The dance of stories, strokes and saris


‘Parkaya’ – the body of another, a dance festival, was held at IHC in Delhi on the 14th, 15th and 16th of January, 2015. It was organized by Sarvam Foundation. The dancers had to get inside the mindspace of a non-performing art form - like calligraphy, miniature painting or textiles. There were the three art forms explored by three brilliant classical dancers in the festival.

Neha Bhatnagar of Sarvam, who conceptualized the festival, said, “Rama ma’am (Rama Vaidyanathan) told me about her concept of Chitravali. And since Parkaya means ‘the body of another’, I thought it would be great to have Odissi and Kathak too enter other mediums of art. I had read this story of a rajah and his vizier that stayed with me. The rajah told his vizier to teach him calligraphy. The vizier said that in order to be a calligrapher, one must be a dancer. ‘Teach me how to dance,’ said the rajah. The vizier said that in order to be a dancer, one must be a painter first. The rajah demanded to be taught painting. The vizier said, ‘Be an architect first. That’s important.’  ‘Well, fine - teach me architecture.’ The vizier said, in order to be an architect, it is important to learn engineering. The rajah insisted on starting somewhere, so he decided to become an engineering student. The vizier said, 'Rajah, in order to be an engineer, you need to be a dancer.’ Man’s being is indivisible. Do you know where the body ends and the soul begins? One who cannot hear can see much better than his peers. And he who cannot speak and sing, can dance. There is no wall dividing the seven notes from each other. All the seven can commingle to become one, but each can be heard separately from the other. All these noble arts are the being of man and the exemplar of man’s being are the seven notes, innumerable colours and angles… This story made me suggest calligraphy and textiles to the two gurus. And that is how Parkaya 2015 came up. I then designed the ‘feel’ of the festival.”

Calligraphy in Kathak

Parwati Dutta is an exponent of Kathak and Odissi. She has trained under Pandit Birju Maharaj in Kathak. She is the director of Mahagami Gurukul in Aurangabad. In Parkaya, she had to merge calligraphy with Kathak. Calligraphy is the art of writing, and to unify the two, the sound and form of the written word was to be expressed in dance. The varna or the alphabet is not just a form for writing, but stands to denote something. Like in calligraphy, in Kathak too, each movement or stroke is spontaneous and fluid, but intentional and choreographed. The written script denotes a form and sound that can be translated into action.


Parwati’s performance was titled ‘Varnaja’. The stage had a hanging from the ceiling to the floor of a calligraphic work. The first part was the ‘Akshara dhyan’. The primordial sound or naad was responsible for the origin of the universe. Shiva’s cosmic dance with crescent-like movements of the dumroo, led to the origin of a script. This script is enunciated in the Maheshwar Sutra. Parwati chose mantras Akaaradevi, Ukaaradevi and Makaaradevi for this piece, which formed the Om. The piece concluded with a Ganesha paran, an invocation to the first scribe.


The second piece was titled ‘Shabdaroop’. The varna or letter is created through consciousness of the metaphysical (aadhyatmik), aesthetic (soundarya), structural (rachna), spatial (aakash), temporal (kaal) and technical (upayojna). Through this, the sign becomes a symbol. Parwati presented it as an abstract piece in vilambit teen taal. The brush strokes were relived through the Kathak idiom – naad-shabd-laya. These ideas inspire a calligraphy artiste to explore bindu-rekha-akaar-kalpana. The refrain in this piece was ‘Namo shabdaroope, namo vyomroope’. Parwati went on to do some excellent tatkaar with bol and paran. She depicted the bindu, rekha and akaar. Her footwork and chakkars were meticulous. The accompanying tabla and pakhawaj were awesome.


The third piece was titled ‘Om Allah’. In this piece, she chose calligraphic expressions from the Om Allah series of renowned artist Achyut Pallav. One merges into the other, a merger that is relevant in our times. The piece was in dhrupad, set to dhrut taal – ‘Tum rab, tum sahib, tum rahim, tum karim, tum puran brahma, tum jagat guru’. The lyrics described the omnipresence of the lord. Parwati’s portrayal included gat with some neat footwork.


The following piece was Akaar. All art forms come from within and are spontaneous. The same is with dance and calligraphy. Just as the hand movements are fluid with the brush strokes, so are the dance movements. The word when written can conjure very imaginative images. Parwati drew inspiration from these ideas and displayed the possibilities of calligraphic patterns, creating images through bandishes in dhrut teen taal and gat. She portrayed calligraphy, creating the image of a lion and a bird. The sound that the bols of the tabla make can also conjure up images of birds and animals. This she did using gat nikaas.


