Without culture we are the living dead
The Nrityabharti Troupe from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India were in Mauritius from Monday 8 February to give a series of representations. They left on Tuesday last, 16 February, after enthralling lovers of Indian classical dance at several locations in the island. Unfortunately their plan had to be modified because of the bad weather that followed for a couple of days after their arrival. Nevertheless, they managed in this short time to capture the hearts and imaginations of those who were fortunate enough to attend the programmes. They were hosted by the Ramayana Centre, Union Park at the initiation of its Indian counterpart, with the collaboration of the Indian High Commission.
The troupe’s director is Shri Chandan Thakore, a vibrant personality in Bharatnatyam who has taken up dance as his full time career and is actively involved with the activities of Nrityabharti through teaching, performing and choreographing. I came to know from him that he had learned the art from his mother, Elakshi Thakore, herself an accomplished artist who popularized Bharatnatyam in Gujarat as well as setting up learning and teaching centres in Graz, Austria and in New Jersey, USA. Shri Chandan has maintained continuity through conducting workshops in these places, and has extended his field of activity to Japan and China too.
His mother had trained nearly 20,000 students – including him – and since setting up the Nrityabharati in 1998, he himself has trained thousands more from India, and East African and European countries. The Indian trainees are all school or college-going students, mostly girls but there are also some male ones. With at least two hours of practice daily they all reach to a professional level, which explains why Nrityabharti has given nearly 400 performances at national and international levels to date, winning accolades and prizes along the way. Several students have obtained national scholarships to pursue Bharatnatyam further, and continued on this path either as a career or, after leaving college and getting on with their lives, have become dedicated teachers of the art wherever they have settled, whether in India or abroad. For example, among those in the current troupe, one lady was soon to go to the USA to pursue a PhD, and the sole male dancer Hemantkumar is a university lecturer.
A visual symphony
As is well known, Bharatnatyam is a temple dance originating from South India, Tamil Nadu essentially, and therefore traditionally the language used in Bharatnatyam is either Tamil or Telugu. Shri Chandan Thakore has given a new dimension to the traditional Bharatnatyam Dance with his innovative ways by presenting the dance form as if it were a visual symphony and breaking the barriers of languages by creatively introducing Hindi, Gujarati and Sanskrit medium in his dances. This has extended the reach to a wider audience, popularizing Baratnatyam even further, according to him. He has also initiated a mega event known as the National Dance Festival, which is held in Ahmednagar annually since the year 2000. Budding and renowned artists from all over the country are invited at Ahmedabad, and are given a platform to perform.
I had the opportunity to attend three of the local performances, and the items included Gajanan Stuti, Panchayatan Devta, Govind Leela, Shiv Stuti, Ram Stuti, Kevat prasang, Ram-Sita prem prasang after the coronation of Ram as king of Ayodhya, birth of Luv and Kush, Rishi Valmiki giving education in Shastra to Luv and Kush, and Luv and Kush narrating the happenings in Ayodhya to Sita. There were also two fusion dance items and the shows ended with Mangalam, a dance for the welfare of everybody.
Whenever I watch a dance performance, I do it from two perspectives: as an orthopaedic surgeon concerned with everything to do with the structure and function of what goes into the execution of bodily movements, namely what we call the musculoskeletal system of the body. That is, the bones, joints and muscles with their associated structures such as the tendons and ligaments, and how all these are organized and coordinated to produce the physical postures that are required of the dancer. Secondly, what the dance is about in terms of its symbolism, which is reflected in the music, the costumes, the expressions of the dancers, and the gestures and positions respectively of the limbs and the trunk.
From the purely physical point of view, one can appreciate the geometrical range and precision of the movements, which are in synchronicity with the beat and rhythm of the music as is wont to be. I get a little tensed when I see dancers executing movements that require joints to go way beyond their normal range – such as in ballet, where the foot has to be constantly in the ‘down’ or ‘equinus’ (like a horse’s ‘foot’), with the dancer on tiptoe practically throughout a performance. This puts a tremendous strain on the ankle and foot joints, which can result in chronic problems for ballet dancers. Before becoming an orthopod, I never thought that such things could happen on seeing Rudolf Nureyev gliding and pirouetting in Swan Lake.
