ONLINE: Rama Vaidyanathan mounts stunning cinematographic COVID-themed production with Back on Stage: Nature’s Respite

A pandemic has struck the world after about 100 years, causing pervasive global panic of a kind not seen in many decades. The SARS-CoV2 locked down whole countries and cities, brought travel and economic activity screeching to a halt and disrupted lives in a way not seen in our lifetimes. Some are suffering from COVID-19, and many more are suffering from loss of livelihoods even now, seven months after India was locked down overnight. ‘Quarantine’, ‘isolate’, ‘sanitization’ and ‘social distancing’ are the buzzwords in conversations even now.

But after an initial burst of anguish, the plight of the performing arts and professional artists has been relegated to the backseat in social media conversations and mainstream news coverage. Aren’t the arts as old as mankind? Aren’t the arts closely associated with human evolution? Those prehistoric figurines and cave paintings speak for themselves. But now, in this unprecedented crisis, the arts have taken a backseat. Think of the people who have made it their profession, their daily households running on fast-depleting savings and meagre income. But the arts and artists will make a comeback if the human spirit lives on, just like nature did when man unwittingly and reluctantly gave her room.


In this landscape barren of performances, where there was not even shrubbery or foliage for a while, not even cacti, a ray of sunshine broke through the dust storms, and online performances started. In August, Navatman also organized ticketed online shows to support the artists. What set it apart from other such online events was that these were professionally staged performances, recorded professionally and broadcast at a fixed time. It was not available for re-viewing after the ticketed window of time had passed. In that aspect, this initiative was remarkable; the core purpose was to stage a performance with all the auditory and visual infrastructure, just no audience. 

I hope this idea is taking seed in many minds: that of organizing events as always with everything else except the audience. A novel event in the times of the novel coronavirus! In fact, in my own household, this was a suggestion from the corporate and revenue management minds in my family during the lockdown, unaware though they were of the budgets usually available to artists.

I watched Rama and Dakshina Vaidyanathan’s Bharatanatyam performance for Navatman. The production was shot in the IIC auditorium, I suspect the first one to animate that stage after many weeks of silence. It had stunning choreography by Rama ji, fantastic music, video by C.V. Kamesh and video editing by Shubhamani Chandrashekar. The production was titled ‘Back on stage: Nature’s respite’. The dancers performed with full aharyam, make-up, stage lighting and sound.

The first aspect to discuss is the title, which suggests that when mankind got locked up, it was a respite for nature, which finally got to perform. All this while, mankind had been hogging the stage, relegating nature to the wings, but with man confined forcibly indoors, nature finally had a chance to be free and take the stage that was rightfully hers – the lockdown created a global sanctuary for nature. Of course, the title was also a reference to the dancers being back on a proper stage after a long time.

Each piece in the production began with a diary entry written by the ‘protagonist’ of that piece – Shiva, the earth, the trees, the mountains and even breath. It was also as if the journal format helped document that it had been a matter of just weeks, and nature was already healing in this freer atmosphere. The entries were not recited but typed in a cursive font on a notebook-like lined page background and were meant to be read. 

In the first piece, the theme taken was that the mother earth, as soon as her errant child, who had been dancing on her and hogging the limelight, was made to slow down and practically locked in their homes, started healing within a few days: ‘Mata prithvi putrovyam’. The verses were from the Upanishads and had been set to a chant-like cadence by Sudha Raghuraman. It was sung like a mantra jaap, again and again, with rhythmic music. Earth addresses mankind as her errant child. The choreography by Rama ji was inspired by the spotting of wild animals strolling through cities and swimming through urban water channels, many of them being seen after decades in these areas. Sightings of endangered species also increased during this period, as with the Gangetic dolphin in Bihar.

