Great gurus dance with their shishyas in a rare dance treat

Like they do every year, Ranjana Gauhar’s dance academy organized the annual Saare Jahan Se Achha festival at the IHC in Delhi on the 17th and 18th of August. Ranjanaji gives a platform to many dancers and dances from all over India, and this year, it was seasoned gurus and their shishyas performing together. The theme afforded dance lovers in Delhi the rare pleasure of watching veteran Bharatanatyam guru Saroja Vaidyanathan perform.
Ileana Citaristi (Pic: Anoop Arora)
On the second day, which I attended, the first performer was Odissi exponent Ileana Citaristi. The Italian-born Ileana is a student of the legendary Kelucharan Mohapatra, has been living in India since 1979 and has been awarded the Padma Shri, one of several awards and honours. She has worked for films, besides having authored books. The first piece, performed by Ileana, was ‘Laja re sori golli’. The composition describes a romantic interlude between Krishna and Radha, with Radha narrating how Krishna’s words had swept her off her feet and he had taken her in his embrace, making her sit on his lap. ‘He held my hand while I was picking flowers in a kunj,’ the nayika says. The shy and coy Radha, enacted by Elena, was portrayed through very delicate abhinaya in a slow and lyrical manner.
Pic: Anoop Arora

Pic: Anoop Arora

The second piece was ‘Partha Sarathi’. Accompanying Elena for this one was her disciple Saswat Joshi. The composition was about Geeta Upadesh, and began with the shankha dhwani. Elena assumed the role of Krishna as the charioteer, while Saswat, as Arjuna, took his stance on the chariot. Upon seeing his elders in the battlefield, Arjuna is demoralized and his gandiva (bow) falls from his hands. But Krishna says, yuddh nishchit hai (war is certain) -- ‘Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati Bharata…’ And then Krishna shows him his vishwaroopam. Arjuna derives power and determination from the darshan, picks up his bow and arrow, and heads towards the battlefield. A very neatly done piece with footwork and stances, and very articulate abhinaya; excellent lighting helped to enhance the effect.
Vyjayanthi and Prateeksha Kashi (Pic: Anoop Arora)
Famous Kuchipudi duo Vyjayanthi and Prateeksha Kashi were the second pair to take the stage. Vyjayanthiji is a reputed Kuchipudi dancer, a celebrated performer and choreographer, and the artistic director of the Shambhavi School of Dance. She is also the former chairperson of the Karnataka Sangeeta Nritya Akademi, a recipient of the central Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar, a top-ranking artist of Doordarshan and a research fellow of the government of India in Kuchipudi. Prateeksha is an empanelled artist of the ICCR and has toured various countries. Sh has been honoured with the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar and the, Nalanda Nritya Nipuna, among others. And reflecting a heartening tradition, Prateeksha is not only Vyjayanthiji’s disciple but also her daughter, trained to carry their craft forward. Their first piece was based on Krishna Leela Tarangini and was in raag Mallika, taal Mallika. The tale is that bhakt Prahlad’s father Hiranyakashyap tortured him, since the young one believed in God. He picks up his gada to break a pillar to prove that God does not exist everywhere. It is then that Lord Narasimha appears and kills him, holding him on his thighs and opening him up with his claws. Vyjayanthi Kashi danced as both the cruel father Hiranyakashyap and Lord Narasimha, whereas Prateeksha looked every bit the part of innocent Prahlad. The performance began with a vandana to Lord Narasimha and an aarti. Vyjayanthi Kashi as Lord Narasimha brought great, awe-inspiring ferocity to the portrayal as Prateeksha, dancing as Prahlad, chants ‘Hari Hari’. It was a surreal sequence when Vyjayanthi Kashi holds the demon on her thighs and tears him apart, licking the remains off her claws in her anger. The repulsive sight scares little Prahlad, who then starts praying to Lord Narasimha to end his anger. The little boy sings the Lord’s praises – ‘triguna parateet, my eyes are always longing for your darshan. The anger of the Lord diminishes at the sight of his little bhakt. The mother-daughter duo have mastered the art of storytelling in dance. Their portrayal of roles and their abhinaya is very impressive, and the interspersed nritta sequences are no less accomplished, displaying their mastery of the technique.
Pic: Anoop Arora
Their second piece was ‘Pahi Pahi Jaganmohan Krishna’ in raag Amritvarshini, aditalam, narrating incidents from the leelas of Lord Krishna. He is the Lord Jagannath, chaturbhuji, with shankha chakra gada padam. He plays his flute, wears the pitambar, is the son of Vasudev and Devaki, described as divya, sundar, nanda yashoda nandan, induvadan, with kundal on his ears. This piece was followed by the ukhal leela, where Kanha has had mud to eat and Yashoda scolds him, forcing him to open his mouth. She sees the entire brahmand or universe in it. Yashoda is dumbfounded, almost fainting. Krishna entices her back with his smile, madhursmit, in manjul vesh, with nupur in his feet. The Kaliyadaman was portrayed with a lot of energy. Krishna, while playing with a ball, jumps into the Yamuna to vanquish the demon Kaliya. He dances on his head like a nat, holding the serpent’s tail in his hand.
