Reflections on canvas reflected in Kathak

Aditi Mangaldas (Pic: Anoop Arora)

This event was one I could not have skipped, since it was the confluence of two art forms. Kathak exponent and choreographer Aditi Mangaldas performed at the opening of an exhibition of the paintings of Bireswar Sen (1897-1974) at the beautiful National Gallery of Modern Art.

Bireswar Sen is one of the most prominent miniature painters of modern India. He was trained under the tutelage of Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose in the Bengal School. He greatly admired and was influenced by the legendary Nicholas Roerich, who was also a friend. His miniatures have been painted mostly on paper and are the size of small cards. Nevertheless, there is a sublime beauty in his wide natural panoramas and distant mountains, which engulf man and dwarf his existence. When one sees these small paintings, where what has been painted was not small but larger than life (some even had a looking glass placed in front of them), one wonders how anyone can condense so much into a small canvas. And what emotions do they reflect?

Aditi Mangaldas has been trained in Kathak under Kumudini Lakhia and Pt Birju Maharaj. She is not only a dancer par excellence but also a guru, a choreographer, and has many productions to her credit. The event was called ‘Reflections: Man and nature in the paintings of Bireswar Sen’, and ‘Seeking the beloved’ was the title of her  performance. The beloved is sought by the lover throughout their life. Finding the beloved requires transcending the realms of the known, going beyond perception, and finding something that lies deep within our hearts. For this piece, Aditi, wore a blue-black costume. The composition of Meerabai was ‘Ramaiya main toh tore rang raati’. ‘Chakit bhaye mere drig do, lakhi shobha tan ki, shobha ang pratibhushan, vanamala nata ki,’ said the lyrics. In this composition, Meerabai, while describing the beauty of Krishna, and saying that she is mesmerized by him, that she has been painted entirely in his hues. In this particular piece, one could see Aditi’s excellence in traditional Kathak — she performed fast-paced nritta with leaps covering the stage, footwork, and chakkars. She used many technical aspects of Kathak like paran, gat, baanth etc. The abhinaya depicted the dalliance of Krishna and Radha. They kiss and embrace, and then Krishna hides, leaving her looking for him. The recitation of poetry from Uncharted Seas (a previous production), with Aditi sitting in the centre of the stage and the light focusing on her face, went ‘Is it a man, is it a woman, is it truth, love, beauty that one seeks, or is it some higher energy?’ This was followed by chakkars and footwork. And lastly, again the recitation and the abhinaya, where the nayika looks at her reflection and sees her beloved within herself. ‘I seek the beloved on uncharted seas. Is it the search revealed, like dewdrops falling upon a leaf? Is it a storm unleashed outside of me, or is it within?’ A storm is unleashed outside, within... freedom. ‘Ramit bhayi sanware ke sang, log kahen bhataki’ — people say I am lost, but I have lost myself in the beloved. The dance and its concept evoked a great freedom of spirit, where all boundaries dissolve in the union, something that is also reflected in the paintings. The beloved cannot be given a name, and yet He is larger than life for the seeker.

The second piece was by Sant Kabir, ‘Jhini re jhini chadariya’. Life is like a thin, flimsy sheet. It is drenched in You and Your name, says the poetry. Aditi, as always, had a slight costume tweak in blue and green, sitting in the centre of the stage, the light focused on her. There was absolute silence, no music, and a starkness about the scene. And then she starts rubbing her fingers gently, as if feeling something, gradually starting the sound from the slight movement of her ghungroo. Depicting the sheet of life, which is so fragile, the theme was further depicted by showing the life of a lotus, which blooms during the day, and withers and falls in the night. A chick emerges from an egg and is fed by beak by its parent, very painstakingly portrayed by Aditi. It tries to fly, and finally meets it end one day. A child is born, the mother looks after it, and puts it to sleep in a palna. It grows into an adult and finally grows old and dies. This is true of all that lives, be it the peacock, the lion or the deer. The final destination is the same. Everything turns to ashes. But the bhakt, as Das Kabir says, does not besmirch this sheet and gives it back to its owner as it was received – ‘jyun ki tyun dhar dini’. The composition, beautifully worded, and the dance, which was so sensitively done, the music, the singing, all compounded the sense that life is fragile, impermanent, ephemeral, and man should make an effort to hold it sacred and return it to the creator without staining it. In the paintings too, you see a landscape that is very large and diminutive humans, which points to the vastness of the earth and our own insignificance.

Speaking to me later, Aditi said, “I am in no way equipped with the ability to depict the paintings. I do not know the work very well except for what I have read and observed in the brochures. The feeling that I got while viewing the work was quietude, meditation, contemplation, quest, solitude, fragility and beauty. And with these words, I have tried to find resonance among some of my older works. With just one month to prepare, I could not have done justice to a new production. So I’m not interpreting the work at any level, and what I am dancing today is from my older pieces. You could call this performance Simultaneous Reflections.”

The Meerabai piece was in raag Bageshwari, and the Kabir composition in raag Jog. About the second piece, Aditi explained, “I wanted it to be fragile, quiet and sparse, like the breath, being so silent, life being so tenuous. After the first piece, one had to do something quieter. So I put in a bit of tabla, taal and flute, but no dynamism as compared to the first piece.”

Besides the choreography and concept, the costumes were also by Aditi. Vocal composition for the Meera piece, featuring extracts from Uncharted Seas, was by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. Music composition for the Kabir piece was by the Drishtikon repertory. The musicians were: Mohit Gangani on the tabla, Faraz Ahmed on vocals and harmonium, Ashish Gangani on the pakhawaj and Rohit Prasanna on the flute. The Drishtikon production had Govind Singh Yadav on the lights, Gulshan Batra handling sound, and Kusum Arora and Paushali Priya Datta handling administration and coordination, respectively.there was an interlude of pakhawaj and tabla showing the proficiency of the two musicians.

Pics: Anoop Arora