Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Simhanandini: A Feat With One's Feet!

Music and dance go hand in hand with temple rituals in South India. Temples were places where these arts thrived and flourished. Many of these arts have been carried forward by generations of practitioners. With changing times, they have moved from temples to performance spaces. Some of them are very much alive and are a part and parcel of cultural scenario across the country and abroad amongst art lovers. Others lagged behind because of their complexity, not having sufficient exposure and reach, the absence of enough performers or other reasons. But thanks to learners, researchers and performers, many of them are not only being revived but are also being practised and showcased in front of audiences across the world.

I witnessed one such gem recently. Called Simhanandini, it is a ritualistic temple dance belonging to the Kuchipudi style. This ritual calls for the dancer to draw an image of a lion using her feet. This is a part of worshipping the divine Goddess, the majestic lion being her vehicle. In olden times, devotees used to accomplish this feat in front of the temple chariot during Vijayadashami celebrations.

In the version that I saw, the dancer made deft use of her feet to draw the image in a large rectangle that had been filled with rangoli powder. Another way to do this is for the dancer to draw on a canvas after smearing her feet with coloured powder. The canvas can then be mounted on a frame for people to see her work.

The accompanying music for the performance is very special. It is set in six talas or rhythmic cycles, all adding up to the Simhanandana tala of 128 syllables or counts. The high-energy music and dance climax at the pièce de résistance: drawing a lion using the feet. 

What I saw was quite amazing. After what seemed like invoking the Goddess with the powerful music, the dancer entered the rectangle from the top left corner with small, firm steps and used her big toe to form an ear. Then with swift, gentle steps she moved across her "canvas" pressing her feet, at times forcefully, at times lightly; drawing face, body, legs and finally an upturned tale to create the magnificent simha. It did not take her long to create a wonderfully proportionate sketch prompting the audience to break into an admiring applause.

In the short break after the performance, people rushed to see the drawing from close quarters and take pictures. I managed to take just this one picture. It is not satisfactory, but just enough to get an idea of what all this is about.

There are two more variations of this art form. Called Mayura Kautvam and Mahalakshmi Udbhavam, they involve drawing a peacock and a lotus with one's feet. I am full of appreciation for the people who are working towards preserving these art forms and wish them well in their endeavour.  

I watched this performance at the Kalakshetra in Chennai. The dancer was noted Bharathanatyam and Kuchipudi exponent, Uma Murali.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Celebrating Oneness With Devotional Music

16 July 2016. It is supposed to be an evening of music at the beach. When I reach the venue, I find volunteers of the "Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha" standing there holding a banner. They are politely directing visitors to a compound across the road saying there has been a change of venue. Sure enough, a colourful announcement has been put up at the gate of the compound. This lovely place is called "Spaces". It offers a platform for experimental work in the performing arts to artists and students.

Inside, it is a sprawling area having an old world charm. There are leafy trees and a good old well adding a nice touch to the ambience. There is a small performance area built in the Kerala style, complete with a stage and parapets along the boundary walls in the audience area for those who do not wish to squat on the floor. Volunteers are busy preparing the area for the evening's performances. The sudden change of venue has meant last minute hectic activity for them. But the saving grace is that the small theatre matches the mood of the event perfectly, informal and open.

Noted Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna, who is the main force behind this event echoes the sentiment of the people associated with this movement saying they wished they could have had the performances at the beach as planned. There are some permission issues. But they go ahead enthusiastically anyway. The evening opens with a group song by the children from the nearby fishing village, Urur Olcott Kuppam. They are smart and their presentation is well-prepared.

Now it is the turn of the singers belonging to the Nagore Sufi Trio, Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen and Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer. They come from the Nagore Dargah, a sufi shrine in coastal Tamil Nadu. They are dressed in flowing white robes, their green and pink turbans adding colour to their costumes. Their singing is full of devotion, energy and rhythm.

Next, several young men and women belonging to the Choirs of Angels from Loyola College take the stage. Their singing changes from mellow and soulful to rapid and exuberant at times. They manage to present a good sample from their repertoire.

The last performance of the evening is Namasankirtanam by Karthik Gnaneshwar and group. Their abhangas and bhajans are mesmerizing, the repetitive refrain taking the listeners in a trance. Devotion is of course the common theme for the evening, wonderfully highlighting the idea of "Celebrating Oneness" through different styles of music. 

