I recently attended an Odissi dance performance by members of the group Nrityagram. Although I don’t know much about the technical aspects of traditional Indian dance, I want to share my impressions of this entrancing performance.
First of all, I’m thrilled that it’s a traditional performance, with live music and traditional costumes and source material. I once attended a Bharatnatyam dance performance in Chicago which only had recorded music and whose dancers didn’t even wear ghungroo (bells worn around the ankles). I guess it was an attempt to make the dance form more accessible to mainstream audiences, but instead it stripped the dance of its essence. It was a disappointing shadow of a traditional Indian dance performance, with its exhilarating interplay of music, movement, and storytelling.
Nrityagram’s show also avoids the pitfalls of fusion, even though it incorporates segments of Kandyan dance, a Sri Lankan form. As dancer and choreographer Surupa Sen pointed out in the post-show Q&A, “this is collaboration, not fusion.” Each dance form is presented on its own terms, so that both Odissi and Kandyan dance retain their integrity, rather than being diluted down.
The presence of Odissi and Kandyan dancers onstage together allowed me to identify distinctive characteristics of each form. Kandyan dance appears athletic and even gymnastic, while Odissi appears more controlled and graceful. Where Kandyan movements and poses are angular and elongating, Odissi’s curve and bend. Kandyan dance is dominated by a pulsating rhythym, whereas Odissi is characterized by a flowing musicality. In Kandyan dance the dancers’ torso, arms, and legs move rather broadly to the rhythm of the accompanying Kandyan drum. Odissi movements, meanwhile, are more articulated, with small, distinct movements of the hands, fingers, neck, head, and eyes. Kandyan dance is connected primarily to the drum’s rhythm, whereas Odissi also echoes and interacts with the voices and other instruments, including the violin and flute, of the musicians onstage. The Odissi sections are characterized by a sort of harmonious melodic layering: as is customary in Indian classical music, the violin and flute mimic the singer’s voice and the percussion imitates the other instruments tonally; the Odissi dancers’ ghungroo echo the mardala drum’s rhythms as well as the tones of the violin and flute.
As always with Indian classical dance, I’m amazed at how the dancers convey a range of visual and narrative information simply with facial expressions, especially the eyes, and subtle movements of arms and hands. A single dancer can embody the small miracle of a blooming lotus flower, the intimacy of a lovers’ embrace, and a deity’s cosmic power, all within a single piece.
My favorite piece was the dance based on a poem in praise of Shiva. Bijayini Satpathy vividly represents Shiva’s long matted hair, with the purifying river Ganga flowing from it; his attendant serpent with its open, swaying hood; the opening of his fearsome third eye; and Shiva’s Tandava, his magnificent dance of cosmic destruction.
Surupa Sen joins Ms. Satpathy onstage to depict the key mythological episode of Shiva burning Kama, the god of love, to ashes with his third eye. Kama incurs Shiva’s wrath when he interrupts the lord’s meditation with his attempts to pierce Shiva with love’s arrow. I loved the contrast between Shiva’s meditative yet inherently powerful stillness, embodied by Ms. Sen, and Kama’s mischievous playfulness, embodied by Ms. Satpathy. With wonderful economy of movement, Ms. Sen places her forefinger and thumb on her forehead and moves them apart slightly to depict the opening of Shiva’s third eye. So expressive is her posture, even in stillness, that the small motion of her fingers is enough to convey the awesome power emanating from Shiva’s third eye.
The fact that this ecstatic expression of devotion to Shiva is based on a poem attributed to Ravana, the evil king of Lanka killed by Rama in the Ramayana, adds emotional significance to the piece. Legend has it that Ravana was actually a great devotee of Shiva and that his power and strength were gifts from the lord. Shiva gives Ravana a choice between several lives as a righteous man and a single life as an evil man. Ravana chooses to live once as an evil man and then be free of rebirth. “Dance on the funeral pyres in my heart and release me from this universe,” Ravana asks of Shiva in the poem. It is a testament to Ravana’s devotion that lord Rama himself kills Ravana, releasing his soul from the cycle of reincarnation. And it’s a testament to the Nrityagram dancers that they can so magnificently embody both the intimacy and grandeur of the stories they tell.