Geeta Chandran, Ratikant Mohapatra: Sangeet Natak Akademi awardees perform in rare treat for dance lovers

In a feast for arts audiences, the Sangeet Natak Akademi awardees performed at the Meghdoot Theatre in Delhi from the 18th to the 21st of January. Odissi exponent Ratikant Mohapatra performed on the evening of January 19. Ratikant is the son of the legendary Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, and an Odissi guru, choreographer and archivist par exellence himself.

The first piece was Ardhanarishwara, a composition of Adishankaracharya, a group performance by his disciples. The composition is about Shiva and Shakti, Shakti being the left half and Shiva the right. The composition is in raga Mallika, tala Mallika. Ratikant Mohapatra and his disciples have excelled many times in group performances, presenting amazing renditions which are faultlessly choreographed, rehearsed with immaculate technique in Odissi with formations and stances.

Here, Shiva and Shakti are juxtaposed, half-male, half-female. The text says that her body shines like gold, his body shines like the burning camphor – karpoorgauram. She has well-made hair, he with matted locks – jatadharaye. Her body is smeared with kumkum, his is smeared with ashes. She has golden kangan and nupur or anklets, and he has snakes as his anklets. Her eyes are like blue lotuses, his like open lotuses. She has two eyes, he has three, her mala is made of flowers, and his of skulls. She wears divambaraye, and he, digambaraye. Her dance is that of creation or lasya, and his of samhara or tandava.

They represent the mother and the father of all creation. Her ornaments are gems, and his, serpents. There were altogether eight dancers on the stage, and the composition required them to do very graceful nritta moves on one hand, with footwork and chauka, and on the other hand, depicting the entire sequence of the composition through formations and stances, bringing out the essence of Shiva and Shakti. The most amazing are the sliding movements they perform on stage in synchronization.

The next piece was an abhinaya piece by Ratikant Mohapatra himself, on Shabari. Shabari is one of the greatest bhaktas of Lord Rama. She served the munis in the forests and they, in turn, gave her the boon that Lord Rama would visit her when he comes to the forest. When the day finally comes, she is so bewildered that she does not know what to do. She makes him sit, washes his feet, giving him fruits from the forest to eat. She tastes them first, throws the tart ones away, and gives him half-eaten sweet ones to eat, which he fondly has.

The piece began with a stuti of Rama –shantakaram, peetambaram, paanibansarasam, rajeevlochanam. Ratikant shows Shabari all bent and old. She sees Rama coming towards her kutia as she cleans the path. She falls to his feet and touches his feet to her head, washes his feet as tears flow down her eyes, and has the charnodak. She cleans an asana for him. ‘Paani jodi agay thaadi’ — as she stands there with hands folded, her devotion increases several times. She laments that she is from a lower caste, bhakti-viheen as a cloud without water. She collects flowers and offers them on his feet, and of the berries that she has collected from the forest, she throws away the sour ones and offers the sweet ones to him.

Ratikant narrated the entire tale through pure abhinaya, just gesturing with eyes and expressions, which gave him that edge of being an excellent dancer. Each expression was enacted so well, in fact, that he himself and the audience were on the verge of tears.

Padma Shri Geeta Chandran, the famous Bharatnatyam guru and choreographer, has been awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for the year 2017 in Bharatnatyam. Geetaji’s career spans more than 40 years. She has been learning since childhood and has earned many accolades for her excellence. She has been awarded the Padma Shri and now the Sangeet Natak Akademi award.
The first piece she performed was the Shiv Panchakshara Stotram. The stotram elaborates on the attributes of Lord Shiva. A composition of Adishankaracharya, the stotram has five syllables, na ma shi va ya. Na is the nakaraye or the feet, ma is the makaraye or the nabhi, shi is the shoulders, va is the face and ya is the jata or the locks. Lord Shiva has Ganga in his locks, the half moon on his head, and his hands in the dancing posture, the upper ones holding damru and agni. The nritta depicted all these attributes. The stotram describes him as Nagendraharaye, or he with snakes around his neck, trilochanaye, with the third eye, bhasmangaragaye, with bhasma on his body, ‘maheshwaraye, digambaraye, tasmai nakaraye namaha’. Mandakini salil chandan charchitaye, nandishwar – Nandi is his steed and  pushpa puji. Jatadharaye – with matted locks, pinakahastaye – with the pinaka as his weapon, sanatanaye, divyaye, devaye, digambaraye – he is present in all the five directions. The piece was excellently executed by Geetaji. Her abhinaya conveyed all the attributes of Shiva, capturing the anger as well as the beauty of the lord.

