Friday, December 22, 2017

Agathi ( refugee) by Apsaras arts

 It was a thrilling and a fabulous experience to see a dark subject such as the harrowing experience of a refugee crisis be given a beautiful artistic presentation, and that too in Bharathanatyam format. Bharathanatyam has increasingly become a format that is saturated with repertoire with allusions to divinity, mythology, legends, etc that are so very removed from the contemporary and require a time machine to take us back in time to the courtly or a temple ambience of the middle ages.

It was a refreshing and a much needed welcome relie that Apsaras arts ( SIngapore) has dared to take Bharatham to talk about an issue that keeps nudging at us all at some corner of our nice and cosy living- the crisis of a refugee that keeps hogging the front pages of our news paper and is also increasingly becoming a deciding factor in the politics and policies of many a country around the world.

Close to home in Chennai, the refugee crisis of Lankan tamils affected by Eelam war, resulting in the vast eelam Tamil diaspora spread across nations like France and Canada. Their plight and tribulations looms large in our imagination thanks to the writings of tamil writers such as Shoba sakthi, Muthulingam, Tamizhnathy (writers from my recent reads)and  movies like Kannathil Muthamittal ( the haunting song ‘ vidai kodu engal naade’) .

In looking forward to this dance presentation, there was always a doubt lurking in mind, as to how was such a sensitive subject to be portrayed in Dance format. In the end, this evening’s performance proved to be a greatly reassuring testiminy to the efficacy of the art of Bharatham, its timeless appeal and relevance.

The performance appeared to be broadly in three different treatments. In the first part there was a recital of poetry written by children affected by refugee crisis and a dance item in reflection of this piece of poetry. The lines of poetry were hard hitting and sharp and portrayed the different hardships faced by a refugee, these were chosen from a book of poetry published UN refugee agency. The recital was in a mellifluous that closely resemble Lyricist Vairamuthu’s and was enlivened by abhinayas of Mohanapriyan.  The dance items that followed the poetry pieces were equally dense and poignant, a fabulous case of dance living up to the terseness of language.
photo from Apsaras fb page
There was one particular poem that portrayed how the sea, that was a sign of calm and serenity as long as home was, transformed into a cruel monster that took away  homes, families and peace of mind for a refugee running away from what was home. This piece of poetry was given a lengthy dance treatment beautifully bringing to life the gory of the tribulations at sea through some drama created with intelligent use of light effects.

The second segment featured the concept ‘ini avan illai’- expounding on the idea of how the refugee can never be the same person again after all that he has been through, facing the brutalities of war, losing friends and family , losing home and rootedness. The lines featured here in this segment were again a sharp reflection of the agony of a refugee, this was beautifully brought to life by separate individual performances around the memories of a lost Father, mother, sister, friend, lover and home- each depicted by a separate dancer, and finally all performers culminating in a group in a frame.

The tag line of this segment also featured in the closing of the performance where the magic of dance was created with simple walking and sharp glancing to music.

The third segment sounded like adding a popular dance number to an art/ docu cinema to make appeal to the masses. This was a segment markedly different from the other two. But no one is complaining as we have our beloved Bharathi’s ‘aasai mugam maranthu poche’ and Kannadasan’s moon songs, namely ‘nilave ennidam mayangathe’ and’ anroru naal ithe nilavil’ songs enlivened by brilliant voice of Chitra Poornima and Karthik Raveendran and some inspired dancing. There was also the enjoyment of watching popular songs of Kannadasan getting an artistic dance treatment. It was a refreshingly new experience and one kept looking forward to more such treatment. The chosen songs fit very well with the refugee scenario depicted earlier, hence the segment did not look too very odd a fit with the others.
It was because the chosen popular songs were so very in sync with the themes of the earlier segments that, it allowed for the show to end smoothly with the tag line of the second segment.

