Sangam po­etry for the mod­ern age through dance and paint­ings dance with­out fron­tiers

The In­dia Habi­tat Cen­tre hosted a vis­ual and per­form­ing arts col­lab­o­ra­tion as part of their ILF Sa­man­vay Trans­la­tions Se­ries with Dr Va­sude­van Iyen­gar in­ter­pret­ing the moods Bakula Nayak trans­lated into paint­ings in­spired by Sangam po­etry. This was a very

The Asian Age - - Culture+ -

Adip into Sangam po­etry is al­ways a treat. This vast col­lec­tion throbs with the very hu­man joys and ag­o­nies of love, not as a metaphor for un­der­stand­ing the divine, but with all the frail­ties and de­sires of or­di­nary, nor­mal peo­ple. When these emo­tions, po­et­i­cally ex­pressed 2,500 years ago, are in­ter­preted in dance, they are as fresh, amus­ing and mov­ing as those ex­pressed in any Bol­ly­wood film or tele­vi­sion soap opera.

It was quite imag­i­na­tive for the In­dia Habi­tat Cen­tre to ini­ti­ate a vis­ual and per­form­ing arts col­lab­o­ra­tion as part of their ILF Sa­man­vay Trans­la­tions Se­ries with Dr Va­sude­van Iyen­gar in­ter­pret­ing the moods Bakula Nayak trans­lated into paint­ings in­spired by Sangam po­ety.

This was a very con­tem­po­rary and free-spir­ited ex­change that was 100 per cent ac­ces­si­ble to all view­ers and could well be re­peated at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. Ac­tual Sangam po­etry is writ­ten in ar­chaic Tamil, so Bakula fell in love with its bold ex­pres­sions of love via the sen­si­tive trans­la­tions and in­ter­pre­ta­tions by the great trans-na­tional poet A.K.Ra­manu­jan’s Tales of Love and War.

I would ex­pect to see Bakula’s charm­ing de­pic­tion of na­ture, birds and cats il­lus­trat­ing a chil­dren’s book or a Hall­mark greet­ing card, yet she reached fur­ther afield to in­ter­pret her per­sonal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with ex­pres­sions of 2,500-yearold love through her art­work.

A.K. Ra­manu­jan said, “Even one’s own tra­di­tion is not one’s birthright; it has to be earned, re­pos­sessed. One chooses and trans­lates a part of one’s past to make it present to one­self and maybe to oth­ers.” I fondly re­call him rov­ing down the hall from his Univer­sity of Chicago of­fice to as­sess some word trans­la­tion nu­ances with a mu­tual scholar-trans­la­tor friend. It is a trib­ute Ra­manu­jan that he in­spired Bakula’s con­tem­po­rary ap­proach from his lens.

Va­sude­van is re­spected for his tech­ni­cal and aca­demic ex­cel­lence regarding Bharatanatyam and his per­for­mances drenched in bhakti. Not be­ing one to look for novel themes for the sake of pop­u­lar ap­peal, this was a unique op­por­tu­nity to see him per­form in­spired by an artist’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of her emo­tional re­sponse to a trans­lated text, rather than the text it­self.

Aware that the ar­chaic Tamil would be overly chal­leng­ing for an ac­com­pa­ny­ing vo­cal­ist, Va­sude­van de­cided to sup­port Bakula’s themes — In­fat­u­a­tion, Get­ting to know each other, In a re­la­tion­ship, Ob­ses­sion, Sep­a­ra­tion and Re­union — by tak­ing a cou­plet each from a Tamil Padam, an ash­ta­padi of Jayadev and a Meera bha­jan. Ad­di­tion­ally, he com­posed the lyrics and mu­sic for the opening tarana, the River Speaks sec­tion and fi­nale.

Bakula shared her artis­tic re­sponse to the flavour of 2,500-year-old po­etry with slides of po­etry and the paint­ings they in­spired as in­tro­duc­tion to each danced theme. To frame his pre­sen­ta­tion of the stages of love, Va­sude­van of­fered a pre­lude, as a su­trad­har in con­ver­sa­tion with his par­rot, us­ing Tamil verse to say, “Beau­ti­ful par­rot, fly down to me, and hear my words and let me tell you the beau­ti­ful story of my love”.

Through­out the per­for­mance, the dancer him­self sang, giv­ing the singer the tarana lines from time to time when he wanted to elab­o­rate. The quick­sil­ver san­charis, devel­op­ment and ex­ten­sion of the lines re­minded me of the con­sum­mate com­mand of ab­hi­naya of dancers like Swap­na­sun­dari or Lak­shmi Vishwanathan.