She concluded her performance with ‘Shabda dhyan’, which dwells on an ‘abhang’ by Sant Tukaram. Forms emerge from naad or sound and varna or alphabet. Spacing is a liberating act from the convention of having everything aligned. The abhang described the scripts like ratnas or gems and jewels. They are like the jeevan or jagat for the poet. According to the poet, the written script leads to the spiritual path.


About the concept of her performance, Parwati said, “The awareness came much earlier when I was learning kathak at the Kendra. My guru, especially Maharaj Ji, would say that when you move a stroke in space, you draw and create a form. This is how I got sensitized to the art form of calligraphy. In the gurukul, I started working with inter-disciplinary dialogues. I organized calligraphy workshops and interacted with the artists. I started relating Kathak to calligraphy because it has a lot of fluid movements which are close to the strokes in calligraphy. In all the other visual art forms like painting or sculpture, weaving a pre-calculated design is required. Calligraphy is different because it has more of spontaneous strokes and is more about harmony. The pressure on the brush is not the same in the beginning and in the end of the stroke. This spontaneity is also seen in Kathak. I asked the calligraphy artists about what inspires them. They said – naad. You think of the sound first, and the idea and the script come later. I was working on the same pattern in the dance transcreation with calligraphy. First it is the sound, whether it is the sound of pakhawaj, tabla, ghunghroo, uchcharan or utterances. All these sounds have an energy. In Kathak, every akshara is assigned a movement, almost like a script. Every movement is a calligraphic expression in the temporal space or temporal canvas.”

For the entire performance, choreography was by Parwati Dutta, vocals by Debashis Sarkar, tabla by Yogesh Samsi, pakhawaj by Sukhad Munde, sarod by Sunando Mukherjee and sarangi by Murad Ali. Research inputs were given by Shri VH Murkute, Dr Kawadkar and Dr Suniti Vadalkar. Calligraphy motifs and inputs were by Achyut Pallav, D. Limaye and Manik Walawalkar. Lights were designed by Sharad Kulshreshtha.


Miniature paintings in Bharatnatyam


On the 15th, it was Rama Vaidyanathan with Bharatnatyam, miniature paintings and Hindustani classical music. It was a heady blend. Rama is a disciple of Yamini Krishnamurthy and Guru Saroja Vaidynathan. She has been awarded the National Excellence Award.


The paintings for the first piece were ‘Venugopal’, Pahari Chamba 18th century, ‘Bhagwata Purana’, Datiya Central India, mid-18th century, and ‘Sanwar’, Ajmer, 1725. The shloka was in raag Bhattiyar, taal roopak. The first painting depicted the cowherd sitting under the trees. Rama started by depicting the tree and its significance in the lives of the cowherds. The tree provides shelter from stormy winds, rain and the summer heat. It is a provider of leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, wood and fragrance.


Among the other interesting dance depictions of paintings was that of was ‘Virahini and Abhisarika’, Kangra, 1820-30. The music composition was a khayaal in raag Natmalhar, ek taal -‘Umar ghumar badariya chhayi, Shyam ki chhavi mere man aayi'. Rama’s abhinaya depicted the nayika sitting with her iktara, looking at the darkening clouds which are thundering like wild elephants, or like huge ocean waves. The peacocks are dancing and the birds singing. She leaves to look for Krishna in the dark night. Rama’s abhinaya was intense. The beats on the mridangam and tabla pounded out her urgency.


The next piece was based on a painting called ‘Dana Leela’, Mewar, 1780-90 and late Kangra, 1890. The music composition was a thumri in raag Pilu, taal kaharwa – ‘Kanhaiya tora kaala, main kaise byahun Radha’. The sakhi tells Krishna that he is dark-skinned, ‘so how can the beautiful Radha be married to him?’ Rama went on to describe Radha’s face being like the moon or like the lotus, her lips as red as the bimba phal. The sakhi is admonished not to call Krishna dark-skinned – he conquered the Kaliya nag, and is the beloved of all. She asserts he will stay a bachelor, if that be so! 'Kaara kaara mat kaho, hum ko laage pyara, vo to brij ka ujiyara, jeeta rahega Krishna kunwara,'  Rama’s abhinaya was very expressive.


In the next painting, ‘Leela Hawa’, Pahari Garhwal, 18th century and Kangra 1820, Radha was shown dressed as Krishna and Krishna as Radha. The music composition for Rama’s presentation of it was a dhrupad in raag Puriya Dhanashri, taal chautaal. Radha expresses her desire to exchange her clothes and ornaments with Krishna so that they can submerge their identities into each other’s. Rama’s depiction of the piece – she is sitting as Radha, removes her ornaments, earrings, bangles, necklace, and adorns herself with Krishna’s banmaal, ornaments and flute. Then, she dresses Krishna in her clothes and ornaments. The singing by Ranita De for the piece was very powerful, and the abhinaya by Rama was very sensuous, invoking the amorous mood of the piece.


