The buzz at the Southbank Centre, with close to sold-out performances throughout the programme, demonstrates the growing momentum of the Darbar Festival. On the final evening, the organisers scheduled a leap into the world of classical Indian dance; a decision that I am sure they do not regret.
Accompanied by live music, the shining light of British bharatanatyam – Seeta Patel – performed Margam on the theme of Lord Krishna. The complete margam is rarely seen on UK stages, perhaps due to a misconception that solo dance will not hold the attention of audiences for a full evening, or perhaps due to the rarity of a creative team of such high calibre and commitment to innovative, classical bharatanatyam. The programme did not slavishly cover each item in the traditional repertoire but consisted of carefully-constructed and curated choreography by trail-blazer Mavin Khoo, with creative contributions from the performer herself.
Emerging from a hazy atmosphere, Patel opened with Maragata maNimaya, introducing the audience to images of Krishna and framing the evening within the bhakti sentiment of dancer as devotee. Guy Hoare’s lighting design emphasised Patel’s striking silhouette and the laser precision of her arm-lines which cut through the shafts of light illuminating the smoke surrounding her.
The synergy between dance and music was present throughout the evening, with a rich soundscape created by percussionist Senthuran Premakumar, flautist Madhusoodanan and violinist Achuthan Sripathmanathan. Vocalist and experienced bharatanatyam accompanist Y. Yadavan gave a heartfelt performance, adding to the expressive power of the music. All this was underpinned by the tight conducting of Vanathi Bosch, who rendered the sollukettu with clarity and precision to match Patel’s dance.
In the evening’s central piece, Varnam: Sakhiye inda vElayil, Patel navigated the heights and depths of physical desire and spiritual yearning. The nayika’s emotional journey was punctuated by vibrant sections of nritta in the shifting landscape created by the pools and corridors of Hoare’s lighting. A strong tension between pleasure and pain was woven through the many scenes: locked in a soulful gaze with an imagined Krishna, fingertips lightly marking the sites of his kisses; dodging about the stage, cowering, and then surrendering as cupid’s arrows wounded her.
Shringara and bhakti were powerfully evoked from the moment mayura hasta came into sight, tracing a winding journey, to the final pose of tense anticipation in kumbha pada as the light faded. For a fifty-minute piece that begins and ends with the nayika pining for Lord Krishna, this is no mean feat and attests to the strength of the choreography and performance.
Switching from lustrous peacock blue to a saffron yellow costume with a slight translucence that caught the light in its crisp pleats, Patel returned after the interval. Likewise, her persona shifted from the femme fatale to Krishna’s loving mother Yashoda in Padam: Enna Thavam. Patel’s tender, joyful portrayal demonstrated her versatility and was a pleasure to watch. In Padam: Ninnu Joochi Patel portrayed the wife of Krishna, overwhelmed by emotion on his return after a long absence. This cleverly-selected piece acted somewhat as a resolution for the cliff-hanger ending of the varnam without being a direct continuation of the same narrative. Shedding the intricacy and physical exuberance of the varnam, this padam, performed mainly in a seated position, focused on the flood of emotions washing over the nayika. Poignantly portrayed was the wife’s lasting grief of separation, which could not be erased in an instant on her husband’s return, despite an enduring devotion.
A book-end to complement the opening item, Madhuraashtakam expressed the joy of bhakti. With arms outstretched, reminiscent of the abandonment of kirtan, Patel danced to this song of praise rendered beautifully by Yadavan. The audience left with a spring in their step, a tune on their lips and a multitude of beautiful images on which to reflect.