Picture by Selva K. Naidu
Review of “Marudhy”
Date: 24 August 2007
Venue: National Gallery Theatre, Singapore National Museum
By Sonny Lim
10 September 2007
Bharata-natyam, the great south Indian classical dance form, is essentially a solo dance form. It is true that it can often be choreographed for groups of dancers or choreographed as a dance-drama, but the essence of Bharata-natyam lies in its expression by a solitary dancer, austerely alone on stage, unaided by props and uncomforted by the presence of other dancers. Alone on stage, the dancer has to express a full gamut of emotions through the face and hand gestures (fulfilling the nritya or expressive dance aspect of this art form) and is required also to scintillate by executing various collocations of adavus, the units of specific dance vocabulary that uniquely define Bharata-natyam (hence fulfilling the nritta or the purely dance movement aspect).
The challenge of holding an audience’s attention for 80 minutes on stage when there is nothing else to look at except the dancer is therefore an extraordinary task, but it was a task that Priyalatha Arun rose to with aplomb in Marudhy. The first thing to note in the performance was that a classical margam (a set sequence of dance items found in solo performances) had been re-designed (re-ordered, conflated, dovetailed) to tell a particular narrative about the tragic Marudhy, the maiden who falls in love with Aatan, her dance guru, and who gives her life for her love. In re-configuring the margam and therefore shortening its usual length, the production enlarges its appeal to modern audiences without sacrificing anything of its traditional and classical essentials. In one clear stroke, this production of Marudhy therefore also deftly offers one solution to the constant and anxious search for more contemporary presentations of classical Indian dance.
And then, of course, there is the un-missable central core of the evening’s performance – the dancer Priyalatha Arun herself. The most striking impression as we watched was that here was clearly a dancer dancing at her peak. It is a peak, not in the usual sense as applied to dancers in western ballet in terms of the exhibition of physical prowess, but a peak in the sense (very important to classical Indian dance) of being in tune with one’s self. There was a very satisfying ‘ripeness’, a feeling that the dancer was completely subsuming herself in the service of her art, always wishing it well even as she works to execute every movement and express every nuance. Alone and exposed on stage, the Bharata-natyam dancer is vulnerably exposed, and the audience, whose eyes never leave her, often sees more than the dancer would care to reveal – an ego that is too eager perhaps. But on Priyalatha’s face, there was never anything remotely false or grandstanding.
At the same time, too, Priyalatha was fully conscious of the purely technical demands of the dance without which there can be no Bharata-natyam. Bharata-natyam is a dance form that requires a detailed attention and responsiveness to small impulse shifts in the rhythms, a responsiveness that has to translate firmly and quickly through the torso, feet, fingers and eyes. It is this kinetic awareness that allows a dancer to sparkle physically, and sparkle Priya certainly did. In the execution of the adavus (the units of movements), there was a mastery that transcended mere control of technique; what one saw was a dancer genuinely revelling in her dance, clearly enjoying all the movements she had to make. Through it all, there was a natural, unforced and unaffected gracefulness that made the whole dance appear to wrap around her like a second skin. There was nothing arch, cloying or coquettish, as there often can be with many dancers.
In this enterprise, Priya drew on the support and resources of her artistic collaborators – the sweet-toned singer G. Gomathinayagam, the ever-reliable mridangam player T. Ramanan, the flautist V. K. Sivakumar, the very creative violinist K. Sivaraman who delighted with his musical embellishments which were added to give density to the lines of the ragas. Conducting the musicians on the nattuvangam was Girish Panicker, an accomplished dancer himself who was also the prime choreographer for the performance and who was no doubt responsible for much of the rhythmic intricacies which Priyalatha had to negotiate. Rounding off the artistic team was T. Sasitharan, always mindful of the place of the narrator in such performances and so providing clear, pithy but tactful narrations to signpost the tale of Marudhy for the audience.
– End –
Sonny Lim is an actor and founding member of local theatre group World-in-Theatre. He is also a Bharata-natyam dancer and has performed in Singapore, Australia and India.