It was a brilliant evening getting to watch a contemporary theme portrayed in Bharatham, some brilliant Choreography, excellent singing and moving; poignant lyrics that reflect real plight and finally the pleasure watching an artistic dance treatment to popular numbers. Aravind Kumarasamy and Apsaras arts prove to be an exciting team to look forward to producingsome challenging works. The ideas of their production 'Nirmanyam'- an exploration of dance and Architecture and ' Tanjore' - a retracing of the evolution of dance through a letter written by queen Kamakshi Bai, sound very exciting.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

I was very excited when  Autumn by Ali Smith was shortlisted for Booker prize this year. I was rooting for the book, even before i had read it. After all, it’s a good enough reason to root for a book when the author is your favourite. But I did not loose much time in starting to read the book, as soon as i could get my hands on it. But by this time the prize had been announced and it went to George Saunders’ ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’. It was quite a disappointment that Autumn did not win, but it did not in any way diminish my keenness to devour the book.

Ali Smith starts her narrative from the sea shore. A man from another era comes washed ashore by the sea. This ethereal beginning and the potential interpretations this dreamy idea holds, kind of establishes Ali Smith’s Signature style of fiction. It was also a consolatory start to the book for me, assuring me that the author had not gone about redefining herself in the gap since i had last read her book. The first chapter was good enough to convince me that this is a work of the same author i had rooted for, my bets were not misplaced.

The book is centred up on the character of the girl Elisabeth, whom we get to know in snapshots from different stages of her life. She has supporting casts in the form of a elderly man who was her neighbour when she was young and has resurfaced in the present, washed ashore by the sea; and her mother, who provides Elisabeth the anchor.

Elisabeth develops a deep affection for the old man Daniel Gluck., and Daniel Gluck in turn shapes Elisabeth's way of looking at the world, her aestetics, are art outlook, etc. The seeding, grroming and flowering of this relation forms the spine of this novel. These are probably Ali Smith's way of alluding to god old times when Neighbours played a great role in shaping one's life and outlook, before we locked ourselves inside walls and fences.

These solid characters apart, we get to see a good deal of the life and art of pop artist Pauline Boty and the sad life of media sensation of the time, Christine Keeler. One reason why I look forward to Ali Smith’s works is that I love the way she weaves into the narrative her writing on art. Ali Smith’s writings provide us with an ideal platform for delving into the works of the artist.
Pauline Boty holding a work in which Christine Keeler is featured 

In this novel she has identified with Pauline Boty’s life and works. We are walked through, held fingers and run thru the different aspects of Boty’s collage works. It's and immersive experience to read Ali's description of the art work and look up them on the internet.

BUM, 1966, oil on canvas

It’s a very arsy painting. A cartoon-like traditional theatrical proscenium arch, complete with scrolls, pillars and an imperial coat of arms surrounded by unfurled flags, frames a stage whose space is literally filled with a giant fleshy, naked female bottom. Underneath, bright red, bouncing against blue, green and white stripes, three massive letters spell out the word BUM, and at the very top of the painting two tiny love hearts in the same bright red peek over the roof of the  stage flaunting their buttocky curves.

It’s a laugh-out-loud surprise. It literally bares its rear end at convention. Performance, my arse.
The above extract from Ali Smith's obituary to Pauline Boty published in the Guardian  is very instructive of Ali's treatment of a painting , taking us through its nuances and possiblities.
Ali Smith not only talks of Boty's art but also gives us a good feel of her 'sad' life. She builds up the life of Boty telling us what a potential young thing she was, dabbling in theatre, Television, her brief soiree with Bob Dylan, her beauty, her sad pregnancy and her exemplary courage in going through with it.
We are treated to a picture in which Pauline Boty is holding an art work featuring Christine Keeler, and the narrative goes on to unravel the sad story of the life of Christine Keeler and how she almost brought down a government. 
Autumn is the time that brings to mind the rustle of dried leaves, that are trampled upon, that were once bright and shining green full of life. Talking of dried leaves, the novel in its opening scenes, has Daniel Gluck dressing up in dried leaves and invoking the image of a photograph by Boubat. Now look at the photograph and see how Ali Smith is meditating on it: (  very typical of the Ali Smith i love from 'How to be both')

