Courage as Understood by Rasika Kumar

22 Jul

Despite its location and  tiered seat arrangement, Counterpulse is an ideal venue for artists who are interested in detail and whose art form flowers in close proximity to the audience. This is particularly true for soloists and especially for the conventional solo concert in Indian classical dance forms. So with Rasika Kumar’s striking theme of Courage, Counterpulse as a venue July 12-13 was ideal.  Perhaps the Indian members of the audience were aware of the premise of their viewing, but I doubt whether much of the audience was aware they were receiving an object lesson of being a sahrdaya.

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan wrote many years ago about the sahrdaya, the informed member of the audience, and how such an attuned observer completes the circle or artistic expression rising from the perceptions of the performing artist.  Her essay appeared in Impulse magazine, the twenty-year annual production of the late Marian van Tuyl Campbell, assisted by Eleanor Lauer, Joanna Gewertz Harris, Crystal Mann [then Miller] and doubtless others.  I carried the essay to this formidable quartet, and felt utterly privileged by the trust.  In the process of reading the essay, I was introduced to a way of looking at dance which began to influence my perspective at any performance, to experience the premise within the year like a tsunami when Balasaraswati appeared in San Francisco for the first time.

Mythili Kumar supplied the narrative,  mentioning  all the musicians as well as Rasika were Indo-Americans, Indians born in the United States.  These included Malavika Kumar as nattuvangam; Sindhu Natarajan, vocalist; Ganesh Ramanarayanan, mridangam; Sruti Sarathy, violin and Prasant Radhakrishnan, saxophone.  The latter instrument, unusual for a Bharata Natyam concert was included because Rasika felt it crucial for “Rosa Parks – ‘Tired, tired of giving in.’”

Opening with a brief exposition titled “Awakening the Kundalini Shakti,” Rasika presented herself as an eloquent practitioner of abhinaya, the gesture language common to all classical Indian dance forms, but most highly developed in the South Indian forms of Bharata Natyam and Kathakali. Possessing long fingers to frame the gestures, there was never a trace of hesitation as she described with one or two salient gestures the energy in each of the shaktis.

This was followed by Mythili Kumar’s “Legend of Savitri” which Rasika had adapted, derived from a poem by Sri Aurobidino.  Savitri is considered the ideal Hindu wife; she marries her husband knowing that he is doomed to death a year following their nuptials. Rasika’s interpretation of a young woman totally absorbed by her passion for her spouse was tender and persuasive, utterly distraught as she confronts the ebbing of her beloved’s life.  In the Indian tradition, the abhinaya switches from Savitri to Yama, the Hindu deity of death whom Savitri follows ‘into the forest’ defying Yama’s possession of her husband’s spirit.

Savitri succeeds and at the conclusion of the sketch Rasika brings water in her cupped hands as her beloved stirs back amongst the living.  There was no question of her ability to depict a woman utterly engulfed by her wifely passionate devotion.

“Courage of the Devadasis” is Kumar’s take on the humiliating laws of 1947 which prohibited women of the devasdasi caste to practice their art and devotion in Hindu temples. The degradation of these traditional artists started long before 1947, thanks to the presence of British missionaries brought to the sub-continent by the East India Company and later by the Raj.  The situation was perhaps less dire in those states still ruled by Maharajas. Even in Tamil Nadu, however, where the Tanjore Court had been a noted source of patronage and from which four Pillai brothers began to formulate what is now known as Bharata Natyam, the proscription took its toll.  Douglas Knight’s biography of  Balasaraswati [Wesleyan University Press] chronicles the fight the devasdasis made to preserve their lifestyle.  Beyond prostitution, the salvation lay with instruction, teaching young women the eloquent art form.

Kumar’s portrayal of rejection, closed doors and other forms of prohibition conveys much of that historical dilemma.

“Rosa Parks – “Tired, tired of giving in” was for me the high point of Kumar;s concert.  With four white folding chairs and a sign printed in black letters on white cardboard, “Colored,” Kumar took us through the education of a young Rosa, her work as a secretary for the NAACP, listening to the horror stories of summary judgment against blacks accused of raping white women, of
lynching or killing, of boarding buses and moving to the back seats.  Kumar’s posture, the body language in movement was telling, down to the final moment when she shakes her head after being asked to move.

“In the Wake of a Tsunami” was Kumar’s tribute to the quiet order and heroism of the Japanese following the horrendous earthquake and tsunami in northeastern coastal Japan in the provinces of Sendai and Fukushima.  Her body and gestures assumed the quake and the devastating waves of the tsunami, conveying the overwhelming awe and force of this quake-induced flood of sea water. Within seconds Kumar became stricken humanity, rushing to escape the torrential sheets of water, grasping a nearby person – child, adult or elder.  She climaxed the portrait with a man, one of the fifty, volunteering to enter the Fukushima plant, bidding farewell to his child and wife, as he grasped his kit.  This had been created a year earlier as part of a benefit for the surviving tsunami victims.

Rasika’s finale was a tribute to Hanuman, the Monkey devoted to Lord Rama, depicting him as derring, can do, pert, smart, playful, ever ready to accomplish something for his lord.  Here, to locate a wound-healing plant on a distant mountain, he resorted to carrying the entire mountain to the wounded Lakshman, fighting off the minions of Ravanna along the way.

Indian classical dance provides great dramatic opportunities for its exponents, especially those with excellent training.  American-born exponents add a certain energy and drive to the depth of emotion one finds in those exponents born in India.  When a dancer here chooses to study further in Chennai as Rasika did, with Kalanidi Narayan, herself also schooled by Balasaraswati’s master, the results are striking, the portrayals convincing.  I found myself lost in the telling, absorbed and convinced by Rasika’s choices in movement patterns supporting her dramatic development with clean, articulate abhinaya.

Bharata Natyam, traditionally a solo form, has seen considerable development as an ensemble form in the San Francisco area by the Abhinaya Company directed by Mythili Kumar.  We westerners frequently forget what a challenge a traditional recital is for the artist, not the least being the difficulties of frequent performances.  Touring perhaps is the most extensive demand made on the artist; I imagine in India concert presenters must charge sufficient sums to compensate the dancer for the comparatively small number of annual performances.  Here  Rasika is doubly remarkable for her academic and professional training; her position co-existing with her admirable level artistically and choreographically.  Such dual engagements are not for anyone, but San Francisco area audiences are lucky to witness how well art and technological commitment can be so well combined in Rasika Kumar.  It also is courage of a special kind.


2 Responses to “Courage as Understood by Rasika Kumar”

  1. woollywesterneye April 19, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    I am glad you appreciated my thoughts. You have made a definite
    contribution to Bharaa Natyam’S history.


  1. Message from Rasika Kumar about Courage this Sunday, March 30 - Abhinaya Dance Company - March 25, 2014

    […] Review of last July’s show: Facebook […]

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