[Dance Review] Bharatanatyam and Thai Classical Dance Take Flight

Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance truly intertwine in this production laden with significance. 

Photo: Vilvam Ramu

Manohra
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and independent Thai artistes
9 September 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
8–9 September 2018

Manohra, a mythical Kinnari (bird-human creature), who was chanced upon by a hunter; captured and sold to a prince; became a princess; was asked by the king to sacrifice herself while the prince was at war, but escaped; and wooed back to the palace by the prince is certainly an epic tale.

But not many would know that the transmission of the tale matches the grandeur of the plot.

The tale is one of many Jakata tales, which form part of the Buddhist literature that is native to India. It travelled to Thailand and soon became an iconic dance-drama. A chance encounter of the tale in 1990 inspired Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA, to interpret it through bharatanatyam and make it a mainstay of BAA’s repertoire, thus returning it to Indian culture through dance.

It is in this context that Manohra has truly come full circle in this third iteration, as we see bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance coming together to tell the story.

It is a partnership in all senses of the word as Mrs Bhaskar’s choreography intertwines both art forms, rather than allowing it to merely co-exist.

This is clearly seen in the first half of Kinnari dance with certain hand gestures, the signature cocked leg, and shuffling of feet before transiting into the second half, which sees more rigorous movements and footwork. While the dancers (Chayanee Sunthonmalai, Davinya Ramathas, Malini Bhaskar, Montakarn Roikaew, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, and Sarenniya Ramathas) are clearly more comfortable in their respective art forms, all of them dance beautifully and regally among plumes of smoke. 

The Mythical Kinnaris. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

Another thing that stands out about this interpretation is the space given to Manohra’s thoughts and feelings. This augurs well with the expressiveness of Bharatanatyam in terms of movements and facial expressions. Shruthilaya Ramachandran, as Manohra, steps up to the plate admirably as she is able to convey the depth of emotion needed without making it a sob story. Set against Prince Sudhana’s (Puwapon Pinyolapkasam) subtler movements, it is clear that Manohra drives the plot.

Pinyolapkasam is defined by stillness with an active presence. And in it lies an excruciating exactitude in the execution of his movements. His fingers are constantly arched backwards, and every step is slowly placed on the ground, activating every bit of muscle in his feet.

Despite the movements being gentler in nature, his virtuosity shines through in quicker sequences such as when the prince is being put to the test of identifying Manohra among her Kinnari sisters in order to bring her back to the palace. He has to pulse his body and execute small steps to a rather quick tempo, while maintaining the stillness in the carriage of his upper body, and exuding an overall sense of grace and style. Like a thrilling illusion, one cannot stop wondering about the technique behind what one sees.   

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

The other principal characters do not pale in comparison. Sarinprapa Bhutrachinda, is serpentine and flexible as Spirit of Doom; Nishalini Lakchimanathas indulges in moustache-twirling villainy as the cunning minister who advises the king to get rid of Manohra; and the energetic Bala Saravanan Loganathan who plays the hunter and King Adityavamasa to equal aplomb.

As if there aren’t enough to take in, contemporary choreography, possibly by Malini Bhaskar and Pallavi Sharma (as they are cited as having provided additional choreography), is performed by an ensemble of younger dancers who represent the obstacles that the prince has to overcome. On the surface, bodies on the floor shooting up at different times into a sort of a crunch may seem like an aberration when it is set against classical Asian music. But for some reason, it works and it is a testament to the innovative streak of BAA.

Speaking of music, the composition by Ghanavenothan Retnam, in close collaboration with Dr Anant Narkkong, mirrors the dance. Both classical Indian and Thai music have their solo moments, but it is when they come together that something exciting happens.

The percussion of the tabla (played by Hem Kumar) and mridangam (played by S Harikrishnan) provide the heartbeat while the ranat (Thai wooden xylophone played by Tossaporn Tassana) provides a snappy and cheery lilt, which harmonises with the veena (played by TK Arun), violin (played by TV Sajith), flute (played by Ghanavenothan Retnam), and vocals (Ampili Pillai and Arasakumari Nagaradjane). Other featured instruments include the Saw Duang and Klong Tuk (played by Dr Anant Narkkong).

This culminates in a ritualistic but jovial music as Prince Sudhana dances with the Kinnaris in order to identify who amongst them is Manohra.

Another highlight sees the inclusion of lyrics and vocalisation that almost sounds like a rap in Tamil and Thai to introduce the cunning minister.     

While there is a wonderful balance in the movement and musical vocabularies, the same cannot be said of the story-telling. Certain key dramatic moments are not given enough emphasis. It is tough to tell when Manohra actually falls in love with the prince as she goes from being hesitant and unwilling to suddenly smiling and striking a pose with him.

Additionally, the scene of the court dance and the subsequent escape is so bare—only the king, his minister, and Manohra are present—that it feels as if Manohra is playing a prank, rather than escaping from her impending doom. It is also unclear that she is asked to sacrifice herself in order to avert disaster befalling on the kingdom.

In contrast, the scene with hunter hunting for food before falling asleep, while wonderfully performed, goes on a little too long.

That said, one cannot underestimate how this iteration of Manohra is laden with so much significance due to the origins and transmission of the tale. One hopes that it can travel to Thailand to see how the locals take to it.

While Manohra chooses to return to the palace, Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance have certainly taken flight in this production.

