Rama Vaidyanathan’s powerful message about earth as devi in Ratnagarbha
Senior Bharatanatyam exponent and guru Rama Vaidyanathan presented ‘Ratnagarbha’ in Delhi in October on the occasion of the Bhoomi festival by Navdanya and India International Centre. ‘Ratnagarbha’, the name and the presentation, were inspired by a Harappan seal and paid tribute to the Mother Earth. It featured vocals by Sudha Raghuraman, mridangam by Sumod Sreedharan, flute by G. Raghuraman and nattuvangam by Shubhamani Chandrasekhar, with Meera Khanna introducing the
Before I begin to talk about the performance, I want to share a thought that always lingers in my mind after a performance of the magnitude on display at attendance 2022, which I reported recently, and at Rama’s performance: that when artists with a lifetime’s body of work behind them, their knowledge enriched over the years, their experience and dedication, perform, their work should be documented, recorded and saved for the next generation. A good friend once told me that a dance critic should tear the performance apart and examine each shred. True, but that is possible only when the warp and weft of a
performance is weak. But with a lifetime of sadhana behind them, the tapestry of these performances should be preserved and archived. I bow to all these sadhakas.
The first piece was the eponymous ‘Ratnagarbha’, or the one with a womb that produces gems. It is inspired by a seal of the Harappan civilization that has a figurine of a woman upside down with a plant growing vertically out of her womb. The verses chosen were from the Rigveda, in which the protagonist is a farmer.
In the first verse, the farmer says, O Ratnagarbha, everything that you produce is sweet. All the vegetation from your womb is filled with nectar which is sweet. In the second, he says that all about you means a continuity. Season after season, you produce flora in a continuity. You feed the vegetation with your milk as a new mother would feed her young infant.
In the third verse, the farmer addresses or salutes her as Sita. Sita finds a mention in Rigveda much before she does in the Ramayana. The farmer tells her that his greatest joy is to look at the fields which, though he has sown them with his hard work, could not have been possible without her. The piece was in ragamallika, talamallika. There are three ragas used in this piece. The tala cycle for the first piece was in nine beats which, coincidentally matches with the nau of navdanya.
The flute by G. Raghuraman puts you into the frame of mind to see the performance and the continuous refrain by Sudha of the words ‘Madhumati aushadhi’ sounds like Vedic chants. The tone of the word ‘antariksha’ actually sounds as if something was coming out of space. The recitation of the bols sounded as if the rhythm was really echoing in the emptiness.
Rama started the performance seated and depicted the sapling emerging from the seed in her womb. The seed germinates in the womb and starts to grow, which was shown by hands moving up and outwards. The plant grows out like a creeper with emerging shoots, leaves and flowers. Her costume was green and red and her hands were painted totally red, like a flower. The flowers then droop, with the hastas showing the drooping of the flowers.
She showed the wholesome breasts of a mother and the milk pouring from them while she stood in a broad plie. Rama’s expression of the tenderness of a mother feeding her infant were very expressive. The milk feeds the branches and the flowers.
In the next section, she depicted the care, happiness and ecstasy of a farmer who
prepares his fields, sows seeds, cares and waters them and reaps the harvest in the
harvest season. He dances in ecstasy while he reaps the results of his hard work.
Rama’s nritta and footwork showed the growing of the plants and she took the last stance as a plant, one hand up as a drooping flower and the other down to show the branches. A very effectively rendered piece.
For the second piece, she presented Annapurneshwari, the incarnation of Shakti Devi
Annapurna. She has her bowl full of food and gives it to all forms of life.
It is said that once, Lord Shiva stated that food is all maya, all material, and just as maya has to be renounced, since it is an illusion, so does food. Parvati, who is the mother and feeds all life, is annoyed by it and disrupts the food order totally, including that of the devatas. It is then that all life forms start wilting with hunger and begin to starve—even Shiva. All the gods are starved and they come and beg at her seat. Animals and humans run helter-skelter. All rush to her and beg Ma Annapurna ‘bhiksham dehi’. Out of karuna, she restores the food order.
