Vishwaroopam in nritya roop
As part of the BHAKTI PRAVAH series revived at the Chinmaya Mission in New Delhi, Geeta Chandran and her Natya Vriksha Dance Company and Bala Devi Chandrashekhar performed as part of a two-day Festival of Bharatanatyam on the 26th and 27th of July.
Geeta Chandran has been trained by Smt Saraswathy in the Thanjavur bani and Guru K N Dakshinamurthi Pillai. She has received training in abhinaya with gurus Jamuna Krishnan and Kalanidhi Narayanan. A Padma Shri awardee, she is an eminent Bharatnatyam dancer, Carnatic music vocalist and has worked extensively in choreography, dance education and dance-issue journalism. She has experimented with issues and concerns of contemporary relevance in Bharatnatyam. She is the founder-president of Natya Vriksha, where she teaches and promotes this dance form. She has received many fellowships and prestigious awards and has performed all over the world.
Geeta Chandran and her Natya Vriksha Company performed on the concept of ‘Rasananda’ on day 1 of the festival.The performance explored cultural connections to Rasa, a uniquely Indian concept of aesthetics. Based on a wonderful thought: One can either scan the universe to find the self, or scan the self to find the universe, Geeta Chandran explored various dimensions of rasa in her conceptualized performance.
The performance opened with a mallari, the temple procession. It was an attempt to look for rasa outside oneself in a temple. Mallari is a processional number taken from the rituals in the temples of South India, when the temple deity is taken in a procession encircling the temple.
The mallari for the evening was dedicated to the Lord of Chidambaram, where Shiva is propitiated as Nataraja, the king of dancers. The group portrayed the attributes of Shiva: agni (fire) in one hand, damru (his drum) in the other, Ganga on his head and His dancing posture. The flawless group coordination was used to show the procession in which the Lord is being carried. The mallari was composed by Vidvan Sembonaar Kovil SRD Vaidyanathan and Smt. Aruna Sairam. Karaikudi Sivakumar and Sudha Raghuraman assisted in elaborating the music for dance.
Concept, Choreography, Presentation: Geeta Chandran
Performed by: Natya Vriksha Dance Company (Sneha Chakradhar, Divya Saluja, Sharanya Chandran, Anjana Seshadiri, Rashi Bijlani, R. Amrita Shruti and Radhika Kathal)
Nattuvangam: Geeta Chandran
Vocal: Sudha Raghuraman
Mridangam: Lalgudi Sriganesh
Ghatam: Adambakkam Shankar
Flute: G. Raghuraman
Recorded by: Deepak Samson at Freesound Studio
The second piece – Govinda Vandana – was a solo by Geeta, which you always feel becomes a surreal experience. The composition was by the haveli sangeet poet Hita Hari Vallabh and the dance narrates different aspects of Krishna’s life based on the Bhagvath Purana. An original composition in Ragamalika and Talamalika, it elaborated on ‘katha’ or storytelling as a source of rasa from without an individual. Om namo Narayana – Geeta started by depicting the four- armed posture of Krishna with shankha, chakra, gada and padma in His hands. Vishwarupaya, Vishwesharaya, Govindaya Namo Namah. Kamal netraya, kamal maaline, kamal nabhaye, kamala pataye, (the Lord has lotus eyes, He wears a lotus garland, a lotus emerging from His navel. He is the consort of Kamala or Lakshmi). Here, Geeta elaborated on the image of Lord Vishnu reclining in the Ksheer Sagar with the lotus emerging from His navel. Kansavansha vinashaya keshi chanoor mardanam, parthasarthaye namah (The destroyer of demons like Kamsa, Keshi and Chanoor, He is Arjuna’s charioteer). Here she elaborated on the episode of Krishna preaching the Bhagwad Gita to Arjun. Gopalaye, Lolkundaldhariney (One who plays on the flute with His ear ornaments kissing His cheeks). Geeta depicted Krishna’s beauty enamouring the gopis on the banks of Yamuna. She ended the piece by depicting Krishna as Rukminikanta, gopikanta and jagadguru.
The third piece was a varnam performed by Natya Vriksha, dedicated to Krishna with his beautiful lotus eyes, describing his exploits with the gopis of Vrindavan. It was in raagam Behag, aditalam- “vanajaksha ninne nammiti".
The God himself wants a taste of this nectar called rasa, and in Krishna avatar he longs for it. The composition was by T R Subramaniam. The poet sings praises of the Lord's lotus eyes and pleads for his kindness or kripa. The group depicted the tale of vanquishing of the Kaliya serpent. Cows and birds drinking from Yamuna are poisoned by the water and die. Krishna plans to play a ball game on the shore with his friends. The ball falls in the river and Krishna jumps in, a fight with the serpent follows. The serpent is defeated and Krishna dances on his hood. The group showed some excellent imagery and abhinaya while playing the ball game and portraying the fight.
