The devi, and her abode, depicted in dance

Devi Kshetra was organized by Usha RK at the Meghdoot theatre II at the Sangeet Natak Akademi, in collaboration with the Akademi, when the weather in Delhi could still qualify as spring and the weather was perfect for enjoying such a performance outdoors. The venue is an open air stage with a tree in the centre. The tree is very old, with a massive trunk, around which the red sacred thread was tied as a mark of it being worshipped. It was dusk, with squirrels running up and down the tree branches, and dried leaves falling to the ground. The background had a very rustic, colourful fence painted on the wall. I just wish the organisers had done something about the mosquitoes as well!


Shakti appears in various forms all over India. This production, as the name ‘Devi Kshetra’ suggests, is about two forms of the devi – Meenakshi from Madurai and Arasuri Ambaji from Gujarat. Madurai and Meenakshi ma were essayed by Arupa Lahiry in Bharatnatyam. She is a disciple of Chitra Visweswaran. Ambaji was performed by Vidha Lal in Kathak – she is a Sangeet Natak awardee and a disciple of Guru Geetanjali Lal. Usha began the performance with her compering, which is always very informative. She recited the Meenakshi stotram, which was followed by a recitation by Sreenivas, who is an IT professional and the son of the priest at the Shringeri Mutt in Delhi, of the Pancharatnam Stotra in the traditional style. It gave the ambience of a temple, where there is constant chanting of mantras. So if you visualize yourself as a bhakt, your journey begins as you hear the chants from afar, as you approach.

Arupa Lahiry

The temple of Meenakshi Amman is located in the city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The temple houses Parvati and Shiva as Sundareshwar. It finds mention in ancient Tamil literature – Vishwanatha Nayak rebuilt the temple in 1623 and 1655 CE, according to the Shilpa Shastra. The temple is in the heart of the city. The city was laid out in the shape of a square, with a series of concentric streets ending in the temple. The streets radiate out like a lotus with petals. The temple houses 14 gopurams or gateway towers, ranging from 45 to 50m in height. The tallest is the southern tower, which is 51.9m high. There are two golden sculpted vimanas over the garbha grihas of the two deities. Each gopuram is a multi-storeyed structure covered with thousands of stone figures of animals, gods and demons painted in bright hues. The outer gopuram is steep and pyramidal, encrusted with plaster figures. The inner gopuram serves as the entrance to the inner enclosure. The corridors surrounding the sanctum are called kilikoondu mandapam or the birdcage corridor. The space was used to house the green parrots that were trained to utter the name of the goddess. The city of Madurai is a mythical city, which is surrounded by a divine snake, which has its own tail in its mouth. Another myth says that the city is formed by a drop of snake venom, which fell from the matted locks of Shiva and was cooled by the moon. As Ushaji said, such a performance is a challenge to conceptualise and also to perform.

Arupa took the stage with a pushpanjali in Gambheera Nattai ragam, aditalam in tisra nadai and a kavuttuam in ragam Kalyani, aditalam. The music composition was by Sudha Raghuraman. Arupa made an impression with her appearance, with an aesthetically done costume in green and orange, since the goddess wears green. The pushpanjali was innovatively done, and after that Arupa touched the dust on the floor to her head, because this dust has been trampled on by the lord himself, and his devotees.

The kavuttuam started with very melodious flute by Rajat Prasanna. The land is always the mother, it said – ‘janani dhanya twam’. The architecture was depicted very skillfully in dance, with the gopurams and passages and paths being shown. The snake with its tail in its mouth was depicted as the city, Shiva as Sundareshwar is shown with the Ganga in his locks, the chandra on his forehead, his matted locks or jata, the rays emanating from the moon and finally, the Bhagwati in her garbha griha, holding her green parrot. The nritta portion had some excellent footwork, and the expressions and stances of the devi were executed flawlessly. It was a very complete piece in all aspects. This piece describes the bhakta’s first glimpse of the temple.

