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Evolving Traditions - A Celebration Of Dance And Music

Smitha Radhakrishnan

On April 5th, Wellesley College hosted a unique day-long celebration of South Indian music and dance, featuring special guest artists Malini Srinivasan, a NY-based dancer and choreographer, and Prasant Radhakrishnan, a Carnatic Saxophonist based in California.  The event was brought together a large and diverse audience to the campus, offering an artistic and educational treat to aficionados as well as to those from the community who had never experienced the South Indian performing arts.  

Evolving Traditions opened with a moderated panel centered around the topic, “Change vs Preservation: Dilemmas of Traditional Artists in a Contemporary Landscape.”  Along with the two guest artists, the panel discussion also featured veteran Bharatnatyam teacher and artist, Jothi Raghavan.  Moderated by Professor Neelima Shukla-Bhatt of Wellesley College, the panel discussion touched upon the challenges and opportunities of professional artists who present classical art forms in North American context.   

Raghavan emphasized the dramatic changes she has witnessed during her many years in the US, from a time when American audiences could not differentiate between Native Americans and Indians in the 1970s, to a time when even lay audiences are quite knowledgeable about India and Indian arts today.  Srinivasan and Radhakrishnan, as young, Indian-American artists who have performed both in the US and India, offered their aesthetic and artistic explanations for choosing to pursue the classical arts as their chosen professions, bringing up issues of translation, presentation, and aesthetic choices.  All the panelists emphasized the continuum between change and preservation, acknowledging the need for both aspects in order for art to evolve.  The formal section of the panel was followed by a lively interaction with the audience in a Q & A format.

After a delicious South Indian lunch catered by Dakshin Restaurant of Framingham, the audience was treated to the solo Bharatnatyam production, Ode to Love’s Arrows, featuring Malini Srinivasan and the Jayamangala orchestra.  The program concept was built around the character of Kamadeva (cupid), bringing a usually marginal character to the center of the program and emphasizing themes of love, longing, and relationships.

The audience was stunned by Srinivasan’s performance, which displayed flawless nritta and a subtle, detailed approach to abhinaya.  The varnam in Khambodi, choreographed by Srinivasan’s guru, the eminent C.V. Chandrashekar, was particularly notable; the difficult choreography was rendered with finesse, and drew a standing ovation from the audience.  The concluding Thillana, composed especially for this program by Smt. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, was a crisp and fitting finale, made all the more special by the presence of the composer in the audience.   Srinivasan’s approach to the margam, marked by her deep knowledge of Bharatnatyam and careful artistry, was appreciated by one and all.  The Jayamangala orchestra of Maryland, featuring Jaya Bala as vocalist, Shobha Subramanian on nattuvangam, Srinath Bala on mridangam, and Sandhya Srinath on violin provided a memorable musical score for a breathtaking recital.

Following a short break, the audience was enveloped by Radhakrishnan’s stirring Carnatic saxophone kutcheri.  Accompanied by mridangam virtuoso Rohan Krishnamurthy and violin veteran B.U. Ganeshprasad, Radhakrishnan presented a series of classic kritis, featuring ragas seldom rendered on saxophone.

The audience was mesmerized by the soulful melodic style of the concert.  Radhakrishnan premiered his rendition of the famous composition of Dikshitar’s, Sri Dakshinamurthe, which has never been performed on saxophone due to the unique challenges of playing Shankarabharanam raga on the instrument.   Radhakrishnan handled the complicated misra jhumpa tala with aplomb.  The main piece, Balagopala, emphasized the vocal qualities of the song, and had the audience singing along, a significant accomplishment on an instrument often criticized as being unable to capture the nuances of “heavy” ragas such as Bhairavi and the inflections of the saahityam.  Krishnamurthy’s elaborate and skillful tani avardanam wowed the audience.  The concert concluded with an energetic and moving presentation of the popular kriti, Shiva Shambo.

Evolving Traditions was made possible through the generous support of Wellesley College’s Davis World Arts and Culture Fund, with co-sponsorship by the Rebecca B. Treaves fund, the Departments of Music, History, Sociology, South Asia Studies, Theater, the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, and the Slater International House.  Pictures and artwork by Ganesh Ramachandran.

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