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Navarasa Nayikas: A Creative And Collaborative Exposition Of The Nine Fundamental Moods Of Classical Indian Dance

Sripriya Natarajan Moorthy

(This article is sponsored by Masala Art)

(View the complete photo gallery - Photos: Courtesy - Saravanan Meyappan)

Eleven dancers took their audience on a captivating journey through the nine rasas (moods) of classical Indian dance in Navarasa Nayikas (November 13, 2010, Kresge Auditorium, MIT).  This performance was most notable for creating a cohesive artistic experience by bringing together differences – three different styles of classical Indian dance (Bharatha Natyam, Kuchupudi and Odissi), traditional Carnatic melodies with modern instruments and percussion, stories from far-apart regions of India, and most impressively, the creative minds of eleven accomplished dancers and dance teachers.  This show was a fitting fundraiser for MITHAS (MIT Heritage Arts of South Asia), one of New England’s premier organizations for the promotion of South Asian performing arts.

Rasa is a concept originating from the Natya Sastra, the original treatise on Indian performing arts, written some 2,000 years ago.  The rasas originally were comprised of eight fundamental emotional states, and a ninth one was added during the tenth century to create the Navarasas as we now know them.  Producers and Bharatha Natyam dancers Jeyanthi Ghatraju and Ranjani Saigal, along with Sushila Bhambhani, Sujatha Meyyappan, Mari Shakthi Muthuswamy, Thenu Rajan, Jayshree Bala Rajamani, Sridevi Ajai Thirumalai (Bharatha Natyam), Neena Gulati (Bharatha Natyam and Kuchupudi), Jayashree Mohapatra and Mouli Pal (Odissi), chose to depict these nine moods through the stories of heroines from a wide variety of Indian stories.  Their creative choreography and expressive dancing, combined with the lively, evocative music from V.K. Raman’s album “Navarasa – Eternal Emotions” and dramatic, lucid narration by Bharatha Natyam teachers Sangeetha Vijey and Sunanda Narayanan, made the performance incredibly accessible and enjoyable even to audience members who were not familiar with the traditions of classical Indian dance.

The program commenced with a striking invocation, featuring all eleven dancers showcasing their own dance forms, yet blending together.  Then the first group of dancers (Ghatraju, Pal, Meyyappan, Mohapatra, Rajan and Saigal) presented Sringara (love, beauty) through the depiction of Radha’s and the gopikas’ encounters with Krishna.  The bold, sharp form of the Bharatha Natyam dancers contrasted with the sinuous grace of the Odissi dancers, and coming together, they depicted the many facets of romantic love—attraction, flirtation, devotion.

The next group of dancers (Gulati, Rajamani and Thirumalai) brought alive the wonder of the natural world to depict Adbhutam (amazement).  As the dancers marveled at finding graceful waterfalls, beautiful fish and a pearl inside an oyster, they truly transported the audience from the dark walls of Kresge Theatre to the sunlit outdoors.  The dynamic dancing of the three dancers filled this piece with energy.

Then the third group of dancers (Bhambhani, Mohapatra and Muthuswamy) enacted the story of Chandalika (girl from the caste of “untouchables”).  This piece was a touching depiction of Bhibatsam (aversion).  The Chandalika Prakriti, played charmingly by Mari Shakthi Muthuswamy, is despised by her fellow villager, portrayed by a scornful Jayashree Mohapatra, and even by herself, merely on account of her caste.  Cleverly, the three dancers brought out the Bhibatsam rasa by enacting its contrast: the Buddhist monk Ananda, played with great compassion by Sushila Bhambhani, requests and accepts water from Prakriti, telling her that all are equal in God’s eyes.  This piece too, included a lovely interlude combining Bharatha Natyam and Odissi steps.

Ghatraju, Pal, Meyyappan, Rajan and Saigal returned to showcase a pair of rasas, Veeram (heroism) and Raudram (anger), through the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s heroine Chitrangada.  Mouli Pal gave a graceful yet strong performance as Chitrangada, a princess who is schooled in the fighting arts by valiant instructors (Ghatraju, Meyyappan, and Rajan).  It was fascinating to see subtle differences between Bharatha Natyam and Odissi depictions of the same action, for example, Bharatha Natyam dancer Thenu Rajan emphasizing the majesty of wielding a bow, and Mouli Pal emphasizing the nimbleness of shooting an arrow.  An especial delight was watching Sujatha Meyyappan and Mouli Pal execute fast knee spins while fighting with the staff.   Hunting in the woods one day, Chitrangada interrupts the meditations of Arjuna, played by an energetic Ranjani Saigal.  Arjuna flies into a rage, which is soon transformed into disdain when he mistakes Chitrangada to be a mere boy.  Here, V.K. Raman’s music was supplemented by a rendition of Rabindra Sangeet, to depict Chitrangada’s far calmer but equally deep fury at Arjuna for not taking her seriously as the brave warrior princess she is.  Arun Saigal’s English voiceover helped the audience follow the story, enacted convincingly by each dancer.

Gulati, Rajamani and Thirumalai now returned to bring Bhayanakam (fear) to the audience through a pair of stories from the two central epics of Indian culture—Sita’s abduction by Ravana from the Ramayana, and Dushasana’s attempted disrobement of Draupadi from the Mahabharatha.  The dancers began with an artistic dance sequence using black veils as a novel prop to depict the sense of fear.  During the first story, Neena Gulati played a terrified Sita, whose predicament was made even more heart wrenching by Sridevi Ajai Thirumalai’s brilliant portrayal of Ravana as a smiling tormentor who clearly took pleasure from his every evil action.  Next, Thirumalai switched roles to depict a mortified Draupadi while the insolent Dushasana, skillfully portrayed by Jayshree Bala Rajamani, attempted to disrobe her in front of the entire court.  Another creative interlude in this piece was Neena Gulati’s novel interpretation of tarangam (the plate dance characteristic of Kuchupudi) for this rasa.  Instead of bringing in the plate in and out in the usual majestic manner, Gulati appeared to hide behind it, looking hither and tither fearfully.

Bhambhani, Mohapatra and Muthuswamy next depicted Karunyam (compassion) through the story of Sabari from the Ramayana.  Jayashree Mohapatra brought alive the old woman, especially through her astonishing rendition of a hunched back that she maintained perfectly throughout the episode.  Having nothing but berries to offer to Lord Rama, Sabari tastes each one and gives only the sweet ones to him, much to the disgust of Lakshmana, played haughtily by Mari Shakthi Muthuswamy.  Out of compassion for Sabari’s age and devotion, Lord Rama, played with much equanimity by Sushila Bhambhani, accepts each berry with delight and blesses her.

In the penultimate piece, Ghatraju, Pal, Meyyappan, Rajan and Saigal presented a light-hearted look at kurathi (gypsy) life to show hasya (mirth).  After they together performed a lively koothu (South Indian folk dance), the Bharatha Natyam dancers teased Mouli Pal, by reading her palm and predicting false, humorous fortunes.  Of especial delight to the children in the audience was Jeyanthi Ghatraju’s uninhibited depiction of a monkey come to tease Pal’s character.  The dancers took every opportunity to make the audience join in this rasa and laugh with them, ending with Ranjani Saigal wandering off in the wrong direction.

The show ended with all eleven dancers coming together to depict Shantham (peace, tranquility), using handheld candles to enhance this mood.  This piece was a fitting ending, not only in its graceful depiction of the rasa, but also in highlighting the cooperative nature of this group of talented artists.  The entire show was very impressive in the talent of the dancers’ execution, the creativity of their choreography and the power of V.K. Raman’s music—every member of the audience had felt each rasa in their own hearts during the performance.  Most impressive, however, was how these dancers were able to bring their different forms, styles and opinions together to put together a unified show.  They each stayed true to their art, and yet brought innovation and collaboration to the program.  Their next performance together will surely mesmerize the audience all over again.

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