London audiences missed out in May as the North-West was treated to a feast of odissi, performed by Arushi Mudgal – the recipient of Milapfest’s 2010 International Touring Fellowship. In recent years, the 24-year-old niece and student of celebrated odissi artist Madhavi Mudgal has been establishing herself as a talented soloist. With impressive stamina and confidence, Arushi sailed through a programme of six items with ease and mastery, engaging both South Asian dance fans and newcomers to the genre. Arushi presented choreography from three generations of artists: the pioneering Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his disciple Madhavi Mudgal, plus her own creative work.
Opening with an iconic Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra piece, Ardhanarishwar, Arushi showed perfect poise and a mesmerising centredness. With rock-solid balance, her leg movements were as articulate as her arms as she executed poses depicting the contrasting male and female energies of Shiva and Parvati. Conveying the required masculinity of Shiva’s Tandava is a daunting task for a dancer of slender stature, but as Arushi moved from the more static section to rhythmic compositions, her strong footwork gave the performance the necessary authority.
Choreographed by the dancer herself, Bageshree was introduced as exploring the architectonics of the dance form. Although there were tantalising moments where the dancer posed facing away from the audience, generally the choreography was very frontal and did not achieve the exploration of space suggested in the introduction. However, the choice of movement vocabulary gave the item an engaging thread of tension: a playful push and pull pervaded the choreography, which successfully showcased the dancer’s crisp, fleet footwork.
In an Oriya Champu choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Arushi showed that her talent for clarity and articulation is not confined to her execution of nritta, as she adeptly portrayed the layered characterisation of a sakhi mocking Radha for her lovelorn behaviour. Arushi imparted a jovial scorn of a friend as the sakhi compared Radha’s pursuit of Krishna to that of a dwarf attempting to pluck the flowers of heaven. Arushi added a suitable touch of comedy to the role as a teasing sakhi, her warm and accessible performance defying any cultural or language barriers.
This accessibility would have been enhanced throughout the evening had Arushi simply reduced the pace of her poetically and concisely-worded introductions. Her audience would have benefitted from more time to absorb each new idea, especially when dealing with an unfamiliar narrative.
Madhavi Mudgal’s beautifully composed Vasant from Kalidas’ Ritusamhara ended the first part of the programme. With a long shloka setting the scene, the dancer roamed about the space, allowing time for each new image of spring to develop. It was particularly captivating to see the agitated bees’ flight as Arushi’s hands trembled, circled and danced around each other. With effective use of space and projection the dancer evoked an idyllic spring setting, which remained in the mind’s eye during the celebratory rhythmic conclusion.
The highlight of the evening came after the interval, with Kumarasambhavam, another epic poem by Kalidas, choreographed by Madhavi Mudgal. The subject of Parvati’s extreme penance to win the heart of her beloved Shiva is a narrative less familiar to odissi audiences. The first part of the composition depicted the episode of Kamadeva’s destruction to ashes on attempting to rouse Shiva from meditation. Then, in three succinct sections aided by atmospheric lighting, Parvati was shown serenely enduring the trials of exposure to fire, mountain-top storms and immersion in the ice-cold water of a lotus pond. The sense of devotion and drama was well conveyed. A hint towards Parvati’s suffering might add a note of more humanity to the portrayal. With a complete sense of the context, the audience was brought to the crux of the piece: a dialogue between Parvati and Shiva disguised as an ascetic. Again Arushi successfully portrayed the complex characterisation of Shiva as he acts out a role mocking himself and discretely reacting to Parvati’s flattering responses. Cleverly, as the dialogue progressed, the dancer switched between the roles of Parvati and Shiva with increased frequency, allowing the presence of two separate characters to grow stronger. At the point when Shiva’s identity is revealed, one feels a tangible sense of both characters. As the lights fade Shiva’s presence is defined in the space created by the dancer as Parvati: eyes closed with her face uplifted in rapture towards her beloved.
In her self-choreographed finale, Aahlad, Arushi really took the brakes off: weaving through the space in extended phrases of continuous movement. The unpredictable use of phrasing and exciting leaps gave the brief static moments punctured by crisp gestures and glances all the more impact. Conveying the authentic joy of an artist comfortable in her own skin, Arushi Mudgal is a performer who approaches every aspect of her dance with conscientious detail and depth coloured by her infectious vivacity.