Sunday, September 27, 2015


A fresh look at Bharatanatyam with a Tamil-Malay accent
DBKL auditorium, Kuala Lumpure
September 18, 2015

DIVERCITY KL International Arts Festival

Titles become indicative and sometimes, problematic. They can either ensnare you in its entrails or push you to un peel the layers of its meaning. In Bharatanatyam, the word MARGAM has become flogged once too often. Used as a marker for the traditional, the classical, the often taught, the much trodden "path" has been mangled, manipulated and maligned over the past 50 years. Many have tried to "reinvent" the 'margam'. Most have failed.

So when talented and charismatic dancer Shankar Kandasamy of Malaysia announced his evening length venture NEO MARGAM for the DIVERCITY Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival, I had my doubts.
After all, Shankar, along with his colleague at Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) had already NEO-ed the margam 18 years ago when they created HAMSAGATI, an intelligent morphing of the Alaruppu and Jatiswaram template. With beautifully dancers trained in Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and contemporary technique, they are like malleable clay and a choreographer's dream.

So how much more NEO would Shankar take this full lengh venture? Artistic Director of the festival, Ramli Ibrahim, himself a national icon in Malaysia, urged Shankar to take his modern accents into a longer offering, Shankar had many directions in which to take his vision of Bharatanatyam.

Using new nomenclatures for each of the five dance pieces - Rhythm Mandala. Off Balance, Monologue, Gossip and Thrillana, Shankar stayed within the familiar 'margam' progression to implode the choreography and staging with two main ideas as catalysts.

INTRA - using Bharatanatyam's kinetic ability to push each posture and movement into unfamiliar areas and INTER - using the connections between Bharatanatyam and other dance forms.

The presiding memory of the sound design became the piano. In selecting this percussion instrument to become the "bed" of sound to anchor the fluid choreography, Shankar sacrificed the complex melodic structures of Carnatic music. Off tune singing was a ear sore but beautiful staging, lovely lighting with eye catching gobos and lithe dancers pulled the uneven ideas together.

Shankar tried to put the five part performance in context by walking onto stage  at the very beginning in a practice dhoti and taking off his T shirt. With his back to the audiences, caught in a gentle pool of light, he went through the contours of his movement vocabulary. He was graceful, light footed and wonderful to watch. If only he could have extended that moment longer. The silent magic was rudely punctured with the entry of the slim but over adorned dancers - bells, jewellery and all.
So what was NEO about this? My mind began to hunt for answers as the choreography unfolded.  However, cynical doubts were temporarily pushed aside as the  the imaginatively structured Ganapati Vandana and Alarippu etched a beautiful kinetic diagram.

This was followed by the central idea of the evening. OFF BALANCE was an 'neo" response to the lovely Jathiswaram. It was this piece that made the choreographer's vision illuminated most clearly. Tilting ever so slightly beyond the "natyarambha" position and falling 'off balance' throughout the choric refrains was both poetic and arresting.

What followed were three uninspiring dances.. MONOLOGUE was melodramatic and over articulated - cinema influenced hysterics seeping into voices trying to SPEAK the first line of the Lalgudi Jayaraman Tamil 'varnam'  in various ways- much like the "sanchari" exploration of a classical dancer. Bodies throwing themselves in various directions. Supple yes. But what was the point?

GOSSIP followed, taking the well known 'pallavi' sections of javalis and padams. None of the 'angika abhinaya' worked. It became monotonous and repetitive. Again, more flailing of limbs

After having watched a cascade of non stop movement from ballet, Odissi, contemporary technique, fall and release training and Bharatanatyam fused together for almost 50 minutes, the final THRILLANA seemed to be the same old same old.

Not to take away anything from the brave attempt by both dancers and the choreographer. NEO MARGAM has huge potential but the idea needs to be more rigorously discussed and Shankar needs to create some intervals where he puts himself on stage and not handling the lights. The dancers need a fresh look at costumes and the choreography can certainly have more variety.

My biggest question was " Where was the CENTRE of the classical form from which one could be pushed off centre?" I did not see a single moment of araimandi and the clear lines of the form in which the blurring or tweaking could then be more enjoyed.

NEO MARGAM is worth watching and this trajectory of dance design is one way in which classical training can travel. Shankar Kandasamy has very good ideas and a marvellous company of well trained young women to mount them on.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

SIRIYAMMA SIRI Laugh O Goddess, Laugh!

