I arrive at the Nehru Centre a few minutes before the show is to begin. I am impressed by the large crowd that has gathered here on a Monday night to see a classical bharatanatyam performance. There are men in sharp suits, women in silk saris, and little kids running around. We huddle in the small foyer at the bottom of the stairs waiting to be let into the theatre. The pre-performance din of excitement and conversation is suddenly interrupted. Thaka-dith-tha-thakita-dhikita-dith-tha-kitathakatharikitathom. Om Saravanabhavaya Namah. Alternating between rhythmic syllables of shollakattu and a hypnotic Murugan mantra, R.R. Prathap (Anusha’s percussionist) weaves his way to the front of the crowd, captivating our attention in this most unexpected of places. He is followed by four young women (Anusha’s students) who recite an alarippu while seated demurely on the staircase. Traditionally an opening number in the bharatanatyam repertoire meant to warm up the dancer, here, in this extended performance space, the alarippu serves to warm up the audience. Invocation becomes invitation, and we are led up the stairs to the sounds of tha-thei-theium-thath-tha-kitathaka. The show has begun and we are not even in our seats yet. My curiosity is piqued.
The performance is dedicated to Lord Muruga, the son of Siva who rides a blue peacock. A Dravidian god who was later adopted into the Aryan pantheon, he is particularly worshipped and loved by Tamils. We learn that this performance stems from a very personal place. Anusha has Tamil heritage, and as a child her mother used to sing her songs on Muruga. The programme begins with an invocation to the six-headed god. Anusha wears a red costume, Muruga’s colour, with a muted green and yellow border. It is simple and elegant, like the dancing itself. In the second item, a varnam in Raga Kamboji, Anusha infuses peacock gestures into her teermanams, creating movements that are at once familiar and striking. Her abhinaya is subtle yet clear, her nritta understated and unhurried. Only a few loose mudras detract from the high calibre of dancing.
In a Tamil padam on Lord Muruga, Anusha takes on the fiery kanditha nayika who berates her unfaithful god-lover, citing the nail marks on his chest and the strand of long hair on his clothes as all the proof she needs of his infidelity. Anusha’s portrayal of the nayika is infused with the right dose of sarcasm but also laced with a hint of regret and sadness, lending the heroine depth and pathos. The programme ended with a traditional Thillana. Just under an hour, the evening’s performance was short and sweet, but left us wanting more.
Anusha is a consummate performer and compère. She has a natural ease with the audience, a sign of her maturity as an artist. No stranger to London stages, she has been performing and teaching bharatanatyam for over twenty years and is currently the Subject Leader for bharatanatyam on the CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) programme in Birmingham. Anusha has also choreographed and collaborated on a number of classical and contemporary dance productions in her role as artistic director of Beeja, a dance theatre company in London. A trained Pilates instructor and dance movement therapist, her work has been enriched by a deep understanding of the body and somatic practices. It is, in turn, artists like Anusha who have enriched South Asian dance in this country, and continue to do so with unsung grace and quiet dedication.