Classical dancers in Kerala are thinking outside the box to take dance to a new generation of viewers even during the lockdown. April 29 is World Dance Day…
The dance is classical but the steps are in tune with contemporary subjects and concerns. As the pandemic wreaks havoc all over the world, classical dancers in Kerala are stepping up to an artistic challenge by choreographing dance pieces that highlight different aspects of the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Arathy Sathyanarayanan, for instance, tells a story about a flower seller and her infant son. Mother and son share some tender moments as she sings him a lullaby. As the lockdown to battle the pandemic comes into force, her only source of livelihood withers away and then her lullaby is to put him to bed, hoping that sleep will make him forget his hunger pangs. Eventually, as the days pass by, her son loses his fight for survival and the mother is left alone.
Poland-based Arathy narrates the tragic story through the visual language of Bharatanatyam. “Perturbed by what I was reading in the media about the plight of labourers and itinerant workers, I wanted to respond to the ripple effect caused by the Coronavirus on many helpless people leading a hand-to-mouth existence,” she says. Arathy used the lyrics to come up with an evocative and moving performance to highlight the plight of thousands of displaced labourers.
“So to ensure that contemporary viewers are able to assimilate the message even without the knowledge of the language, I prefer to express myself, which, for me, is Bharatanatyam. I chose not to use any complex mudras or adavus but yet use the grace of this language. I did not use any traditional lullaby or classical music. Instead, I danced to this popular lullaby, so that people could relate to and see the reality and not the exaggeration that might have been used in the traditional form of Bharatanatyam that is solely for the purpose of entertainment,” says Arathy.
Prior to Arathy’s recital, which she has shared on her Facebook page, many dancers in Kerala had come up with their own creative works. If danseuse Methil Devika turns the Coronavirus into a demon that will eventually be conquered by science, Mohiniyattam dancer Neena Prasad’s ‘Tharanam cheyyanam’ calls for introspection to understand our responsibility towards nature and not to take the bounty of nature for granted.
Saying that it is time to listen to the rhythm of nature, Neena’s performance exhorts viewers to collectively overcome the pandemic. Sumitra Nair’s ‘We shall overcome’ depicts how medical practitioners and the authorities are fighting the pandemic, while Dhanoop’s ‘Song of valour’, sung magnificently by Sithara Krishnakumar, personifies man’s defiance and determination to vanquish the virus.
Devika was perhaps among the first few dancers to react artistically to the pandemic and come up with a number that was inspired by an 18th-century composition of Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Her video, released on April 1, has been seen by close to 2,50,000 viewers. Her piece dwells on how we must protect ourselves and society and says that one must “be cautious but compassionate, fearless but respectful of existence.”
She says she chose Dikshitar’s composition because it specifically speaks about the various miseries mankind faces. “Although Dikshitar’s is a prayer to the Divine mother, I have taken the lyrics to suit the theme of our battle against the Coronavirus and the precautions one must take to prevent its spread,” says Devika.
Following in her footsteps, many leading dancers and dance schools have come up with their own productions that explore the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the way people are responding to it.
Instead of a solo recital, Madhavi Chandran got in touch with the students of her mother, Guru Girija Chandran, and has released an interesting production based on the ancient Sanskrit sloka ‘Lokah samastha sukhino bhavanthu.’
“My mother’s students are settled in different parts of the world. I got in touch with some of them and mooted the idea of each of them choreographing their own piece to the music. Soon, each of them sent me videos of their performances. It was edited and made into a composite piece that reveals many facets of the pandemic,” says Madhavi. A short solo piece by her, preceded by an explanation by the Guru, begins the performance in which students from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Denmark, Germany and Qatar also perform.
Dancers are adept at narrating captivating stories through their movements and expressions. Recently, Nangiarkoothu and Koodiyattam exponent Kapila Venu participated in an online story-telling session organised by Bengaluru-based Ranga Shankara.
She narrates the story of Sita with the help of mudras in Koodiyattam. In the video, she explains how she will be using the language of mudras used in a 2,000-year ritual art form once performed in temples in Kerala. But this is a Sita who might not be familiar to many of us. This is a Sita, brave and kind, and a lover of nature. “Whenever I have heard stories about Sita, it is about a princess, fair and beautiful. I could not relate to it. So my focus is on her character and inner strength. I have simplified the mudras as much as possible and taken some liberties too,” she says with a laugh.
Instead of mythology, Rajashree Warrier has interpreted select stories from the Jataka tales and Panchatantra. “Twenty stories were visualised through mudras, accompanied by a narration by Shoba Tharoor Srinivasan for Invis Media. We plan to do 20 more. However, mudras will have to be reinterpreted and re-imagined for the times we live in. For instance, if we have to depict a giraffe, we have to visualise by showing its long neck, its height and so on,” believes Rajashree.
Whether it be mudras or adavus, the dancers are putting their best foot forward to explore new areas of creativity.