Watching classical dance in Chennai

A really good solo Bharatanatyam (a South Indian classical dance form) performance is so captivating partly because it is very rare. Even the best classical dancers in India are inconsistent, far more inconsistent than their counterparts in the West. I think this is because classical Indian dance forms place twin demands on the dancer: physical fitness, to do the movements, and dramatic presence, to give form to the lyrics of the poems to which she dances. While a dancer’s body is relatively easy to discipline, the tools that she uses to act out and interpret the songs – her eyes, her mouth, her mind, her ability to concentrate – these are far more difficult to consistently control, and this skill usually comes only with age and experience. The same dancer doing the same dance can do the exact same movements, but be ethereal one day and flat the next.

This is why a superb performance by a young couple, Parvathy Menon and Sheejith Nambiar, at the Music Academy two Fridays ago was so remarkable.

Menon and Nambiar’s movements were restrained but full, and flawlessly staged; their perfectly coordinated dancing took them all over the expansive stage. Both have lovely side leans of the upper body, a movement unique to the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam, and both articulate each of their adavus through to the tips of the fingers, which makes their dancing particularly satisfying to watch. Nambiar’s movements cut through the air like butter. His center of gravity is very high.  He holds his back very straight, and he jumps very, very high, but lands as soft as a feather. Throughout the show, the dancers shimmered through choreography which was challenging without any showiness, including some lovely, rhythmically complex korvais in the varnam. Sometimes they danced in unison, sometimes they faced each other, and sometimes they graciously ceded each other the center stage, but always the couple was completely aware of one another.

But what was truly astonishing for such young dancers was the emotional weight of the performance, thanks to the depth of Menon’s abhinaya, and the boyish agility with which Nambiar played the object of her womanly longing.

In a passage in the Swati Thirunal varnam, Menon is a young woman waiting for Krishna in her house. She hears something, and excitedly throws open the door, but finds only a peacock feather lying on the ground. She picks it up and caresses her cheek with it, and loses herself in her memories of their time together. Nambiar as Krishna, hiding behind a bush throws – what? A rope? A vine? – around her and pulls her towards him. Menon shivers with delight when she realizes that Krishna is there, and scampers towards him, only to have him disappear again, and again, until finally the two are united. Clearly, depicting this elaborate hide-and-seek between lovers requires meticulous staging and rehearsal, but Menon’s abhinaya and their well-rehearsed timing ensured that all that the audience saw was the intensity of her desire for him, and the spontaneity of their play.

The bhajan by Surdas was also exceptional. Choreographed by Leela Samson, this piece showed a young Krishna accosting Radha on her way home. Again, Menon’s delicate abhinaya enabled the audience to see this moment for what it was, a young woman being slowly and willingly seduced by thoughts of playful abandon with a boy.

Menon and Nambiar’s show revealed the inherent paradox of performing Indian classical Indian dance: putting on a really good show means enabling the audience to forget the presence of the dancer. Weeks of rehearsals, painstakingly managed staging, flawless form – these things allowed the audience on Friday to forget the dancers and the stage, and to lose themselves in the rhythms of the music and the meaning of the poetry to which the dancers gave visual expression.

Backstage

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