The dar­ing­ness of nayika and nayakas was far bolder in the lives po­et­i­cally de­scribed in Sangam po­etry. He­roes caged, killed by ele­phants for il­licit af­fairs or helped to es­cape jail by their sakhi. One milder ex­am­ple of the Sangam era’s less sug­ar­coated ap­proach to love was the poem cho­sen for the theme of in­fat­u­a­tion:

Look at the doors in this street! All have worn out hinges For moth­ers keep shut­ting them

And daugh­ters keep throw­ing them open

This hap­pens when­ever the prince Kothai,

Wear­ing fresh flower gar­lands and rid­ing a sturdy horse, Passes along the street And love-mad girls rush to have a glimpse of him.

Bakula’s paint­ing of a tom­cat on a bi­cy­cle pass­ing a boulan­gerie, with sev­eral pussy­cats eye­ing him from their win­dows and doors, in­cor­po­rates the lush nat­u­ral set­tings seen in pich­wai paint­ings with many en­gag­ing de­tails associated with ro­mance. Va­sude­van de­light­fully in­ter­preted this with the nayika, af­ter all the clas­sic shrun­gara of prepa­ra­tion at her mir­ror, at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of the hero on his mo­tor­cy­cle with a thrown flower and go­ing off for a joy ride. The in­ter­pre­ta­tion was fun and breezy, match­ing the mood of the poem and paint­ing, and giv­ing us char­ac­ters far from the re­fined ut­tama ones of bhakti lit­er­a­ture where love is a metaphor for union with the para­matma af­ter re­lin­quish­ing ego.

Though he had the slide pre­sen­ta­tion of po­etry, paint­ings and five sit­u­a­tions in ad­vance, it was only on meet­ing the artist a day be­fore the per­for­mance and see­ing her pre­sen­ta­tion for­mat that he could cre­ate his script for him­self and his ac­com­pa­nists based on the mood of sangam. For ex­am­ple, choos­ing lines from and about hero­ines who did what was right for them­selves, ir­re­spec­tive of so­cial res­traints, i.e. Meera and Radha.

The Bharatanatyam in­ter­pre­ta­tion of fif­teen paint­ings based on Agam and Pu­ram Sangam po­etry was par­tic­u­larly no­table on two counts. One, the dance was en­tirely im­pro­vised af­ter re­hears­ing with ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­si­cians the af­ter­noon of the en­twined dance and vis­ual pre­sen­ta­tion.

The ex­cel­lent sup­port on mri­dan­gam of Tan­javur Ra­ma­murthi Ke­sa­van was es­sen­tial and Veena Saraswati Ra­jagopalanan, who had rec­om­mended Va­sude­van to the Habi­tat Cen­tre for this col­lab­o­ra­tion, filled the space with her su­perb play­ing. Vo­cal­ist Ko­takkal Jayan bravely took up the chal­lenge of tak­ing all his mu­si­cal cues from the dancer-singer­mu­si­cal di­rec­tor on stage and ac­quit­ted him­self well. Since I am men­tion­ing the ac­com­pa­ny­ing orches­tra, I may as well add that Var­sha Ramku­mar, a se­nior dis­ci­ple of Dr Va­sude­van in Bharatanatyam, was a beau­ti­ful as she skill­fully played Nat­tuvangam.

The sec­ond no­table take­away was that this was Va­sude­van’s first foray into per­form­ing sringar. His con­sum­mate ease with cre­at­ing the elab­o­ra­tions of each stage of love ev­i­dences a re­mark­able un­der­stand­ing of nayika bhed, the eight types of hero­ines jux­ta­posed with sit­u­a­tions as clas­si­fied by Bharata in the Natya Shas­tra.

The most poignant el­e­ment is of course, love in sep­a­ra­tion. Va­sude­van evoked the im­age of the seed planted at the start of love and the years that passed wait­ing for the beloved to re­turn as the seed grew into a tree by the river. Despite the trauma of sep­a­ra­tion mak­ing it dif­fi­cult even to rec­og­nize the beloved on his re­turn, I wish he had brought out the hap­pi­ness even though it is only the fleet­ing joy pos­si­ble in sam­sara.

Bring­ing alive the mood of 2,500-year-old po­etry, where things that were de­sired were achieved, made for a re­fresh­ingly ac­ces­si­ble pre­sen­ta­tion of clas­si­cal dance and paint­ing that would be en­joy­able to any au­di­ence, young or old. Sharon Lowen is a re­spected ex­po­nent of Odissi, Ma­nipuri and Mayurb­hanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade ca­reer in In­dia was pre­ceded by 17 years of mod­ern dance and bal­let in the US and an MA in dance

from the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. She can be con­tacted at sharon­lowen.work­shop@gmail.com.

Dr Va­sude­van Iyen­gar and Bakula Nayak (left); A paint­ing by Bakula Nayak, in­spired by Sangam po­etry.

Sharon Lowen

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