A full circle

A full circle

Experimental

A full circle

Danseuse Vijayalakshmi is known the world over for her numerous interpretations of the lyrical language of Mohiniyattam. She tells hema vijay about the roots of her creativity and her use of artistry to break some boundaries.

It is not often that an Indian classical dancer is zoomed in as the subject for an expensive 3D Hollywood documentary.

Well, Hollywood directors Sara and Urs Baur (who incidentally run the Topanga Film Festival in Los Angeles) have filmed Mohiniyattam danseuse Vijayalakshmi on Carmen, the first ever 3D production to be filmed on an Indian dancer.

Earlier, Sara and Urs had filmed Beyond Grace, a documentary feature film that follows Vijayalakshmi’s dance odyssey with her mother and guru, Padmashri Bharati Shivaji, and grandmother Shankari Krishnamurthy, a grand old lady of 87, who still gives Carnatic music renderings on stage, and someone who has been a huge influence on Vijayalakshmi.

This film with music scored by Mac Quayle, was premiered in Hollywood last summer. It glosses over the people and places instrumental in resurrecting the once dormant dance form of Mohiniyattam. As for Carmen, it has turned out to be an international collaboration rather than a two-nation endeavour, with the 3D technology from Russia, Spanish music, American director, and of course, an Indian subject – Mohiniyattam. The film will be premiered in India later this year.

But covering new ground has never been a challenge for this graceful dancer. She did it first when she surprised Russian audiences with the Mohiniyattam version of Tchaikovsky’s epic opera, Swan Lake. The idea of swan-girls in the folded off-white sari-costume with jasmine in their hair, swaying to the strains of Tchaikovsky, might sound incongruous, but the Russian audience at the Bolshoi theatre was just floored and went on to give the Mohiniyattam girls a standing ovation. When Vijayalakshmi swayed and twirled to the strains of late Russian maestro Tchaikovsky’s opera Swan Lake, it seemed like the east and the west could meet, and come together seamlessly at that.

This opera with Vijayalakshmi in the lead and 20-odd dancers of the Centre for Mohiniyattam on the stage with her was first staged at the famed Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and at the Conservatory theatre in St Petersburg, where Tchaikovsky himself studied.

Since then, there have been over 40 encores of the Mohiniyattam Swan Lake in stages around the world, including 25 performances in India. The inspiration for this intriguing choreography goes back to the danseuse’s childhood; a few months spent in Russia had exposed her to Russian culture ranging from Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky to the ways of the Russian countryside.

“Wherever we stage Swan Lake, the audience has been appreciative of the confluence. I think it has to do with the nature of Mohiniyattam. This dance form is essentially feminine, with flowing and curving movements — much like ballet dance,” Vijayalakshmi muses.

So what were the challenges in tying up the two? “To me, there were none, really. Because, I feel deeply inspired by Tchaikovsky’s music and by the lyrical language of Mohiniyattam. It was all there in my system, waiting to come out,” Vijayalakshmi says after a pause.

Cross-cultural choreography

Vijayalakshmi is no stranger to innovative choreography within the Indian domain too. There was her Unniarcha, inspired from Vadakkan Pattukal, meaning ‘the ballads of North Malabar’, which had incorporated elements of Kalaripayattu, the 2,000-year-old martial art tradition of Kerala, considered to be the mother of all martial arts including Shaolin traditions of China or Jackie Chan’s version of kungfu.

“If you notice, the movements of Kalari are flowing and dance-like, though they pack in a lot of power on impact,” mentions Vijayalakshmi. In fact, it is Kalari movements which have fostered many Indian dance movements, she adds.

Likewise, in choreographing Paryapti, she drew from the ethos of Bengal, including in the choreography Mohiniyattam adavus evocative of movements from everyday activities of rural Bengal, like the swishing of rice on a reed mat to sift the chaff from the grain, or aspects of the Durga Puja. Creations like these have largely helped reinvent classical Mohiniyattam, sparking contemporary interest in the ancient dance, and helping it gain a wider audience.

Over the years, the dancer has been presenting the glory of Mohiniyattam in dance festivals across the world. But more than performances at international festivals, it is the idea of cross-cultural collaborations that excite her, as does teaching the nuances of the dance to generation next. This is why you would often find her presenting lecture-demonstrations on Mohiniyattam in schools and colleges all over India and a few abroad, like the University of Minneapolis. Not surprisingly then, recently, Vijayalakshmi was conferred the FICCI YFLO Raga Young Women Achievers Award for Performing Arts.

A sense of joy

For all the cerebral baggage that contemporary dance has been forced to shoulder, if it has to be considered as keeping up with the times, Vijayalakshmi looks at dance differently — as something that makes her feel good, and yes, empowered. “I would really love to teach dance to older women, to women who would have loved to dance, but didn’t have the opportunity. Dance is such a feel-good activity and gives so much assurance,” she says.

Off stage too, Vijayalakshmi is the epitome of grace, and to watch her talk is as captivating as to watch her dance, thanks to the gestures which come along with words. The lady sings too. “It is perhaps inevitable. I can’t imagine dance without songs. They go together,” she says dismissively.

With mother Bharat Shivaji, a Mohiniyattam legend by herself, and credited with creating many of the adavus of Mohiniyattam, Vijayalakshmi might have had an easy entry into the dancing stage. But ever since she took to Mohiniyattam like fish to water — or so to say, like a swan to lake, she has been breathing new life into this ancient dance.

Mohiniyattam is deceptively simple, but has not been given the credit it deserves, she feels. “Try standing for 10 minutes in a half-squatting posture in perfect balance, and also move the torso in curves, without jerks,” she points out. And remember, through all this, the Mohiniyattam dancer sports an expression that suggests effortlessness, grace, and the elusive euphoria of being at peace.

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