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Seduction of the Gods


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Leela Raja and Pasumarthy Vithal

at Ravinia Festival, September 3


Jhaveri Sisters Dance Group

at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, September 4

It should come as no surprise that a country as large as India, with its many regional cultures, has a rich and varied dance heritage, each region with its own distinct style. Recently Chicago audiences had the opportunity to experience not only the classical southeast Indian style of Bharatanatyam but the Kuchipudi style of the Andhra Pradesh region, as well as the even more rarely seen Manipuri style, with roots in folk dance as well as classical Indian dance. Its characteristic gracefulness comes from the fact that the performer strives to bring expression to the whole body in equal measure--no one body part is ever emphasized. This flow of movement creates a natural lyricism.

Bharatanatyam, on the other hand, gains its effectiveness from its sculptural poses, multiple quick, sharp hand and body movements, and fast footwork. Like modern dance it's more grounded, the feet pushing into the floor. Kuchipudi--dance-drama with all-male casts, who speak and sing as well as dance--is more free-form (as much as any art with rules can be), though generally everything is more exaggerated. Kuchipudi has some of the same set flamboyant gestures as Kabuki, which also originally utilized all-male casts, the female roles portrayed in ritually prescribed ways. Also similar is the way roles are passed down from one generation to the next.

All Indian dance forms were codified in the Natya Shastra, a dance manual from the fourth century AD. It states that all dance techniques should include examples of pure dance (without a theme, story, or symbolism) and narrative dance. Narrative dances are accompanied by a singer who sits to the side of the stage, in full view of the audience; the musicians are also onstage. The text--whether poetry or stories from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata--revolves around the lives of the gods. Indian gods, like the Greek and Roman ones, very much reflect the human character and its spectrum of emotions. Lord Krishna is often depicted in pursuit of a lover or eagerly awaited by one. In his incarnation as a child he's always getting into trouble with gopis (milk maidens) because of his taste for butter sweets. The second dance, Nannichuri, on the "Manipuri Nartanalaya" program at Mandel Hall, featured young Krishna (Latsana Devi) and his brother Balram (Paushali Chatterjee) breaking open pots of butter to eat since their mother (a gopi) is away. The two women, wearing turbans to indicate their male characters, danced almost as one, definitely creating a mood of sibling unity. Many of their movements mirrored each other as they faced inward (to eat butter) or danced side by side.

As an adult Krishna gets into a different kind of trouble with gopi maidens, as depicted in the Jhaveris' first dance, Vasanta Ras, traditionally performed on the night of the full moon in April in Manipur. Krishna (Devi) and his divine lover Radha (Ranjana Jhaveri) celebrate the Festival of Colors with the gopis. Krishna dances with one of them too often, and Radha leaves in jealous anger. He runs after her to beg her forgiveness, and when they're reconciled everyone dances joyously together in a "cosmic dance," depicted in a lovely, touching linking of arms in a universal symbol of unity.

In Vasanta Ras the Manipuri style is particularly soft, with a swaying quality and lots of hand and arm twirling. Unlike Bharatanatyam, in which the dancer travels by digging into the floor, in Manipuri the dancers appear to scamper or float across the stage, propelled by soft little hops. Vasanta Ras made the distinctive Manipuri style especially evident, and it is dramatically different from most other Indian dance, both in the constant flow of movement and in the costuming. Most audience members would consider Bharatanatyam costumes ornate, yet they pale next to the Manipuri costumes. In Vasanta Ras they were exceedingly elaborate; the women's skirts are permanently belled out like giant tea cozies with huge starched ruffled overskirts, and the dancers' heads and shoulders are covered with white translucent veils. The women also wear pearl bracelets on their fingers, hands, and arms that trail red tassels, whose motions add to the intricate curling, curving finger and wrist movements.

Prabandha Nartan, danced by Rajana Jhaveri, Devi, and Chatterjee, is almost Burmese in its intricate hand movements and costuming (long, narrow striped skirts and chiffon scarves over one shoulder and through the belt to the other side)--not surprising given Manipur's proximity to Burma. Mandila Nartan, the celebratory dance that followed Prabandha, is traditionally performed during the Swing Festival, when idols of Radha and Krishna are placed on a swing. The dancers carry long red tassels that swing about as they flick their wrists. Cymbals with a bell-like sound are reminiscent of the finger cymbals Middle Eastern dancers use.

