by Malini Ramesh, Melbourne
… incorporating Aboriginal dreamtime stories; new classical compositions in complex rhythms; jathis and korvais with colourful and interesting kaarvais, theermanams and arudhis; a new varnam on the Moon; feminist perspectives on a Sur Das bhajan (religious ballad); spoken word; and a padham depicting the real-life story of a detained Sri Lankan refugee called Sujatha in the Australian detention centre.
The energy in the foyer on Saturday 4 November 2017 (a poornima – full moon evening) was very different to any other arangetram I’ve ever been to in Sydney or Melbourne over the last 25 years. People here knew that this was special and that they’d just seen something absolutely extraordinary.
Amongst the gasps and exclamations that were abound, I felt the most poignant comment to be made by an audience member that night was “I just saw the future of Bharatanatyam in Australia!”.
What is undoubtedly remarkable is that, without deviating from the core rules of classical Indian dance, the team delivered an outstandingly innovative repertoire (geniously conceived and choreographed by guru Sri. Govind Pillai, student of Smt. Hamsa Venkat) which incorporated Aboriginal dreamtime stories; brand new classical compositions in complex rhythmic patterns; jathis and korvais with colourful and interesting kaarvais, theermanams and arudhis; a new varnam on the Moon; feminist perspectives on a Sur Das bhajan (religious ballad); spoken word; and the real-life story of a Sri Lankan refugee called Sujatha who was detained in an Australian detention centre performed as a Bharatnatyam padham. And so, an entire team of youngsters delivered a landmark moment in the history of our classical Indian arts in Australia demonstrating with confidence and expertise that there is a bright future for our classical arts in the hands of this generation in Australia. It would have been a proud moment for their gurus.
Marrying such a complex, innovative and highly intellectual repertoire with the captivatingly mature and spiritually driven dancer Divya Shreejit Kumar (in her 30s) was a match made in heaven and this blissful marriage manifest directly on stage as the dancer and the repertoire came together as if they were one. The hallmark of Divya’s performance was her soulfully expressive abhinaya which left the audience feeling as though life itself was unfolding before us, not dance. The content and delivery of her expressive work resembled what we can expect of a mature festival dance presentation in Chennai. This was no doubt partly due to the intense cocktail of deep life experiences that were cleverly chosen and choreographed by Govind and the exceptional delivery of those by Divya with utmost delicacy, intricacy and sincerity. We saw her use the language of classical Indian dance to authentically navigate issues facing all of us in our everyday life including the death of loved ones, domestic disagreements in the home, conflicts of traditional values and modern duty, admiration of nature and the natural world, deep intimacy between lovers through to social issues such as feminism, immigration and refugeeism. Both the repertoire and Divya’s delivery of it combined to have an intense emotional and intellectual impact on the audience at a level I have not yet ever seen before at an arangetram.
Also of special note was the mel angashuddi (or perfection of upper limb movements) of the dancer, mainly with regards to arms and eyes and a neat sense of timing and rhythm.
The live music for the evening was expertly rendered by a ‘hands-down’ fantastically energised, expert young group of musicians Arjunan Puveendran (vocal), Anita Das (violin), Venkat Ramakrishnan (mridungam), Kasthuri Sahathevan (veena), Fiona Mackay (vocal and cello) and Fiona’s mother Nola Mackay (celtic harp). Being students of Smt. Sivaganga Sahathevan, Sri. Murali Kumar and Sri, Sridhar Chari – the young carnatic team demonstrated remarkable chemistry, synchrony, passion and technical capability. Even the image of their youthful mastery and friendship as a team, let alone their music, just stole the hearts of the audience. Arjunan dealt astoundingly with the complicated multi-lingual repertoire spanning Tamil, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Hindi, Bhrij Bhasha, Telugu, Kannada and injected an abundance of soul and warmth into the rendition of every item. Both Anita and Kasthuri wowed the audience several times with their solos during sancharis and alaapanas of which there were many rendered across diverse ragas both common and rare including Surutti, Puriya Dhanashree, Surya and a Hindustrani Ragamalika. Notably, a veena taanam in Shanmukhapriya raagam by Kasthuri and the extended improvisations by Anita in Surutti raagam during the varnam pushed the musical splendour of the evening to memorable heights. Venkat Ramakrishnan excelled vividly on the mridungum rendering a number of challenging jathis and korvais including in the mayta taalam with exceptional synchrony to the choreography and lending nuanced embelishments to sections of abhinaya. Fiona Mackay’s soulful vocals and her original English composition were a highlight of the evening and helped to move the audience to tears during the story about the refugee, coupled with Nola Mackay’s intricate and heart-stirring playing of the celtic harp. There was scarcely a dry eye in the audience.