' remeber that postcard he bought... in Paris... of the little girl.. She looked like she was dressed in dead leaves, black and white photo..., the child from behind, dressed in the leaves, standing in the park looking at scattered leaves and trees ahead of her. But it was a tragic as well as a fetching picture. Something about the child plus the dead leaves, terrible anomaly, a bit like she was wearing rags. Then again the rags weren't rags. They were leaves, so it was a pictuire about magic and transformation too... a child just playing with leaves,... a rounded up and offed child,.. or maybe also a nuclear after-child,... as if skin is nothing but a picture of your fetch... and that child dressed in leaves became all these things: sad, terrible, beautiful, funny, terrifying, dark, light, charming, fairystory, folkstory, truth.

The the dried leaves also in a way seem to allude to the lives of these two artists in their promise and their 'sad' ends and finds resonance with the the title and mood of the Novel.
The Autumn has its say in issues like, Brexit, refugee crisis, Government machinations and apathy, fences and their meaninglessness, etc. 
Ali Smith builds interesting situations to bring out what she has to stay in a very dramatic way. The incident of Photograph for passport, the retelling of an incident of a woman breaking off the capture by Nazis, the symbolism in breaking fences with Antique objects, etc provide ample food for thought on contemporary issues.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sadhir workshop

I was blessed recently to be able to attend a workshop on Sadhir- aka Dhasiaatam, the dance form practiced by Devadasi community in temples and in festivals affliated to the temple and the court . The workshop was conducted by 77 year old Muthukannammal of devadasi community from Viralimali in Pudukottai district, Tamilnadu. The workshop was arranged by Udalveli foundation, that aims at opening up audiences in Coimbatore to a wide range of stage performances and artistic experiences. The workshop was well attended by some senior dance practioners from as far as Bangalore and Hyderabad, all masters in their own right.

The workshop took off to a bright start with Muthukkannammal regaling the group of dancers with her singing skills and opening up to the group with stories of her life and art. The group of dancers were well motivated and heartily took to the inspiration that Muthukkannammal had so generously to offer, and quickly organised among themselves into a cohesive unit, ready to grasp every piece of art, this legend had to offer, and perform them on stage in a grand evening that would conclude the workshop.

The dancers were quite aware of what a historic moment they were part of, and were keen on learning the features of a dying art from one of its living masters. They were also aware of the responsibility that was to befall their young shoulders in keeping this dance form alive. They also showed great elan and aptitude in picking up the dance from the simple instructions of Muthukkannammal.

From the wide range of repertoire that Muthukannamal was privy to, the dancers and the organisers decided on working on 6 items for a performance showcasing the form of Sadhir. This included 1. Alarippu 2. two Padhams 3. a Kummi 4. a kolattam piece and 5. a Nottuswaram.


Viralimalai Muthukkannammal was born in 1929 in a devadasi family. She was wedded to Lord Subramanya of Viralimalai at the age of 7, in a ceremony that is called 'pottu kattudhal', the last of such an instance in Viralimalai. She was trained in dance and music by her father Ramachandra nattuvanar, who had learnt the dance traditions of Viralimalai) from his mother, Nagammal( a devadasi)'s elder sister Ammani ammal and the repertoire of the Tanjore quartet from his mother's teacher and 'some time companion' Pandanallur Kumarasami Nattuvanar.

Muthukkannammal recalled with pride how she and others of her community were so much an integral part of the temple and its rituals that the day in a temple started and ended with a Devadasi. She recounted how they would be called upon in the morning to present before the lord, rice flour and make patterns of 'om Saravanbhava' on some 32 plates and present it before the lord. it is these 32 plates of rice that would go in to feeding the 32 families of devadasi community that lived off this temple. Each of this family had atleast one girl wedded to Lord muruga or a man who formed the music troupe of the attached to a devadasi.

