It is a cold winter July evening in Melbourne. Art lovers, Intellectuals and Patrons are gathered at the Footscray Community Arts Center to witness the recent work of the Talented Dancing Duo Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai’s – ‘In Plain Sanskrit’.
The flyer and Billboards with Govind’s acrobatic freestyle jump and Raina‘s hair whisked in the air holding a deep Ardhamandala-Turnout and the ashes tossed around looked promising and intriguing that it made me determined not to give it a miss!
As I entered the auditorium what appealed immediately was the darkness with a hue of red, white and yellow. black stage-drop and the yellow spot lights on the dancers appeared as if they just arrived from the heavens dressed in white silk, and the hands and feet painted in red ink adorned by dancing bells and red bindi-tattoo on the forehead. The orchestra containing a team of five young talented artists who were in Red and white traditional attire, proclaimed the ‘thinking’ put into colour coordination.
‘Natyashastra’, the ancient text on dramaturgy and theatre talks about Colour Theory in the 23rd chapter ‘Aharyabhinaya’ (costume and make up).
Colours have the ability to evoke human emotions and the ‘nine fundamental emotions-Navarasa’ are matched with a particular colour. Raina and Govind conveyed the dominating emotions of their act (Anger, Surprise, Courage, and Tranquility) by carefully choosing the shades red, black, yellow and white attributes to the ‘Aharyabhinaya’.
A mud pot filled with wheat flour was placed in the right side of the stage, 3 silver pots /Chembu at the fore front and some flowers propelled at the edges of the dancing space, four musicians at the back on either sides – a setup followed in olden times’ Dance Practice and the two dancing bodies in the center stood as the subject and the object. The décor and the layout took the audience to a century back in time.
The choreography of Pillai and Peterson as a union of Bharatanatyam (originating in Tamil Nadu); Mohiniattam (from Kerala) and Western Contemporary Dance-AcroYoga. The duo unveiled their proficiency over the classical and contemporary forms with ease. The aesthetics of Mohiniattam was brought out by the spontaneous Peterson. She was graceful with her movements, expressive and energetic. Govind a talented Bharatanatyam dancer portrayed mastery over the artform. His powerful tapping of the feet, clear geometrical lines, perfect Ardhamandala/turn-out, and quick turns stood out. The two dancing bodies portrayed a balanced act carrying out various characters which perpetuated the audience by subtle expressions and dynamic movements. Their instinctive stage presence and style complemented each other.
Raina and Govind struck a chord by improvising significant episodes from the Hindu Mythology which demands a great deal of dramatization. They presented the traditional acts with novelty and transition. I would like to mention a few highlights of the evening. Hanuman lifting the Dronagiri Mountain was showcased with an Acro yoga stint. Here the two bodies looked as one and supported each other’s athletic Selves. Raina and Govind also portrayed Krishna lifting the Govardhana Mountain. The sequence of ‘Kaliya Narthanam’ was brought on stage. Govind played the part of Krishna where he recognizes, the plight of taming the evil-souled serpent Raina. The dance narration attributed the Tandava Dance of Krishna (different from the Shiva Tandava). Govind captivated the audience with jumps, kicks and intricate foot work to bring out the amorous adventure. Raina’s part as the hideous serpent was expressed through her eye movements along with deep sliding positions and graceful articulation of body movement. The finishing touch of every act was expressed with still postures, resembled sculptures carved in the Ancient Hindu Temples.
The ecstatic part was when Govind paced to the side of the stage and picked up the pot of flour and sauntered back rhythmically. The strings of the violin supported an extra length to set the Shringara Rasa-Romance. The dancers drew a Beautiful Mandala-geometrical pattern on stage. It kept the curious audience engaged and hold-on for the answers to unfold. Raina and Govind gracefully picked a handful of flour with springy movements and eye contact with each other time to time. It sketched the deep connection and innocent, child-like affection between two souls.
The disputative battle between Peterson and Pillai, around the Mandala with apt dance moves decked with quick turns, kicks and flowing jumps was a treat to watch in the edge of a seat. The Mandala was erased and the flour was thrown all over. Covering the dance space and the dancing bodies. At this stage they appeared like the Aghori Sadhu’s-Ascetic who live by the banks of the River Ganges. The dancers illustrated an intense and perturbed state supported by the vibrations of the Taiko drum.
The pinnacle of the whole concept boils down to Bakthi Rasa-Tranquility. Peterson’s enactment of an Apsara-Celestial Nymph of the Ganga was emitted by her long tress and elegant dance moves. She sang a verse from the Hindu scriptures while splattering water from the pot improvising nature’s gift of music. It transported the beholders to experience the flow of Holy Ganga- which takes away the sins.
The rhythm of the Mridangam-Indian Percussion played by Venkat Ramakrishnan and the Taiko Drum –Japanese Percussion by Kav P was the key in leading every stroke to light up the aesthetics of the Art and the Artists. The tunes played by the Violinist Anita Das transmitted the sounds of nature-waterfall, waves, breeze, and birds was comforting. The vocalist Kasthuri Sahadevan captivated the audience with her enchanting voice singing the verses of the saint poet Thiyagaraja, Swadhi Thirunaal and from the Upanishads. The verbal Percussionist Kersherka Sivakumaran emanated good articulation of the Jathis-syllables and brought out power and strength to the performance’ layout. Govind also sang and mesmerized the gathering with his musicality. Raina played the part of an ardent percussionist. It is a rare practice in today’s Dance scenario for the Dancers to sing, play symbols and dance in a particular dance piece. Raina and Govind are commendable for bringing back these age old practices in their production. It summons to contest the mastery over breath control when quickly changing parts between a dancer, singer and a percussionist. Here, the dancers displayed their strong grounding in the aesthetics of this Artform.
Peterson and Pillai mimicked aspects of the nature during the recitation of Jathis-syllables combined with Tantric Mudras and Hand Gestures was refreshing.
The 1 hour 20 minutes production of the dancing pair, successfully attempted to look holistically backwards through recent theoretical and groundbreaking concepts. The Indian Classical dance is no longer bound by the borders of its country of origin, in today’s world of freer movement of cultures and people. It has found niches in far-flung corners of the globe, where it is being nurtured with passion by many. The Diaspora Dancers Raina and Govind maintained the authenticity of the tradition while meeting the demands of the host culture. Their earnestness and enthusiasm is an artistic merit. Peterson and Pillai showcased a fine balance between tradition and experimentation.
Christina Prakanthan, a Melbourne based Bharatanatyam Practitioner, Performer, Teacher and Writer. Co-founder and Artistic Director of ‘Natyatharu School of Dance’, Australia/USA. She completed her post-graduation under the University of Wales, UK (2010) specializing in Human Resource Management (MBA). Has conferred the title ‘Natya Visharadha’ from the renowned Bhathkande Sangeeth Vidhyapeet, New-Delhi (2000). Currently she is teaching Bharatanatyam in the Western Melbourne and practices Kalaripayat-an Ancient Indian Martial Art form and Hatha Yoga. Christina is a Mother who loves cooking, reading and nature-walking.