Ragini Chandershekar’s spellbinding Bharatanatyam performance pays rich tribute to mother Guru Jamuna Krishnan

Late last year, Bharatanatyam dancer Ragini Chandershekar presented a Bharatanayam recital at IIC. This was a tribute to the late, great Guru Jamuna Krishnan, Ragini’s mother and guru. Besides Jamuna ji, Ragini has also trained under the late Guru K.J. Govindarajan, late Guru K.N. Dakshinamoorthy Pillai, late Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan and late Smt. Usha Srinivasan. She has also extensively trained in Carnatic vocals under late Shri S. Gopalakrishnan and has also been trained by nattuvanar late Karaikudi K. Sivakumar.

That evening, the foyer was bedecked with a flower rangoli. On the stage was a picture of Guru Jamuna Krishnan, and a ceremonial lamp.

Ragini gave a margam presentation. The first piece was a pushpanjali in aditalam. Ragini has very precise hand and foot movements, which are very sharp and finished. She moved all across the stage with moves in complex rhythms. Her jathis and nritta were perfect.

The second piece was a varnam in Charukeshi ragam by Lalgudi Jayaraman, with rhythmic inputs by Karaikudi Sivakumar. Ragini depicted ‘Gopal bal sindhu kanyapati’, taking on the stance of the flute, showing Gopal as the cowherd playing with his sakhas, lifting the Giriraj parvat on his little finger, as Lakshmipati Vishnu with the lotus in his hand. She elaborated on the Gajendra moksha leela when Lord Vishnu vanquished the crocodile with his chakra to release the foot of gajendra. She took stances in broad plie for the lyrics and depicted Madhav Pundarikaksha using her large, beautiful eyes. ‘Gopi jan nath yadav’ was depicted with elaborate footwork and movements. The nayika says, I see you and my heart flutters. I am like a bee without a flower, a chakor without the moon.

Ragini elaborated the story of Andal, showing her stringing the flowers into a beautiful garland before offering it to Lord Venkatesh, and trying it on to see her reflection in the water. The jathis had leg lifts, gestures of the flute, stealing butter, the beauty of his morpankha and the red lips like the bimbaphal. Reminiscing about the night in the nikunj, Ragini further depicted the childhood of Krishna and the nayika, when the two would sit by the riverside. The nayika says that her sandcastle was bigger and Krishna destroyed it to win the challenge. When we were young, you stole my butter and irritated me, she says. And yet today, you make my heart flutter. If you are like the moon, then I am the sagar. Ragini did various stances of Krishna with the flute.

The nayika calls out to Gopala, saying that the lotuses are flowering, the beauty of your morpankha and your red coral lips is in my heart, I desire you and to be embraced by you. This involved some very sensitively executed abhinaya by Ragini. In the jathis, Ragini showed exemplary stamina, agility, pace, expanse, smoothness of movement, leaps and stretches. There were specially designed jathis for taking the stance of Krishna with the flute.

The third piece was a javali in raag Khamas about the mugdha nayika. The nayika was shown adorning herself with ornaments, narrating that her heart and eyes reach out in yearning for the nayak. As he comes to her, she shuts her eyes, expecting a kiss from him. She holds his hand and the arrows from his eyes pierce her heart. And yet she is advised by a senior friend not to fall in love with him and to feign indifference. But alas, the nayika’s heart is fluttering like a butterfly. The abhinaya was very aptly done. The violinist played the beginning of the piece, building up the mood with the music.

The fourth piece was a composition by Adikavi Vidyapati in raag sindhubhairavi. The composition describes the viraha of Krishna in the words of the sakhi, who is narrating his plight to Radha after Radha goes into maan . As the sakhi portraying his plight, Ragini enacted a very despondent Krishna. She says that he had lifted the Govardhan giri on the little finger of his left hand when it was being battered by rain, and had saved all of Vraj through his acts. The sakhi laments that it is that same Krishna who now, in your viraha, cannot lift the kangan in his hands – even that gives him pain.

