of creating a ‘rasika’ arises, and it goes down to the roots of how the scenario is in India, what with art outreach programs calling out at their best. “It is definitely a responsibility to create a rasika. We need the young and new audiences that go to a discotheque to come to dance.” I interrupt again – classical dance needs repeated watching and deep understanding, unlike a movie? Are efforts like TED, SPICMACAY inviting the uninitiated into the art? How important is accessibility to the classical? “Yes, these programs offer the required basic understanding. A child after a SPICMACAY lecture will want to know more and so might google Bharatanatyam and will want to go watch the next recital. It is a cycle where the more knowledge, the more liking and thus feeds into the young. However a collective effort of the media – print, online, television, Government and private bodies should further this essential step of making the classical accessible.”

'Dwita' welcomed in Austin,Courtesy: Sruthi Mohan

Classical Indian dance is itself characterized by historical revival, reform and re-population and its content travelling through diverse geographical spaces and vertical times. It is a much accepted fact that classical dance is thus not a ‘popular’ art to be taken up by all and sundry. It has stood the test of time and will continue to be fostered by those who dwell into it by choice. Ms. Vaidyanathan’s performance was thus a reiteration of this reality and of her own philosophies surrounding her art. I wondered of the contextual placement of the last item – more an ode to Shiva in a synthesis of verses and jathis, and impressed to myself of its rather extended length. The notion however was challenged by an expansive understanding of her dance and the dancer in her that she talked to me about. “There is a ‘stayi’ inside you, as a dancer – the stayi of equanimity, of being positive, secure and content of what you are and what you do. This develops over time and dance reflects this stayi inside you. That stayi is the light and if that is kept burning, it will show on the stage and which will help you deal with the mundaneness of life not only as a dancer but as a human.”

While penning this down, I tried as much not to end it in something ‘cliché’, that has not figured anywhere through the performance nor my conversation with Ms. Rama Vaidyanathan. But, I could not find a better place to acknowledge two efforts as superior as them, than at the crescendo! First, the music ensemble which was ‘two sets of dwita’ working for ‘Dwita’. Dr. S. Vasudevan and Venkateswaran, doubling as both nattuvanars and vocalists to some most alleviating music and crisp jathis. Where with, the alaap before the mother-daughter piece, Dr. Vasudevan proved that seven notes can just to magic, flautist Rajat Prasanna did the same before the ardhanareeshwara piece. Varnam elevated musically in the sequences of ‘maaran aradhis’, thanks to Sri Venkateswaran. The entire last item witnessed Sri Rammoorthy Sriganesh on Mridangam literally faced away from the dancers, even while playing the ‘jathi’ bits! The nattuvannar and mridangist enjoyed their little ‘dwita’, for the korvais just came out of their unconscious!

The other ode is to Sruthi Mohan representing a visible yet lost in the oblivion class called ‘organizer’! I quite do not need to say any further!