The next piece was an alarippu in Mishra chapu talam, and the verses in the background were sung in Revathi ragam. The bhakt, who has journeyed to the temple, is wonderstruck by the temple itself. He sees the winding roads thronged by people, the gopurams, the high flagpost with the fluttering flag, the valipeetham, where the bhakt makes his offering of flowers, Nandi, the steed of the lord, protecting the sanctum, the grand hall with 1000 pillars – the mahamandapam, the glittering golden globe over the garbha griha, the doors finally opening and the first glimpse of the deity. He is overawed and calls out to her in his exhilaration.

Depicting the piece, Arupa enters as the bhakt, carrying a pot of water. He is wonderstruck at the first glimpse. He sees the rope being tied for the flag which is fluttering, and the gopurams. And then he is struck by the view of the golden globes. Nandi is sitting in the entrance to the sanctum santrorum, and as he draws the curtain and opens the door, he gets a glimpse of the goddess holding the green parrot. The entire piece had flawless nritta and expressions and a stunningly beautiful stance for the devi.

The next piece was the Meenakshi Pancharatnam, which is a composition by Adishankaracharya in raag Mallika with music composition by Sudha Raghuraman. It has lyrics which describe the beauty of the goddess. In her description, Ushaji said the goddess shines ‘like a thousand million rising suns, and is adorned with bracelets and garlands. Her lips are like the beautiful red fruits of bimba, she has beautiful rows of teeth, and she is adorned with golden garments. Her lotus feet are soft, and Vishnu, Barhma and Indradev serve at them. She is the embodiment of the essence of existence and is always auspicious. Her crown is adorned with shining garlands of pearls, her face shines like a full moon, her feet are adorned with anklets with bells and gems, she radiates the splendour of the lotus, grants all wishes, is the daughter of the mountain, accompanied by devis Saraswati and Rama, the left half of Shiva. Her form shines with the hrimkara mantra, she resides in the centre of Shrichakra as the bindu, she presides over the assembly of devas, is the mother of Kartikeya and Ganesha. A great enchantress, she has a dark splendour and is worshipped by Brahmadeva. She is the sister of Shri Narayana, she takes pleasure in musical instruments and takes many forms. Her feet are adorned with flowers, she is the embodiment of nada brahma, she is beyond all existence and pervades everything as the essence. I bow to her as an ocean of compassion.’

Arupa started by depicting the devi frolicking with the parrot, ‘uday bhanu sam koti kiran’ (shines like a thousand million rising suns), and who has lips like bimba phal, eyes like the fish, which give out karuna. The mukut shines like a full moon, and the anklets on her feet are like the bees on a lotus. ‘Shivavambhagnilayam’ – here, Arupa depicted the purush and parvati form; Shiva with bagambar, wearing snakes, and holding the damru, and Parvati as the feminine form, adorned with ornaments. She did a squat to show the goddess in all her splendour, a scene which transcends the earthly. The abhinaya part had its own strengths, like expressions and creating moments of mesmerizing postures, and the nritta part had very powerful footwork, sometimes with alternating rhythm. Arupa is a complete package of a dancer.

As a continuation of this piece, Arupa also depicted the story of Sundareshwar as she interpreted it. “I described the scene where she meets Sundareshwar - it was the story of her birth. She was born of fire, and then she fought - she was trained as a warrior, she went to fight in eight directions. The story goes that she was on earth and she vanquished everybody, then she went to the devaloka and she vanquished everybody, and then when she reached Kailasha, she even vanquished Nandi. But then after that she saw Shiva and she was stopped in her tracks. She was born with an abnormality – she had three breasts. That’s what I showed. Her father said she’s beautiful, she’s ayoni, she’s born out of the fire, but she has this abnormality. But then a daiva-vani happened that when she meets her future husband, she will become feminine, she will become the nayika. She’s the first warrior princess of the world, but then she realizes and falls in love and becomes the nayika. I did not want to take too much time, but I would have loved to go into the explanation that she is the only form of the goddess with the masculine and the feminine both in her body. She is the ardhanarishwara in that way, if you see, she was the heroic brave warrior, and the divine feminine as well,” Arupa explained.