The kriti is composed by Muthuswami Dikhitar and it is preceded by a shloka from the stotra Annapurneshwari by Adishankara. Rama started her piece by depicting the starved and distressed life forms. The birds are dying of hunger, the larger animals, like the elephants, have their ears and eyes drooping from distress. All life forms are starved. Shiva and the devatas, who are also distressed by hunger, head to her and beg for food. Rama’s expressions showing the distressed life forms was commendable and that of Ma Annapurna, who relents out of karuna and orders the end of the disruption of the food order, were exemplary. As the bhakta offers flowers at her feet, she appears with a bowl and ladle and takes pity on all worshipping her to serve the food again and restore the food order. Rama did a back leg lift while offering food with a ladle. The goddess calls each of the life forms to feed them with love from the abundant food from her bowl, offering smaller bites to the smaller forms and making bigger bites for the bigger ones. And then, finally, it was the description of the devi’s beauty and aura, how she is bedecked with ornaments and her lotus feet at which the bhaktas bow.
She resides in the kashikshetra – kashikshetra vilasini. Rama’s twisting feet and gait added to the impact of the goddess’ beauty. ‘Kamalalochani suhasini’ – depicting these attributes, Rama covered the entire stage. She ended the piece in prostration to the mother, Annapurne, amid the uninterrupted chants of ‘annapurne, annapurne, annapurne’.
The third piece was ‘Uchchishta Chandalini’. She is known as the tantrik form of Matangi; ‘Shri Matangeshwari Bhagawati’ was the chant. She is the one who stands for equality, inclusivity, cutting down the fine lines between pretensions, sacred and profane, pure and impure. She embraces the ones who are rejected by society. Though she appears to be hard on the outside but inside, she is the same loving mother who uplifts and embraces the trodden ones. She is the one who eats the leftovers or the half-eaten, rejected food. Whatever is impure and rejected is offered to her—flowers that had been thrown away, old
clothes that had been thrown away. When Shiva appears as Chandal in the cremation grounds, Shive, his consort, roams with him as the Chandalini.
There are contemporary connotations to this piece, as Rama stated. It alludes to the recycling of waste. Today, due to extreme consumerism and materialism, humans have generated a lot of garbage and all this garbage will finally have to be consumed and recycled.
Rama started her depiction showing that Ma Matangi is waiting for Shiva when she sees him coming, disguised as a Chandal. Tantrik texts have been used for this section and the music, voice modulations and aalaap by Sudha Raghuraman enhanced the impact of the piece. As she sees him as Chandal, she wonders about his damru, his trishul, the chandra on his head and his baghambar. The snakes that wrap around him are not visible. He disguises himself by putting feathers in his head as headgear and the damru has been
replaced by a danda. He is wearing rags instead of his baghambar. He walks around the crematorium with arrogance and an uncouth gait. Rama’s depiction was arresting. And so Shive becomes the Chandalini to compliment him. She opens her hair and scatters it, removes her ornaments and makes baubles out of the refuse in the crematorium. Her silks are replaced by rough clothing. She presents herself seductively to Shiva. Rama transformed into a bold woman, moving around and jumping in broad plie. She took a stance with her feet apart, raising the karuna hasta.
The nritta was energetic and with rapid movements. Rama came into her element, taking leaps with hands spread out, and chakkars. She took the final stance as the goddess, the upper hand rotating into a flower and the lower holding the weapon, roaming the crematorium, breaking all taboos.
The tapestry of the entire performance transformed into an outstanding fabric, each thread chosen and woven into the warp and weft intricately. The literature was very aptly chosen for the concept. The music and vocals lent life to the concept. The instruments lent the soul to it. The choreography, both nritta and abhinaya, spoke a thousand words and carried a very relevant message to the audience. Rama’s excellence in all aspects of the performance as ever remains undimmed, and to that was added Sudha’s rendition of
vocals and music, which made it an unforgettable experience.
Pics: Anoop Arora