Prateeksha Kashi (Pic: Anoop Arora)
Prateeksha portrayed little Krishna dancing the tandav on Kaliya nag’s head with a lot of agility, performing impressive leaps and leg lifts. The technique was never compromised, and the music, with echomimetic ‘dhak-dhuk’ bol, was rhythmic to the point of being hypnotic. The mother’s viraha of separation from her Krishna was writ large on Vyjayanthi Kashi’s face. She and Prateeksha both are, individually, skilled in nritta and abhinaya - their footwork and hastas are perfectly done - but when they complement each other, their postures and stances become impeccable. And their abhinaya in storytelling is so consummate that it can transport you to whichever story and setting they choose. They deftly blend into their roles - their performance is truly an experience not to be missed.
Prateeksha Kashi (Pic: Anoop Arora)
When I spoke to her later, Vyjayanthiji said, “For me, since I do Kuchipudi, Bhagavatam is everything. And each time I think, how many dancers have explored Krishna, Vishnu, and no wonder, He has so many leelas and stories that every time I explore Him... Like Narasimha. It's very nice to know that whenever you want something, you pray. If you deserve it, you get it. Otherwise God knows... Like Hiranyakshyap, he asked for so many things - nobody should kill me, at neither dawn nor dusk, neither indoors nor outside, neither in the night nor in the day. But always, Hari found a way out, and each time He prevails. I think that by taking up such beautiful subjects, we evolve, and at the same time, we are spreading this message. And I felt that... he was so krura, he looked so ferocious as Narasimha, but a child’s chant made him change his form back to Vishnu to cuddle him, which I feel is very nice, again. Which means that when you let go of all your negatives - the six arishadvargas - Bhagwanta is always ready to embrace and hug you. And of course, being a mother, when she says she saw the universe in Krishna’s mouth, I think for every mother, the child shows the world in the mouth. By then she lets go of her anger, her ego, her everything, and you see that world is your child. That, again, touched my heart. So I think things that can touch my heart and which have a message - that Hari is everything (are subjects I can get involved in).”
Uma Dogra (Pic: Anoop Arora)
The next performer was Kathak exponent Uma Dogra. Umaji belongs to the Jaipur gharana and is a disciple of the legendary Durga Lal. She has been trained in Hindustani classical music as well, and was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, among many others honours. She has also been honoured with the title of Pandita. The composition was a thumri by Dharamveer Bharti, ‘Dagar mein kaise chaloon’. As the gopi goes to fetch water from the Yamuna, Kanhaiya grabs her arm, and this is followed by chhed-chhad and banter between the two as he prevents her from leaving. The lyrics of the poem say that as Radha bathes in the Yamuna, the water touching her is ‘Kanu’ or Kanhaiya, embracing her with his arms, ending with ‘Charanon mein sheesh rakh doon Kanu’. As the pieces were very fine and beautiful, so was the abhinaya by Umaji, bringing out the nuances of the piece. There were no superfluous hastas or footwork.
(Pic: Anoop Arora)
The second composition was a thumri composed by Umaji herself, ‘Varsha ritu’. This piece she performed with her disciples, the verses describing the beauty of  the season. The overcast skies are ghanghor with thunder, rain, nirajhar jharnein, the weather is pleasing, manabhavan, and the birds and peacocks enjoy the dance of the season. The abhinaya was rendered with great delicacy and precision. The hands and footwork, pace, accuracy, all were executed well. The peacock dance was a sight to behold.
Saroja Vaidyanathan (Pic: Anoop Arora)

The last performer for the evening was Bharatanatyam guru Saroja Vaidyanathan. She is a legend, and has transmitted her skill to her talented daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Sarojaji has been trained under guru Kuttumannar Muthukumaram pillai of Thanjavur. She has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Shri, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and many others. This guru of many shishyas has recently turned 80, but her fitness and form belie her age - her agility is intact and she looks absolutely full of energy. She performed to a composition by Tulsidas, ‘Bhajaman Ram charan sukhadayi’, as a solo, enacting articulately incidents from the Ramayana, Bharat milap, Ahilya uddhar etc. It truly was a treat to watch, and the guru’s skill left everyone awed. The second piece was performed by a group of her disciples, and it was a nritta piece. It was well-rehearsed and coordinated piece that presented the five elements in nature. It used the rhythmic cycles of 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9 beats. The percussion and music were noteworthy as well. About this piece, Sarojaji later explained that she used one tala and one raga to show each element. Within that, she included not only the mridangam, but also the chende, maddalam, tabla and other instruments. Along with that, she used swaras for the different elements as well.
Pic: Anoop Arora