Flawless group choreography by Leela Samson and Spanda

Guru Leela Samson

Dancers of Spanda

Guru Leela Samson and her disciples at Spanda Leela ji’s group choreographies at Kamani auditorium in Delhi in November 2022. Leela ji does not need any hyperbole to introduce her and her body of work. Her group of disciples – Nidheesh Kumar, Ashwini Viswanathan, Harikrishnan B., Bhavajan Kumar, Season Unnikrishnan, Aishwarya and Aryamba Sriram – were flawless, with immense talent and energy. The lights were by Gautam Bhattacharya ji and Aditi Jaitley Jadeja provided local support.

The dancers were dressed in black and white aharyam, the girls in white and the boys in black. The first piece was ‘Surya Bhaskaraye Namaha’, which I missed because of Delhi’s traffic woes. The next piece was an ashtakam, ‘Hari Hara Abheda’, by Appayar Dikshita. The composition gives an account of the attributes of the two gods, Shiva and Vishnu. The composition is called ‘Hari Hara Abheda Stuti’. Shiva is the one with snakes wrapped around him and Krishna is the enemy of Banasura. One wears the aruna peeta or the radiant yellow dhoti, and the other wears a baghambar or tiger skin. Krishna has locks of hair and Shiva, the jata or the matted hair that are tied up to form a knot. One holds the damru and the other the chakra. One wears ornaments made of precious stones and the other has snakes for ornamentation. Govind looks after his cows and Shiva rides the Nandi. Hari makes music with his bansuri or flute and Hara makes rhythm with his damru. Vishnu resides in the ocean, resting on a snake, and Shiva resides on the Kailash parvat with snakes around him. Shiva has vrushabh as his steed and Krishna the bird Garuda. One dances on the banks of the river Yamuna and the other wears the Ganga in his jata. The parallels between the two were drawn in verses and the poet comes to the conclusion that they are both the same. 

The group of dancers flitted around in energetic nritta front, back and sideways and then into the side aisles, taking stances and showing the attributes of the two gods through gestures and hastas. It was a perfect choreography in which the dancers depicted through nritta and nritya.

The next piece was a javali which was done as a solo by Leela ji herself. The piece was titled ‘Smarasundara’. The nayika tells her sakhi that her lover is one in a million. He is a wazir, a lord among the others. He always admires her and never contradicts her. He does not even look at another woman. He resides in Dharmapuri and is the lord of the town. Leela ji wore a black aharyam for the piece. She depicted the admiration of the nayika as she tells her friends that her lover has a face as beautiful as the moon. Her stylized gait showed the sophistication and pride of the nayak, who is compared to a wazir or a lord among other men. He wields his sword with the power of a soldier. The lotus of her heart cannot bear the brightness of his sun face. While she plays the veena, he sits chewing his paan and graces her with a ‘shabaash’ for her playing. Her heart rejoices when she sees him. Leela ji’s abhinaya for the piece was very natural. There are so many javalis and padams of a similar nature and to catch the attention of the audience becomes a challenge. Leela ji’s abhinaya put life into it and her expressions, body language and demeanour made it very interesting. 

The next composition was a thillana on which Leela ji had worked with Guru Madhavi Mudgal as a finale to their duet. This score has not only sollu kattus, or the bols of the pakhawaj, but also some unusual sahitya and swaras. The music has the power of brahman himself. The seven notes signify a rasa, a symbol, an animal and a deity or cult. The evolution of the swaras was from three notes that originated from the Vedas – the uddat, anuddat and swarit. The sahitya also mentions the mystic syllable Om. The piece was in raag Purvikalyani, taal rupak, and the composer was Subramanya Bhagavatar. The piece started with the recitation of the words ‘Gandhar madhyam dhaivat’ with rhythmic footwork. It was a group choreography where the boys and the girls moved in formations very precisely with well-executed footwork, leg lifts, floor slides ,in opposite directions and then, after the left and right moves, in diagonal formations. In the end, the group with their backs towards the audience took postures as animals and symbols, reaching a crescendo with their fingers raised to the chants of ‘Brahmasmi’, denoting the union with the super soul. The piece was an excellent amalgamation of abstraction, rhythm, synergy and energy. A total choreographic delight.

For the next piece, there was a costume change. The piece was exemplary and most enchanting. This was a production with several shorter pieces, titled ‘Nadi’. The rivers have attracted poetry for centuries and several poets have paid odes to the rivers of their region. In fact, a river in most Indian religions is worshipped as a mother and sometimes as a father. It represents life as it brings water to all life forms and philosophically, it also represents continuity, flow and energy. Sufis, Bauls and other folk poets have paid tributes to the rivers. The Sangam poetry of Tamil Nadu is based on rivers. 

The compositions in this piece were strung together by music composed by Rajkumar Bharti. The music reflects the language of the region, the instruments, the philosophy and the genre typical of that region. Here, different forms of music, including Carnatic and Hindustani, were used. Of course, the theme also incorporates the unity of India as the warp and weft of the rivers connects various regions, as the music and philosophy of each region connect India. 

