On a stormy evening in London, Rich Mix was the eye of the storm featuring two serene and strong Indian classical dance forms: mohiniyattam and bharatanatyam.
Shalini Shivashankar’s school of mohiniyattam presented a triple bill Vijayam (‘victory’). Five dancers all dressed in classic dazzling gold and white mohiniyattam attire presented a salutation to Ganesha. The unmistakable slow-paced sinuous movements with no harsh lines coupled with the sound of the traditional percussion instrument firmly established the essence of the classical form. The main piece Rama saptham beautifully captured some of the popular episodes from the Ramayana: Rama’s banishment to the forest, Sita drawn by the golden deer, Ravana abducting Sita and the final battle. Set to a format in which pure storytelling was interspersed with movement sequences, the three dancers expertly drew the audience into the story with sophisticated facial expressions and mesmerised us with some well-choreographed, synchronous, fluid footwork. The concluding piece, the thillana, another well-presented piece, wrapped up the first half of the evening without perturbing the pace of the evening.
Natyasri, Geetha Sridhar’s school of bharatanatyam, presented Kavacham (‘armour’), a visualisation of a sixteenth-century hymn on Muruga, the warrior boy-god popularly worshipped in Tamil Nadu. Three dancers facing each other in a triangle under the spotlight performing the starting sequence of kalaripayattu, a martial art form from Kerala, set a strong tone for the rest of the piece. Kalari sequences to depict armours and bharatanatyam to elaborate on the various ills and afflictions against which the armour protects conjured up a war-like atmosphere. The concept was novel and the choreography was evocative. The sections depicting witchcraft and evil demons were brilliantly executed by the two young dancers with impressive theatricality. However, the senior dancer leading the piece, although grounded and forceful in spurts, for the most part lacked technique and neatness in presentation. And the curious total lack of facial expression other than a grim poker face throughout the piece directed attention away from the face, further highlighting the flaws in execution. The musical accompaniment was experimental, with a live multi-instrument percussionist combined with pre-recorded soundtrack. The quality of singing was mediocre and although the idea was novel with the theme and choice of lyrics commendable, there is plenty of room for improvement including rethinking the costumes, which at times hindered performance! There is great potential for Kavacham to become a trendsetter for those experimenting with traditional poetry, classical dance and martial arts, but only if there are major improvements in the presentation and execution of the piece.
The theme of the evening was ‘Revolution’, with each school providing their own interpretation. The mohiniyattam school presented a piece considered revolutionary for its time by condensing an all-night performance into a twenty-minute piece, thus reviving a dying piece. The bharatanatyam school chose to identify an ancient hymn with modern relevance and for the first time present it as a dance with a novel mixture of techniques without losing the classical idiom. It was wonderful to see classical forms adapt and present refreshingly new perspectives of much-heard lyrics. Akademi must be commended for persistently pushing the agenda of bringing classical forms into the limelight. The emergence of new talent combined with a long-term agenda to foster classical forms is delightful news for connoisseurs and artists and I look forward to more such shows.