In the evening the Devadasi would be called upon to remove all the evil cast upon the Lord and shield him, as any wedded wife would care for her husband. She would again be called upon in the night to sing lullabies and see the Lord to sleep in his private chamber.

These apart, she would be called upon to assist the purohit in conducting the daily poojas and in performing dances on special occasions and festivities.

The devadasi and her troupe of musicians ( called Thasimelam) also travelled out of the temple to perform in royal courts and festivities of the landed Zamindars. Muthukkannammal recalled how some of these Zamindars were very appreciative of their music and dance performances and gifted them liberally. 

All this gaiety and celebration turned sour and bitter overnight with a piece of legislation introduced by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, calling for the abolition of Devadasi system. Now Muthukkannammal could perform nowhere, she lost her livelihood and her patrons.MK's father had to sell all that they had received as gifts at throwaway prices, so that they could sustain themselves. MK recalled how she felt stifled and suffocated by humiliation all around. Amidst all this Muthukkannammal vowed not to let her art vanish in thin air. She made it a practice to perform within the temple premises, even though no one appreciated her art are welcomed her performance. She held on to her art with all conviction and it is  her resolve to see her art pass on to younger generation that has made this workshop possible. 

Sadhir and Bharatham

It was on the top of all our minds to understand how was Sadhir different from Bharathanatyam. Scholars would have pages to cite on this topic, but i would like to share here what i observed during the course of this workshop.

Singing: In Sadhir, the dancer is simultaneously trained in singing as well and is expected to sing during her performance. This is one aspect MK kept stressing on to the participants in the workshop, and was quite proud of her ability to sing and dance even at this ripe age. 

Mudhras: Bharatham lays a lot more emphasis on hand mudhras than Sadhir, whereas Sadhir delves more into enacting andbringing to life the drama in the composition.

Compositions that formed the oeuvre of Sadhir reflected the evolving cultural ethos of the time- like Modi, Nottuswaram; and drew heavily from folk traditions of the land- like Kummi, Kuravanji. This was amply reflected in the pieces that were chosen for performance on the concluding day of the workshop.


Kuravanji is a dance drama that had its origins some four hundred years ago in the Maratha courts of Nayak rulers. The most popularly known work of this genre, Kutrala kuravanji was authored by Thirikoodarasappa kavirayar. Many avatars of the kuravanji concept, wherein a Kurati, a tribal woman visits the city, mostly as a messenger of love, forms the crux of Kuravanji dance drama. In our workshop we were exposed to songs from Viralimalai kuravanji.

In this segment we have a Kurathi entering the stage praising lord Muruga of Virali malai and subsequently describing the hill scape she hails from and the general ethics that bind her lifestyle to the city folks and telling them what she is capable of in a very animated style. the lyrics of the song are slightly tweaked to suit the features of a locality in time and space resulting in a location specific Kuravanji.

In the song we got to hear, the Kurathi first introduces herself as some on from the hills of Subramanya..
vanji vanthaal malai kura vanji vanthaal 
senjali gunsali aagiya theeran subramanian naattil 
vanji vanthaal
vanji vanthalaiya, mamalai kura vanji vanthalaiya..
kanja malar  velli valar gangai kula velaral
konjum subramaninan koor vadi thazhaikkum naatil 
sootiya sangani valai pootiya sangani valai
subramania natinil kudigal kolla 
vanji vanthalaiyaa..

