Sangam, a new wave

Written by Vishnu Arunasalam and Sumathi Krishnan

Escaping the smoke ridden smoggy skies of Sydney, I inadvertently fell into winds kindling fires of a different kind in Melbourne, during the weekend of the 21st of November 2019.

Fires which aspired to proclaim their existence in the busy ravines of Melbourne. 

Sangam – was a proclamation of South Asian cultural traditions rooted in movement, traditional text, music, dramaturgy, poetry, films, panel discussions and more to yet another level of existence at Dancehouse, Carlton and Bunjil Place Narre Warren. 

These fires were kindled and blazed by festival curators Priya Srinivasan, Scholar in Critical Dance Studies, Academician, Dancer and Author (Sweating Saris), Uthra Vijay, Artistic Director of Keerthana School of Music and Hari Sivanesan, a Veena exponent sponsored by the Creative Victoria, Multicultural Arts VIC, Dancehouse and Bunjil Place Narre Warren,

A South Asian Festival curated by South Asians for South Asians – Sangam saw the playing field being equalised for all. Accomplished, eminent, developing and budding artists were presented in the same forum, what’s more they collaborated! 

Works presented were varied, some relevant to times, questioned status quo, some that found old ways to present new messages, others discovered new ways for old messages, threatening at times, conforming at other times, witnessed within a mainstream presence. 

What followed was a compilation of mixed, developed and developing works encapsulating, what I would call an ‘incubation environment for new works’ showing how artists and audiences alike are willing to change and are influenced by globalisation, migration, translation and more, resulting in what I call a most interesting and inspirational phenomenon. 

Philipa Rothfield Uthra Vijay priya Srinivasan Ching Ching Ho Credit Arun Munoz

In this space of experimentation, at times, eminent and professional appeared less confident in new bodies of works and younger generation of artists more surefooted in their own interpretations of mixing traditions of body and language. 

The Festival included a welcome note by Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Ron Jones’s in Welcome to Country, which was novel. Elder Uncle Ron Jones drew parallels between our ancestry in language. 

Elder Uncle Ron Jones Credit Sydhwaney

Without a smoking ceremony, Elder Uncle Ron Jones, made a befitting welcome speech. Perhaps the burning of the ‘kalpuram’ along with the smoking ceremony with spiritual overtones shall reverberate with new works for yet another Sangam, helping maintain two age old practices, which could not be considered at the current venue.  

The opening night, commenced on Thursday with Ganga Crossings at Bunjil Place.  Sangam, in partnership with Melbourne Hindustani Classical Society presented a triple bill evening of Indian classical dance and music by artists, international and local. 

The evening commenced with the soulful sounds of the sitar played by sitarist David Balaban and Aman Kalyan on Tabla. 

This was followed by world renowned violinist Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi’s violin recital accompanied by Melbourne Mridangist Sridhar Chari. She explored the various shades of the melodic scale, Raga Varali and had the audience captivated from start to finish.

Next, in an attempt to promote the professional development for emerging and aspiring dancers in Melbourne, Local dancers of Melbourne, from different schools, Natyalaya School of Bharatanatyam, Nadanalaya Academy, Nrithakshetra School of Indian Classical Dance, Chandralaya School of Dance, Natyatharu School of Dance, Narthanalaya Academy of Indian Music and Dance, Shanthi Ramakrishnan’s School of Dance
presented Padhams, workshopped over five days under the expert direction and guidance of Bharathanatyam exponent Smt Priyadarsini Govind. 

Natyalaya School of Bharatanatyam, Nadanalaya Academy, Nrithakshetra School of Indian Classical Dance, Chandralaya School of Dance, Natyatharu School of Dance, Narthanalaya Academy of Indian Music and Dance, Shanthi Ramakrishnan’s School of Dance at Sangam

The Padhams (expressive classical items of the Indian dance repertoire) demand life experience and maturity as dancers explore complex themes of erotic love and life.  

Constant reworking and self-internalisation of the composition is needed. Development is a gradual process, and this attempt to upskill, provide feedback and assist in the development of many dancers is the first of its kind in a mainstream festival in Australia. 

The Sangam festival dancers were fortunate to be given the exposure to the complexities and nuances of abhinaya in Bharathanatyam with the opportunity to dapple in its ocean like depths, under the guidance of Priyadarisini Govind, whose training stems from the illustrious abhinaya exponent Kalanidhi Mami. 

Some audiences considered that workshop performances could be programmed separately from the festival or aligned with other student performances on a totally separate evening. But perhaps the intention of curating a festival like Sangam is to present works that are seen across its different stages of development, including premiering finished new works. 

On the following day, BIRRARUNG DADA-DESI featured sixteen emerging and established Melbourne young artists ‘under-30’ hosted by award-winning writer, comic and performance-maker Vidya Rajan, DADA-DESI showcases the classical, the experimental and the inspired, including stand-up comedy, vocal and dance performances, music ensembles and literary readings. Co-curated by Nithya Iyer and Vidya Rajan.  

Vidya Rajan Credit Arun Munoz

DADA_DESI was an open mic /stage where all forms, whether it was the classical music / dance or complete western or somewhere in between, along with stand up comedy and anything experimental, all were welcomed. 

It was Sambar, a scrumptious mix of all. I guess this amalgamation of various arts on the one platform is very rare and quite refreshing, we need more unique platforms like this. 

Shriraam Theiventhiran Credit : Arun Munoz

My inner monologue, Shriraam Theiventhiran explored the worlds of what it means to be a brown artist searching for identity within a dichotomy of existence, Australian outside and Sri Lankan at home. Presented in an interdisciplinary exploration of spoken word, poetry and sculpturistic imitation in movement (neo Karanas). Music by Kalmi ‘Duduksa’.

We heard Maiyurenthiran play his melodious violin, soaking us in his soulful rendition of Mohanakalyani ragam which then took a sharp but smooth turn as it changed into the Peppy cup song, something that experienced Carnatic Music concert goers, did not see coming, but relatable to a western audience.  

Bhairavi Raman, First Gen Melbourne Violinist Credit Arun Munoz

Carnatic singer Arjunan Puveendran from Sydney collaborated with Nanthesh Sivarajah on mridangam, Bhairavi Raman on violin, and classical Bharatanatyam dancer Kersherka Sivakumaran where the Raga Reethigowlai was explored to the depiction of the epic story of Ramayana, Sita’s plight and more.

As a Sydney South Asian Artist being recognised at a Melbourne South Asian Arts Festival, Sydney based Arjunan Puveendran says “It was joyous to be at Birrarung: Dada Desi, staging our work which was a presentation of the traditional in a contemporary context, amongst a host of hugely diverse South Asian artists. … Importantly Sangam played the important step towards building on decades of groundwork laid by largely migrant artists from the South Asian region and trying to take that legacy forward.

In Rewa Unseen, a double bill featuring two artists Masoom Parmar from Bangalore and Devika Chauhan Bilimoria from Melbourne, both questioned religious identity, sexuality, power, haunting and labour in their classical dance forms on an experimental platform.

Masoom Parmar from Bangalore, student of the illustrious Kiran Subhramanyam performed his personal story and utilised what he knew best, Bharatanatyam to tell it. It was an emotional performance which captured its audience for its complete sincerity, featuring spoken word and dance as part of its presentation.

Masoom Parmar – Aaj Ke Naam Credit: Arun Munoz

In a world premier of works ‘Aaj Ke Naam‘, Parmar began with an Allarippu, an invocation where the dancer allows the body to blossom and then to be offered to the divine. His Allarippu was a self-blossoming as an queer of Islamic faith. 

Controversial in all respects, Sangam should be congratulated for presenting Masoom Parmar at this festival. We hope that this now leads to other opportunities around the world, for Masoom Parmar and artists like him.  

The structure of the allaripu was inspired by the architecture and lines of a Mosque. He involved the crescent moon that sits on the pinnacle of the Islamic structures of worship, to the physical ritual practices of performing Hajj within the framework of the traditional allarippu. 

The conjuring Thirupugal layered against the uplifting Quran hymns within the three beat sollukattu showed how Parmar’s treatment of the allaripu and his Islamic faith together reflected great integrity and sensitivity to the two traditions.

Parmar then went on to dance the compositions of India’s celebrated poet, Kabir. Kabir’s poetry is famous for its universality, as Kabir questions the meaning of life in every day living. 

Parmar’s body of work reflected his ongoing internal dialogue that he embarks with himself, perfected as a body of work and then presented to his audiences. Under the present political climate in India of Hindutva and Anti-Islamic sentiments, Parmar’s work stands to be celebrated.

This was followed by the interdisciplinary work involving sound manipulation and film and dance through an experimental framework, Allakala by Devika Chauhan Bilimoria, Student of Guru Chandra Bhanu. She attempted to unmask the possibilities in the aesthetics of the form when reversing the Allarippu. 

A Kanda allarippu (5 beat composition) first played on screen was presented to the mixed audiences, from her debut dance performance in 2001. She then manipulated the sound so that the track would play in reverse. She proceeded to dance the sequence in reverse. The reason for reversing the Allaripu and the connection to queering was lost to me. 

PERAI GATHERINGS @Dancehouse on Saturday featured panels, films and workshops throughout the day including films by Sapna Chandu  and Nithya Iyer. Panels in conversation with Manisha Anjali, Ching Ching Ho, Philipa Rothfield and Andy Butler

Generally speaking, the panel discussions, films and workshops held throughout the day aimed at helping artists understand the process of grant writing, its challenges and importantly issues resting upon the tackling of the mainstream dominant Australian culture.

Interestingly, the main concerns that continued to fill the space between the studio walls by local artists was how do we make Indian classical arts relevant without diluting it and furthermore how does one tackle ageist politics.

The fear of becoming an independent artist experimenting with new ideas can sometimes come at the expense of losing the support of the beloved guru and the community of dancers who play the important role as watchdogs and leaders of this artform maintaining the strict traditions inherent to it. Indeed an important topic that needs to be discussed. 

Pedro Cooray at Sangam Credit Arun Munoz

There were films being shown upstairs at the Dancehouse which was tucked away up a narrow flight of stairs that many of the audiences missed. Although front of staff did make announcements. 

One of the films I watched that spoke to me was ‘Kwality Chai’ by Sapna Chandu, in a video of a live artwork. Sapna created an envisioned reality where Australia has been taken over by India. 

Indian language, street culture melting into the Melbourne environs whilst a Chaiwala served fresh chai, CHAI that was real the deal and not something you would get in Gloria Jeans.

MAHAWELI ENTANGLEMENTS 

The second day we saw emerging artists – singers and violinists – trained by Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi explore in various ragams different kritis. Vijayalakshmi introduced each segment as representing one of the rivers of India in what comprised of mainly local first generation, Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists of both Sri Lankan and Indian background. This segment was a treat to many Sri Lankan and South Indians in the audience. 

This was followed by a joint collaboration between Keshav Ram on Mandolin and Narthana Kanagasabai on Violin accompanied by Acktshan Vasavan of Gamaka, a partnership between Sangam to provide an emerging platform for first generation carnatic music artists. 

Gen Next Carnatic Singers Credit: Arun Munoz

Presented in a traditional Carnatic format, we saw the duet sitting on the floor which is typical to South Indian concerts with audiences spread around them and in front.  They explored various Krithis, improvised together accompanied by a percussionist in melodic scales of Ragas, Nattai, Charukesi, Sindhu Bhairavi and so on. 

Muddupalani and Radhika :  In the next segment, moving away from form and structure, controversial, confronting and unbelievable, Historical Researcher and Choreographer Priya Srinivasan, World Renowned dancer and choreographer Priyadarshini Govind performed to music composed by Violinist Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi and Vocalist Uthra Vijay.

Rewind to 1910’s into the life of  Muddupalani , a poet and a devadasi, through her work of Radhika Santwanamu written in or around 1727 – 1763. 

Uthra Vijay, Priya Srinivasan, Lalgudi Viji and Priyadarsini Govind backstage ; Credit Arun Munoz

This unbelievable revival of six verses of 584 verses of Radhika Santwanamu, provided a glimpse into the life of Muddupalani’s imagined Radhika, who ‘to please Lord Krishna’, as a consort and lover, teaches her protagonist the art of serving Lord Krishna, but then is also mournful and jealous that she herself is compromised in her service to the Lord.  Priyadarshini Govind and Priya Srinivasan, explored the relationship between Radhika and Ila, and Muddupalani’s own life, providing glimpses into the tumultuous suppressed lives of Devadasis.  

Priya Srinivasan commenced by briefly providing an interesting background to her work. Since 1996, Priya Srinivasan has been researching and exploring Muddupalani’s works, seeing her life through her poetry. This work was workshopped, in an attempt to revive text that were considered too controversial and burnt in early 1900.  Lost to the world, Muddupalani’s poetry resurfaced again, almost fifty years later. 

When asked about what was the motivation behind this work Priya Srinivasan said ‘I have been researching Muddupalani’s poetry for so long. We have striven to address the silencing of devadasi history and it took me a long time to think about how we represent devadasi history, without appropriating it. Which is why, the work is contextualised, instead of being romanticised – hence you see us in our simple sarees’.

Uthra Vijay, Lalgudi Viji and Priya Srinivasan and Priyadarsini Govind ; Credit Arun Munoz

The author believes, interspersed with readings, this work could easily be presented at literary festivals, such as Sydney Writers Festival or Jaipur Literature Festival.

Set to music by Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi and Uthra Vijay, Prima Donna dancer – Priyadarsini Govind and Priya Srinivasan, travelled between narration music and movement, giving us also a glimpse into the inner workings of the psyche of Radhika through the eyes of Muddupalani.

Sangam in the South Asian Diaspora scene is the first of it kind in being able to attract old and young from different cultures. One hopes that such festivals continue to be blessed by both its ‘new age thinking’ patrons and practitioners and government funding bodies with the blessings of Our Gurus and Elders.

South Asian Curators: Uthra Vijay, Priya Srinivasan and Hari Sivanesan
Credit Arun Munoz