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Arangetram: Bhairavi Chandrashekar

Anuradha Annaswamy

On October 1, 2017, on a beautiful New England day, Bhairavi Chandersekhar brought the exquisite 2000 year-old art form of Bharatanatyam to life, in Newton South High School, Newton, Massachusetts in her debut performance, Arangetram, the ascending of the stage.

The program began with Thodaya Mangalam, an invocation that belongs to the dance tradition of the Vazhuvoor village in Tamil Nadu. This invocation is in praise of Gnanasabesa and Balankurambigai, the reigning deities of Vazhuvoor, and the song is usually sung as a curtain-raiser. With this piece setting the tone and focusing the audience attention on what’s to follow, Bhairavi’s debut performance began.

Her first piece was Pushpanjali, which literally means a salutation with flowers to God. Aptly, in this case, Bhairavi offered the Pushpanjali to the Lord of dance Nataraja, the Guru, the musicians and the audience. The item concluded with a song in Tamil, Nadarupini, a composition by Ambujam Krishna, set to the ragam Saraswati sung in the format of a viruttam, a vocal rendering without any rhythmic accompaniments.  With a brilliant smile, beautiful countenance, confident footwork, and flowing grace, Bhairavi put the audience at ease and eager to see the rest of the performance unfold.

The Pushpanjali smoothly segued into a core component of all Bharatanatyam pieces, Alarippu, which means ‘blossoming’. Set to a Misram (set of seven) beat, the Alarippu is a pure dance number, displaying the harmony of movements between the head, hands, and feet, in multiple speeds. Throughout this piece, Bhairavi’s dance was accompanied by an intricate vocal rhythmic arrangement, sollu kattu. Her performance here was a perfect testimony to the thousands of hours of practice that Bhairavi has put in to perfect the art form leading to a mastery over the coordination of her hands, feet, shoulders, and eyes, with precision, grace, and fluidity.

The pace of the evening shifted into the next gear with the second piece, an invocation to Lord Ganesha, a divine patron of the arts and the symbol of the primordial sound, Om, and the symbol of Pranavam which represents the core of the Vedas.  Titled Ananda Narthana Ganapathim Bhavaye, which means “Oh Lord Ganesha who dances with bliss, I worship you,” is a kriti and an important piece in the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Bhairavi embodied the essence of the elephant’s swaying movements with ease and grace, in a crisp 10-min format.  This composition was by Oothukkadu Venkatasubbaier, set to Ragam Nattai, and flawlessly rendered by the orchestra.

The crown jewel of Bhairavi’s performance was the Varnam, designed to showcase all aspects of the art form including intricate foot work, abhinaya, and graceful movements. Bhairavi delivered all of them with perfection. This piece, Senthil Vaazh, a relatively new composition by  T.R. Subramaniam in the Ragam Hamir Kalyani, is about the beauty of Muruga, His valor, and his protection of those who surrender to him. Through dazzling choreography, Bhairavi conveyed the lyrics with charm, beauty, energy, and effortlessness.

After a brief intermission, Bhairavi continued to impress us in the second half of her debut performance with her skilled portrayal of the multi-dimensional aspects of the Bharatanatyam art form. These include a Kriti, a Padam, a Javali, and a Thillana. The first piece was a Padam on Krishna, Gummana Kareyadire, a Devara Nama composed by Purandara Dasa, in Ragam Karaharapriya. We no longer saw Bhairavi in front of us, but Krishna, a young five-year-old child, who was beseeching his mother, Yashoda, to please ask the boogeyman to go away. He promises that he will be good, eat his food, not steal butter, not suck his thumb, not bully the young children or tease the older ones, not eat mud (!), and not play (let alone dance) with snakes. That she had us all smiling with moist eyes by the end of this piece is sheer testimony to Bhairavi’s honed abhinayas and her guru Sunanda to have skillfully trained her to channel her inner child and provide this beautiful exposition. Hands down, my favorite piece of the evening!

Next, Bhairavi performed a Kriti, Aadum Padhanai, set to Ragam Latangi, and composed by Ambujam Krishna. Bhairavi masterfully conveyed the spirit of the composition, which is in praise of Lord Nataraja and how poets and saints rejoice with the darshan of His dance. Bhairavi transported us to the world of temples through the depiction of various statuesque poses.

Javali Sakhiye Vinuma in Ragam Sankarabharanam came next – Javalis are lilting songs dealing with day-to-day emotions and situations. This piece deals with a lovelorn heroine who confides in her 'sakhi' (friend) about her love. She requests the friend to go deliver her message of love to the hero and ask him to come to meet her. The challenge of this piece is to convey the essence of Sringara, which consists of complex, nuanced, and mature emotions including passion, despair, longing, and loneliness. Bhairavi rose to the occasion splendidly, and brought the heroine to life brilliantly.

The final piece that Bhairavi performed is a Tillana, a brisk and lively item performed towards the end of an arangetram. The item was a kaleidoscope of flowing patterns of footwork, rhythm, musical adavus woven together, and everything coming together in a joyous and celebratory manner. Bhairavi rendered this visual image with poise and perfection, filling all of our hearts with sheer happiness!

As the visual feast that Bhairavi provided enriched our souls, the orchestral support at the arangetram filled our hearts to the brim. Asha Ramesh’s impeccable renditions of every piece from the Thodaya mangalam to the concluding benediction and her skillful reveal of the core emotions of each raga from Saraswati to Kamas was an absolute treat. The melodious accompaniments of the violin maestro Tara Anand and flautist Sumhith Aradhyula were the icing on the cake. The powerful rhythmic support from the veteran mridangist Murali Balachandran was impeccable and had us all tapping on our toes! The entire performance was guided expertly by Guru Sunanda Narayanan from start to finish, including the succinct and extempore introduction of each song and the precisely timed and spirited sollu kattu. The musical interlude prior to the Varnam of Brova Barama in the majestic Bahudhari Raga by Tara was a special treat.

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