Exploring the one in many through dance





Honouring the theme of the production, the various performances over two days of Geeta Chandran’s Anekanta were replete with plurality, multiplicity and images and symbols of diversity. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of Natya Vriksha, the dance school run by Geeta. Anekantavada (the philosophy of many-sidedness) refers to multiplicity and pluralism in every truth as preached by Jaina philosophy. 2 and 5 already are opposites – 2 curves upward and 5 curves downward – and the number itself celebrates opposites that co-exist. The invite also looked like the pieces of a puzzle in varying colours and patterns, all uniting to create the image of Geeta’s face.

The stage background screen was in panels. The background, by artist Manish Kansara, had ladders starting from different directions and arriving at different destinations, a kind of a web of inter-connected ladders. To me it also looked like genetic code or DNA without the twirls. We humans share a genetic code and mere tweaks in that code result in all the diversity we have on the planet, something the set-up seemed to signify. The panels allowed entry and exit for the dancers and served to vary the lighting for each performance.


Sudhamahi Regunathan


The conceptual inputs were by renowned Jaina scholar Sudhamahi Regunathan (see previous piece). Music composition was by K Venkateshwaran and S Vasudevan, rhythmic inputs by K Sivakumar, with vocals by both the composers and Radhika Kathal. Karaikudi K Sivakumar, Lalgudi R Sriganesh, Geeta Chandran and Sharanya Chandran were on the nattuvangam, Lalgudi R Sriganesh on the mridangam, Eshwar Ramakrishnan and G Raghvendra Prasath on the violin and Raghunanda Ramakrishna on the flute. Costumes were by Sandhya Raman, stage design by Manish Kansara, lights by Sharad Kulshreshtha and makeup by Brij Mohan. Performing to the choreography by Geeta Chandran were Sneha Chakradhar, Sharanya Chandran, Divya Saluja, Anjana Seshadri, Pranita Choudhary, Amritha Sruthi Radhakrishnan, Radhika Kathal, Madhura Bhrushundi, Aakanksha Kumar, Shreya Dua, Kaveri Mehta, Aditi Balasubramanium and Soumya Narayanan.
Word and sense




The first piece on the first day, 3rd November, was on word and sense, symbolic of the idea that we cannot exist alone in the universe. We see ourselves in the context of all that surrounds us. A word is a word only if it has a meaning, and the sense or meaning exists because of the word. Together, since they are inter-dependent, they make a whole which is the foundation of language. In a shloka, Kalidasa says that just as word and sense are complimentary, so are the divine couple Parvati and Parmeshwara. The relationship between word, sense and meaning was explored through a nirgeet from the dhrupad tradition of North India. It explores soundlessness, sound, word and meaning. The nirgeet gets embellished with vowels of sound and the chant ‘jagat pitrou vande Parvati Parmeshwara’.




Geeta wore a red saree for this piece. She made an entry from behind the panels. She started the piece with slow rotational footwork, building the nritta, the red colour probably symbolizing Parvati and Shiva.


Lavanyatvam
The second piece was ‘lavanyatvam’, which, inadequately and roughly translated, means ‘beauty’. The bewildered sages, says a story, came to Bharata and asked him how to create rasa, and he replied that it is impossible to explore the entire range of dance, music and drama, for the arts are infinite. Anekanta says the same thing – that the truth is multi-dimensional, and no one can understand it in totality.




Opposites co-exist. There are innumerable sancharis and vyabhicharis, sthayis and bhavas. Geeta explored lavanyatvam through different bhavas or expressions, to a single libretto, the dasar libretto Krishna Nee Begane Baro, in three sthayis – vatsalyam, sringaram and bhakti. Geeta chose a blue saree for the piece, probably depicting the colour of Lord Krishna.




Her depiction of vatsalyam started with mother Yashoda playfully following the toddler Krishna and pleading with him to come to her. When she fails to restrain him, she shows annoyance, and sits down on the mathani to make butter. She holds the butter in her hand to entice the baby to come to her. Then she puts a black dot of kajal on him, a dithona, and cuddles him. It was a very emotively danced piece and as always, Geeta got into the character. And then it was a sudden switch to shringara. Radha is adorning her chamber with toran and scents and coyly wishing that Krishna come to her instantly. Krishna embraces her and kisses her – the emotions of a beloved, expressed with a lot of feeling. And lastly, the bhakta, who is doing puja with chandan and flowers, asks the Lord to come to her. She gets the saatvik bhava of romanch (goosebumps) at seeing him. A very captivating piece indeed, and the abhinaya rendered very emotively.


Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti




‘Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti’ – Anekanta finds resonance in the Hindu Sanatana. The Rigveda holds that there is one truth, but the wise see it in various ways. This canto becomes a voyage for the dancer to show her conviction that differences are superficial and the uniting truth has the deepest significance. The mantra has a lot of relevance in the present times, and should be put across. The ladders in the background may have different starting and finishing points, but they keep connecting. Geeta has delved into five metaphors that reiterate this belief – shared breath, rivers merging into a single ocean, a seed germinating into a sapling, only to become a seed again, sugarcane from different fields sharing the same sweetness, and the multiplicity of religions. Anek means many, and anta means end – this means that truth is all around us.




The flute for this piece was particularly melodious. The green saree for Geeta’s costume could be depicting the greenery of nature or prakriti. The air we share, the water was depicted as rivulets moving and merging into a river and then into an ocean. Clouds thunder, followed by lightning and rain. The droplets fall, and then make their way to the same water bodies through various rivulets and rivers. The seed, when nurtured, becomes a sapling and then a tree, which bears fruit, which again harbours the seed. A Hindu was depicted worshipping god through puja, making chandan and string with flowers. A Christian has a different custom of praying to the Holy Cross. A Muslim reads his namaz.



The abhinaya for the piece was very well portrayed by Geeta. The sugarcanes are cut from different fields, and yet the juice extracted yields the same sweetness. Again, the abhinaya connected with the audience – one could not look away. The entire performance had excellent nritta and abhinaya. Geeta would come to the centre of the stage and raise her hands, with a yellow spotlight on her, for the ‘Ekam Sat’ passage each time. The aura of the movement was an epiphanetic experience.  And finally, she showed the effort made to climb the different ladders to reach the same pinnacle.


Ravana



The Valmiki Ramayana has a different interpretation from Tulsidas’ Manas. According to one interpretation, Ravana had seated Sita in the Ashok Vatika in front of his kuldevi’s temple, and he would get so bewildered when he went to visit her that he could only bow his head and come away again. Here, the narrative explores the idiom in Anekanta that the sum of the parts can never be more than the whole. Ravana tries to view Sita, who is trying desperately to hide from his gaze. For him, it is such a humiliation that whatever part he tries to see, his eyes get transfixed to that part and cannot move further. That is when he thinks that if this is the impact of a single part, what would the whole be like?



Geeta wore a black saree for this piece, which was pleated in the front to look like a man’s angavastram. Geeta immediately took on the king’s arrogance as she depicted Ravana being welcomed with flowers and walking with a parasol over his head. He looks in the mirror like an utter narcissist. The arrogant, vain, uber masculine king was very well enacted by Geeta. He adorns himself with his crown and ornaments, chooses a dhoti and ties it, wears a tilak on his forehead. He tries on his shoes. It was a totally riveting act. As he moves into the vatika or the garden, he plucks a flower and tries to look at Sita, who is shying away from his gaze, and then his eyes get so transfixed on one part of her so that he can’t look at the others. He becomes pensive and humiliated, wants to pick her up like a bird of prey and fly away. And finally, he walks away, very despondent. The abhinaya was beyond words.


Tillana
And lastly, the tillana, the technical dance which shows that all movements have a symmetry, despite having complimentary opposite movements. If your hand extends to the right, then it should extend to the left to complete the movement as well. A very dynamic piece ending in a shloka – ‘aakasha patitam toyam yatha gachhati sagaram’ – as all the raindrops falling from the sky meet and ultimately end up in the ocean, all the prayers offered to all gods ultimately reach the one supreme power. Geeta was again back in her red saree and walked around the stage in celebration, while depicting the footsteps of various beliefs climbing the ladders to meet the supreme.




Commenting on the first day’s programme, Geeta explained, “Initially, we did not segregate group and solo, we just put all our ideas into one basket. The group needed more effort. For word and sense, I needed a piece that did not have words but could be used as a prelude, so I used the nirgeet, which had words that did not make sense. The movements were also sparse and slow, so that we have a progression from words that did not make sense to words that did. In the process of finding word and sense, we used the libretto ‘Krishna nee begane baro’. Here, we used the bhavas of vatsalya, shringara and bhakti. This piece is usually interpreted in the vatsalya between mother and child, so in the choreography to interpret it as shringara and bhakti was quite a challenge. Krishna as Gopal invokes vatsalya, as Radha Raman, shringara, and as Venkatachalapati, bhakti.