Krishna defeated Kaliya Nag and danced on the hood of the snake. He is the master of all the lokas or worlds and yet today, due to your viraha, he sees the banamala as a snake and throws it away. Finally, the sakhi advises Radha to go and meet him immediately, to put on the ornaments that she had removed, do her shringara and rid him of his pain. The expressions that Ragini summoned for this piece, which conveyed the mood of the composition, made it an outstanding piece.

Finally, she ended with a thillana in raag Tilang, aditalam. The rhythm was by Karaikudi Sivakumar. Ragini exhibited her technical prowess with her footwork, the expanse of her adavus, her eye movements, and by covering nearly the entire stage in leaps and leg lifts. Finally, she presented a puhspanjali to all her gurus and pranaam to all the instrumentalists. On the mridangam was M.V. Chandrashekar, Ragini's husband, on the nattuvangam was Sharanya Chandran, on vocals was S. Venkatesh and on violin was Raghavendra Prasath.

Ragini has become a torchbearer of her mother’s legacy. Her nritta and technique are flawless and masterful, and she executes them with endless stamina, to which she has added the abhinaya element imbibed from her gurus. The abhinaya comes across as very finely nuanced. Undoubtedly, Ragini is an excellent performer.

Later, I spoke to Ragini at some length about that evening’s performance and about her mother, whom she had recently lost.

Q: Could you elaborate on the varnam?
R: The varnam was a composition of Lalgudi Jayaraman. It is an address of the nayika directly to Krishna. The magic of the music of your flute can remove the vacuum in my life, she says. Whether it is inside my heart or outside, there is only you, your flute, your music. Then she tells him you steal butter and hide, you are the darling of the gopis, you are brighter than the sun, but you don’t have a heart like butter. It is a heart of stone. In the third stanza, she responds to the full moon eagerly with a simile, that of seeds sprouting in the wet soil. She says that as the waves are attracted to the moon and become expectant, so are we to you. I am eagerly waiting for you to extend your hand and take our hands; not only our hands, but our bodies and our souls as well. The last line of the charnam says, where ever I look, there is only you. The lotus-eyed one, the one with curly hair, with morpankha, you are manmohana, this is the right time to hold my hand and take me with you. You are the aatma, the breath inside. You are the one who enchants the entire universe, oh coral-lipped Krishna; all is possible for you. You are the one who is going to take away my pain, sorrow, all my grief of separation is going to go away only when you come.

Q: How do you hold the audience’s attention and maintain your stamina for such a long varnam?
R: The mettle of a dancer lies in the creativity they can bring to a varnam. If you just go on doing the hands that have been taught to you, which you just execute, like 1, 2, 3... it becomes very laborious for the dancer as well as for the audience. A more mature approach would be to build up on the shabdartha. How do you bring out the bhava of the varnam – it is mostly about the sthayi. Are you able to convey its meaning? Sometimes, the lyrics of the sthayi are such that you have to elaborate. For instance, when you are talking of what happened in their childhood, it is relatable only if you can explain the present state of her mind: you have to make that shift back and forth; that time she had been coaxed into bringing down her milk pots and feeding him butter. At the time it irritated her, but now that he is gone, she yearns for it. She is in pain at the separation. She thinks of how he had broken her sandcastles when she was young – that was taught to me by Amma and it was taken from the poetry of Andal. There is an incident when Andal and her friends would make sandcastles and Krishna, who was obviously naughty, would break those castles. Amma said that Andal is also a gopi and this incident can be added to this piece. Usually, dancers do the cheer haran and Kaliya daman or maakhan chor, the usual Krishna episodes. But how do we relate it to the nayika herself? That is the challenge that requires deep contemplation of the lyrics of the varnam and then bringing out the sthayi properly. Even in the charnam, she is talking of his beautiful flute and the void in her life. In the second half of the charnam, suddenly we cannot have a change in mood, dancing around when the nayika is pleading to Krishna to take that void out of her life. Understanding the lyrics and going into the depth of the sahitya is very important to convey the sthayi properly.

