My companions giggled nervously as we approached The Music Academy. Its parking lot, usually overflowing with vehicles and people on performance evenings wore an uncharacteristically forlorn look. And we weren’t even that early for Attakalari’s evening performance of Purushartha, a multimedia dance production described as ‘a unique blend of Indian movement idioms and Japanese digital and sonic arts’. Where was the city’s enthusiastic dance audience? Did they know something we didn’t? As we handed over our tickets and stepped inside the auditorium, we looked around trying to see how many seats were filling up. ‘Give it another ten minutes’ a friend said, so we turned our attention to the performance bills that had been thrust in to our hands at the entrance. We needn’t have worried, for by 7:30 the lower circle of the hall was almost full, the air alive with the buzz of pre-performance anticipation, air kisses and ‘excuse me’s as tardy rasikas trod on feet.
Roughly translated in to ‘the meaning of being’, the hour long production explored the Hindu concept of ‘the objectives of human life – dharma, artha, kama and moksha’ through Attakalari’s unique blend of kalaripayattu, yoga, bharatanatyam mudras and other contemporary dance forms. Not that I would have necessarily known this had I not read about the show before hand. For though based on an ancient concept this Indo-Japanese venture made no obvious references to the underlying philosophy at all. Instead, Jayachandran Palazhy, Artistic Director and Choreographer and Kunihiko Matsuo, Music Director and Interactive Technology Director presented an abstract work, set against stark, often bewildering visuals and set to contemporary Japanese noise music.
‘Are those sperm?’ a friend whispered in to my ear at one point when the stark white background on to which everything from geometric shapes to mysterious blue ripples and scenes from popular cinema (Thillana Mohanambal? Helen!) to shots of desolate bus stops and even the performers on stage, was covered with small, wiggling commas. ‘Do you have any theories?’ another whispered ‘Mine have all been shot to pieces’. The guessing games soon came to an end though, as we became mesmerised by the dancers and their lithe, agile bodies that leapt and rolled across the stage. The female dancers, some so slender they looked like they might snap in half picked up their muscular male counterparts with effortless ease, wrapping them around their slender frames like pythons before setting them down again. In their minimalist white layered tunics the dancer’s were hypnotic. It didn’t really matter if they were telling a tale or not though some of the themes such as love, lust, separation and meditation were more apparent than others. The music ranged from a topsy turvy countdown to chants to strange high pitched noises. If anyone hoped for a finale that revealed some hidden secret or inner meaning, they were in for a disappointment as the show ended with an abrupt ‘Stop’ and lights out.
If Attakalari’s Purushartha was stark, abstract and at times puzzling then Anusham’s production Ganga was a dazzling 180 degree turn. Choreographed by L Narendrakumar the sixty minute performance staged at Bharath Kalachar was back by popular demand, and it was easy to see why the production was so successful with audiences.
A riot of colour, Ganga was a joyous and exuberant mix of bharatanatyam, folk dance, music and storytelling. The dance drama was a montage of life along the banks of the holy river, the festivals celebrated in her honour, Buddha’s enlightenment and scenes from the life of Shankara and Kabir. A sprightly boatman acted as narrator and led the audience by the hand from one enactment to another, singing and dancing along the way.
My favourite piece was the reenactment of Lord Shiva’s taming of the mighty river. The battle between the haughty Ganga - four dancers dressed in shimmering sequined shades of blue - and Lord Shiva was a thrill to watch, and even though I knew that the outcome was inevitable I couldn’t help but secretly root for the river to put a dampener on Shiva’s plans. Unlike the rest of the audience, perhaps too mature to openly ‘ooh and aah’, two little girls dressed in their best pavadai sattais sitting in the row before me had no compunction in showing their admiration. Completely enthralled by the costumes, smoke effects and infectious music they were on the edge of their seats for most of the performance. But no one could contain their admiration at the finale and Periyathambi of Koothu-p-pattarai’s acro-asanas.
It would be impossible and wrong to compare the two performances, as both were so varied in style, content and theme. While Purushartha let the audience interpret the piece for themselves, Ganga used more traditional storytelling techniques that left no room for doubt. What was common to both though was their ability to keep their audiences transfixed throughout and talking long after the curtains had come down.