The performance ended with a traditional unjal song, which is about the ritual of the Madurai temple, when after the marriage or the kalyanam of the divine couple, they sit on a swing. It is the last ritual of the day. Shiva arrives for the kalyanam on his Nandi, and after their marriage, they become ishwar and nari – Meenakshi-Sundareshwar. She holds the lotus and he is in his Nataraja stance. They both swing together to make their bond stronger, and the sakhis keep looking as the door closes, till they get the last glimpse of the divine couple. Again, a beautifully rendered piece.

The lyrics of the unjal song were by Arjun Bharadawaj, the music composition by Sudha Raghuram and K Satish Venkatesh, and rhythmic inputs by TA Mahadevan. The pushpanjali and jathi were choreographed by Chitra Visweswaran, and the rest of the pieces by Arupa herself. The orchestra had Dr Vasudevan Iyengar on nattuvangam, K Satish Venkatesh on vocals, TA Mahadevan on mridangam and Rajat Prasanna on the flute.


Arasuri Ambaji - Kathak dancer Vidha Lal

Vidha Lal

Ambaji is a town in north Gujarat surrounded by the Aravali hill range, also known as the Mewat hills. Millions of devotees visit the temple every year. It is one of the 51 shaktipeethas in the holy temple of Arasuri Ambaji, and there is no image or statue of the goddess. It is only the holy Shrivisa yantra which is worshipped here. The original seat of Ambaji mata is on the Gabbar hilltop in the town. on the purnima, where a large mela is held. After Sati immolated herself in the havankund of her father, Daksha, Shiva carried her corpse and various parts fell in different places. The heart fell here, and the shrine is revered by the Shakti sect of Hinduism. Each Shaktipeeth has a kalbhairav shrine associated with it, which is the Batuk Bhairav here.

The first composition was Ambe Jagdambe. The soul of this composition is the beej mantra ‘Om aem hrim krim chamundaye vicchaye’. The dancer offers her devotion to goddess Amba and depicts her various names as Shankari, Vaishnavi, Saraswati and finally, she offers a flag to the goddess. Vidha has a very powerful stage presence. She was dressed in a white lehenga with an orange odhni, taking the stance of Amba with one hand behind her head as the chakra.

The red colour on her hands shone in the light. She portrayed Durga as holding a trishul, wearing a garland of skulls, as Saraswati with the veena, as Mahalakshmi, as Mahakali with fearsome anger radiating from her eyes, as Bhairavi, and then as Amba riding on a lion, as Parvati, as Shive, ending again with the stance for Amba. Besides the nritya, she had a part for teen paer ke chakkar, which she is quite adept at.

Following that was a pure dance piece in the technical aspects of Jaipur gharana in teen taal. It had baant, footwork with twisting feet, paran, a bandish, a paran on Maa Durga, depicting the mukut, sher, trishul, a tihai, a chakkar wala tukda and ghunghat ki gat.

The third piece, Arasurwali Ambe Maa, depicts the journey of a devotee atop the hill going to the temple. The Navratri festival in Gujarat is very colourful, with lamps, pots, garba, colourful dresses and aartis. Vidha wore a red bandhni odhni for it. As the devotee climbs up the hill, he sees thirsty and tired people and helps them. He carries children on his shoulders. The sick are cured by the grace of Maa, and the procession proceeds for a darshan of Ambe. They strike the ghanta as they enter. She ended with chakkars that could make one quite dizzy. The movements for garba were very graceful, with a touch of Gujarati folk, and the abhinaya very natural and heart-warming.

The accompanying artists were - Guru Geetanjali Lal (padhant), Yogesh Gangani on the tabla, Mahavir Gangani on the pakhawaj, Santosh Kumar Sinha on vocals and harmonium, Salim Kumar on the sitar and Maneshwar Parihar for the special effects.

Pics: Anoop Arora


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