Next she goes on to tell the city folks about her customs and how she is different from them..
jaathi murai kelu amme..
minji metti kaal viralil podom, naangal..
meththaiyil paduthu manam naadom
vandu methitha malagalai soodom
matroru jaathikku naangal pen koduthu,
 koodom koodom koodom

oruvarudan palar koodi padupom, nangal
odi kanjikaha paatai padipom, nangal
surumbudan kal kudipom
soonyam puthaiyalgalai kandu eduppom
Next, she tells them about the magical powers she possesses and how she can help bring a new lease of life to the city folks..

vasiya jalangal engal agapattu irukkuthu
manathu vaithu kelum kelumaiye.
pasuvum puliyum oru thuraiyil erangi ninru
parugi unninada seithu paarthiduvom;
kosuvai karudanudan parakka vittu panthayam
koodiduvom, maiyal naadiduvom.

koona kilavi nalla kumari pol sool kondu
kulanthai petru thanthida konjiduvom;
pesatha oomaigalai pesumpadi seivom
peria malaiyai engal maiyiril katti adipom.

The Kuravanji is so very convincing and irresistible with what she has to offer, that she is certain to accomplish whatever mission she has set out on.


Notuswaram refers to Notes song set to western tune, with only swaras for the words of the song. As each line ends in the song, the dancer gestures a 'salaam' to the audience. These compositions and performances probably reflect the community's efforts to win over patrons from among the English.

The dancing set to Notuswaram largely draws from the stamping of feet in a millitary marching.

The song goes..

gagarariga  pamamaga riririgari rigamariri 
sasa sanidapadanisapadapdadapa


Muthukkannammal had the best of training of two world's- the Viralimalai repertoire and the Tanjore courtly repertoire, as a result of her father's training in both. We were introduced to a Sabdam set to praising a King of Bhoja clan..

Bhosala Kula soma, (scion of Bhoja) 
budajana visrama ( protector of the common man)

niku sati dora nivani ninne nera nammi nanu( i believe you have no equal)
tanjapurini velasina ( oh resident of Tanjaur)
srimantudu nivera (blessed one)
sivoji maharajendra ( ref to Siavaji II) 
bhalira melu salamu re.


The Tanjore courtly repertoire is characterised by padhams, that is songs brimming with love and eroticism. in the padham chosen for the workshop we had the heroine pining for her love, while still staying focussed on being paid for her love...

enna seiguven penne en mogaththai,
ethu seiguven kanne en mogaththai
ennerumo aval ennai kalanthanaivaal?
mannan rajagoplan innamum vara kanen

aasai irunthaal inna, kaasai viduvamo?
alagu maapilai aanalum, valavukku sellalamo?
vesikku kaasillamal veru piriyamundo,
veenaga nee enthan veetu kizhavi vaivaal.


Kummi is a traditional folk dance, where the dancers are in a circle and execute steps that are accompanied by clapping to music. the accompanying song is usually in praise of the King, and the Gods of the land, and has very sprightly tone to it, wanting to make you jump and join the cirle of stepping and clapping.  For this workshop we had a beautiful composition, that goes.. 
 'therkaththi rajanada, 
thenmathurai pandiyanda
pittukku vandavanda
thillai natarajanada
thananana nanana thanana..
eratha malaithanil
eruthu rendu thathalikka
paramal kaikoduppar
palani malai velanadi
thananana nanana thanana
maduraikku merkirukku
maariamman theppakkulam
theppakkulam paarkavanthen
devi ennai ratchi amma
thana nanan thana thana thanna

The Padhams, and the kurvanji song are in particular very admirable for their lyrical qualities and dramatic details. 

Show day

After 3 days of work shop the team was ready for performing on stage. It was very fascinating to watch the young dancers take up to this legend with the ease and warmth of a mother to a child and together put up a grand show that the city of Coimbatore was really blessed to witness. It was lovely to watch the dancers decking up the legend with the jewellery that they could sapre for the show day. the bonhomie among the dancers also showed in the way they carried the show on their shoulders by taking the lead in explaining the pieces, and their significance to the audience and also in helping each other in bringing out the best. 
It was such a wonderful experience being a part of this historic workshop as an observer, revisiting some old pages of our cultural history.

Reference: Davesh Soneji's book Unfinished gestures, which is dedicated to Muthukannammal among others, was of great help to me gaining a perspective on the life and  art of Muthukannammal.

