Until Death do us Art – Kaala

Govind Pillai and Raina Peterson came together again to present Ka’la or Kaalam (Time), original works premiered for the ‘Due West Arts Festival’ at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, sponsored by Creative Victoria and Maribyrnong City Council from 22 to 24 November 2019, need I say, to sell out performances.  

The production was based on the morbid topic of death that some may shun. In the hands of this duo, death was embraced, celebrated and rejoiced with comical reality checks along the way – a creative mix that worked its charm !

Talking of time, tide and the ride, trolling back on Sydhwaney, I find many references to Govind and Raina’s work, together and separately, since 2009.  

At the expense of sounding like a typical Mami, (the meaning of which will only be known to anyone who comes from the South Asian platform –which I cringe from, but probably am) – The first performance was when Govind gave his debut at Science Theatre UNSW, Sydney in 2009. Later creative journeys include works such as In Plain Sanskrit, Sutra, Tagore – The Poetry of India, Mother Tongue, On the Verge – Parramasala 2013; and many more performances for Hamsa Venkat Samskriti School of Dance and Tara Rajkumar OAM of Natyasudha Dance Company followed through the years.

Raina Peterson, also a student of Guru Tara Rajkumar OAM, has her own story to tell. Her journey as a Mohiniattam dancer and her forays into contemporary styles, in particular, acro-balance with Govind has been equally fascinating. Raina is enthusiastic, (almost recklessly) innovative in both her interpretation of the traditional and mixed styles.  

Considering the number of years both Raina and Govind have been working with each other, their work together now stands out for its innate precision, synchronisation and movement, which only time can bring, with a deepening understanding of each other’s styles, bodies and dance psyche.

If one were to take an example of the socio – political and cultural conditions under which young Indian classical dancers have to strive in Australia, take a page off the lives of both Govind Pillai and Raina Peterson, and you may find a book that extols their undying thirst to create.  

My own journey as a writer and reviewer of South Asian Arts has taken a step back as I find that I now have less time to mark my attendance at every community show to visibly indicate my support. I feel there is no need for it as the community is able to sustain and support its own growth.  

Hence as a writer, arts worker and advocate, I foray for content. Perhaps this is the biggest compliment, I could give to Govind and Raina, for they give me something to write home about.

The journey for Kaala (Kalam) commenced near the Burning Ghats of Varanasi, India, said Govind.  

Likewise, audiences entered the Footscray Community Arts Centre along the banks of the River Yarra amidst the industrial areas of Footscray, into a scene simulating the shores of Varanasi.

The low chants of the Mrthyunjayam sloka played as audiences entered to see, along the edge of the stage, flowers, diyas, the fragrant scape of incense, burning ghee, and the inevitable plastic bag, as if along the banks of the Ganges.  

The visuals providing an immediate reference to its purpose – Varanasi – the only place in the world where dear and close ones bid goodbye to the physical bodies of their departed, true to Hindu ritualistic traditions.  

To the left in traditional style of a Bharatanatyam performance, sat the musicians who performed live. Sai Vigneshwar from Temple of Fine Arts Singapore lead with his captivating vocal creating a suitable frame for the accompanying musicians on flute Suresh Thiagarajan, son of Thiagarajan and grandson of Padmasri N Ramani, Venkat Ramakrishnan on Mridangam, student of Sridhar Chari, Fiona Mackay Cellist and vocalist, Divya Shreejith Kumar, an independent artist in her own right, on nattuvangam.

The performance commenced with two solos by each of the Duo. Raina performed a Mohiniattam’s flowing nritta solo to Tunga Tarange Gange showing the Ganges as it rises and ebbs from the Himalayas, the Ganga who is captured by Shiva in his hairlocks.

Govind performed a crisp nritta solo, to a looping Pallavi from a traditional Kuchipudi Jathiswaram, but purely in the Bharathanatyam style with clear precise lines, essential to this form, showing stamina and strength in his execution with perfect aramandi, the half sitting pose.

In Jaya Jaya Durge, where the duo excelled in showing Mahishasura being killed by the Goddess Durga, their dance was replete with synchronised movements, memorable sculpturistic poses, as she rips his intestines from his body, the visuals were powerfully choreographed to their respective strengths of expression and flexibility. Govind on his inevitable back flip and Raina with her expressive tongue lashing eye popping look.

Poothana Moksham in which Raina danced to and from two sections of the stage, effectively created by lighting effects, thanks to lighting design by Ben Beare, to depict the evil intentions of Poothana as she spreads poison over her breasts before nursing little Krishna, sleeping in the ‘other room’ so cleverly shown through the lighting and choreography.  

Poothana was well played by Raina, except for one section when the movement of pushing Krishna from her breast confused me.

However, Raina was successful in portraying the transformation of Poothana from a nursing maid to her evil form, the choreography meant to turn more grotesque was achieved through expressive movement and musical effects.

Govind depiction of the war torn grounds of the Kurukshetra, a mother’s heart wrenching moment when she rushes to the battlefield to look for her son’s dead body and to see whether Abhimanyu had died fighting the battle or running away from the struggles of this war, was exemplary.

The Sacred Ash has a resounding spiritual and contextual significance in many cultures including Indigenous cultures and practices. Govind and Raina played with Ash as its dust whirled around them, to emulate the end at the beginning.  

The concluding sloka played to the music mingled with the soulful and deep sounds of the Cello made for a befitting finale.

In the famous words of the poet Alfred Castner King:

Is there a Death? All forms of clay, Successively shall pass away;
But, as the joyous days of spring, Witness the glad awakening
Of nature’s forces, may not men, In some Due season, rise again?
Then why this calm, inherent trust, “If ashes to ashes, dust to dust?”

In some Due (West) Season – Govind and Raina did rise again and then again and again !!