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Revanta Sarabhai's interpretative Bharatanatyam recital showcases his contemporary take on the ‘dancer-deity’ paradigm

For Revanta Sarabhai, his name precedes his repertoire. Even as he forges his own identity within the critical community of classical dance, this third generation Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer carries forward the legacy of his grandmother, Mrinalini Sarabhai and his mother, Mallika Sarabhai, artists extraordinaire of the Pandanallur school.

That his performances reflect his inheritance — which utilises the richness of Bharatanatyam to address issues of importance — was evident in his solo recital at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on Thursday, 9 May 2019. A tradition passed on by his grandmother whose recitals showcased ideas that she was most passionate about, way back in the 1940s-1950s, it was also a technique mastered by his mother who would often use her art to raise questions that mattered.

In the Shadow of the Gods then, was an interpretative act by Sarabhai in which he took on ideas that would resonate with both, the 21st-century audience and performer. Along with personal stories, he explored larger concerns such as climate change, love, separation and the joy of reunion through his performance.

Interspersing present-day notions of new beginnings with age-old ideas of tapasya, he brought forth the parallels between two seemingly dissimilar ideas. One of the pieces, a padam, explored, on one hand, the navigation of a young Indian man in a foreign land, and on the other, the struggles of a devotee who yearned to be with his lord. The dwarpal (doorkeeper) at the gates of heaven, blocking the devotee's entrance and the immigration officer at Heathrow airport, both made it into his recital, without it ever straying from the classical structure.

 Revanta Sarabhais interpretative Bharatanatyam recital showcases his contemporary take on the ‘dancer-deity’ paradigm

Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer, Revanta Sarabhai. Image courtesy: Gaurang Anand

Bharatanatyam was the primary movement vocabulary in Sarabhai's performance — be it the depiction of the awkward dance of a devotee trying to mirror his God to please him or the hastamudra showcasing the immigration officer glancing at the young man's papers or a lovelorn boy typing on his laptop — and classical Carnatic music, the accompaniment for the verses that told his stories.

Explaining this through the varnam, Sarabhai said that the traditional varnams follow a certain format where the pallavi (first verse) is followed by the anupallavi (second verse), and then the charanam comes in. “We are following exactly this structure."

The artist, whose first Bharatanatyam lesson was at age five, notes that historically, most Indian classical dance forms are rooted in bhakti. Traditional choreographies narrate tales from the vedas and puranas and are expressive of the love of Radha and Krishna or the tandav and lasya of Shiva and Parvati. They are descriptive of the very many feats and virtues of the deities and are often conversations between the dancer and the divine. And Sarabhai does not waver from the narrative formats of these mythological tales in his modern renditions. Rather, he pointed out that he uses this ‘dancer-deity’ idea as a vehicle to put forth contemporary stories such as our present understanding of love, infused and influenced by technology.

The pieces that he performed at the Royal Opera House, thereby make use of the ‘devotee-deity’ paradigm, he noted, but are not bhakti pieces. “So it’s not a rejection of the Gods but it is a retelling of them, perhaps hence the name, In the Shadow of the Gods.”

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While in the United Kingdom pursuing his masters and simultaneously trying to carve his own path in dance and choreography, Sarabhai would often be invited to perform classical Bharatanatyam sequences. It was then that he first questioned the relevance of the stories narrated in these compositions for the Western, modern audience and for himself. He wondered how the language and vocabulary of Bharatanatyam could be used to tell a different story.

“Ma and I started developing concepts and we started writing new pieces in English that explored these new themes,” he explained, as through discussions with his mother, an exponent in her own right, he developed stories that could be told without losing the classical strains of the dance form.

“We started writing new pieces in English that explored these new themes,” he continued, “we then worked with my guru at Darpana and our musicians to translate these English poems into classical Tamil and we had them composed in the Carnatic style.”

For this series, he envisioned the creation of a new classical margam (a series of pieces that together create a Bharatanatyam programme in its entirety), that comprises the purely classical formats of presentation. The traditional compositions integral to Bharatanatyam: padam (love songs), kirtanam (devotional songs) and varnam (large centerpieces that showcase the nritta or technical aspect as well as the nritya or the abhinaya and storytelling side) thus found their way into his narratives of newer themes.

Having grown up in a household that was not particularly devout, Sarabhai’s idea of bhakti and God seemed disconnected from its representations in dance, yet the one-on-one conversation with the deity was quite ‘a fascinating structure.’ This creation, therefore, attempted to keep that quality intact while he included ‘radically different thoughts into that structure.’

