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Spectacular Dance-Drama Delights Audiences In Vision-Aid’s 2018 Annual Fundraiser

Shuchita Rao

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 22, there was tremendous excitement in the air. “Golden Armor, Golden Heart – The Inspiring Story of Karna”, a multi-media production featuring 70 participants was staged at Littleton High School auditorium to raise funds for the non-profit organization Vision-Aid. In 14+ years of existence, Vision-Aid, which serves visually impaired individuals in Massachusetts and ten centers across India, has won 6 national and international awards. Their annual fundraisers featuring multi-media backed Broadway style dance-musicals have set a terrific trend in providing a platform for local Bharatanatyam dance teachers and their students to channel their passion for art towards a noble cause.  Choreographed and directed by the versatile and acclaimed composer, musician, dancer and director Shri Madurai R. Muralidharan,  this year’s dance-drama was about Karna, one of the most important characters in the epic, Mahabharata who was known for his generosity, courage and valor.

The program started at 4pm sharp with a book release ceremony (fifth book in a series to help the visually challenged) by community pillar Shri. Puran Dang who serves as the Chair of Vision-Aid’s advisory board. Thereafter, Vision-Aid President Syed Ali Rizvi, Founder and Executive Director, Shri Ramakrishna Raju and his wife Revathy who serves as Co-founder and Vice-President of Vision-Aid, welcomed the guests and sponsors.

Boston based serial entrepreneur, author and former North Eastern University professor , Shri Venkat Srinivasan and his wife Pratima were the chief guests for the event. Shri Srinivasan praised Vision-Aid for its efforts and exhorted the attendees to donate generously to support Vision-Aid’s programs. Corporate sponsor Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC) and grand sponsors Vandana and Vivek Sharma, Anuradha and Prashanth Palakurthi, Veena and Pramod Handa were acknowledged and thanked for their support.

“There are over 250 million individuals all over the world with issues related to vision impairment. What Pratima and I love about Vision-Aid is their holistic approach to rehabilitating the visually impaired. They have made available patient care, created low-cost assistive devices as well as education and training opportunities for the visually impaired so that they can get jobs. Vision-Aid has made great strides from small beginnings to becoming who they are. I hope today will be the start of when they can take even bigger steps” said Shri Srinivasan.

The next two hours were devoted to the staging of "Golden Armor, Golden Heart" dance-musical that brought to life the inspiring story of the Mahabharata character Karna, whose qualities of selflessness, loyalty and courage were exemplary. First, the cast and crew consisting of the director, the co-producers, local area dance teachers and their students, official photographer, videographer, sound engineer and other support professionals were introduced to the audience via an excellent documentary created by Shri Sarvanan Meyyappan. Then, to the recitation of dance jatis, tamil poems and melodious music provided by trained voices and skilled instrumentalists, against technology powered, visually stunning, animated backdrops, nearly 70 dancers and actors dressed in bright costumes, accessories and makeup staged the story of Karna.  Audio commentary and English subtitles of Tamil lyrics were displayed on the large backdrop behind the stage. The music was raga-based but with a modern, fusion-music like feel. The coordination and timing of rich sound effects and dramatic lighting was excellent.    

To create context, an audio commentary in English introduced the protagonist Karna to the audience as the actor along with other supporting actors walked slowly through the aisles of the auditorium interacting with the attendees. Karna was the first son of Queen Kunti and Sun God Surya, born before her marriage to King Pandu from a boon granted to her by Sage Durvasa.  Kunti, who was only fifteen years old at the time of Karna’s birth put him in a cradle and set him adrift in the mighty river Ganges. Karna was adopted by charioteer Adhirath and his wife Radha. Due to the fact that Karna was not of royal descent, he faced great hardship in finding a Guru who could teach him archery and martial arts. He became the arch rival of the legendary archer , the Pandava, Lord Arjuna to whom he finally lost his life in the epic battle between the Kauravas and Pandavas.

What was remarkable about the “Golden Armor – Golden Heart” production was that it seamlessly blended high quality recorded music and narration, live dancing (Bharatanatyam and folk) as well as acting with technology-aided, multi-media effects that enhanced the emotional impact of the presentation. The story connected the audience to the roots of Hindu philosophy by addressing topics such as Dharma (Sacred duty).  A touching question by innocent child Karna to his foster-mother Radha “What is the meaning of caste?” , the tormented queen Kunti’s feelings of remorse about abandoning her baby, queen Uruvi’s displeasure with her husband Karna for pledging loyalty to the wicked king Duryodhana and Karna’s ethical dilemma between responsibility to family vs. loyalty to his dear friend Duryodhana were among the several well executed scenes that successfully engaged the audience in the powerful dance-drama.

Five co-producers, Jeyanthi Ghatraju, Sripriya Natrajan, Hema Iyengar, Thenu Rajan and Suja Meyappan worked along with dance teachers Kalpana Balachunder, Sheethal Dwaraka, Rajesh Chenthy (who played Karna), Kavyalakshmi Muralidharan( who played Queen Uruvi), Ranjani Saigal (who played Lord Indra) and over 50-60 local participants to make Shri Muralidharan’s vision turn into reality.

Describing the work that happened behind the scenes in preparation for the grand day, co-producer Suja Meyyappan said  The show’s announcement and request of audition started in the months for February / March of 2018. We had about 60 participants and almost 75% were kids.  The selected kids started practicing in the last week of April. Initially, it was only during weekend and slowly the practices started gearing up for longer sessions. For the last three weeks everybody worked on everyday leading up to the show in practice venues across MA and NH.  Participants worked on their own for anywhere from 10-15 hours. In addition, there were group rehearsals for about 25 hours/week. There were close to 20 group rehearsals and kids and their parents were amazing in working through the tight schedule.” For the community to come together to stage a large scale multi-media production such as “Golden Armor, Golden Heart – The Inspiring Story of Karna” and in the process raise funds for award winning programs of non-profit Vision-Aid is a remarkable achievement for the Indian community in Boston.

About the experience of working with Shri Muralidharan, Suja said “It is not very often that people get an opportunity to work so closely and learn from world class composer and choreographer like Guru Madurai R Muralidharan. His experience and knowledge is vast, his creativity and talent is unmatched, but still he works hard everyday to make things better!  He patiently sits through the rehearsals, makes corrections and work with individuals on one on one basis. Kids who are used to going dance classes once a week and practicing for few minutes may find the intense practice sessions little overwhelming at the beginning, but he takes additional effort to make sure everybody understand the grand vision and how each and every participant's work is important. Kids coming back year after year is a testament to his teaching skills!”

Kudos to the cast and crew of the “Golden Armor, Golden Heart – The Inspiring Story of Karna” production, to the community of sponsors, donors, administrators and volunteers for their hard work. Year after year, Vision-Aids’s annual fundraisers not only invigorate the local arts scene but also succeeds in bringing the Boston’s Indian-American community’s helping hands together to support a noble cause.  With another successful fund-raiser from Vision-Aid, the Chief Guest, Shri Venkat Srinivasan’s apt reminder of the famous Mark Twain quote  “Kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see” made kindness a very “real” experience that could be felt by everyone who attended the event and will hopefully go a long way in helping Vision-Aid’s efforts to rehabilitate the visually impaired.

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