Rama ji stood in the centre of the stage with her hands held up like the axis of the earth, slowly rotating around it. Dakshina danced around her like mankind, trampling on the earth and moving around it. Dakshina’s nritta to the bols was like hitting at the earth repeatedly, which depicted powerfully the abuse of the earth by mankind, truly acting like the errant child who has only learnt to misuse the resources provided by the earth. The colours of their costumes reflected the colours of the earth and mankind. The focus of light shifted on Rama as the earth. The two dancers depicted all of creation and the life forms that the earth sustains – the oceans, the mountains, the fish darting about in the waters, the birds chirping, an elephant majestically flapping its ears, Rama as a tall tree, rain, deer sprinting around, a beautiful peacock dancing along, the sweet song of a cuckoo, Sheshnag balancing the earth on its hood. And slowly, Dakshina as mankind evinced wonder at creation, taking the mitti from the earth on her head and inhaling the aroma of wet earth. Rama gradually tok a reclining position as Lord Vishnu and Dakshina prostated herself in a saashtang pranam. The jathis and footwork were well-coordinated with simultaneous leaps.

The second page in the diary was about trees, their roots going deeper in the earth and the trunk rising high, symbolically saying that in order to reach great heights, one has to have deep roots in their thoughts. The text was a poem by Rama ji herself, translated by Shatavdhani Ganesan with music by G.S. Rajan The trees are a vital part of the ecosystem. They are nipped in the bud and not allowed to bloom. They are made to wait in the wings, in the green room, as mankind has taken centrestage. They are getting a chance to emerge from behind the curtains and paint the stage green. They represent a greater philosophy: that as your roots grow deeper, you can grow to greater heights and reach for the sunlight. Humans need to introspect to reach higher levels of consciousness. They paint a beautiful picture – trees are static and grounded, and yet dynamic and unshackled. Trees represent that supreme energy that shelters all without discrimination.

For this piece, Dakshina started from behind the wings as a seed that is just germinating. One foot emerged, gradually joined by her hands to portray sprouting. This imagery was created especially for the camera and videography as it would not have had the same impact in an auditorium for a live performance. Dakshina emerged as a creeper, turning and twisting. Rama ji, worshipping the tree, took a mayura stance. Dakshina depicted the branches extending upward and roots spreading downward while Rama ji showed the growing and strengthening stem. As Dakshina danced around as the branches spreading, Rama ji showed the flowering, and Dakshina again the marvel of fruition. The birds flocking and nesting was shown by Rama ji, and then both together dancing and collecting flowers for pooja. Using the branches as a swing was depicted by Dakshina, while Rama ji became the animal that climbs for security. Then you had Dakshina as the urchin who throws a stone to make ripe fruits fall. The two elaborated on the different attributes and benefits of a tree through nritta and nritya that was executed with great finesse and sensitivity. The sounds of the birds were incorporated into some jathis.

The third piece was inspired by the phenomenon of the Himalayan peaks becoming visible from cities in the plains hundreds of kilometres away, like Saharanpur. The piece was about the mountains, and man’s wonder at seeing them from homes in the plains. The literature was verses from 'Kumarasambhavam' by Kalidasa, set to music by Dr S. Vasudevan. The Himalayas were formed by colliding tectonic plates. Within them are hidden treasures that were otherwise buried. These are an important source of medicinal plants, the sources of most rivers, and a peaceful environment for spiritual seekers, but this was dwindling because of self-centred outreach programmes designed by mankind. Recently, however, the peaks, which were hiding behind the curtain of pollution, have become visible. Flora and fauna are thriving on its slopes and the river Ganga has been replenished with fresh gushing water. Shivalinga, trishoola, annapurna have made their appearance after a long hiatus and the most majestic of them all, the mount Kailasha, the divine abode, stands tall.