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In the Shadow of the Gods has been a work in progress for some time now, it was introduced on stage in its present format as recently as January 2019 and has been previously showcased at Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Pune.

On 11 May, Mrinalini Sarabhai’s centenary, her grandson is set to deliver the talk ‘From Cosmic Dance to Climate Change,’ this journey from traditional to modern, at Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. As a tribute to the extraordinary artist, he also intends to take his interpretive show to cultural spaces across the country.

Revanta Sarabhai's solo recital will be held at the Royal Opera House on 9 May, 2019. Image courtesy: Gaurang Anand

Revanta Sarabhai's solo recital will be held at the Royal Opera House on 9 May, 2019. Image courtesy: Gaurang Anand

New compositions are continuously added to its sequence and Sarabhai premiered one such rendition at his solo recital for Mumbai’s audiences. Developed over the last month, it calls to attention the issue of caste discrimination.

The idea for the routine stemmed from questions pertaining to the relevance of a deity or of the Gods today. He choreographed these thoughts to a bhakti composition that dates back a couple of centuries and tells the story of Nandanaar, a devotee of Shiva, an untouchable, who isn’t permitted entry in the temple grounds owing to his low status in the caste hierarchy.

In the song, Sarabhai said, the devotee asks Shiva, ‘Lord you know I am of low caste but you know how devoted I am to you and how much bhakti I feel for you, so may I be allowed into your temple for darshan?’

Seeing his devotion, people would say, ‘woh achuth hai, woh mandir mein nahi aa sakta hai, phir bhi bhakti karta hai Shiva bhagwan ki.’ (He is an untouchable and cannot enter the temple and yet, he is an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva.)

Sarabhai noted that the devotee is lauded for his bhakti but the fact that he is not allowed to enter the temple is completely glossed over. He added that this problematic notion is uniform through several Hindu texts and very often,

“There is an acknowledgement of the caste system but not an acknowledgement of the fact that it is discriminatory.”

He challenged such ideas of bhakti in his performance and altered the last verse of the composition to convey a poignant message. He became one with Nandanaar's turmoil and with arched eyebrows and an understanding smile, asked his God, who knows of kindness and compassion, when he would end this caste hierarchy.

He questioned, why after thousands of years, even though times have changed and many injustices have been righted, this evil has still prevailed. And as the lights dimmed on this 'untouchable' devotee, prohibited from entering the temple, he finally asked the Lord, 'Will you my Lord, come here then?'

The response of the younger audiences for these recitals has been favourable, Sarabhai said, with many acknowledging that the performances showed them how refreshing, exciting and versatile this dance form could be. As for the ‘so-called traditionalists’ he continued, “They appreciate the fact that I am using Bharatanatyam and keeping it’s ‘pure classical form,’ both stylistically and in terms of the structure to create new pieces and they appreciate that it is generating a renewed interest in the younger audience,” but, he further conceded, they also have a desire to maintain the traditional pieces and often ask him to continue performing them.

Another performance that is particularly close to him, one that concluded the evening’s recital is “perhaps the most radical of all the pieces,” Sarabhai suggested, because “it goes away from the traditional context of what Bharatanatyam has always been performed for.”

Within this sequence, the choreographer, dancer and actor challenged gender roles depicted in classical dance. Instead of showing a maiden waiting for her love, he narrated the story of a young boy, whose 'doe-eyed girlfriend in the short skirt,' had gone to a distant land for work, and his experiences of pain and separation as he waited for her to call or Skype. His delight, when one day she shows up at his door is identical to the happiness experienced by a nayika (heroine) whose longing for her lover, gone away on an adventure or to fight in a war, ends upon his return.

This composition steps well outside of traditional motifs, Sarabhai elaborated, incorporates technology and develops a very different kind of relationship within the idea of the ‘dancer-deity.’ There is a lot of 'me' that went into this piece, the choreographer said, because it was born out of the real-life experience of having been in a long distance relationship.

The recital had begun with an invocation to Lord Ganesha and was followed by a kauthuvam, describing the cosmic dance of Shiva. The composition was an old one, handed down through generations and is said to be especially performed by male artists. The rest of the evening blended the traditional and the contemporary and without resorting to aggressive discourses or vociferous dialogue, depicted this journey from old to new, of obstacles, mythological to modern.

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Updated Date: May 14, 2019 09:50:48 IST