The first composition was from Bengal, a poem by Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore, called ‘Obo Nadi”. The protagonist here is a champa tree that stands on the banks of the river. As the river flows, the tree stands still. Its movement is limited to its swaying and the movement of its flowers and leaves. The river, on the other hand, is vigorous and flows like mad. The champa tree is like a nayika who sheds her fragrant flowers on the river. The river, moving fast, does not notice her love and dedication. The only witness to her love are the night, the stars and the moon, who watch over her as she soulfully loves the river. The music and the instruments, specially the flute and the very sweetly melodious voice of the vocalist, added to the soul of the composition. 

Leela ji stood stationary in her light green sari and her very pretty green headdress as the tree, who is stationary but slightly bent towards the river. The branches are bent with the weight of the flowers as if to be closer the river. The group was dressed in blue and green saris and they moved rapidly to show the vigorous flow of the river, with their hands going up and down like waves. The comparison between the two was brought out through words and gestures – one is stabdha or still and the other chapaal or in restless movement, one is gondhobhare, laden with fragrance, and the other tandrahare, full of rapid movement. Leela ji bent like the tree, offering its flowers to the river, as the group of dancers as the river moved rapidly in front of her. The tree is silent and just wonders with awe at the river’s sight. The river is flowing madly and the tree, though stationary, sways in mad love. Leela ji depicted the night, the stars and the moon who are watching over the love of the tree. In the last stance she took as the tree bending over left a lasting impact because of her abhinaya and the very silky smooth vocals and music, which had a very Bengali tone. 

The next piece of poetry was from the classical Tamil Sangam literature anthology. In the monsoon, the Vaikai river flows through the city of Madurai, red as the soil it flows through. Its colour is almost like fire. The skies are clouded and the darkness falls on the city. It rains ceaselessly and the rain strikes the mountains. The winds blow and the flowers are dispersed into the torrential rivers, then carried into the oceans. Among the people, the mood generally is of happiness. The elders go on the roofs to enjoy the rain. The children jump around. Lovers woo each other and the young are all drunk and go to bathe in the river. The intoxicated men and women dance around and then begin the fights of love and jealousy. A jealous woman throws tantrums and kicks her man on the head. The group of dancers held wide dupattas which were swayed to show the flow of the river. These were then thrust together with footwork to depict thunder and lightning. And when they danced as the youth of the city who are bathing in the river, they tied the dupattas on their waist. The youth were depicted as frolicking, wading in the waters, loving and then quarrelling. But the river flows on as a witness to the lives of the folks that live on its banks. The piece had a lot of folk elements in not only the choreography but also the music, the rhythm and the vocals. 

The next piece was a poem, “The River”, by (the late) Girish Karnad in Kannada. Girish ji had requested Leela ji to give a folk element to the music. The lyrics stated that the river, or water, for that matter, cannot be wounded or engraved upon even with a knife. And so it flows on fearlessly. When it falls into the waterfall it acquires momentum, rushing, giggling and tickling, falling in leaps. The sticks and dried leaves are pulled into the navel of the whirlpool. The snake lies hidden in the strands of plants underwater. As it falls, the river scares the frog on the bank. In total contrast is the scarecrow that is sitting in the fields on the banks. The mud pot sits on the bamboo and the face drawn on it is sullen. It wears tatters that show the sad memories it harbours. The river, on the other hand, is not bogged down by sad memories and flows on. If it stands still, the river gets sullen too. The movement brings merriment and standing still makes the water turbid and sad. In the nritya, the three girls in white pranced to show the flow of the river. The men danced on their knees and did cartwheels to show the energy in its flow. The waterfall becomes unstoppable and takes everything with it. A very cute bit was the scaring of the frog, who leaps back, scared. The dancers leapt with their elbows bent. The vocalist recited the word ‘nadi’ as the birds cooed and the waterfall echoed. The choreography had a rhythm and feel which was very folksy. The synchronization, footwork and agility of the dancers was commendable. 

The concluding piece was a composition by Tanras Khan, ‘Kinare Kinare’, a bandish written in Urdu. It is a prayer to Hazrat Khidre and was written about 200-300 years ago, though the language has a contemporary feel. Expert advice was given by Madan Gopal ji and Shri Rajkumar Bharti added a sahitya to it in Tamil, bringing two languages into the piece. The composition is an appeal to the river goddess to grant happiness to all. Sharmishtha gave a riveting start to it in her vocals. Two dancers enacted sitting by the river and playing. Two lovers throw water at each other while romancing. Two boys attempting to pluck fruits. A girl walks by and two men fight over her in jealousy. While all this goes on  shore, the boat moves on. The boatman prays to the khwaja that his boat find its path and anchor on shore. The dancers went around the stage in a circle in nritta as the music faded. The entire collection of songs and poetry on rivers was a depiction of various slices of life. The flow of the river is like the flow of life and all the compositions touched the heart or reminded you of your own life. The instruments, the music and the rhythm had the feel and flavours of all the various parts of India that they were connected to. The vocals were very evocative and somehow, the melody of the voices stirred the souls. The choreography by Leela ji needs no words; it was flawless. The technique of the dancers and their hold on the rhythm while adhering to their repertoire was amazing. The abhinaya was flawless and I don’t think I can ever forget the stance of Leela ji bending over the river as the champa tree that stands on its shores. That’s the hallmark of a great performance, that it leaves a lasting mark on your memory.