Next, they portrayed the cheer haran leela. While the gopis are bathing, Krishna steals their clothes, sits on a tree and plays his flute. The clothes are returned only when they beg for them with raised hands. Again, the beauty and finesse of the group performance could be appreciated. The stances and frames showing Radha-Krishna, gopis, cows and peacocks were captivating. The colourful costumes of the dancers made the performance multi-hued.
Following was a tillana in raag Brindavani set to aditalam, a composition by Padma Vibhushan Dr M Balamuralikrishna, choreographed by Geeta Chandran. The pleasure and taste of rasa is omnipresent and the knowledge that it is so, is gratifying. The tillana celebrates the joy of rhythm and movement. The grandeur and energy of the dance cannot be put in words - the footwork is complex and fast and the postures are inspired by traditional iconography. The rhythm is infectious, making the audience tap their feet. Such is the energy, synchrony and perfection of the dance that you are left spellbound.
And as a culmination of this journey for the search of the infinite, it ends within where resides the spring of rasa. ‘Bhuvaneshwara’, a prayer based on Tagore’s composition, was performed by Geeta Chandran. In this universe, the darkness or ‘timir’ is broken by the realization of God. He is the light, the ‘deep-kanti’. It was more of an expression of her own search.
Geeta elaborated at the end of the evening, “It is always said that traditional margam is very boring or monotonous and I have always tried to depict it in many forms. This summer, we were working on a lot of things and this programme came along, so I thought I should test my choreographic skills without being a part of the dance. I thought that whenever you are dancing as part of the production, your energies are divided between being a choreographer and a dancer. So I thought that I would limit myself to choreographic skills. Plus, as you proceed, the evolutionary levels of you and your students are on different planes. So you, being a part of the group also sometimes jars. When I told them, they said they would not be able to carry it off on their own but I said no, that’s the talent, how you hold it together. It’s an experiment and kind of a risk in a sense, but I think that’s how it has to evolve. Nobody’s shashwat and they all worked very hard. The two solos have been with me for a while, especially the last one, which is a favourite of my father. The original Rabindranath Tagore piece, Bhuoneshoro, was translated into many languages, and one of the translations was into Telugu. I always thought it was a very moving piece because it doesn’t name any God, but just talks about Bhuvaneshwara – I find it very cosmopolitan, because it talks about the downtrodden and how it has to be an inclusive society; it's very relevant for today. The varnam is a traditional one, written by T R Subramaniam… 'Vanajaksha, the beautiful lotus-eyed one, I have bestowed all my trust in you'. Second line is, 'in this bhav sagar, only you can take me out. Many rishis have prayed to your feet'. Since it was talking about the feet, we took the Kaliamardana.”
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On the second day Bala Devi Chandrashekar presented Vishvam. Bala Devi is a much sought after artist, choreographer and committed teacher of Bharatanatyam. She is the disciple of Padma Bhushan Dr Padma Subramanyam and reflects her style. She is the artistic director of SPNAPA Academy of Performing Arts.
In the midst of Bala’s performance, I lost touch with reality and my mind and soul wandered off on a journey to define Bhakti. Equally soul-stirring was the conversation with Bala which I would like to quote for I would not be able to do justice to it if I try to put it in my own words.
“Taking up omnipresence as a subject, you don’t know where to begin and how to go about it as a concept. I had to meet a lot of scholars and thinkers, not necessarily from the dance field. Here came in my uncle Pujya Shri Swami Shanthananda Puri of Thiruvannamalai, a scholar par excellence, whom I went to in Thiruvannamalai. The concept is very metaphysical. I took the 18th chapter of Shrimad Bhagvatam; I also read Vishnu Sahasranamam as a commentary and many allied texts and many commentaries by different authors in different languages, because I feel emotions and values are very region-oriented. I delved into all these commentaries by different authors, let’s say, like, Pothanna from AP and saints from Karnataka. It took me 2-3 years to collect the information. All the information that was collected had to be crystallised for a performance of one and a half hours. Then we had to work on the lyrical part of it, and this is when Dr Pappu Venugopal Rao came in. I had to convey all the collected information from Swamiji to him in a concise form and from there he put it into a visually presentable shape. Where do you begin, what do you mean by vishwam?” Here, Bala started to recite shlokas from Vishnu Sahasranamam with fervour. “Vishwam means omnipresent and uttam purush. From here, we go on to the tale of Shuka and Sage Vyasa. Shuka is called Maharaj because he renounced everything on this earth and that greatness makes him superior to an emperor. The tale brings forth an ideology. He is the bird, he is the wind, he is the environ, he is the substance, he is the panchbhuta, the persona of ‘me’ is lost. This ideology we imbibe from scholars or practitioners like my uncle who had renounced everything. It is by their anugrah or sukrit that you can understand this ideology. Dancers are special because they have a connection to God. If I do not have this conviction in myself, I would not be able to carry it across to the audience.”