Next, we needed a piece which would directly talk about the concept of Anekanta. It is a Jaina concept, but we found the same resonance in Hinduism in the Rig Veda. We took the same line, ‘Ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti’, in different ragas. Five concepts have been associated with this, which have been discussed in discourses on Anekanta. We brought out these concepts and added some swaras to bring out the dance element. So it was one line of sahitya translated into dance. After that, it was the Ravana piece, which was given to me by Sudha. Literature has also explored Anekanta. I liked it for two reasons – a softer side of Ravana is shown, the fact that he’s a great rasik and a romantic at heart, and how poetry uses Anekanta. We built Ravana up as a character – his energy, getting ready to go meet Sita – musically, with sollu and with raga. I chose two more lines from the same context – ‘you’ve taken away my heart like garuda swoops down and takes a snake away’. That leads into a small thillana.”


On the first day, Geeta presented the solos as one dancer, exploring the one word and its contextual meanings, one libretto and its interpretations, one truth with various sayings, Ravana transfixed to one part of Sita’s whole, and the confluence of all rivers to one ocean.

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The performances on the next day, 4th November, saw a continuation of the same philosophy in a group choreography . (credits and dancers).


Alarippu




A tishra alarippu was used show multiplicity by casting it in three variations. One group of dancers would maintain its rhythm, moves, dance and pace, while the other group would maintain its own variation to the same beat. And they would unite at the sama or the first beat of the cycle. The costume was an earth-coloured lower and the dupatta starting from yellow and progressing into oranges and reds. The dancers used pauses and silences, bringing their hands together in a clap to show the counting for teen taal, and this was done in different ways by the different groups. It was a treat in rhythm, music, dance, coordination and schematic opposites. The footwork and energy of the dance was flawless.


Maaye



Vyakta, what is said, and avyakta, what is not said, is integral to anekanta. The supreme power is nirgun or without form, but for devotees, it takes a form – sagun. Maaya keeps its noose tightened on humankind. According to dwaitvad, God and man are separated by maya, which keeps man entrapped and away from God. The concept was elaborated upon by showing illusion, mirage and manipulation by unseen forces. The poet pleads for a release from maya’s grip. The choreography highlights the inner and outer conflicts, or dwanda. The dancers, in their depiction, show one dancer trapped within a group while the rest alternately turn and block her path. Dancers were being pulled; a mirage was created where a dancer sees something non-existent, breaking a web that is keeping her entangled, or trying to grasp something.




The final part of this piece was a masterstroke – a taller dancer behind a shorter dancer, as if a puppeteer holding the strings of a puppet. Every move of the hand of the puppeteer had a corresponding move by the puppet. There was some amazing choreography and coordination to be seen – kudos to the dancers and their guru. ‘Maaye twam yaahi’ was the canto or chant. The composition was by Muthuswamy Dikshitar.


Jatiswara




Anekanta is also about variations and opposites, which was explored in this group choreography by using rhythm and polarities. Beats and silences were used in a single phrase. This was followed by a ‘jati’ where the same sollus or bols can be chanted with different approaches and yet create a harmonious whole. The dancers used squats and stretches with slow athletic movements. The entire piece had dancers in opposite movements, and yet congregating into a whole.


Grihabheda




In Carnatic music and in Hindustani as well, there is the shifting of notes in a ragam so that you arrive at a different ragam. It is exploring Anekanta through music. In grihabheda, Sa is pushed to Ri, Ri becomes Sa. The aural anekanta was depicted by dancers rotating in different directions, doing different paces and steps, in linear and rotational formations. They did squats and walks, they did a very springy step lifting their leg and rotating it, and tapped their feet to create a rhythm with the ghungroos.




Navagunjara
The finale of the performance, which was beyond words, invoked the saatvik bhavas within you, giving you goosebumps, and, indeed, a reassurance that art is as limitless in its reach as the sun. It was performed to a song sung by Smt MS Subbalakshmi, a composition by Saint Annamacharya in praise of the divine force that says that it appears to its devotees in whatever form they want to pray to it. Vaishnavas see Vishnu, Shaivites see Shiva, and the Shaakt see Shakti. ‘Jaaki rahi bhavana jaisi, prabhu murati dekhi tin taisi’, as has been rightly said in the Manas.















