Dancing the Gods: Nrityagram’s Odissi dance recital

I was lucky enough to attend an Odissi dance recital by the members of the Nrityagram dance company recently, and it was just as exhilarating as the first performance I saw last year. Unlike last year’s show, which included several Nrityagram dancers and members of a Kandyan dance company, this performance featured only Surupa Sen, the artistic director of Nrityagram, and Bijayini Satpathy, the director of their dance school. This streamlined aspect somehow made the experience even more immersive.

I was reminded again how indispensable the live musicians are to the recital: Sanjib Kunda on violin, Soumyaranjan Joshi on flute, Sibasankar Satapathy on mardala (percussion), and Jateen Sahu, harmonium and vocals, provided an essential musical foundation and accompaniment to the dancers. I also think the English translation of the poems/hymns on which the dances are based, included in the program, enhanced the performance. For those of us who don’t speak the original languages of the verses, it allowed us to appreciate how precisely Ms. Sen and Ms. Satpathy communicated everything from intimate human emotions to divine cosmic power through their graceful movements, intricate gestures, and mobile facial expressions.

My favorite section of the first piece, a hymn in praise of Vishnu, was when Ms. Sen and Ms. Satpathy depicted the narrative of Krishna’s birth. Even though those particular lines of the song weren’t translated in the program, the dancers portrayed the event with such clarity that it was instantly identifiable: Devaki cradles the infant Krishna and then, distraught, hands him to his father Vasudev so that he can take the newborn to safety. Vasudev tenderly carries Krishna, in a basket, on his head. With a few economical movements of her arm, Ms. Satpathy even depicted the flooded river Vasudev has to cross to reach Gokul. Once there, he leaves Krishna with Yashoda and turns away, heartbroken. This whole episode played out in a few moments, but the dancers’ precision and sensitivity lent it great emotional weight.

For me, the highlight of the recital was the final piece. It was based on a hymn celebrating Ardhanarisvara, the deity that embodies both the male and female principle, commonly understood to represent the union of Shiva and Parvati. Both Ms. Sen and Ms. Satpathy alternately represented the male and female aspects of the deity, with subtle yet powerful shifts in posture, gestures, and expression. In one instant, a dancer portrayed the female aspect, with her golden skin, gold ornaments, garland of flowers; in the next instant, she embodied the male aspect, his skin smeared with ashes, adorned with serpents and a garland of skulls: “She is draped in silks, he is clad in the sky; her hair is like the monsoon clouds, his matted locks flash with lightning.” Each dancer enacted both the female deity’s bounteous dance of creation and Shiva’s Tandava, his fearsome dance of dissolution, with his drum sounding the rhythms of destruction. Ms. Sen and Ms. Satpathy complemented and conversed with each other through their movements and gestures, until both dancers came together in a unified posture, reminiscent of a sculpture depicting Ardhanarisvara – half male, half female, united in a single harmonious form. It was a thrilling, transcendent performance, and it left me eager for my next chance to see a recital by these supremely skilled dancers.

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