The rhythm and the bols for this piece actually created a sense of huge mountains and colossal movement. Rama ji started with arms open on both sides and eyes moving from side to side, like a mountain, Dakshina bowed to the devata of the north. Together, they performed jathis emphasizing height and breadth in sharp, long lines, evoking the huge parvat mala. Together, the rhythm, vocals and the choreography completed the picture of tall mountains forming and standing like hermits. Rama ji came as the flowing Ganga, and Dakshina showed wonder at the sight of the Himalayas and their grandeur. They went on to describe the flora and fauna of the mountains – kapot, kandu, wild flowers and fruits – as the sweet-smelling winds blow and the Bhagirathi flows down. The hermits bathe in it and give an offering to the river. The Kailash, Shiva’s abode, lies in the Himalayas. The two dancers danced in perfect coordination in jathis depicting the grandeur of the mountains.

The fourth piece was about nature taking the stage and mankind finally noticing, being the spectator for once rather than the centre of attention. ‘The earth is my stage and every dimension of me is a performer… In the innocence of a flower, the disquiet of the honeybee, the radiance of the sunshine and its passion, the invigorating sounds of the rain, in the howling of the wind, in the sounds of the pigeon, in the colours of the rainbow... I am the stage and I am the performer too,’ is an approximation of what the diary entry said. The text comprised verses from 'Abhinaya Darpana' set to music by Keerthana Vaidyanathan. Rama and Dakshina first explained the hastas in dance and their uses. These hand gestures represent a particular object: pataka, tripataka, kataka much, mayoorrakhyo, karatri, shuchi, chandrakala, shikara… they depicted the various life forms through hastas while seated. This was again a choreography done for the camera. One dancer was in focus while the other was out of focus but in the frame, highlighting the spectator aspect of the concept. Finally, Rama ji used her hands to depict the rotating, revolving earth – the dancer and the stage both.

The final piece was about breath, the ultimate rhythm that unifies. ‘…Whatever race, colour or nationality of a human being, it is ultimately the same aura that pervades everyone – breath,’ said the journal entry. This pandemic should have shown us all that whoever, wherever, it is, their breath that finally unifies them in good as well as bad times. ‘The breath is the first activity we encounter, the microscopic manifestation of the macroscopic universe. Every time we breathe, we dance and every time we dance, we become Shiva and when we become Shiva, we represent the dance of the universe where all matter is constantly engaged in the cosmic activity of dance – the stars, oceans, trees and all the creatures represent the cosmic dance of the universe. Every time we breathe, we represent the collective breath of the universe. Oh breath, little did we know your profound significance in unifying this world!’

Breathing is one of the involuntary, reflex functions of the body, the sustenance of life. For a human being, life starts the moment they are upturned by a doctor and slapped to take their first breath, and that life ends the day they breathe their last breath. The pandemic of a respiratory disease has shown us the importance of this involuntary life-giving force. The text were verses from Tirumular’s 'Tirumandiram', set to music by Dr S. Vasudevan. Rama ji and Dakshina mounted an apt representation of this breath by moving up and down, front and back alternately, with circular, bowing movements, each doing the movement opposite to the other’s: back to front, front to front, back to back. That’s how breath moves through the body and the air through the earth’s atmosphere to keep life going, symbolized by Shiva’s cosmic dance, the tandava.

Shiva is the lord regulating breath and life. All life forms are a microscopic particle of the supersoul and so, as our breath ebbs and flows, so does the dance of the universe in our bodies. This was introduced in the composition by the sound of the ghatam; every beat a rhythm of breath and the dance of Shiva. Rama ji and Dakshina depicted the attributes of Shiva – chandra on his forehead, his black jata, tandava, the circular movements of the snakes on him, the dim-dim of the damru with a trembling hand. Dakshina stood in front and Rama behind to the chant of Shiva and Shakti, depicting Nandi on one side, Ganga on the other and the damru in circular movements. This breath was then shown as the common factor in all life forms: flowers and bees, birds and fish, all-encompassing. Finally, life is about the moving of the earth on its axis like the breath in its rhythmic movement.

I later spoke to Rama ji extensively about the concept and the choreography.