The performance started with a mangal shlokam, followed by an invocatory piece, a salutation to lord Vasudeva. The lord reclines on a shesha shaiyya, a bed of the serpent. 'Om namah bhagvate vasudevaya, sarvavyapine' – he is the creator, sustainer, and soul of all beings. Lord Vishnu manifests in everything, shines everywhere, and is all-encompassing. Lord Vishnu is omkara, pranavanadam, prathamavedam, prakatashabdam, anahadam. He is the initiation of sound and word. Bala went on to depict the lord with four arms, with shankha, chakra, gada, padma. The devotees offer patram, pushpam, phalam.
Vyasa’s son is Shuka, a great ascetic. He is detached, a pure soul. Shuka listens to the Bhagvat Purana from his father and walks towards the woods, while his father follows him, calling out. He comes across women bathing in the river. These women are not alarmed by Shuka, and do not shy away. But when Vyasa passes them, they cover themselves. Vyasa is an old sage, and all bent over. Vyasa is surprised and asks the women about it. They answer that Shuka is jivottam or liberated, he does not discriminate between man and woman. For him, all is the same. Pashu pakshi pratibimbit, pashyat Shuka bhagvantam. Nomi nomi twam Shuka bhagawantam. We salute that Shuka bhagawan who sees his lord in all creation. For the act, Bala did some touching abhinaya, bringing out the sentiments of the piece. She nearly bent over to depict Lord Vyasa.
“In the second act I went on to depict the Dashavatar. Vishwaroopa is the universal form of the Lord. This Darshan was attained by bhaktiyoga, gyanyoga and karmayoga. Yashoda attained the darshan through bhaktiyoga. Yashoda is scolding Krishna- kyon aisa kiya, phir nahi karna (don’t do it again) when he eats mud. Maya takes over and she becomes a mother again, forgetting that her son is the God. Bhagwan ne usko sab dikhaya phir bhi veh bhol gayi, she forgets all, takes the little Krishna in her lap and starts feeding him. Bhagwan ko bhi anand lena tha, maa ki god mein baithne ka. He doesn’t want to come as a master every time. He came as a baby to have a taste of a mother’s love. Yashoda is not Yashoda – uske kitne janmon ka phal hai ki parmatma god mein hain.”
For protection of the righteous and destruction of evil, Lord Vishnu takes different avatars. The divine Lord has many forms with thousands of arms, heads and eyes which is His Vishwaroopam. He also takes the form of the fish, turtle, boar, narasimha, parshuram, Lord Rama, Balarama, Lord Krishna and Kalki. There are 24 avatars of the Lord, evolving from His yogamudra and yoganidra.
The tale told in the second act is: Once Krishna is engaged in eating clay. While his mouth is full, He is caught by Maa Yashoda. But when he opens his mouth, Yashoda sees the whole diversified universe in his mouth and is astonished (vismita, chakita). She starts thinking, is this a dream or is this my mind playing tricks on me? My baby’s mouth is so small and the universe is so huge. Maa Yashoda with vatsalya feeds him milk. She says, “O my child, it's not good to drink a lot of milk.” At this baby Krishna smiles, thinking that the whole world shares this milk with me. Yashoda makes him sleep in the palna. It was presented in a varnam format in kalyani ragam set to aditalam.
Bala continued with the tale where Mahabali attains the Darshan through gyanyoga . “Mahabali was not an egoistic king. Uske paas jo bhi tha usko dene ki ichha thi. God had to teach him that he is not everything. He is in the lineage of demons, his gait, his mannerism. The demon in him keeps surfacing. He is performing the hundredth ashwamedha yagya. His guru Shukracharya advises him to do it for his greatness. He is giving away everything - cows, gold, money, his own angvastram. Ek chaar saal ke chhote bachche ko dekha. Usme kitna tej tha. Mahabali makes him sit on the throne and washes his feet. Puts the water on his own head and wipes his feet with his own angavastram. Shukracharya, his guru, warns him, “This is no Brahmin. This is Parmatma. Don’t be lured, Mahabali.” Bali replies, “Let it be. Let it go down in history that I gave Parmatma what He asked for." Bali asks the Brahmin what he wants. “Three steps of land,” he replies. “A Brahmin should not wish for more than he needs”. Bali says, “Tumhare charan idhar pade, yeh tejas ki baat hai.” He vows with water in his hand to give the vaman three steps of land and then sees him grow in a magnitude that is beyond imagination. Pothana from Andhra Pradesh has given an interpretation in his commentary of this scene that the sun looks like a disc behind vaman’s head. As he grows, that sun becomes a mani on his forehead, then a kundal in his ear, then a necklace in his neck, then a kangan in his hand, then a waist band, then his anklet and finally like a mat under his feet. "Mahabali ko gyan aaya ki bhagwan mere samne hai. Apna sir to de doon. Sometimes we do not comprehend, the ego in us does not let us understand, that humility is not driven in us, that we know what to do. But Mahabali is Prahlad’s grandson. Prahlad is standing there and guiding him. Pitras don’t leave us. They guide us through our lives. Mahabali goes to pataal and Vishnu is the gatekeeper there. This is gyanyoga."