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Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Having interviewed Mrs Santha Bhaskar to find out more about Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) production of Manohra, I approached Shruthilaya Ramachandran to find out about her thoughts on playing the titular role.

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

How do you feel playing such an iconic role in Thai classical dance as well as BAA’s repertoire?

It is indeed an iconic role. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at first because I have watched BAA’s previous generation of dancers portray it so sincerely. Also, the level of sanctity and spirituality that the role holds in Thai culture does not make it any easier. I am honoured and happy to be selected for this role, and am grateful to my gurus who entrusted the role to me!

What are the similarities and differences in movement vocabulary between bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance?

It’s impossible to master the nuances of any art form  within such a short span of time. But based on what I managed to glean from the techniques taught by our fellow Thai dancers, I can safely say that both bharatanatyam and Thai dance seem to converge on laasya (grace), even though they are actualised in different ways.

In bharatanatyam, we tend to use movements that are more rounded, and they flow from one to the next by bending our body, hands, and legs. However, Thai dancers seem to keep their body, back, and shoulders upright, while still achieving the grace in their movements.

Both art forms also rely on mudras (hand gestures) to convey meaning. Some common ones between the two art forms include ‘suchi’, ‘pataaka’, ‘ardhachandra’, and ‘hamsaasya’. However, those are done with minimal or no facial expressions in Thai dance.

Another characteristic difference is the aramandi (bent knee) position. This is fully opened up in bharatanatyam, but executed in different degrees of openness in Thai dance. There is also an accompanying bounce or pulsating jerky accent that adds to the beauty of their movements.

Has this collaboration given you a renewed appreciation of your own art form?

This collaboration has certainly heightened my appreciation for bharatanatyam. I was already aware that both art forms could have drawn on common influences, and hence, share some similar movements. However, getting to directly interact with the art form by learning it from a Thai professional helps us see the nuances and unique differences that give it its identity.

Personally, a big takeaway from this collaboration is that, as dancers, we not only have to be physically agile and flexible, but mentally so as well. For example, it is very interesting to know that Thai dancers follow the rhythm being played, and they just seem to know when to strike a step or a movement without the use of a rigid eight-count system. It did take us a while to get accustomed to their musical style.

What was truly heartwarming was that the Thai dancers modified their teaching technique, and started counting in beats of eight to helps us learn the steps during training sessions. I am thankful for such amicable exchanges, which not only exposes me to new art forms, but it also enhances my understanding of my own art form, bharatanatyam!

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series:

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Over the past few years, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA) has been collaborating with various classical dance troupes in Southeast Asia, to create intercultural works based on stories from Asian myths and legends. 

For the third and final project, BAA is working with Thai classical dancers and musicians to stage Manohra, an iconic work in Thai dance drama. Artistic director of BAA, Mrs Santha Bhaskar first encountered it in 1990 and was inspired to reinterpret it using bharatanatyam. With this being the third iteration of the work, Manohra has become a key work in BAA’s repertoire. 

I interviewed Mrs Bhaskar to find out more about this iteration of the work. 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

Manohra is part of a trilogy of works that sees BAA collaborating with other classical dance troupes from Southeast Asia. How did you go about choosing the works to be performed?

I enjoy reading the epics, myths and folktales and learning about the characters which are popular in Southeast Asia. It serves me well for experimenting and choreographing in the language I am comfortable with. Collaborating with our neighbouring artistes, understanding their culture, and sharing the knowledge with the audience has always been important to me and for BAA. 

The birth of “Vinayaka” was chosen when we collaborated with our Indonesian counterparts as the elephant-faced one is popular in that region. We actually collaborated twice—once with artistes from Bali with performance in Bali (2010) and the second time with artistes from Java with performance in Singapore (2016). It was very interesting for me and for my dancers and musicians to work with these two very different collaborators, and understand the similarities and differences in each style.

For the second work of the trilogy, we collaborated with Cambodian artistes. I chose to tell the story of Brihannala because it is not known to many people. It is about an interesting transgender character from the epic, Mahabharatha, who Arjuna transforms into. That helps him pose as a dance instructor in Virata’s kingdom for the final year of the Pandavas’ exile where they were to remain incognito.

You were first introduced to the tale of Manohra in 1990. What is it about the tale or the performance you saw that made you want to stage it over and over again?

The tale of Manohra touched my heart when I was in Bangkok. My mother used to tell me stories about the Ghandarvas (heavenly musicians) who enchant musicians and beautiful ladies on earth especially on a full moon night. She also told me stories about Kinnaris (heavenly birds) coming to earth to take a bath in a pond named Manasassaras.

In Bangkok I discovered the story of Manohra and was surprised that this story is not known to India. This is the reason I want to repeat this work—it is in the hope of passing the story on to the next generation of dancers and audience.

What makes this iteration of Manohra unique from the previous stagings by BAA?

The story itself is unique. With each staging of the work, more life courses through its veins, and more ideas sprout in how we can communicate the work to the audience. Some of the first and second generations of dancers are here to witness the tale’s transformations. For the third generation of dancers, their aspirations to learn the dance of the Kinnaris and to be a part of Manohra is coming true through this collaboration.

Manohra is one of BAA’s landmark works with original music composition and choreography. And now with our Thai partners, with the blending in of Thai music and Thai dance movements, the life and energy of the work transcends to a different level.

 

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra