To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Indian Republic, the High Commission of India in London along with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations invited Geeta Chandran, a bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer from Delhi, and her troupe to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Known for her mastery in the Thanjavur style of bharatanatyam as well as her explorations in experimental Indian dance, Chandran is well respected both in India and abroad.
The first half of So Many Journeys, set to recorded music by Sudha Raghuraman (vocal), Lalgudi Sriganesh (mridangam), and G. Raghuraman (flute), featured the more ‘traditional’ aspects of group choreography in bharatanatyam, including synchronised movements, geometric shapes and energetic jathis. It opened with Nrityanjali performed by six company dancers in elegant and colourful costumes. This was followed by two solo items by Chandran, the patriotic Vande Mataram and the classic Bho Shambho on Siva, featuring rousing tandava sequences interspersed with regal poses. The first half concluded with a group number entitled Raas, in which the dancers portrayed the gopis joyously dancing with their beloved Krishna.
The second half showcased Chandran’s contemporary choreography, opening with Unurth, a solo performed by Chandran and set to an electronic music score featuring Hindustani singer Shubha Mugdal. The piece begins with the palm of Chandran’s foot tentatively pushing itself into a thin strip of light across the floor, only to quickly retreat to the safety of darkness, like a shy girl peeking out from under her mother’s pallu. It was a brave and intriguing start, showing the foot to the audience, focusing our attention on this very intimate part of the body, which is often heard but rarely seen from this angle in bharatanatyam. This is where contemporary Indian dance can be exciting, where new meaning can be mapped in previously unexplored corporeal landscapes. Unurth’s compelling start, however, could not be sustained, giving way instead to slow, determined journeys across the stage and solemn pauses pregnant with unknown import. The evening ended on a joyous note with Seasons, set to selected compositions by Tchaikovsky. The use of a classical Indian dance vocabulary with a Western classical musical score was safe, but worked well.
Throughout the evening, Chandran danced with a graceful, confident ease, which she has clearly passed on to her dancers. In such a large space as the QEH, however, a bit more energy and athleticism would not have gone amiss. The production would also have benefited from simpler lighting and set designs. On a final note, dividing the programme into a ‘traditional’ first half and ‘contemporary’ second half set up an unhealthy juxtaposition that might be worth reconsidering for future performances. It was nevertheless a treat to see the range of work being produced by choreographers like Chandran who are at the forefront of Indian dance today.