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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Vasudevan Iyengar and Bakula Nayak (left); A painting by Bakula Nayak, inspired by Sangam poetry.