Laugh O Goddess, Laugh!
September 8, 2015
Kuala Lumpur

Why is the best of India rarely available at home? This was the question buzzing in my mind while watching the folk-opera ( my own coinage ) unfold onto the impressive DBKL auditorium.
Two days earlier, I had watched a contemporary performance-art presentation that was both urban and international in flavour. Now, I was witnessing decades of folk traditions, precious rituals and unpretentious artistes hurl themselves onto the proscenium stage and fill it with their natural vigour and colour.

SIRIYAMMA SIRI, is a Tamil term addressed to the native Goddess. It is a plea from the villagers who entreat the enraged Goddess-Devi to calm down after her furious encounter with the demon Dainika. The slaying of the enemy does not appease Her anger and the seething cauldron threatens to engulf the earth. Through song, dance, comedy and music the entire village joins in the appeasement and taming  of the feminine energy. "Don't be angry O Devi", they ask. " The entire world is not evil like Dainika. So LAUGH O GODDESS, LAUGH!".

Envisioned by folklorist and Gandhian V R Devika, whose 30 year engagement with the rural arts has given her an inside eye into the entire landscape and challenges of the folk artistes of South India, the multi layered evening reflected her sure footed grasp on the complexities of the performance.
For many artistes, it was their first journey across the oceans. First time passport holders, new costumes, interaction with other folk artistes and submitting to the larger story in which so many genres and styles of folk and ritual traditions merge would have been a first for many of them.

Charming in their natural naiveté, the storytellers ( katttiyakaran) and the gypsy (kurathi) were full of unspoilt verve. The dynamic Therukoothu performers whirled onto the stage in their spectacular garb but the scene stealers were the Padayani artistes from Kerala. I watched backstage while they diligently cut the palm leaves to make their elaborate skirts, head dresses and arm accessories. The result  when they walked onto the stage was simply breathtaking.

While the story of the angry Goddess confronting the demon and the subsequent fall out formed the skeleton of the story, the multiple devices that Devika chose to move the narrative forward was particularly engaging for a viewer like myself. Having interacted with Tamil folk and ritual forms for decades, I was very aware of the challenges directors and cultural interlocutors face when asked to compress an all night celebration into a 75 minute performance capsule.
Each of the performers come with their attendant rituals and sacred observations. These traditions are hereditary and not taught to many outsiders. Language poses the most difficult obstacle with colloquial phrases used for humorous intersections.

Working the hardest and pulling all the elements together was dance-actor Sangeetha Iswaran. A Bharatanatyam dancer now working with children and special communities in Thailand and Indonesia, Sangeeta transformed into many avatars. Angry Goddess, sarcastic narrator, village woman - every entry became the glue holding the disparate elements together.

I longed to have super titles translating the Malayalam songs and Tamil dialogues for the audience, but the sensitive crowd seemed to throw themselves into the spirit of the evening without hesitation.

SIRIYAMMA SIRI benefited with the skill of the lighting magician Sivarajah Natarajah of Sutra. An artist by profession, we have seen his ability to paint the stage whenever SUTRA has performed in India. For this performance Siva carefully sculpted and tinted  each section, keeping the costume and head gear in mind and miraculously softened the rough edges of each folk form, especially during the entrances and exits. The resulting sophistication was a feast for the eyes.

Each artiste brought their own flavour to the evening and no one person can be singled out. From the musicians placed in a diagonal corner and lit delicately, to the multiple pools of intersecting light for each of the main players as they performed their sections, it was a triumph of ensemble. With repeated shows, the work will mature and gain tautness which is needed in its premiere viewing.  For me, the Ottam Thullal solo by Suresh Kaliyath was memorable for the physicality being projected as monkey God Hanuman. The  Kattiyakaran - kurathi tattoo interlude brought a smile to many a face. Therukoothu continue to thrill me with its sheer force and energetic theatricality. The final Padayani solo trance by Rajmohan, was hypnotic and powerful.

Backstage was organized chaos. Devika credits the stage management

of the crew for ensuring the smooth costume changes and timely exits and entrances for the complex evening.
How much we in Indian theatre practice can learn from the professionalism of theatre staff and when can we hope to bring such evenings to urban audiences in our hometowns?