In fact, the anatomy of the ballet has formed the subject of a book and other publications, and ballet dancers do present with ankle joint problems. As for me, I have had to treat some well-known local Bharatnatyam dancers in the past for some problems associated with their backs and legs, usually when they were under pressure because a performance was due in a couple of days and they had to be ‘put right’ so as to be able to deliver as it were. One was frightened on being told he needed immediate surgery to his back – but fortunately he was spared the knife in the, er… nick of time!
Beyond these informed medical considerations, however, there is the sheer grace, smoothness and elegance of these movements, more so when several dancers are taking part and there is perfect harmony among them in the execution. And the effect is enhanced immeasurably when they are individually carrying out not one, but several movements simultaneously, for example in Bharatnatyam, gestures of the fingers along with movements of the eyes in various directions. The visual effect of this dynamic complexity is one of exquisite beauty, and with the lights shining on the colourful costumes the appearance is truly, if one may use this expression, celestial. A beauty transcendent, like the stars on a moonless, clear night, that also lifts your being towards blissful realms, even though temporarily.
As the experts say, Lord Shiva in his Nataraja form is considered the God of this dance, in which we enjoy the grace, elegance, purity, tenderness, expression and sculpturesque poses, which are grounded in bhakti or devotion. Bharatanatyam, it is said, is the embodiment of music in visual form, a ceremony, and an act of devotion. Dance and music are inseparable forms; only with sangeetam (words or syllables set to raga or melody) can dance be conceptualized. Bharatanatyam has three distinct elements to it: Nritta (rhythmic dance movements), Natya (mime, or dance with a dramatic aspect), and Nritya (combination of Nritta and Natya). Natya portrays a character and Nritya can be seen as a type of story telling, using lots of hand gestures and emotions.
All of them were present in the various item numbers that the artists presented – each one better than the other, so enchanting they were. These items were from the rich and millennial Hindu mythology as well as specifically from Ramayana. The vibrations that were generated are such as to make one get goose-bumps on the skin. Because Bharatnatyam is ‘the manifestation of the ancient idea of the celebration of the eternal universe through the celebration of the beauty of the material body’. And as one watches with intense concentration, a certain resonance develops between one’s body and those of the artists. Short of being able to be one of them, it is felt as a state of heightened physical and mental awareness.
One of the most well-known episodes in the Ramayana is that of boatman Kewat being requested by Ram Bhagavan to carry him and Sita Mata, who are in exile, across the river to the other shore. It was Nirali Trivedi who mimed the role of Kewat in this item, and she was really superlative in her depiction of a boatman rowing, So too were the four other dancers who then joined in to mimic the boat moving along the water; it is hard to imagine if it could be done any better or differently. And then there was little Riya, barely in her teens, whose role as balak (child) Krishna not only had the audiences spellbound – the silence was complete until the clapping when she had finished – but endeared her as a person too, her child’s innocence coming through.
Fusion of beauty and energy
The dancers not only represent, but actually are a concentration of beauty and energy that explodes into a universe of sounds and sights. Their ripples zoom out and penetrate into our very being, making us feel alive as we not normally are when we go through our daily routines. Truly, without culture we are the living dead.
I had another related thought when I was focusing on the beauty-energy idea as I saw the dancers at a certain moment in one cluster and almost touching each other: I imagined them shrinking to microscopic size that would yet contain their beauty and energy – in a concentrated form, a singularity, like before the Big Bang. Even from this metaphysical standpoint, therefore, one can imagine – and accept – the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. We are the universe, aren’t we…
Thank you, Chandan Bhai and your wonderful artists. And may Nrityabharti long continue to be. Aum Namashivaya.
* Published in print edition on 19 February 2016