Asian Music and Dance


It was a typical February evening in London: grey skies with a light drizzle, one that doesn’t invoke much joy. But when the house lights dimmed and the first twang of sitar filled the space, we may well have been in a Mogul court preparing to be dazzled. We were not disappointed. Sonia Chandaria, the emerging kathak talent of the Lucknow school, was first in order of appearance. Her presentation of teental was filled with crisp bols, impeccable footwork and fluid grace. Her strengths were the energy she exuded and the sparkle in her eye. Even when reciting the bols, her eyes danced and skipped as if the words were not necessary to maintain the rhythm. Her rapport with the sitar player was exquisite, although at times it appeared that she wasn’t entirely happy with the pace of the percussion. She would also benefit from interspersing her high-energy routine with some breathers to ground the performance. Her abhinaya performance to the accompaniment of only the voice of the singer was innovative, although the use of rhythm-based moves in a pure abhinaya number wasn’t entirely effective. 

The Mogul court was quickly transformed into a Shiva temple. Santosh Nair, a bharatanatyam dancer of the Vazluvur school, presented a philosophical devotional piece. Santosh had a captivating stage presence with the assuredness of a seasoned performer. Brisk, precise footwork and a command over the emotions conveyed throughout the piece were commendable. It was very well choreographed with highlights that lingered. The depiction of Shiva emphasising the damaru (drum) in the wide-stanced ardha mandala, the subtle yet constant ramping-up of the pace throughout the piece to convey the idea of cycles of creation and destruction with continuous repetition of the main phrase all heightened the experience. At times Santosh was carried away by the energy of the piece resulting in sharp movements, bordering on jerky staccato moves that were unwarranted. She must also watch out for the wandering foot in the araimandi stance that was more than once somewhere in-between a technically correct araimandi and a wide-stanced ardha mandala. Her second piece was a kavadi describing Krishna and all living creatures dancing to his tune. A lovely piece set to cycles of five, Santosh’s execution was flawless and as intended by the choreographer. 

Hiten Mistry, the final emerging dancer of the evening, is from the Kalakshetra style of dance. He had undertaken the challenging task of choreographing his own pieces. In contrast to the other dancers who had a more turbo-charged approach, Hiten had a serene and calming presence. Clear and clean footwork, a balanced and symmetrical choreography alongside well-rounded theermanams gave a complete feel to the piece. However, moving straight into Amba stuti from the Nrittanjali was abrupt and distracting. In executing the piece, Hiten would have benefited immensely from more ‘azuttham’ (loosely translated as ‘tautness’) in his performance. His experimentation with the music for the Meera bhajan was intriguing. Although the voice of the singer was mellifluous and most apt for a bhajan, the accompanying guitar was not to my taste and at odds with the mood of the piece. Longing for Krishna, Meera sees him in all objects around her: a peacock feather, a flute, all beautifully depicted. Hiten performed nuanced abhinaya that sometimes was lost, partly as a result of the accompanying music but mainly due to dim lighting. All three dancers’ abhinaya would have been more effective in better light. Lighting gimmicks enhance pure dance moves but do a disservice to abhinaya. Using speech as part of the Meera bhajan was also a useful addition; however, it was barely audible to those seated further away. 

Minor flaws aside, all three dancers made excellent presentations that bode well for the small but strong Indian classical dance scene in the UK with continued support from Akademi and mentors such as Stella Subbiah and Sujata Banerjee.  

Technical terms:

Kavadi: Folk music/dance 

Araimandi: The basic bharatanatyam stance of half-sitting with turn-out at hip, knee and foot with heels touching.

Ardha mandala: A half-sitting position as above with heels further apart.

Theermanam: A rhythmic phrase repeated three times that acts as a full stop (tehai in Hindustani music).



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