The second piece was titled Shringaravaibhavam, a celebration of shringara, more so since the programme was happening in the spring. The piece opened with a canto from Damodara Gupta’s Kuttinimuttam, which is an invocation of Manmatha or Cupid. Dr Chandra Rajan transcreated the poetry as Kama, desire, the roving honeybee, kisses Rati’s thousand-petalled lotus mouth. He rules in the passionate glances of young women, so homage to him. This was followed by verses from the Ritusamhara – ‘sprays of full-blown mango blossoms his sharp arrows…’ ‘Ratimukh chumban’ — the dalliance between Rati and Manmatha was depicted. The birds, the bees, all enhance the environment of love. He strikes an arrow, ‘tikshna sayakam’. The lotuses are blooming, the air is scented, vasant yodha has arrived. A slow lyrical piece which was rendered with abhinaya, gestures and expressions, which Geetaji is known for.

The next piece was my favourite and left an impression. It was a traditional padam, Mogaduchi, which she had learnt from her teacher, Guru Swarna Saraswati, in the Thanjavur dasi parampara. Her guru had received the same award 50 years ago, so it was special to Geeta too on this special occasion. The padam is about a social practice prevalent in India for many years, when young girls were married off but remained in their parents’ house till puberty. Then, after a ritual, she was sent with her wedded husband. One such girl, married in childhood, remained with her parents in Vrindavan. Here, she falls in love with Krishna. She grows up loving him and praying to him. And when the day comes to go with her husband, she is totally devastated. She does not want to go with him, leaving her Krishna.

This narrative was very impressively done by Geetaji, depicting a young girl who is in love with her lord, a very pure, innocent love. And then she is torn asunder as she is to leave with her married husband. In panic, she keeps returning to Krishna again and again, expressing her only hope that distance would not affect their love, just like the lotus and the sun. The composition was in ragam Sahana. Geetaji, in her depiction, shows the little girl falling in love with Krishna as she is playing ball with her friends. When her husband comes to fetch her, she goes to get her stuff and keeps him for a moment more. And finally, she tells the lord that he will always stay in her heart, lifts her stuff on to her back, wipes her tears and assures him that she will come back. Firstly, it was the lyrics, and then the singing by Sudha Raghuraman, the music that was so gentle, and then the abhinaya, which brought out the innocence of the untainted love of the girl, that brought about the beauty of the piece. It immediately touched the audience. The performance ended with sankirtanam as an ode to Lord Radha Raman.

Later, Geetaji discussed the abhinaya pieces she had chosen for the performance. “One was Nagendraharaya, which was pure dance and abhinaya both, which was Shankaracharya’s composition, and the Ritusamhara piece, the context was so beautiful. Kalidasa is unparalleled in his imagery. It was a challenge to use music and dance because the poetry itself is so beautiful. Unless you can add one more layer to it, you should not be dancing it. It’s always a challenge to attempt Kalidasa, but Ritusamhara has always been very close to our heart. We’ve done many cantos out of it, we’ve done a spring, rain, summer, grishma, so we’ve done a lot, and we chose spring for that evening because it was almost spring. Musically also, the piece is beautiful. Also, it’s not just artistry in terms of dance — abhinaya and content, what you bring to the dance is very important, that’s why I chose that. The last piece was a tribute to my first teacher, where the nayika comes to Krishna and she has to go with her lawfully wedded husband, and she comes to bid goodbye to Krishna. That very poignant moment when she says don’t forget me, even if we are far away, I will always be thinking of you, just like the moon and the lotus. It’s a very beautiful piece, that was a tribute to my first teacher because she taught me that piece with great love and dedication, and it was also 50 years after her getting the award that I got the award. I thought it was fitting to do that in her memory. I made all my students cry (with that)! I keep telling them, your generation has forgotten to cry, to love, to do everything. They all feel bad, so when they cried I told them chalo, there’s hope!” she said.

The orchestra for Geetaji had Sudha Raghuraman on vocals, Guru V Shankar and Sharanya Chandran on nattuvangam, Manohar Balachandran on mridangam, Raghavendra Prasad on violin, and G Raghuraman on flute. The costumes were by Sandhya Raman, makeup by Brij Mohan, and lights by Milind Srivastava.

Pics: Anoop Arora