‘It was completely my concept, and Dakshina also contributed ideas; it is refreshing to get ideas from a different generation. It adds a very different dimension and many nuances. The concept, choreography and treatment were all a response to what we are facing now and what we saw happening during the lockdown, its effects. That is the only silver lining: that we have understood the importance of breath in our life, of how it is a unifying factor, the importance of nature around us, how giving it is. Within a few days (of man’s absence), nature got back to its pristine form. That’s because noise, air and water pollution reduced drastically. We suddenly saw birds outside again, I saw a nilgai outside my house. It was an incredible experience which I myself felt because I live in a very green area. I was able to see many more animals and birds around me. It was a manifestation of the giving nature of bhoomi devi, as if the earth was getting a chance to perform, finally. All this while, it was man who was performing, who had centrestage. The production was thus subtitled back on stage – the earth was back on stage after many years of man not giving a chance to her. The earth had been in the wings, in the green room, behind the curtains; finally, the earth got a chance to express itself. I think even the breaking out of COVID-19 was an expression of nature’s breaking out at us. 

‘As children, we have not given mother earth due respect as far as conservation, protection, celebration and respect go. It’s been a rigmarole of selfish, self-centred activity. Man has been so busy with his outreach programme that he has reached every corner of the world, even the Himalayas, which also got polluted, finally.

‘I want to have a clear intent with my text: what do I want to convey? At the end, what will the audience see in this piece? That is very important for me, to have clarity – if I don’t have that, I can’t even begin to choreograph. Once the clarity is there, then actually everything becomes simpler and falls into place. Once I have music and intent, poetry, research, once I have looked at all possibilities of metaphor and visual imagery, then automatically I know, this is where you have to put technical, abhinaya, pause, hold.’

Use of the diary format
‘It was designed as nature’s diary entry – each entry had a heading as though it was nature who was talking, the protagonist. Each diary entry was nature’s voice. I thought that putting that in written form would be harnessing the medium – online and video. If it were a stage performance, I would have spoken on the mic. Since it was online, rather than use my voice, I thought I might harness the possibilities of the medium, which is why I also did some choreography for the camera. We’re all groping in the dark in this new normal, but I thought, let’s just try choreographing a regular performance for the camera rather than for the proscenium. That was the whole idea.’

Using traditional Bharatanatyam
‘I have never thought about whether I am in my form or not, or whether I have gone out of its parameters, because I don’t know anything else outside Bharatanatyam. Whatever I do, I have become so conditioned over all these years that when I move, I move as a Bharatanatyam dancer. I have never consciously thought outside or inside the form. I just do what my heart tells me to do. I have always said that the art form does not restrict me, it liberates me.

‘Of course, I tweak my adavus. I don’t do that in traditional margam pieces like jathis or varnams, but when I’m doing abstract choreographic movement, like mountain, earth, tree, etc., definitely. But have to do it intelligently so that it flows with the medium or the art form and does not stick out. I mould, tweak, I use adavus as a medium to express.’

Choreographing for video
‘In such a case we have to be very clear and use the medium. It’s obviously not the stage, not what we’d like. We can’t say oh no, it’s not the same, abhi kya karein, jo karna hai karte hain… We have to make the best use of what we have, including technology, which is what we have now. We should make the optimum use of the situation. We adapt and reinvent. I tried to use the camera in a way to create effects that you would not have got with live. Just like live has a different effect, I thought, let me make a statement by making something different for the digital medium. Why not? It is the new normal – so that is why I used the camera technique to use the medium effectively. Two particularly noticeable instances of this which set it apart from a live performance were the choreography of the sapling sprouting from behind the curtain, and then the juxtaposition of the watcher and the watched using he alternation of focus in the fourth piece.’

It was an enthralling experience to watch the duo. The concept had a great wealth of symbolism and depth of wisdom, supported by equally rich, astounding dancing by the mother and daughter. The rhythm in the score was very aptly used and the entire effect was beyond words. I would suggest that everyone watch, stand and applaud, because life is about giving.

Back on Stage: Nature’s Respite airs again on 24 October in India from 5.30 to 6.30 pm. The performance is ticketed and if you haven’t already, you can buy tickets here: