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Orchestra From India Brings To Life Seven Bharatha Natyam Performances In Seven Weeks

Sripriya Natarajan Moorthy

A dance presentation is truly brought to life only when it is accompanied by music that touches the audience somewhere deep within their hearts and inspires the dancer to pour her soul into the performance.  This past summer in New England, a quartet of highly talented Carnatic musicians from India—gifted vocalist Sri Prasanth Parasini, masterful percussionist Sri Dhanamjayan Muthukrishnan, brilliant flautist Sri Surya Narayanan Krishnan Iyer and expert violinist Sri Muruganandhan Vasudevan—infused a special vitality into seven different Bharatha Natyam programs in just seven short weeks.  This troupe’s talent, dedication and collaborative spirit were apparent in their outstanding rendition of a fresh new margam (program set) each week.

Each of these artists is very accomplished in his own area of expertise; yet not one of them sought the spotlight.  This troupe was the embodiment of the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, working together to create a sublime collective sound that surpassed the sum of their great individual talents.  They were able to excel and delight in a variety of styles—from the utmost classical, such as the Tanjore Quartet’s jathiswaram in ragam Saveri set to Rupaka thalam, to complex contemporary pieces such as Sri Madurai R. Muralidharan’s “Jaya Maruthi Kauthuvam”, to lighter classical padhams such as S. Chidambaram’s “Kanda Naal Mudhalai”, to folk-influenced kavadi chindus, and even Hindustani-influenced Hindi bhajans.  Each of their performances was appreciated and praised in highest terms by other accomplished musicians, including renowned composer and choreographer Sri Madurai R. Muralidharan.

Their sincere dedication and ability to work collaboratively with six different dance teachers, each with her own artistic vision, were critical to the success of each program.  Particularly notable was the outstanding presentation of seven very different varnams across the seven programs.  No matter how engaging the choreography and talented the dancer, the music is especially important for a varnam, being the longest piece in a Bharatha Natyam margam.  The musicians’ delivery of each varnam excelled in handling of ragam, thalam and bhavam (emotion), energized the dancers and captivated audiences.  The diversity of the varnams truly illustrates the orchestra’s versatility; the selection ranged from classic pieces such as Sri H. N. Muthiah Bhagavatar’s “Maate Malaydvaja,” Sri Dandayudapani Pillai’s “Sakiye Indha Jalam”, Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman’s “Innum en Manam,” and Sri Balamurali Krishna’s “Amma Anandadayini” to contemporary pieces such as a special arrangement in varnam format of Saint Madhvacharya’s Dvadasa stotram on the Dasa Avataram, Sri Madurai R. Muralidharan’s “Konjum Salangai” and his varnam on Lord Anjaneya.  The orchestra’s vast musical expertise was also instrumental into creating crisp, polished pieces out of three original arrangements: Smt. Jayashree Bala Rajamani and Smt. Geeta Murali’s setting of excerpts from the Lalitha Sahasranamam, Sri Madurai R. Muralidharan’s setting of Saint Arunagirinadhar’s first Thirupughazh for Smt. Sujatha Meyyappan’s student and Smt. Ranjani Saigal’s adaptation of Sri Tulsidas’s “Sri Ramachandra Kripalu Bhaja Mana” into a sabdham.

The musicians’ talent was outstripped only by their humility, each shying away from the spotlight and never taking individual credit but always giving credit to the entire troupe.  The intense purity and devotion (bhakthi) in their music was possible only because of this humility, and their collaborative spirit ultimately enabled each artist to shine.  Vocalist Sri Prasanth Parasini, who began his training under Sri Ranganatha Sharma and currently practices Music Therapy under the guidance of renowned musician Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri, is gifted with a honey-sweet voice and simply pours emotion into each song.  This depth of emotion was essential in supporting the many expressive pieces in a Bharatha Natyam recital.  He inspired the dancers—most of whom were performing their arangetram (first full solo program)—to achieve the most intense, heart-felt display of abhinaya they could.  Sri Prasanth’s skill in rendering songs so well in a variety of languages is notable—his repertoire during this tour included songs in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit and Hindi—apart from his own mother tongue of Malayalam.  The depth of feeling in Sri Prasanth’s singing moved even those listeners unable to understand the language of a song.  His handling of ragam and fine control of his voice, especially at the higher registers, managed to infuse emotion even into the jathiswarams and thillanas, which have dozens of repetitions of the same line.

The supporting instrumentalists added a rich complexity to Sri Prasanth’s vocals and delivered beautiful instrumental solos.  Flautist Sri Surya Narayanan Krishnan Iyer’s creativity shined through his exquisite exploration of ragam in each and every piece.  The perfectly pitched notes of his flute created a divine sound that enchanted the hearts of everyone present.  It was a special treat to hear his stirring solo renditions of “Chinnan Chiru Kiliye” and a Meera bhajan during some of the musical interludes.  Sri Surya Narayanan has over 25 years of performance experience, and is also a composer.  He began training under his father Sri S. Krishna Iyer, received advanced training from renowned flautist Dr. N. Ramani and is also trained in vocal music, mridangam and piano.  He generously yet unassumingly shared his vast musical knowledge during rehearsals, helping achieve technical precision in each presentation.

Sri Muruganandhan’s violin also added wonderful depth to the music.  Trained first by his own father Sri Tanjai Vasudevan and later by maestro Sri M.S. Anantharaaman, Sri Muruganandhan evoked deep emotions with his classic, intricate handling of melodic patterns within each ragam.  Sri Muruganandhan hails from a family of dancers and dance masters, and his music expertly reflects the close attention he pays to the dancer and choreography.  The effort of Sri Surya Narayanan and Sri Muruganandhan is especially remarkable, as instrumentalists can often be underappreciated by the public in an ensemble.  They were clearly working out of their love for their art and a sincerity to do their very best work, not to earn any accolades—but such dedication naturally produced a fantastic result.

It is said, “Sruthi mata, laya pita” – music is the mother and rhythm is the father.  Nowhere is that more true than in dance, and percussionist Sri Dhanamjayan’s gifted skill provided the rhythmic backbone for the orchestra.  He can handle the most complex rhythmic patterns with absolute ease, and gave gentle yet essential guidance to novice nattuvanars such as myself.  Sri Dhanamjayan started playing mridangam at the age of three under the tutelage of Kalaimamani Coimbatore Ramaswamy Pillai and then under the guidance of his father Sri Muthukrishnan, he has specialized in playing mridangam for Bharatha Natyam.  His dynamic playing added excitement to the pure nritta segments, and especially shined during the dramatic sancharis relating stories such as Hanuman confronting Ravana in his court.  His perfectly pitched and timed sound effects brought the stories to life in a dimension beyond what dance alone could achieve.

Each of the six dance teachers with whom the orchestra collaborated, including myself, was impressed with the troupe’s professionalism, positive attitude and dedication behind the scenes.  We were awestruck with the ease with which these musicians slipped into each rehearsal.  Each artist had what seemed like an effortless command over each song, but was actually a reflection of their intense dedication during their years of training and diligent preparation.  They made a deliberate effort to work cooperatively amongst themselves to bring out the best nuances of the more complex pieces, and without hesitation took extra time during rehearsals to assist dancer or teacher.  Despite the hard work, frequent travel and time away from much-loved families, these musicians always had smiling, cheerful faces and a commitment to do nothing short of their very best work.

Without the troupe’s sense of teamwork, it would have been impossible to pull together each program in one week.  They showed an incredible ability to work with people of all different experience levels and bring out their best.  Their enjoyment of music was infectious; their sense of humor energized the rehearsals. These musicians believe in a philosophy best expressed by flautist Sri Surya Narayanan: an experienced person cannot sit from up high and look down, he must pull others up to his level.  Indeed, I can say as a first-time nattuvanar, my confidence on stage came in great part due to the knowledge that the artists who were on the stage with me were sincerely wishing for me to do well and would do everything possible to assist me.  In line with this spirit, the orchestra sincerely encouraged each one of the arangetram dancers, helping them to perform with confidence.  They were eager to encourage young and upcoming tabla artist Chi. Pranav Ghatraju, and clearly enjoyed having him join their ensemble during the two of the arangetrams.  They were eager to interact even with the youngsters in the families of the teachers and students, inspiring a love of the art of Carnatic music in the next generation.

Between their talent, their generosity and their humility, these musicians represent the very best of their profession.  As one of the teachers who were blessed to work with these artists, I can say without hesitation that this collaboration was the pinnacle of my artistic endeavors to date.  I have heard the same from my own student, and many others.  The New England dance community certainly hopes to experience the joy of working with and listening to these artists again in the very near future – seven weeks and seven performances were not nearly enough.

The orchestra’s performances were:

July 13, 2013 – Arangetram of Sheela and Lalitha Devadas  (disciples of Smt. Jayshree Bala Rajamani, Founder/Artistic Director, Bharathakalai School of Dance) at the National Heritage Museum, Lexington, MA

July 20, 2013 – Arangetram of Shuruthe Raju (disciple of Smt. Sujatha Meyappan, Director, Kolam Academy of Dance) at the Rogers Center for the Arts, North Andover, MA

July 28, 2013 – Arangetram of Shreya Hegde (disciple of Smt. Jeyanthi Ghatraju, Director, Natyanjali School of Dance) at Littleton High School, Littleton, MA

August 4, 2013 – Arangetram of Nikita Minocha (disciple of Smt. Ranjani Saigal, Director, Eastern Rhythms School of Dance) at The Pike School, Andover, MA

August 11, 2013 – Arangetram of Shilpa Narayanan (disciple of Smt. Jeyanthi Ghatraju, Director, Natyanajali School of Dance) at Littleton High School, Littleton, MA

August 18, 2013 – Arangetram of Chitanya Gopu (disciple of Smt. Sripriya Natarajan Moorthy, Director, Abhinaya Natya Sala) at Joseph P. Keefe Technical School, Framingham, MA

August 25, 2013 – Music prelude by Dr. Karaikudai S. Subramaniam on veena, Kum. Harini Rajashekar on violin and Sri Dhanamjayan Muthukrishnan on mridhangam followed by a solo Bharatha Natyam recital by Rangapriya Rajashekar (disciple of Smt. Indhra Rajashekar, Director, Natyaranga School of Dance) at Rockland Community College Cultural Arts Center, Suffern, NY

(Photo credits: Jeyakumar Sathyamoorthy and Kannan Kathi

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