Kinetics Art show

The exciting promo videos that the group of artists, called Kinetics, posted in building upto the event was a big inspiration for me to want to go and catch up this show at  Art Houz gallery. Kinetics is an exciting bunch of young artists that passed out of Madras Arts college. Its refreshing to see how this young bunch of artists bond among themselves and help each other in their creative journey. It is also refreshing that it consists of artists from diverse background and pursuing very unique and different styles of arts.

Aneesh K R
Aneesh K R's Kutch, painted posted cards vividly captures the vibrancy of the city. Each tile of a postcard is of a unique color and beautifully framed in it is an aspect of the colourful life of the land, captured in all its vibrancy. He captures the grace in the faces of men n women folk- Their smiles, styles, poises, business, houses, carts etc.. There doesn't seem to be an aspect he has missed. It's a collage the brings a cityscape alive.

His printed post cards on Kasi captures the rhythm of life in color and that of death in shades of grey. After all, any allusion to the city of Kasi would be incomplete without mention of both the aspects of the city. In capturing life he has sifted thru the city for all its colorful moments- the result of a natural interplay of light n life..its no wonder, The color of safron has a real edge in this pallette. The shades of grey in the other half capturing death is not far removed from life either. There's a sense of gloom and an imminent rise from the ashes and a sense of continuity that comes across through these frames.

Sunil Sree
Sunil Sree's meticulous art puts together a mesh of industrial paint, polycarbonate and epoxy resin all staged on a 'dosa kal' to create a theatre of ideas. This piece could be about wasted food or a search for identity, or probably a reflection on the survival of the fittest- those can stand the heat of the 'kal' stay, the others fall.

His man made objects with cement has models of daily use objects, modeled in cement. It's probably a mockery on our dependence on these objects. A couple of objects also have a moth eaten model, which again opens up a world of thoughts.

Saravanan Parasuraman
Saravanan parusuraman has weaved magic out of fibre glass, fishing lines and acrylic on plywood To create a web of blue, a blotch of deep shining blue seems to be spreading out into a web of thin light blue. This could be a fishing net cast to capture the sky or the kind of web that we are caught in these days.
His Spill of chrome paint on fibre glass has a very viscous texture to it, inviting one touch n feel what seems to be a ever changing form that just stopped moving just for a while, just for us.

His Etuchuraikai is such an exemplary illustration of the many meanings the word carries with it. His manuscript with graphite on board is another layered work. He has filled the pages with multifarious symbols and signs, repetition difficult to spot, and we only get to the edge of the page..

The abstract artist that G is, it was a pleasant surprise to see his self portrait in pigment. The experiment has worked and we have a woolly version of G that could pass for a face plucked off one of those renaissance classic portraits. His big work in the show, Nature with pigment on canvas has two big circles with blotches of pigment sprayed on it. These two holes could be a pair of eyes peeping out of the wall or a pair of big holes in the wall or an allusion to an ever turning cycle of dark n color, with the dark side bearing seeds of color n vice versa.

His another untitled work again tries to capture the magic of pink in a background of black.

Yuvaraj's Strategist stood tall In the middle of the show, surprising you when you first encounter him. But he holds his hands crossed and stands composed, welcoming you to explore the ideas he has to offer. All those chess pieces stuck up on him make you wonder, if he is the player or the played.

Yuvaraj's another piece, Identity has a golden wrapped face amidst a bloom of brass flowers- is it a face hidden coming out of a garden or is it a person struggling to carve an Identity by fighting it out with nature. His untitled cast iron piece is remnant of an Egyptian Pharaoh standing tall unmindful of the rusted wear.

Kumaresan Selvaraj 's triptych seems to be a meditation on forms, shapes, shadows, n spaces.. The being and the absence of it was an appealing idea. Dillip Kumar seems to be throwing nude n raw questions at the audience, even his found object seems to allude to hidden parts.