And finally the last painting was ‘Raas Kreeda’, Kota, 17th century and ‘Krishna Maya’, late Kangra, 1800. The music composition was a tarana in raag Bhopali, taal addha. The painting depicted the maharaas, where on a moonlit night, Krishna dances with gopis in Vrindavan. All animate and inanimate objects – the deer, the fish in the river – all are stunned by the magic of the flute and raas kreeda. The surrender of the soul is complete and all becomes Krishnamayi. Rama’s dance was very energetic, covering the entire stage.


About the concept of the performance and blending the three forms of art, she said that no art form can exist in isolation. They are like the petals of a lotus that blossom together, and each petal is important. “I wanted to bring the characters of the miniature paintings alive on the stage in dance. And since these paintings are from North India, I chose Hindustani music,” she said.


For her performance, Rama was accompanied by Ranita De on vocals, Arun Kumar on mridangam, Shariq Mustafa on tabla, Suhail Yusuf Khan on sarangi and Rajat Prasanna on flute. Music was composed by Suhail Yusuf Khan and Rajat Prasanna. The script was narrated very beautifully by Rama’s daughter, Dakshina Vaidyanathan.  


Textiles in Odissi

If the previous day’s performance was ripe with emotion, the next day’s performance was outstanding for its creativity.  Sharmila Biswas merged Odissi with textiles in a very innovative manner on the 16th of January. She premiered her production, ‘Aparkaya’, at the festival.


Sharmila  is a senior disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. She is known to evolve new forms and expressions within the boundaries of Odissi dance and make contemporary statements through her work. She has to her credit many awards, notably the Akademi award for the year 2012 for her contribution to Odissi.


The textiles used in the performance were extensively researched by Sharmila; she went to tribal areas in Orissa to collect them, and used bomkai, kotpal, dongriya, kantha and mayurbhanj-santhal styles. Besides saris and odhnis, she used them in many other ways very creatively. She also used the traditional music styles of Orissa and old Odissi songs.


The stage setting was truly novel, with ropes hanging from a bamboo and a half-woven sari hung from a loom-like structure. The dancers began the performance as weavers behind the loom. Sharmila, meanwhile, depicted how the cloth is worn as turban, draped around the body, slept on, wiped the body dry with and other purposes. It protects from the heat in summer and the cold in winter. The weavers, while working on the looms, weave stories too, which they share and pass on to the coming generations. They sing the story of Sita and Vedvati. Vedvati was a pious and celibate woman. Ravana had defiled her. She is engulfed by the desire to take revenge on Ravana. She is born as Sita to destroy him, but Vedvati is rigid like the thread in the loom, whereas Sita is like the emerging cloth, soft yet resilient. Sita was represented by a twig in a brass pot with a red thread, and Vedvati by a black cloth worn by Sharmila. Rama was depicted by the bow, an umbrella with a flowing drape and a war standard in procession behind a sari.


Rama tries to dissuade Sita from accompanying him to the forest for the exile. But Sita insists on accompanying and serving him. The conversation was depicted in an abhinaya by Sharmila. Ravana comes and kidnaps Sita, and these events were highlighted by a skirt tied around a daphli, and held above the head of a dancer. The dancer spun the daphli around, making the skirt swirl and billow.


The capturing of Sita was shown by a cage-like structure made from coloured threads tied together. Rama comes to rescue Sita from Ravana, but Sita has to prove her purity before being accepted back. The words spoken by the narrator and enacted by Sharmila were very moving - ‘My insignificant body is not in my control. My mind I have given to you. If you exist, I too exist.’

Vedvati finds her liberation not in taking revenge on Ravana, but in her understanding of Sita and merging in her. Sharmila depicted this by discarding the black threads and wearing the red threads in her neck.


In the last sequence, the dancers gathered saris and hooked them to the pole on the stage, then draped them on themselves. The text for the story was taken from Valmiki Ramayana and Uttar Ramayana. Sharmila and her group of dancers showed some meticulous dancing, and the abhinaya was also expressive.


About the performance, Sharmila said that the concept of Aparkaya is similar to Parkaya, where one speaks through another’s body. “In my aparkaya, there are two parkayas. One is the textiles, through which I try to communicate, and the other is Vedvati, who is the spirit who tries to communicate through Sita. I have tried to use the tribal textiles of Orissa, which are uncommon, and traditional music which is fast disappearing.”


For this performance, the concept, choreography, script, set and prop designs were by Sharmila herself. Music was composed by Srijan Chatterjee and Dukhishyam Tripathi. The supporting dancers were Monami Nandy, Ankita Kulabhi, Rohini Banerjee and Trie Paul.

Pics: Anoop Arora