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Arangetram: Anne Joseph And Akshara Shankar

Janani Swamy

Anne Joseph and Akshara Shankar presented their duo Bharatha Natyam arangetram at the Medway High School on 29September, 2019.  Anne and Akshara are students of renowned Guru Sunanda Narayanan at the Thillai Fine Arts Academy, in Newton, MA and are Guru Sunanda’s first duet arangetram. 

Anne and Akshara presented a recital that was clearly conceived and choreographed for effective duet presentation. This is not surprising considering that Guru Sunanda, in addition to being an acclaimed soloist, also gained fame for duet performances with her sister, Sumitra Nitin. This debut brought to my mind a recital by Sunanda and Sumitra in Mumbai in 1992- a wonderful performance I can still recall vividly!  

At one point in the recital, Guru Sunanda shared her belief that art, above all, should soothe and create a sense of serenity.  That conviction was crystal clear in all elements of the presentation- the selection of pieces, the choreography, the music, the aahaarya, the spoken word and ambience- which combined as homage to art.  The presentation showcased the charm of the Vazhuvoor bani in its emphasis on grace and subtlety- an aesthetic conserved through generations through the centuries. However, let no one mistake a lack of extravagance for simplicity- for the presentation brimmed with wonderful technical and artistic elements that spoke to Guru Sunanda’s vidvat and that of the senior musicians of the orchestra.  That Anne and Akshara delivered this content with aplomb is a testament to their dedication and their training under Guru Sunanda.

A duet presentation of Bharatha Natyam requires specific elements beyond the solo form- precise synchrony of movement, purposeful convergence and divergence in movement, abhinaya technique beyond character play and a merging of artistic intent. Anne and Akshara’s presentation more than satisfied these requirements and conveyed that they are indeed sisters in dance!

The recital commenced with a vintage Thodaya Mangalam, dedicated to the Gods of Vazhuvoor. This was followed by a Pushpanjali, also from the Vazhuvoor repertoire, with a Slokam in praise of Goddess Saraswathi at the end. The duet presented these items with charm and neatness of movement. The Alarippu that followed was presented in the traditional format, with use of just the solfa syllables and was refreshing in its clarity. 

This was followed by “Gam Ganapathe”, a composition of Sri Mutthaiah Bhagavathar, choreographed by Guru Rhadha and presented by her grand shishya, Anne.  Both in the sprightly adavu and in the footwork thread throughout the piece, Anne effectively conveyed the movements of the elephant God- swaying, earthy, grounded and yet, graceful.   

Next followed a kavuthuvam dedicated to Goddess Andal, the great Alwar saint revered as a Goddess.  This was presented by Akshara, beautifully bedecked as Andal. The piece was marked by a seamless flow of lyric and movement as Akshara epitomized the grace that Guru Sunanda spoke of as the mark of the Vazhuvoor bani. 

The word “treat” is overused, but is the only one that can describe the musical interlude that followed.  Gurus Tara Anand and Durga Krishnan created a spell of unhurried calm that captivated the audience.  Mention should also be made of the Sri Murali Balachandran’s lyrical and unobtrusive accompaniment throughout the entire recital, devoid of histrionics or unnecessary volume.

The audience was then snapped out of its reverie as Anne and Akshara embarked on the Varnam, dedicated to Lord Krishna- a Dharu varnam by contemporary composer Charumathi Ramachandran.  The ease and the perfection with which this piece was rendered- by Anne and Akshara as well as the orchestra- totally belied its mind boggling musical and rhythmical complexities.  In addition to being a Dharu varnam, challenge enough, the composition also comprised of Graha Bedha and Laya Bedha in the second half.  These are essentially sub-melodies and rhythms transposed on the primary structure of the composition that require tightrope balance of the dancers and musicians through every second.  However, there was no tightrope evident as the girls rendered all elements of the varnam with ease and command.  Their adavus were a joy to watch and were in perfect unison from the movement of their eyes to the height of their jumps.  Anne and Akshara presented various episodes depicting the grace of Lord Krishna, seamlessly switching from padartham (literal interpretation) to sanchari (story telling).  I will describe Guru Sunanda’s choreography simply as I wrote in my notes...“wow, wow, wow!” 

The second half of the recital commenced with “Anandha Natamidum Paadan” by Sri Papanasam Sivan. This piece interpreted Lord Shiva’s dance as not being not only in the golden hall of Chidambaram but also in the silence of our consciousness.  Anne and Akshara conveyed that sense of both movement and stillness through the adavus and poses interspersed throughout the piece.

This was followed by the Padam, “Enni Enni Manam Punnagude” in which Akshara’s portrayal of a lovelorn young maiden demonstrated her ease with Abhinaya.  With just her eyes, Akshara portrayed emotions ranging from eager anticipation, disappointment, hope and the petulance of young love.

Next followed a very special piece “Kanivolum Kamaneeya Hridayam”, in praise of Lord Jesus Christ, presented by Anne.  This piece showed us that Bharatha Natyam is as contemporary as it is ancient and transcends barriers of race and religion.  Anne depicted the compassion and love of the Lord, even as he lay on the cross.  In the prelude, set to a beautiful Shankarabaranam by Guru Tara, Anne powerfully conveyed human emotions of devotion and compassion in a touching portrayal of the story of the Good Samaritan.

The duo concluded their recital with a sprightly thillana dedicated to Lord Muruga and a Shanthi mantra that concluded the recital with the same sense of tranquility that permeated the entire presentation.

The orchestra was ably led by Guru Sunanda on Nattuvangam, accompanied by the very talented Sri Aditya Venkatesh on vocal, Sri Murali Balachandran on mridangam, Guru Smt. Tara Anand on violin and Guru Smt. Durga Krishnan on Veena.   The orchestra lifted and enhanced every aspect of the recital with many moments where music reigned- especially during the varnam in which Mohanam came alive in sound and form.

Congratulations to Guru Sunanda and Anne and Akshara for creating a most pleasing rasika experience that will endure and every best wish for many more to come.


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