As nattuvanar, Govind exhibited exemplary expertise of the classical Indian arts both musical and dance as was evidenced by outstanding control over the musical execution that evening in his role as nattuvanaar along with his cleverly articulated commentary as the MC. Having undertaken further study in nattuvangam and jathi composition, his fast-developing reputation as one of the foremost nattuvanars in Melbourne was further re-enforced through his precision and command of the Nattuvangam instrument, jathis and choreography through items such as the Jathiswaram in matya taalam (a 10 beat cycle, composed by Sri Mohan Ayyar), Varnam jathis and Thillana.
Significant contributors to the innovation and creativity of the evening were Sri Mohan Ayyar (carnatic composer, Sydney), Dr. Sri Ravi Shankar (carnatic lyricist, New Jersey) and Fiona Mackay (western music composer, Melbourne), Adrian van Raay (stage manager) and Manjusha Manjusha (who did an exceptional job on lighting). Working together Mohan and Ravi put together the lyrics and music for a brand new varnam on the Moon. Govind explained in an interview that “one thing I love about Indian languages is that they are typically rich with synonyms, and the moon is one example where we have so many ways of referring to it – Chandra, Soma, Indu, Nila, Ambika etc. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by the moon and its intrigue. In their new composition, Sri Mohan Ayyar and Sri Ravi Shankar conquered the hard task of giving doing musical and poetic justice to something that already is beautiful. Interestingly, the names I just mentioned for the moon cross genders. Some are male, some are female (like Indu) and some are ambi-gendered (like Chandra). So we wanted a gender-neutral rendition of the moon and therefore in the charanam Sri Mohan Ayyar and Sri Ravi Shankar beautifully captured this with feminine and masculine pronouns (‘sundari’ and ‘sundaran’) being used equally to refer to the moon and in the tune giving scope for both feminine and masculine portrayals. The first half of the varnam is written from the perspective of a person asking questions of bewilderment about the moon like a dialogue. The second half of the varnam is written as a monologue by the moon talking about him/herself proudly and slightly arrogantly – knowing he/she is a supremely beautiful celestial being. Incorporating lyrics to address an Aboriginal Dreamtime episode alongside the Hindu epics also added interesting challenges and opportunities. I worked closely with Aboriginal elder Uncle Larry to learn the dreamtime episode and ensure we study and represent it appropriately”. Mohan Ayyar and Govind Pillai conducted a Q&A on stage, providing further insights to the audience on the music of dance.
By an undoubtedly spiritual coincidence – Divya’s arrangetram was rendered on a full moon night, a poornima.
The innovation was not just artistic. The event (perhaps controversially) did away with many superfluous formalities which the team may be criticised for by some elders in the community, however it was a refreshing change: there were no speeches, no chief guests, no shawls provided, no gifts given to anyone, and no special meal provisions or hospitality made for VIPs in the audience such as the many music and dance teachers that attended. This is contrary to the norm in Melbourne. This created a feeling of warmth, friendship and inclusiveness amongst everyone without hierarchy. It gave a clear feeling that the focus of the evening was the art – not the politics – which Karma Dance is known for challenging. Even the program brochure noticeably had no write-up or photo about the arangetram guru, nor the student nor any pages of glossy photos of the student. It focussed entirely on artistic content such as detailed repertoire information and acknowledgements of musical artists and volunteers. I highly commend the team for their bold rejection of the elitism that has crept into the Melbourne arts scene, and I see this as a step in the right direction that perhaps only a new generation can start.
What stood out for me though – all technicalities and perspectives aside – was the feeling of love in the room that night. Love and friendship for one another amongst all the young artists, love for the art from all the performers, love and respect between the three-generations of ‘grand guru’ Hamsa Venkat, guru Govind Pillai and shishya Divya Shreejit Kumar. Love from the audience for what we all saw and heard, and no doubt a deep love from Divya Shreejit Kumar towards her chosen artform which she poured her heart and soul into performing.