The thought behind this movement is to make music accessible to people and learn from each other. And they do it while Celebrating Oneness, in keeping with their tag line.  I wish it a long life and look forward to being there for the next editions. I had enjoyed the first edition a lot. Here is my post on that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

At The Tribal Museum In Bhopal!

I visited the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum in Bhopal recently. And I was very happy that I did. Inaugurated on June 6, 2013, this lovely space offers a glimpse into the lives of various tribes of this diverse land. The entire museum is a work of art. The exhibits are simple everyday items used by the tribal people, but each and every one of them exudes beauty.

From the outside, the museum resembles a huge thatched hut. The tall walls are adorned with large wooden murals depicting life along the river Narmada. The museum is divided into six sections: Cultural Diversity, Tribal Life, Tribal Aesthetic, Tribal Spiritual World, Guest States and Exhibition Gallery. Once you buy your ticket and start exploring, you feel as if you were in a tribal wonderland.

Dwellings made with clay, bamboo, mud, grass and leaves are not only pleasing to the eye, but they also tell you about the lives of their inhabitants. One gets a peek into how they keep their cattle, how important their courtyard is to them, how they store their food grains. A mammoth food grain container dominates the view in one of the sections. The array of cooking vessels and accompanying stuff makes for interesting viewing too.

In another section the exhibits focus on their wedding rituals, jewellery, combs, birth and death rituals, farming, singing and dancing, costumes and other things. A gigantic bangle is the centre of attraction in one of the halls. It is a replica of a bangle that is given to the new bride while welcoming her into her marital home. Symbols of productivity like a pair of ploughing bullocks, farmer, field are ingrained on this bangle and the bride is supposed to keep this with her as a lucky charm while preparing seeds.

Music is an important part of tribal life. A mind-boggling variety of drums, string instruments, wind instruments and others occupy pride of place in a hall.

The tribal people have their own belief system, their own deities and their own symbols. A pillar, stone, stick or flag are often their objects of worship. The section showcasing their spiritual world could be called the most abstract amongst all since it is indeed hard to conceptualise.

The guest state featured presently is Chhattisgarh. It was a part of Madhya Pradesh until it was carved out of it on November 1, 2000 to be made a separate state. There is a large tribal presence in this state. The tribal homes featured here are simply awesome because of their pretty lattices made with bamboo and clay.

Photos by Lata

The exhibition gallery opens out before us the world of games played by tribal children. Their games need minimal or no objects, but they are designed cleverly towards making the players physically and mentally strong. It is amazing how many types of games they play inside or outside their homes. This gallery has real photographs as well as models of kids playing a particular game. A short description of the game is displayed too. An interesting and rather unique presentation!

Gond, Bheel, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol, Bhariya...terms that were just obscure names for us suddenly start making sense once you see--even if fleetingly--how they live their lives in the lap of nature, how well-developed their aesthetic sense is and how intelligently they devise ways to make the best of their minimalist surroundings.

Any downside? Well, the space may look too bright and a bit kitschy to some. That could be because it is still quite new and too many exhibits are on display, crowding the halls and the galleries.  But it does bring together many aspects of tribal life under one roof.


On a different note...when I was there, a big group of men, women and children had descended on the museum. They were not only loud and indisciplined, they showed utter disregard for the exhibits by touching them, scrambling around them for getting pictures taken, passing comments inanely, running, climbing and in general making a nuisance in the otherwise quiet halls. The museum attendants did request them to be silent or speak softly, but their polite pleas fell on deaf ears. It was only after the group had left that peace returned to the museum.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Light And Sound At Rajwada!

Dusk is falling rapidly around Rajwada, the stately palace built by the Holkars in the 18th century in Indore. The structure stands tall in the old part of the city, dominating its skyline. Once the seat of power in this region, today it is surrounded by shops and houses separated by narrow lanes.

I am here to see and listen to the light and sound show put together by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism very recently. Eager to enjoy this new initiative in the city in which I grew up, I make way for the ticket window. It is in a makeshift booth just outside one of the side gates. There is hardly anybody there. I buy my ticket (Rs.100) and am told that the show will start at 18:45, instead of 18:30 to allow people to come and settle down. The event has just been introduced in the city's social calendar and not too many people are aware of it yet.

