[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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[Dance Review] Expressive Gratitude

Nah MA

Na Mah

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

16 April 2016

Esplanade Theatre Studio

16 April 2016, 3pm & 7:30pm

Before every rehearsal or performance, Bharatanatyam dancers are required to perform the namaskar. It is a ritual which expresses gratitude to Mother Earth, the deities, and their gurus who have brought them to where they are.

If Na Mah is anything to go by, these people, spirits, and elements have done an excellent job with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA).

In many ways, the repertoire on offer is an extensive namaskar. Deities such as Ganesha, Bhaskara, and Muruga are praised; the wonders of nature is an analogy of the nature of love; and the skill, precision, and presence on display testify to the wisdom and efficacy of the gurus.

In the course of this thanksgiving, the audience is reminded of how the body is a fantastic instrument for story-telling. The group numbers—especially Bhaskaraya and The Peacock’s Cue—are wonderful spectacles as the dancers come together to form distinct iconographies of the gods, or inject a certain energy in celebration of a deity’s divinity. This is achieved through the contrast between stillness and exuberant footwork. The slight variation in the way each dancer executes the gestures or facial expressions also present the multi-faceted nature of the deities.

That said, there are a couple of occasions when the dancers missed their marks by a hair’s breadth. But they are so minor that they hardly mar an otherwise beautiful performance.

The solo numbers prove that abhinaya (expressive elements) is a forte of BAA’s soloists. The exactness of the gestures, and the nuances of the facial expressions not only tell classic stories, such as Shakuntala searching for Dushyanta in Maaney, it also expounds on abstract concepts such as the nature of love in Vaanil Mukilodum.

The ability to portray an array of emotions, coupled with the different physicalities of the masculine, feminine, and animal within a split second indicates a high level of craftsmanship. From the feelings of joy and longing when one is in love, to seeing a series of flowers bloom with a mere flourish of the hands, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off the soloists.

It is important to note that the programme also includes two Kathak solos by Pallavi Sharma. While she brilliantly executes her steps in Shiv Stuti, the choreography does not bring out the enormity of Shiva’s cycle of nothingness to everythingness, and everythingness to nothingness. However, she is an absolute treat in And This is Love…. Sharma brings out the coy flirtation of lovers through motifs of looking and hiding, and slowly progresses into a series of spins which evokes the all-encompassing and thrilling feeling of love.

It would be remiss of me not to praise the musicians (Ampili Pillai, Arasakumari Nagaradjane, Ghanavenothan Retnam, TV Sajith, TK Arunkumar, S Harikrishnan, Imran Khan, Nasir Khan, Shakeel Ahmed Khan) for their artistry in enhancing the dances. From the meditative to the earthy rhythms of joy, the music is evocative, hypnotic, and potentially therapeutic.

It is unfortunate that we have no ritual of our own to thank the performers for the sacrifices that they have made. Perhaps, the best thing we can do is to show our continuous support and introduce more people to their work. And Bhaskar’s Arts Academy definitely deserves that.