Dancing the Gods Festival
27 Apr: Kalanidhi Dance
28 Apr: Sujata Mohapatra and Musiciains
New York, Symphony Space
27/28 April 2019
We’re lucky in New York to get as much classical Indian dance as we do. Several festivals return year after year, including, in the spring, Dancing the Gods, curated by the dancer and scholar Rajika Puri and presented by the World Music Institute. Puri keeps things varied by bringing dancers specializing in different dance styles each year; in this way, the New York audience has been gradually educated in the contrasts between bharatanatyam, odissi, kathak, kuchipudi, etc. Some artists come directly from India, others are part of the increasingly rich Indian-dance scene here in the US.
This year’s festival lasted two nights, as it usually does, opening with Kalanidhi Dance, a Maryland-based company specializing in kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southeast India. On the second night, the distinguished odissi dancer Sujata Mohapatra gave a solo recital. Odissi, which originated in the Eastern state of Odisha, was originally a solo form performed by women as part of religious rituals. (There was a male version as well, performed outside of the temples by young boys.) The shapes and poses of the dancers are strongly reminiscent of temple reliefs, with the body gracefully and sensually curved, creating a strong opposition of the head, spine, hips, and knees. The resulting shape is roughly an “S” through the body, known in Indian dance as tribhanga.
Kuchipudi, in contrast, was originally performed in the context of dance dramas put on by troupes of male Krishna devotees. Its nature evolved during the period of Indian independence, when the concept of classical Indian dance, as opposed to regional dance forms, emerged. The kuchipudi we see today at recitals is a distillation, with much of the dance-drama removed. So it was particularly welcome to see Kalanidhi Dance bring back aspects of this more dramatic style of presentation. Their show, Rasa: Evoking Nine Emotions, was a kind of compendium of the various emotions (rasas) depicted in the dance dramas, organized around stories from the Ramayana, one of two important Sanskrit Epics.
Anuradha Nehru, the company’s director, has come up with a concept that is wonderfully vivid, offering glimpses of the more grotesque and humorous sides of Indian dance, often left aside in contemporary concert performances. I was particularly struck by the almost mask-like expressions, wild-eyed, with lips shaped into a fearful grimace, for the demon king Ravana. And the wanton behavior – rolling on the ground, scratching of heads, exaggerated expressions of pleasure – of her sister demonesses. In contrast, a battle scene for Rama and Ravana (an illustration of the veeram, or courage, rasa) impressed with its epic dimension; the viewer understood exactly what was at stake as these two giants faced off on the battlefield. The choreography for the two men, entering on chariots – dancers in stylized, heroic poses – was a real coup de théâtre; it brought you directly into the action.
These scenes are embedded within a frame of more abstract dance; here, too, Nehru, in collaboration with her co-choreographer Kishore Mosalikanti, exhibited imagination and skill. Patterns moved fluidly across the stage, morphing into lines, curves, circles and diagonals. An early duet for Rama and Sita illustrated the harmony of two bodies becoming one through graceful movements for the arms. In the final section the dancers formed patterns that eventually resolved into a lotus flower formation, with Rama at the center, swaying slightly, a lovely image. The only discordant tone in the evening was the music, a recording of an original composition by B.V. Balasai that included a variety of jarring electronic sounds.
I confess to a certain ambivalence about the second entry in the festival, the solo evening by Sujata Mohapatra. Her mastery is unquestionable – the subtle ways she uses her lips and eyes and wrists, and the great beauty of her movements – but as a whole, I found the evening somewhat static, more sculptural than dynamic, and lacking in contrasts between the sections. The music, though beautifully performed by the ensemble on one side of the stage, also stayed within what felt like a rather narrow range of tempi and dynamics.
What I missed most was the choreographic imagination and rhythmic vitality – and the sense of surprise – of a dancer-choreographer like Surupa Sen, of the ensemble Nrityagram, and her partner Bijayini Satpathy. This may well be intentional. Mohapatra’s style is more intimate; she works like a miniaturist, using just a small part of the stage and a smaller palette of movements in each number. The pleasure is in the details, like the way she moves her wrists in a pure-dance passage, creating a delicious contrast with her torso and arms. Or her slow, sensual walk, shifting her weight sumptuously from hip to hip. Or the even, smooth, cosmic way she pivots from one direction to another.
She is also a marvelous actress, both in face and body. The highlight of the evening, for me, was a scene in which she depicted an old woman from the Ramayana, Shabari, as she offered food to Lord Rama. The physical mimicry was astonishing, as she bent her body deeply at the waist, taking the posture of an old crone, her eyes filled with tears, incredulous at the presence of her distinguished visitor. Slowly, she picked berries, tasting them in order to gauge their sweetness, offering them to her guest, then bending forward even more deeply to caress his feet. At one point, Mohapatra became Rama, serenely accepting this extraordinary gesture of humility and adoration. The vividness and intimacy of the scene was extraordinary.
Moments like this one, small revelations, are the specialty of Indian classical dance; one is simply thankful to festivals like Dancing the Gods for the opportunity to see them.