Indian Classical

Rajashree Warrier on reimagining and broadening the repertoire of Bharatanatyam

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The danseuse talks about how the dance form has evolved and some of her new productions

Rajashree Warrier has been exploring new idioms as an artiste for three decades now. She continues to bring in unconventional themes into the repertoire of Bharatanatyam, while experimenting with presentation, choreography and musicality. In an interview with FridayReview, she talks about her approach to the dance form and some of her recent productions.

“Bharatanatyam has undergone a lot of changes over several decades. What we see today is totally different from how it was earlier. Thankfully, a revival is happening in Bharatanatyam now. That is because, like many other dance forms, it also had become faceless, while trying to conform to the visual vocabulary of the current era. The focus was on aesthetic movements. Abhinaya fell behind, as the thrust was on nritham and nrithyam. However, we are slowly coming out of that phase and things are looking brighter now,” says Rajashree.

Talking about her penchant for taking up myriad themes, Rajashree observes that she has taken those subjects that can be given a contemporary interpretation, without diluting the intrinsic nature of Bharatanatyam.

“Also, not all my productions follow a conventional story-telling format. It is not necessary to conform to a pattern. You can make the viewers a part of it. They can come up with their own interpretation or at least I can give that push to their thought process,” she elaborates, making note of her production ‘Vatavriksha’ in this context.

“It is an abstract work, based around the concepts of time and space. A tree, here the banyan, grows and over a period of time creates a space of its own with its foliage and roots. This growth is in close communion with the ‘panchabhoothas’ or the five elements of nature — earth, water, fire, air and space. It stands for a cycle of life,” she explains. The production has been set to five talas of alarippu (the invocatory piece of Bharatanatyam) — chathursram, tisram, khandam, misra and sangeernam.

Then there is ‘Bhagothi Chindu’, which was inspired by an article on swamps that she had read several years ago. “It mentioned that the tribal community believed in a goddess, who, apparently, resided in the swamps. That concept stayed with me. I wrote it down as a play before bringing it into Bharatanatyam,” she says.

Versatile artistry

  • Trained in classical dance and music from a young age, she is an empanelled artiste of ICCR and holds a doctorate in music for her research in varnas in dual forms. Founder-director of Uttarika Centre for Performing Arts, which focusses on research and training in Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music and experimental theatre, Rajashree is the author of Narthaki and Nruthakala.
  • Some of her productions are ‘Tess’, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ‘Great Indian Stories’, a video series based on The Panchathanthra and Jataka Tales, ‘Mira’, a theatrical work on the story of Mirabai, ‘Shades of Love’, a thematic work on the romantic journey of a woman, and ‘Shikhandi’, besides those based on compositions by M Balamurali Krishna, padams of Irayimman Thampi and varnams of the Tanjore quartet.

The piece has a rustic premise and earthy lyrics (predominantly Tamil) written by her. The incidents happen between a day and a dawn. A rumour spreads that someone is missing from the village. It turns out to be a woman. People from various walks of life gossip about her, who is the Bhagothy or the goddess herself. Eventually, she is found to be one with Nature.

“Bhagothy is a metaphor for Mother Nature and woman. She is not someone to be confined to the four walls of a place of worship. She is vibrant and radiant and is always on the move. Similarly, women should also be allowed to break free from all shackles and come out shining brightly on their own,” Rajashree says.

Rajashree Warrier
| Photo Credit:
TM Cyriac

A highlight of the piece, she says, is the use of intrinsic rhythms of Kerala. The folk touch is complimented by the choreography in Devadasi tradition. “I have moved away from the idioms usually associated with Bharatanatyam in this production,” she avers.

Points of view

Adapting Tamil poet Perumal Murugan’s poem, ‘Nee mattume en nenjil’, has been another successful exercise. While the poet writes about long-lost love from a man’s point of view, the dancer looks at it from a woman’s point of view. “I didn’t use any percussion in this piece. It had just veena and vocal. It was composed by K Arun Prakash for TM Krishna. I took it into Bharatanatyam with their permission,” she says.

Meanwhile, she approached visionary poet Bharathiyar’s iconic verse, ‘Odi vilayadu paappa’, in a new light by connecting it with women empowerment. “The poet exhorts the child to study, play, dream, be courageous, kind and free. I have juxtaposed it with the current times when the girl child is exploited, abused and attacked in different ways. My piece exhorts girls to raise their voice against injustice,” Rajashree says.

Each production has its challenges as she pushes her boundaries as a performer, says the artiste. In ‘Bhagothi Chindu’, for example, she had to bring home all the activities in a village, be it occupation, games, market, household chores…. through abhinaya.

Another experiment was in ‘Vaaranam Ayiram’ from Naachiyar Thirumozhi of Andaal. “Andaal is dreaming about her paramour, Sree Ranganatha. So I performed the entire piece sitting on the stage with my eyes closed. It was not easy to emote with my eyes shut,” she adds.

A trained Carnatic musician, Rajashree points out that she owes a lot to her musicians.

“I apply my musical thoughts in my productions and I have a team that gives me the output I want. Manodharma is something impromptu and it is possible only because of them. We trust each other. Since there are no rehearsals for padams and javalis, it is interesting when we finally present them on stage. There is always a surprise element,” she adds.

Rajashree’s lecture-demonstration on ‘Bharatanatyathile Lavanyadharakal’ will be held at the Kannur International Cultural Festival at Collectorate Ground, Kannur, on February 22, 3 pm.

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