A classical jamboree

A classical jamboree

The huge youngster turnout at a dance fest in Bengaluru recently is proof of a renewed interest in traditional forms.

Anuradha Vikranth

To dance is to express. To dance is to tell a story. To dance is to have a dialogue with the higher realm and the audience. This seems especially true of Indian classical dance forms. That they have emerged stronger to remain relevant to today’s audiences, speaks volumes.

If there were any doubts about classical dances seeing a renewed interest, they were dispelled by the turnout of young and old alike at the 15th edition of the Drishti National Dance festival held in Bengaluru recently. The festival, titled ‘Bharata Nrityavaibhava’, showcased 15 prominent dance forms of the country by some of the finest artistes to have ever graced the stage. The brainchild of well-known Bharatanatyam danseuse Anuradha Vikranth, the festival this year included Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Mohiniyattam, Sattriya, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Kathak, Chhau, Kathakali, Yakshagana, Kalaripayattu, Janapada, Indian contemporary and Harikatha.

Anuradha outlined that the aim of the festival was to not just showcase classical Indian dances, but, more importantly, dispel the notion that they are boring. 

Mother of all performing arts

An interesting aspect this year was Harikatha. Anuradha explained that while researching material for the festival, she came across a reference to Harikatha as the ‘mother of all performing arts’. Harikatha, which in its literal sense, translates to mean ‘story of the lord’, is a composite art form, a traditional storytelling art that has been hugely popular in South India.

Sharath Prabhath, who is a young talented torchbearer of Harikatha, is trying to carve a niche for himself in an art form that many people know little about. His family has been associated with Harikatha for generations and he was formally initiated in 2009. Sharath soon took it up full time and has been performing in Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and English, following the traditional pattern of performance that employs in varying degrees voice, dance and chitike. Incidentally, this traditional pattern remains unchanged from the time of his great grandfather, Venkanna Dasaru, a local pioneer of the art form. 

He feels audiences have started appreciating art forms like Harikatha more nowadays. “Harikatha is a one-man theatre, a creative process, but without a framework. It has a lot of elements like classical music, gamaka (a form of storytelling with singing that originated in Karnataka) and kadaku (a traditional style of rapping) and they all appeal to our senses. Harikatha’s essence is more enjoyable in Kannada, but I have found audiences enjoying it in English also,” says the 29-year-old.

Masked glories

Is it the wow factor that’s drawing in the younger audiences or a desire to experience something new all the time?
Gopika Varma is a well-known name who has popularised Mohiniyattam, a gentle dance form. Gopika believes that dance festivals and performances help bridge the gap between the audience and artistes and creates platforms where art can be explained better. 

In order to remain relevant, every art form must evolve with the passage of time and so it is with Mohiniyattam, says Gopika. “I am happy that I have done my bit to popularise it.”

Yet another unique and colourful dance form is the Chhau, a semi classical drama form that finds its origins in the royal court of Seraikella in Jharkhand state. The dances are accompanied by the sound of drums, flutes and the shehnai. No vocal, but instrumental music. Says Gopal Prasad Dubey, an exponent of Chhau, who performed the Seraikella Chhau at the Drishti festival, “this is not to be confused as a folk dance — it is, in fact, a semi classical form.”

Each piece of a typical Seraikella Chhau performance lasts five to ten minutes.They could be inspired from Hindu epics and mythology or from nature. “I started learning Seraikella Chhau at the age of nine. As a Chhau dancer, I had to learn to express my emotions through masks. Masks are a vital element of Seraikella Chhau. They are prepared using several layers of paper dipped in diluted glue, which forms the mould, while clay is used to shape facial features,” he elaborated.

A favourite of reality TV

Interestingly, this regional dance has started to gain a lot of attention in recent years. Reality TV dance contestants are also showcasing Chhau for that wow factor. Where previously this dance was only performed by male dancers, today, it is not uncommon to see women performing too, says Mr Dubey. 

How many of us have heard of Sattriya, which has a 600-year-old tradition? Anita Sharma, an exponent of this dance form, explained that Sattriya originated in the Sattras or the Vaishnava monasteries founded by Shrimanta Sankaradeva. It acted as a vehicle to propagate Vaishnavism as well as create an environment conducive to learning art. Newer compositions were later added.

Anita believes that the youth today are learning and watching classical dance performances in larger numbers as it gives them a sense of discipline, a connect with their tradition and peace of mind. “Classical dances help shape personality and can go a long way in developing strength of character in children,” she signed off.