Historical narratives

Erasing borders

Historical narratives

Kathakali  costumes, it’s  argued, are  based on clothes worn by  Portuguese colonists.

As surprising New York juxtapositions go, none surpass those provided each August by the Erasing Borders festival of Indian dance in its contributions to the Downtown Dance Festival. Here is a downtown plaza surrounded by skyscrapers, with people coming and going at lunchtime and a soundtrack that includes the harbor and city traffic; and here in the open air are dancers in full Indian costume performing traditional forms that derive from the opposite side of the world.

 In 2008 and 2009, there were marvelous examples of Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak dance that made passers-by stop passing by. But in sheerly visual terms nothing has been more astonishing than this year’s Kathakali performance at 1 New York Plaza. Kathakali — rarely seen here — was performed by Guru Radha Mohanan and Troupe, which had come from India for this show.

The costumes are elaborate, and the makeup takes hours to apply. The characters wear hooped skirts that at first recall various period Western dresses, while the broad tutulike outfits worn by the male characters end at the knee. Kathakali is from Kerala, in southwest India, and it’s been argued that these costumes were based on the clothes worn by Portuguese colonists. But what inspired the makeup? Savithri Varada, playing the huntress Kattalasthree, had her face painted blue with  wonderful red crescents and tears on her cheeks.

The broad black lines that give a largely fixed facial expression to the human hero Arjuna, played by Guru Radha Mohanan, recall the makeup of Japanese Kabuki theater; but Arjuna, like other heroic characters in Kathakali, has his face painted a basic bottle green. Most exotic of all is the blackface worn by the hunter Kattalan (the god Shiva in disguise, played here by RLV Gopi): his scarlet lips are outlined in yellow, and the red around his eyes is decorated in white with, at the point of his nose, a white daisy.

“Kiratham,” the myth performed was, though heroic, a comedy.  The troupe presented a short but more serious story, “Dushasana Vadham” (“The Killing of Dushasana”), involving not merely one villain’s death but also the devouring of his entrails (though this gruesome scene was given a cartoon quality of exaggeration). Both dramas were assisted by the same three bare-chested singer and drummers.

I generally prefer to have my first experience of a dance in a state of as much ignorance as possible, but there’s no doubt that a little information between the two performances transformed my attitude to the drumming.  The two  drums seemed always to be played in separate meters, and the lack of harmony struck me as unfortunate.

Before this performance, the critic-choreographer Rajika Puri explained to the audience that the two drums represent the elements of yin and yang, so that their differences are intentional and expressive.   Puri also praised the ragas of the singer, PD Narayanan Namboothiri; the fact that I’d scarcely noticed these was a nice sign of how much I yet have to take in about Indian music.

My appreciation of Kathakali may well deepen on further acquaintance. But in these two performances, the main interest was pictorial and narrative; there was only a minor fraction of the rhythmic and linear rewards of the Indian dance forms that have become better known here.

Though these Kathakali performers moved their feet and arms plenty, and their torsos slightly, this never developed into the great phrases and three-dimensional combinations of rhythmic  footwork and gesture that characterise so much of Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi or Odissi; nor did the storytelling show any elements of poetry.

The performance began with a Kuchipudi solo by Shobha Korambil and an Odissi one by Leena Mohanty. Improvising during some logistical delays the soloists, along with Prachi Dalal, dance director of the Indo-American Arts Council (which produces Erasing Borders), and Puri offered a short — and revelatory — demonstration of the similarities and differences of Kuchipudi and Odissi.

I’ve loved and written about both genres but have always wanted to know more, and Puri particularly helped to elicit the different rhythmic accentuations dancers in each form make. It was enlightening in ways that I would love to see developed in a full lecture-display.

And for me the Kuchipudi and Odissi solos were the highlights. Even if you had not known that the Odissi excerpt from “Govinda Damodara Stotram” depicted Krishna, the fragrance of the episode in which Mohanty showed him playing the flute, poised but swaying on one leg, eyes closed but quietly smiling, communicated its own idyllic charm. So did the mime in which he boyishly throws a ball into a river and pretends that he has lost it there by accident.

But there are elements whose beauty goes beyond character or story: the multifocal nature of the dance passages, the marvelous articulation of fingers and eyes, the fluent overlap of gesture and dance rhythm, the mobility of the spine. A second Kuchipudi solo, “Saraswati,” by  Korambil particularly illustrated the spine’s pliancy.

The ways in which eyes, shoulders, arms and hands moved together were riveting with both soloists. The two Kuchipudi dances were the more energetic in their jumps and turns, but I  loved also the smaller details performed by  Korambil: a prancing walk, for example.

Saraswati is the goddess of fine arts and knowledge, and the solo, after reflecting her diversity, ended in reflective contentment, with all movement tapering away except for the eyebrows, each gently rising and falling in thought.

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