SIRIYAMMA SIRI was not just a successful showcase of South Indian folk and ritual theatre traditions coalesced into an evening length performance. It was also a reminder that jaded urban eyes need to be refreshed and reminded  of the power of the soil and the constant inspiration of traditional art. Throughout history, great directors, choreographers, photographers and visual artists  have drawn inspiration from time honoured traditions.
The earth speaks.. We just have to put down our hand helds, look up and listen!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Path of Discovery

DiverseCity 2015
KL International Arts Festival
Performance #1

September 6, 2015
DBKL Auditorium

Years ago, Malaysia ran a tourism promotion titled MALAYSIA TRULY ASIA, starring actress Michelle Yeoh. It spoke of the pouring into one country the best and most distilled essences of South East Asia. While the lustre may have dimmed from 15 years ago when the TV ads were broadcast, the performance I watched almost straight off the flight, seemed to be a theatrical avatar of that spirit

PATH OF DISCOVERY was the second official premiere for DiverseCity a month long festival of live arts presentations which features Malaysia as the ASEAN destination of the year.

I missed the first show on September 5 which was a highly acclaimed contemporary showcase of 6 Malaysian choreographers. Pictures of that will follow in later blogs

PATH OF DISCOVERY contained the piano as the core sound scape while various well known Malaysian artistes from dance, theatre and opera quilted the evening with their presence.

An American pianist - Kimball Gallagher - met the gorgeous and supremely talented Taiwanese pianist - Kai-Yin Huang, and together they began the global journey of "88 KEYS".  Inspired by the 88 keys of the piano, theirs is a collaboration with Myanmar as its geographical centre. Co-founders of the Myanmar Music Festival a few years ago, their presence in Malaysia was to tempt this country's renowned artistes to throw their hats into the improvisation ring.
And they did.

Playing Bach, and other classical composers as scaffolding, the two musicians displayed remarkable virtuosity while remaining sensitive to the presence of the various performers who came in and out of their aural tapestry. Dynamic Sabera Shaikh, Malaysia's best known theatre actor entered with the poem GREETINGS TO THE CONTINENT by Usman Awang. A moving and timely reminder of the ravages of violence and the displacement of humanity, her performance was marked by her expressive voice and simple but effective movement. 

Watching Ramli float onto the stage wearing a white skirt was a "moment". I saw the years of ballet training in his light-footed approach as well as his sinuous body respond to both the piano and the soprano voice of Malaysian artiste YiLing Chaing. Her French songs from the Alpine region were of young girls and boys with their flock. Ramli's soft leg extensions and suggested leaning onto Chaing' s shoulders, as well as his performance on the floor were particularly memorable.  When Gallagher presented his alphabet tribute with each key of the piano suggesting the alphabets of Ramli Ibrahim's name, I felt like I had watched a dance version of Sinatra's famous MY WAY.  Ramli's short improv suggested a dignified way of saying "Been there, done that!"

Give me Ramli in this solo contemporary avatar any day. I love his Odissi but with maturity, and a still supple body, THIS is the space he fills so wonderfully.

As the evening unfolded, it became clear that although the two pianists were the anchor for the show, it was the four Malaysian artistes who were giving it colour and breath. Taking off from the French and Taiwanese cultural tropes of songs to mimic favourite games, young dancer Weijin Loh charmed us with his agility and imaginative use of remote controlled toy car (which crashed into the empty VIP seating area!)  as a response to the four playful musical sections of Jumping Frog, Fishing Toy, Kite and Remote Control Car.
A nice foil to the mature presence of Sabera, Ramli and YiLing, this young man represented the "here and now" of Malaysian dance.

The final piece was a long and ambitious venture attempting to collapse the ideas of music, visual design, performance, acting and dance. Titled PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION, Gallagher played excerpts of French, Russian and European composers as the four actors entered as if  "wandering  into an art gallery" and responding to the changing music with varying pace and mood.

PATH OF DISCOVERY was both an individual's response, via the piano, to the inner artiste in each of us while simultaneously declaring  - "This is Malaysia-local Asian and global". Or as Satyajit Ray famously said of brilliant art - GLOCAL.

About the Title

AMOK is a Malay-Indonesian word ( AMUCK) that originally suggested 'warrior-like". Over the years it has been changed to be spelled AMOK and come to mean wild, destructive and untamed. I have chosen this word for my two week report from Kuala Lumpur during the KL International Arts Festival DiverseCity. So much is happening almost daily and the senses and spirit are truly "running amok"!