Q: Do you keep the lyrics in mind when you compose the jathis for the nritta?
R: I would say no. I do not keep the lyrics in mind while composing the jathis. But when the transition comes from the jathi to the sahitya, as a mature dancer, you should be able to slip into that. The jathis on their own are sparkling pieces of nritta and should be treated as such, as an exposition of nritta. But then how to integrate it structurally into the fabric of the varnam, that is in the hands of every individual dancer. So if you do too many acrobatics, then from the point of view of the varnam, it spoils the flavour. Where is it sitting in the choreography, is it integrating the feel of the sahitya, are the two moods gelling in the choreography (all these concerns need to be considered).

Q: Please describe your Amma as a guru, as a mentor, and your journey with her.
R: Her stamp in my dance is very visible. I have had the fortune of not only having her as my guru, but of also seeing her dance from a very young age. When I was very young, she had just started with north Indian poetry. When she started doing Vidyapati, I remember I was very small. I had not finished my arangetram. I was not a part of this project since I was very young and Amma said that I was to be on stage only after the arangetram. These were just padas in text. Culling them out, ideating the dance, giving music to poetry, bringing them to life: this was done over decades. Watching her do that and then learning them from her… A student just comes to learn a piece, a readymade piece, like a piece of cake. But what depth it has been given gives it charm, a kind of weight. It’s not just that you move this hand or that or move left or right. You have to understand the lyrics and also internalize the context of the lyrics. She would look at the entire varnam from beginning to end, what the lyrics say, and then you craft the abhinaya according to the course of the story. So the greatest learning process has been to be with her, blessed to be her daughter and be with her 24/7, to be involved in this process of creation. There are certain gems that have not been performed. She never thought that this piece is there, and I have to teach it. In certain pieces, she wanted to show more of the creativity, giving weight to the substance. In pieces that required the nritta, she put it in full measure. That was one great lesson from her. Now that I do the choreographing work, I had the opportunity to show it to her and get her opinion. She said that whatever you do, don’t take away from the main mood of the song. If you are doing a pushpanjali or a thillana, there are no lyrics or literature. Put your nritta in full strength. But if you are doing a piece with lyrics, try and stick to the bhava in it, try to weave your choreography around that. For all the pieces, there was a certain intensity about the music. Some ragas were her favourite and would keep getting repeated. So if she had four Bageshwaris she would have a different mood for each. Intuitively she would know that if I set the piece in this raga in terms of emotion it would be ideal. And then once the compositions were ready, she would weave the choreography around it. She would never tell the singer how many times she would sing or in how much time she would want to wrap it up. She would keep repeating for as long as the ideas came to her. Even when she taught, she would say, let me teach whatever I can. Don’t tell me in the beginning that it has to be a performance only for 6-7 minutes, so do this movement only 5 times. That would be a brake on creativity. Now that I have started teaching, I have realized that she was right. Let the ideas flow easily. It makes a big difference. Of course, when you want to take it to the stage, you polish, cut, edit – all these elements come later.

Q: How was it having your mother as your guru?
R: I always told her, I see you as a guru first and as a mother later. When we interacted in class or at a creative-artistic level, the fact that she was my mother never came in the way of that process. Over the years, I told her, you have sobered down so much, the students now have not gotten a taste of what a hard taskmaster you were earlier – in the 80s and 90s. She was extraordinarily exacting as a guru right till the end. There was no diluting it – there were no concessions for her daughter. In fact, she was my harshest critic. Getting a shabaashi from her at the end of the performance meant the world because it would not come easily. Her critical eye would look for something that nobody else had found. Then she would say, very nice, but the dissection would begin at home. Having her in that role was a huge blessing for me. One is, of course, having your mother tell you, beta, you were great. The other is having your guru tell you at this point this could have been better. She was the most fantastic sounding board one could have. I always took new things to her because I knew the harshest and the best criticism would come from her.

Pics: Anoop Arora