Abhinaya Hosts Two Bharata Natyam Gurus

8 Jun

Throughout the three decades of Abhinaya’s activity in San Francisco’s South Bay, Mythili Kumar has consistently provided her Bharata Natyam focus with varied collaborations in the dance community, besides training two daughters and many other Indian offspring in this South Indian classical medium.

In 1989, for example, she was responsible for fostering the visit of Kalanidhi Narayayan and her dancers for a series of performances. Narayayan had been a student of Kandappa, who had trained Balasaraswati. Kalanidhi’s presence in Madras/ Chennai helped continue the tradition of expressive abhinaya, the Indian dance gestural language, in those all-important Bharata Natyam circles, recognized by the Indian Government with the Padma Bushan award.

Kalanidhi and her dances appeared at U.C., Berkeley in its Dance Studio, once Berkeley’s Unitarian Church. She informed me she had changed the subject of the demonstration to God. When I told her the space had been a church, she exclaimed, large dark eyes flashing, “Oh, that’s why I changed the subject.”

It was, of course, an illuminating hour and a half. After its conclusion, I was standing on the porch with the late David Wood, then heading the Dance Department, when we experienced a strange wavering. I looked at David who said, “We’re having an earthquake.” To my left was the large redwood trunk holding up the roof of the studio entrance. It looked as if every line, vertical or horizontal, in the trunk was magnified. The dancers scurried out to the automobiles scheduled to take them back to their lodgings in San Jose, and so began my memory of the Loma Prieta Earthquake,including a Thai dinner next door to Chez Panisse while parts of San Francisco’s Marina collapsed with fires to be contained.

April 12 Mythili repeated her recognition of Balasaraswati’s influence on Bharata Natyam, inviting Nandini Ramani to San Jose. Nandini was Bala’s senior most disciple and daughter of Dr. V. Raghavan, the Sanskirt scholar who admired Bala and was influential in Bala’s acquiring a studio on the Music Academy grounds in Madras/Chennai. Nandini came with Indra Rajan, who had been one of Mythili’s principal teachers. The two, sharing program and teaching sessions, provided strong stylistic contrasts.

Nandini Ramani is small, elegant, somewhat matronly in her appearance. Her lecture and demonstration were comparatively brief, limited primarily to demonstrating Balasaraswati’s style of allaripu, the opening sequence in a traditional Bharata Natyam concert, designed to open and prepare the dancer for the rigors ahead. One of the crucial hallmarks of an adept interpreter is the ability to maintain the balletic-like demi-plie throughout the performance. Nandini’s rendition did not fail in that requirement, nor the flowing elegance of a dance style easily reduced to accentuate the architectural like angles of the body.

Mythili Kumar followed with a Varnam, the lengthy and crucial test of the dancer’s ability to execute sheer dance patterns, or nritta and gestural, interpretive ability or nritya. Fascinating here is the dancer’s ability to assume the role of the heroine, nayika, the sakhi or companion, the beloved, and the deity at various times. Equally mesmerizing is knowing how politely reared young women in late and post-colonial India were allowed to express such erotic yearnings, called sringara, the Sanskrit definition of the nava rasas or nine sentiments.

Indra Rajan’s contribution included an tillana, performed by two of Mythili’s students. It seemed to me truncated from the long, sweeping movements which make for such an expansive finale to a traditional Bharata Natyam concert.

Prior to the finale, Rajan’s own appearance included a padam concerning the new love of a woman’s spouse, if I remember the plot correctly. Rajan, a member of the devadasi caste, besides teaching, has spent part of her career as a nattuvangam for other dancers. Small, dynamic, her abhinaya and demeanor made one feel this was a no-nonsense, forthright woman less ashamed of her husband’s dalliance than the absurd behavior of his new attraction. If I were to be a late career love of someone I would not be very comfortable with such derision, especially in a traditional culture.

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