The last two pieces on the program featured drum playing somewhat like Japanese kodo drumming. Mridang Vadan (mridang is the name of the drum) was essentially a drum line dance. Darshana Jhaveri, Devi, and Chatterjee sat to play the drums, and as they played they added hand clapping and waving between the beats. It was lively, rhythmical, and lyrical. The last dance, Dashavatar, featured all four dancers; it had an ensemble feel, not just because all the dancers were onstage but because they danced in relation to each other, not as four soloists. Dashavatar depicts Lord Vishnu in the ten incarnations (such as fish, tortoise, boar, lion-man, dwarf) he took on to destroy evil in the world. Finally, when all evil has been conquered, even the musician rises from his perch at the side of the stage to sound out a joyous drum dance. Drummer Biramangal Singh stamped his feet hard into the ground, then softly provided a pattering whisper (to demonstrate his range and his mastery of the footwork)--drumming the whole time on the mridang strapped across his shoulder. He turned as he drummed, then leaned back, looking up almost beatifically with the joy of good being restored to the world. It was an appropriately ecstatic end to the dance as well as to the Jhaveri Sisters program.

At the Ravinia program Leela Raja interpreted the Bharatanatyam style and Pasumarthy Vithal the Kuchipudi (though Raja also did some Kuchipudi). Both made much use of attami, the head and neck moving from side to side. Vithal, however, excelled at this: he began his first dance, Ganesh Kaustubam, with it, and his head seemed literally detached from his neck as he moved. In this dance his hand movements were soft and loose, his body movements flowing. One movement poured into the next, but the movement as a whole was quick and constant. In Swarajati (choreographed by his teacher and father Krishna Sarma), he held his arms almost rounded in first position in front of him, then overhead (sometimes with the hands actually clasped), his feet doing a sort of bourree to propel him across the stage. At other times he took quick, tiny steps, one foot carefully placed next to the other. This was an example of "pure dance," with no plot line. In Sloka ("sacred verse" or "prayer"), he began with adagio movements, with deep plies into the floor, that communicated an air of reverence. The tempo was slow throughout, though the pace picked up gradually from the excruciatingly slow start. It was a very lyrical dance, appropriate in that its text describes the beauty of the god Krishna. His presentation here was much more stylized than in the abstract Swarajati.

Dasavatara, done in Kuchipudi style, featured Vithal and Raja alternately taking on the ten incarnations of Vishnu, symbolizing the evolution of man and the triumph of good over evil. The tenth, as Kalki the warrior on a white horse, is yet to come--at the end of the world. Each dancer "sat" in a wide second position or knelt as the other danced. Raja especially created some terrifying images as the demons fought--her hands became rounded claws at either side of her face, her eyebrows raised in a constant flutter of movement. The raised and expressive eyebrows appeared again in her Chamundeswari Shabdam, also done in the Kuchipudi style. Raja portrayed both the demon Maheshasura (who creates havoc in the world) and the warrior goddess Chamundeswari, who destroys him. Throughout she maintained an imperious stance, with the exaggeration endemic to Kuchipudi. At the dance's end, she was bathed in a red square of light as her eyebrows twitched menacingly: an effective picture of that moment before the goddess becomes benevolent again, not taken up with the warrior's joy in the kill. Raja was particularly effective in that the rest of her was not moving--she conveyed the drama of the moment by showing us her inner turmoil. This effectively understated moment packed a lot of power.

Another dance Raja and Vithal performed together again involves young Krishna stealing butter from a gopi maiden, Balagopala Leela. Raja performs it Bharatanatyam style, Vithal in Kuchipudi. Raja as the coquettish gopi makes a hip-swaying entrance, feet stamping, then stands back imitating sleep. Vithal enters to portray the butter thief--here called Balagopala, not Krishna. He clowns expressively, holding his finger to his mouth for the audience to keep quiet, holding his hands out to indicate his belly getting bigger as he fills up on sweets. It's odd--but visually more satisfying--to see a male dancer take on the Krishna role; in Bharatanatyam the gopi and Krishna are portrayed by the same female dancer.

Raja proved herself as adept in Kuchipudi as in Bharatanatyam, though she lacked the consummate artistry of a more mature stylist. She demonstrated as crisp and clean a line in the Kuchipudi Krishna Shabdam as in the Bharatanatyam style of Tillana. The choreography in Krishna Shabdam consisted of many quick, repeated gestures, but the emphasis of the dance was on the face, as the vocalist implored Krishna: "Come, come my beloved . . . I will sprinkle you with rose water . . . I will make a garland of roses for you . . . I will make a tasty betel-leaf delicacy for you, come." Indian dance revels in such verse, subtly seducing the audience as much as the gods it seeks to lure into love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Avinash Pasricha.

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