The tale is from the Oriya Mahabharata of Saral Das, where Arjuna encounters a strange beast in the forest. It has the head of a rooster, the neck of a peacock, the back or hump of a bull, the waist of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. It has three legs – of an elephant, tiger and deer – and the fourth limb, a human one, is raised, holding a flower. At first, Arjuna is bewildered and afraid, and tries to hunt it down with his bow and arrow. But he suddenly realizes that it is a form of the Vishwaroopam of Lord Vishnu. The dance was done as a thillana.



The stage at Kamani is as grand as can be. The costume for the dancers was earth-coloured lowers, and again, the sarees were variously coloured. Geeta appeared on the stage depicting Lord Vishnu with the shankha chakra, and then, Lord Shiva with leg extension and stances, to depict the damru, and finally, as the goddess Shakti. Then she took on the act of Arjuna, moving on the stage looking for the beast, and then, the panels behind just lifted, revealing a massive image of Navagunjara. The sheer size and colours took away the audience’s breath. As the story goes, the thirsty Arjuna drinks from a pond and washes himself, and then he sees this animal. He pursues it with a bow and arrow. One dancer would come on the stage to depict each animal. The bols or the sollus were also according to the sounds of the respective animal.The portrayal by each dancer of the movements and attributes of each animal requires a special mention –rooster and peacock neck movements , the leaps of a lion , the attitude of a bull, elephants ears and trunk.

After the individual acts, they assembled in order to make the Navagunjara. All this time, Arjuna is trying to take the shot, but after realizing that it is Vishnu, he kneels down and finally bows down in obeisance, putting the bow and arrow away. It was an awe-inspiring performance by the entire group, holding the audience in thrall.

The artist, Manish Kansara, explaining how he came up with the background panels, said, “This is the first time I am working with Geeta Chandran. She wanted a background where something different is there. When you see it, one ladder it does not mean anything. But when you see them together, they are taking you to a different level and that is the whole truth. Now, one rung of a ladder is simply a stick. But when you see them together, they give you a totally different perspective. It’s a very dynamic set where dancers are coming and going at different levels, not just from the wings. So although it’s a flat background, it gives the effect of 3D. And you can play with the lights on the panels. The fabric is an imported fabric, which is fire-proof. The Navagunjara painting is from the original paintings from Odisha, and that has also been done on fire-proof fabric.”

On the group choreography, Geeta said, “For the group pieces, I needed more possibilities to work out choreography and movement. I wanted to explore the alarippu, a teaching tool, differently – three different varieties of rhythmic permutations were being recited at the same time without it clashing. After that, it was a very traditional composition called Maaye – saakara, nirakara, vyakta, avyakta – so we used the concept of blocking, because maya makes you dance to her tunes. We also used some extra movement and lot of sollus. Blocking, being controlled by a puppet – an old traditional piece was reinterpreted in a contemporary context. Next, the same jati was used very differently, but at the same time with no clashing, despite there being a different arithmetic between mridangam and dancer. I also wanted to explore Anekanta through music. For many years, I’d listened to MN Vasanthakumari, who was my favourite musician for a long time in Carnatic. Suddenly, she would take a different scale which would give a different complexion to the whole piece, and then come back to the original scale. A musician explained it to me, and I’d really liked that, it had stayed with me. It took a long time to complete that piece musically, and choreography was even harder, but audio-wise it was very powerful – how to change various parameters in dance, change everything in dance and see how Anekanta can be resonated through that. As for Navagunjara, I’d read about that in the Speaking Tree. When I spoke to Sudha, she said it fits, it was very beautiful and had lots of drama as well. The original Oriya text wasn’t ‘singable’, so we thought we’d do it through rhythm and have a leather puppet in the background, but it was becoming very difficult, but this background also worked. We used rhythm for each of the animals and then the coming together – it was self-explanatory. Then we found this composition of Annamacharya, which articulated exactly the concept, which we began Navagunjara with. The thillana served as a happy ending.”

Did she ever need to consider anything besides the Bharatnatyam margam to articulate the concept or execute her ideas for the dance? “Never. There is so much strength, range and variety in the style that I never felt the need to do anything else. Everything was steeped in tradition – contemporised intellectually, but not in adavus or grammar,” she asserted.

That second day, it was 14 dancers on one theme – one rhythm with many beats, pace, steps, one tala with many beats, one sollu with many approaches, one note with many melodies, one creature made up of multiple animals. That is Vishwaroopam – multiple realities and approaches can co-exist and need to be cherished and celebrated. 


Pics: Anoop Arora

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