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Rama Vaidyanathan Review

Rediscovering Curves in Bharata Natyam–Rama Vaidyanathan

Friday, January 2, 2009 at 12:30am
A reflection on Rama Vaidyanathan’s performance at Kalakshetra on Dec 22, 2008.

At the outset, I would like to explain that I am not a dance scholar, a critic, or a writer. This is simply a personal reflection and nothing more.

One of my highlights of the December Dance and Music Season in Chennai, India was watching Rama Vaidyanthan’s performance at Kalakshetra. From her first item to the last one, Ms. Vaidyanathan showed a command of the stage space that was inventive, beautiful and powerful while fully in the classical vocabulary of Bharata Natyam.

She began with an Allaripu, an invocatory item in which the movements develop by isolating the joints and then combining these isolated movements to form more complicated dance phrases. Ms. Vaidyanathan began with the traditional phrases for the eyes, neck and shoulders, but the flowering of the body continued flowering into the space in powerful, energetic bursts of movement that was a strong counterpoint to the body’s stillness in space in the opening part of the Allaripu. Most every other interpretation of Allaripu I had seen had very little exploration of space, and there was very little, if any, use of curves in the body or movements. But, Ms. Vaidynathan’s exploration of space and integration of curves with angles was a delicious preview of the rest of the program.

She followed the Allaripu with a Varnam, the centerpiece of a Bharata Natyam performance, that is a composite integration of abstract rhythmic dance phrases with thematic narrative sections. Here, Ms. Vaidyanathan continued to develop the use of space and added an exploration of rhythm that was exquisite (rhythmic composition developed and performed by percussionist Mr. Karaikudi Sivakumar). While most dancers start minimizing their use of space as the complexity of the rhythmic phrases increases, Ms. Vaidyanathan used the rhythm to find inventive and graceful ways of moving through the space. Watching her perform reminded me of the old videos of Srimathi Bala Saraswathi perform—there was an abandonment and joy and embracing of the space, curves and sensuality that is seldom seen in the purified versions of Bharata Natyam. It was refreshing to see someone think through the use of space, complex and layered rhythmic sequences, and the incorporation of curves and blend them in such a seamless fashion. Ms. Vaidyanathan chose a subtler approach to abhinaya (dramatic interpretation using mime, and gestures). While her characterizations and intent were clearly present with full commitment, the subtlety didn’t read well in a huge theater like Kalakshetra. This begs the question, should an artist consider the space s/he is performing in and make accommodations in their performing style to balance the challenges of any given space or audience? I’d be curious to hear other opinions on this. On a lesser dancer this would have detracted from the performance, but her strength in the other facets balanced out this choice.

After a couple more pieces, she closed with Shivayaa Jheevayaa—Jeevayaa Shivayaa (Shiva is life, my life is Shiva’s), a devotional dance piece on Shiva, the god of dance. In this piece, she portrayed a devotee’s journey to finding peace in herself or himself with sensitivity and clarity. The movements mirrored the journey inward, starting with larger circular movements that moved concentrically inward with smaller circles and concluded with the devotee at peace when she arrives at the center—when she arrives at herself. She finds herself in the divine and divinity in herself and was excellent at portraying this both in her abhinaya and in the clear movement paths she chose to express this theme. This piece was a transformative experience for me. I still see her dancing in a trance-like ecstasy in my mind each time I picture this piece.

While the use of stillness and silence seems to be a lost art, it was powerfully and intelligently used throughout the performance by Ms. Vaidyanathan. In addition, it was gratifying to see that her choreography and movements included curves as well as angles—most choreographers have stripped Bharata Natyam of anything curvy or remotely sensual in the name of “purifying” the dance. If, as they say, this is the dance of the Gods, surely the Gods, and Sages knew what they were doing when they imbued sensuality into the dance forms! While Ms. Vaidyanathan is not the only one to be exploring and re-integrating the use of curves into Bharata Natyam, she was the only one that I was able to see during my limited time in Chennai. Kudos to Kalakshetra Director, Ms Leela Samson for presenting multiple interpretations of Bharata Natyam alongside their own signature style, it was a treat and a highlight of the season to see Ms. Vaidyanathan dance. It reassured me of the innumerable possibilities in Bharata Natyam and I look forward to watching this amazing artist in future performances.

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