The tale goes that Vishnu descends as Vatukmurti or Vaman avatar on the earth to establish dharma. He comes during the ashwamedha yagya being performed by Raja Mahabali. As Vaman Bhagwan asks for three steps of land, his second step covers all of heaven and earth, beyond tapalok, surpassing maharloka and janaloka. Bali removes his crown and offers his head as the third step. In return, Vishnu agrees to be his guard at the gates of pataal-loka, where Mahabali has now to reside. This piece was presented in the format of raagam tanam pallavi in ragam todi set to maishra jampatalam."
(Bala, contd) “Arjuna through karmayog sees the universal form of Vishnu in the Kurukshetra war. Arjuna is bewildered to see Drona, Karna and all his relatives facing him, and refuses to fight. Krishna says, “Yeh to sab mar chuke hain. Tum to nimitt matra ho. You are just an instrument of their death.” Krishna shows him His Vishwaroop - the glorious form with many eyes, many heads, many limbs and his relatives as choorna in the mouth of the Lord. Arjuna is scared to see this image. He is bhayabheet and his emotions transcend the navarasa. He tells the Lord, “I have reached you through sakhya bhakti. So please do not show me this form of yours. I want to see you in the chaturbhuj roop." The lord says, “Kaloasmi – I am time.” (Bala sings with fervour). Aisi drishti kisi ko nahin di Arjun, jaisi tumko di. Chalo yudh karo.” A trembling Arjuna falls at the Lords feet again and again from all directions (ashtadig). As an artist you have to transcend, you have to be the character and yourself too. And that is the beauty of a performance. You have to take the audience with you and if you have touched even one soul, you are successful."
As the tale unfolds, Vishnu in the form of Krishna shows His universal form to Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war to destroy his delusion and sorrow. He says, "This form of mine which is luminous, endless, universal and primordial has not been witnessed before." This piece was presented in a rhythm format. Throughout the act, Bala exhibited a lot of energy with her leaps, stretches and stances. Her nritta and nritya was executed with perfection and the abhinaya touched the heart of the audience.
In the third act, the tale of Markandeya Rishi was narrated. Bala said, “Markandeya rishi during the time of pralaya or dissolution of the world sees the destruction of his ashram. He is attracted by the breathing of the Lord as a baby on the pepal leaf (Vatapatra shayee). Markandeya wished to see the Lord’s yogmaya. The baby is sucking his toe. Markandeya is drawn into the stomach of the Lord as He inhales and sees the entire universe inside Him. Thrown out by the exhalation, whatever the sage sees or touches, he feels Vishnu and experiences Him (Yum Yum Pashyati Yo Yo Sparshati Vishnu Bhav Samsevyam). The sage calls out, “Vishwam Vishwam.”" This piece was presented in the form of a tillana and tarana.
It was followed by Mangalam. Everything about the Lord is auspicious. His name, His ornaments, His lotus eyes and all that is associated with Him. As a result of his misdeeds, man is caught in a vicious cycle of birth and death. It is only by the dhyan (contemplation) of Lord Vishnu that one is relieved of all sins and the cycle of birth and death. Bala finished the piece with a stance showing the varadhasta of Lord Tirupathi.
Bala asserted that the entire performance had the vocabulary of Bharatnatyam. A mallari to begin with, varnam in the Yashoda act, followed by ragam tanam pallavi and rhythm format. This was followed by a tillana and tarana. “I took the technical angle also. It is not just a ballet. If a student comes with the intention of learning, he or she will find the entire Bharatnatyam vocabulary," she said.
Compilation – Pujya Shri Swami Shantananda Puri of Thiruvannamalai
Concept and choregraphy – Baladevi Chandrashekhar
Script – Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao
Music – Rajkumar Bharati
Vocals – G Sreekanth, Keerthana
Mridangam – G. Vijayaraghavan
Tabla and other percussion – Ganapathi
Veena – Bhavani Prasad
Violin – Embar Kannan
Flute – Vishnu
Lighting – Sandeep Dutta
Sound – Pandey
And finally, for both performances, excellent compering as always by Rajiv Chandran which makes a direct connect with the audience.
Note: This article first appeared in narthaki.com