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Upasana: A True Artistic Worship By Nilanjana Nambiar

Suryaa Ramaswamy

Upasana: A true artistic worship by Nilanjana Nambiar

Having spent a considerable number of my childhood years in the cultural hub of Chennai, Mylapore, I have had my fair share of witnessing breathtaking performances by the luminaries of Bharatanatyam during prized evening slots at renowned Chennai sabhas. However, it was in the unassuming auditorium of a suburban high school in MetroWest Boston, that I encountered a performance that stood shoulder to shoulder with the kind of performances I have seen in Chennai.  

On September 23rd 2023, when I watched Nilanjana Nambiar, daughter and student of Guru Sapna Krishnan, take her place in the Ashland high school stage, a world away from the hallowed halls of Chennai's cultural institutions, I was left utterly spellbound. Her sweat soaked dedication, relentless hard work, and the astounding combination of power and grace that she showcased, were nothing short of extraordinary - a true testament to her unwavering love for this art form. In those moments that sent shivers down my spine, I was so moved that I would have willingly paid a hefty price to watch a show of such extraordinary calibre in this country. 

The invocatory number in Hamsadhwani was followed by a beautiful Amba Stuthi, depicting the divine feminine. These pieces set the mood for the viewers to enjoy the grandeur of her Varnam. The varnam, Sri Krishna Kamalanatho, in beautiful Reethigowla, was filled with power packed jathis and abhinaya intricacies - each of them delving deep into the depths of human emotion. In a matter of moments, she transformed from a heavily pregnant Devaki, writhing with pain into Vasudeva, with her eyes reflecting the longing and love as he gazed upon infant Krishna one last time, destined for exchange in Nanda's house at Gokulam. The audience could feel the depth of her emotion, as if they were transported to that poignant moment in history. Then, with a graceful transition, she became Yashoda, delicately rocking the cradle of a sleeping little Krishna, radiating maternal affection and adoration, capturing the tenderness of the scene. In another awe-inducing sequence, she embodied Poothana, seamlessly transitioning from the rowdy-like gait of a demoness to lady-like poise of the gopikas in Gokulam, showcasing her versatility as a performer. The serenity and blissful experience of breastfeeding, the lifeless Poothana lying on the floor with open eyes, not even moving an eyeball or batting an eyelid, and the torment of Arjuna's mind during the Kurukshetra war - all these moments were so meticulously choreographed by the Guru and brought to life by Nilanjana, leaving the audience in awe of her talent and the power of dance to convey such emotions and stories. At the conclusion of the mesmerising varnam, her portrayal of Lord Krishna taking Vishwaroopam with dialogues from Srimad Bhagavad Gita, aptly delivered with the right emotional touch by the vocalist Sri Sudev Warrier,  left me with goosebumps.A fellow rasika sitting near me in the auditorium quipped that it is the auspicious Saturday of Tamil month Purattasi, a day held in deep reverence by devotees of Lord Vishnu. In that extraordinary instant, I couldn't help but wonder whether this occurrence was a coincidence or a statement crafted by the hands of destiny itself.

There was never a shortage of fireworks in Nilanjana’s crisp 2 hour recital, titled ‘Upasana’, to showcase her worship for this dance form. Be it her textbook like flawless ‘theermanams’ or her effortless transition from ‘muzhumandis’ to swirling movements in the midst of third speed jathis or her acrobatic Nataraja leaps or her perfectly perpendicular heels during ‘kudittamettu adavus’ even at the fag end of a challenging korvai, she was in absolute control over her nritta, taalam, layam and stamina throughout the evening. A self choreographed damaru jathi and shiva tandavam were shining examples in this regard. 

For the abhinaya segment, she chose two popular songs ‘Kanda naal mudhalai’ and ‘Manasa Sancharare’. As she depicted Kuchela's struggles, his desperation palpable, the audience could feel his pain and suffering. However, the most emotive portrayal came at the end, where Kuchela's tears of despair transformed into tears of overwhelming gratitude for his friend Krishna. Her portrayal was so compelling that it tugged at the heartstrings of everyone watching and left many members of the audience, teary-eyed. It was a moment of collective epiphany, where the future of the New England cultural scene suddenly seemed brighter and full of promise, with the assurance that Bharatanatyam would continue to thrive and captivate audiences without any fear of fading into obscurity, in the presence of such exceptional talents. 

The breathtaking dance recital was beautifully complemented by a team of talented technicians and a superb orchestra. Light effects by Mr.Athipathy Pandy, carefully tailored to each scene, set the perfect stage. Live orchestra featuring vocals by Sri EP Sudev Warrier, percussion by Sri Nagarajan Shanmughalingam, flute by Sri Thiagarajan Ramani and violin by Sri Anandhu Lal infused magic and brought the performance to life. Thanks to the impeccable sound engineering by Mr.Sathish Movvar, the clarity of each instrument resonated beautifully through the speakers. The much sought-after dance make up artist, Ms.Anu Metra worked wonders and elevated Nilanjana’s appearance to a level of sheer brilliance. 

As Nilanjana concluded the recital with a unique K Dhandayudhapani Pillai thillana in Ragam Desh and thanked the Lord for bestowing her with this art form, a long line of well wishers formed queue, eagerly awaiting their turn to share some thoughts and congratulate this exceptionally humble 23-year old. What I couldn't help notice was that, as they approached her, their words seemingly failed them. Her dance had spoken to their souls, and in return, all they could offer was a heartfelt hug, and a wordless tribute to the profound power of her art. 

.. and for this remarkable dancer, the heart of this dance enthusiast brims with eager anticipation,awaiting the kind of performances she holds in store for New England rasikas in the future.

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