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.

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