I enter through the side gate, and after a little walk; find myself in the courtyard just behind the main gate. The imposing facade looks impressive even from inside. Some 50 plastic chairs have been arranged in the open space, but we are only about 15 people. As we sit facing the backside of the main gate, an army of mosquitoes descends upon us. They attack from all sides, making me wish I had carried a tube of repellent with me. My dupatta comes to the rescue, and I wrap it around my head, shoulders and arms tightly.

Photos by Lata
The show starts at 18:45. The commentary in Amitabh Bachchan's rich baritone is informative and engaging. The story of Malhar Rao Holkar-- the first prince from the Holkar family which ruled the state of Indore--comes alive with the help of lights, sounds and drawings projected on a huge wall in the courtyard. We are still in the first few minutes of the narration, and suddenly there are loud fireworks just outside the main gate, their lights and sound dominating those of the show. I wonder if they are part of the show, but they do not seem appropriate at this point in the story. It is not yet time for Malhar Rao's coronation or wedding in the script. The illuminations and bursts continue for a long time, marring the lights and sounds of the show all along. There are single blasts, multiple blasts in a long series and other different crackling sounds all accompanied by a shower of colourful sparks in the evening sky. Maybe it's a wedding procession, I tell myself. Being a hub of activity in the old city, this area is likely to have wedding processions, political rallies and demonstrations frequently.

The show goes on. I lose quite a bit of it to the noise from the crackers, but manage to get the gist anyway. Malhar Rao and his worthy successor Ahilyabai (his daughter-in-law) form the main fabric of the story. It touches upon the lives of all the other nobles who ruled the princely state of Indore until it merged with the newly independent Indian states in 1948. The story is rather well told, opening a small window to the history of the royalty for residents of Indore as well as visitors. 

How to make the experience more enjoyable for the viewers and listeners? Spray some powerful insecticide in the courtyard every evening before the show begins. And ban firecrackers in the Rajwada area for the entire duration (45 minutes) of the show.  The buzzing of mosquitoes and the incessant bursts of crackers take away the sheen of the production in spite of all its richness.

When I come out, I ask a policeman what the hullabaloo was all about. He tells me that they were celebrating because Indore is going to be a Smart City. Become smart, stay smart Indore!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

18th-century Bajirao Mastani on 21st-century screen!

If a film is based on a historic novel, how much of creative liberty can the filmmaker take? Is he/she free from any responsibility once a huge disclaimer is displayed in the beginning of the movie? Is it then okay to let one's imagination run riot and present the story any which way one wishes to?

I wondered as the saga of Bajirao Mastani was unfolding before me on a huge screen in a multiplex. Bajirao, the brave 18th-century prime minister of the Maratha ruler had fought and won many wars for his kingdom. And he deserved to be portrayed in exactly that light. But when he broke into a dance with his buddies, shaking his well-groomed tuft and mouthing 21st-century Mumbai slang "vaat laawli" I was taken aback. this was a fun-loving, dancing Bajirao who also fought wars as a hobby!

We would have loved to see how the warrior planned his battles, how he made his strategies, how he dealt with his fellow warriors and adversaries. Instead we were treated to this dancing spectacle. Not even for a moment did I think I was looking at Bajirao, all I saw was Ranveer Singh. Ranveer Singh playing the hero who was reduced to a lovelorn romantic once the beauteous Mastani entered his life. On that front too, it would have been in order to see what went through Bajirao's mind, and maybe a bit of turmoil as he embraced Mastani defying his mother and wife. After all, he is shown to be a loyal husband and a dutiful son to his wife and mother respectively. But why get into those nitty-gritties when you can impress your audiences with spectacular sets and rich costumes?

Deepika Padukone as Mastani gets to wear the loveliest of outfits. Her flowing garments in mostly muted shades are simply awesome. But somehow she fails to portray the woman of substance she was supposed to play, looking too demure and stylish to be someone who is adept at warfare. And Priyanka Chopra plays the lonely wife sporting low-waist nauvaaris (9-yard sarees) and skimpy blouses. Never knew high class Brahmin wives in 18th-century Pune were seen in such midriff-revealing attire. And that they could perform a perfectly choreographed dance with their souten in co-ordinated sarees. 

Sure, they have thrown in Marathi phrases and words for effect, but overall the lines mouthed by actors hardly leave any mark. Wish films with historical content were made with more care and sensitivity. Taking the ingredients and putting them in the mould of a big-budget commercial film is not enough!