Shabari: Vasundhara Doraswamy’s latest Bharatanatyam solo

Mysore’s VPAC studded its recent five-day festival with a grand climax when veteran Vasundhara Doraswamy presented her latest production ‘Shabari’, featuring the tribal devotee of Rama.

Septuagenarian dancer Vasundhara Doraswamy came up recently with a solo Bharatanatyam performance, ‘Shabari’, entertaining audiences. Spanning 75 minutes, Vasundhara’s latest choreographic production, focuses on the mythological tribal woman Shabari, an ardent devotee of Lord Rama. The performance was a fitting finale to a five-day cultural festival featuring 15 dancers who presented three Indian classical forms.

This time, the event had its share of difference owing to the prevalence of Covid-19. Typically, the artiste’s Vasundhara Performing Arts Centre (VPAC) in Mysore organizes four dance-music festivals a year. Chiguru Sanje for toddlers, Pallavotsava for the up-and-coming, Natarajotsava for the male and couples, and Parangathotsava for the veterans. The festival promotes artistes of all cadres. For the last 40 years, the festivals attract artistes across the country.  Both in terms of participation and audience, these festivals have been a major attraction for Mysoreans, next only to those in connection with the colourful festival of Dasara.

In 2020, none of them could be held owing to the pandemic. But Dr Vasundhara, the founder-director of the organization, was not prepared to take the adverse situation lying down. She clubbed together the four festivals under the title ‘Vasundharotsava 2020’ and held it recently in the Sri Nadabrahma Sangeetha Sabha for five days. The first four days witnessed amazing performances by fifteen dancers presenting Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kuchipudi.  True, dancers from other states could not participate owing to restrictions of travel. The festival also consisted a Carnatic vocal concert by Manasa Nayana.

Refreshing approach

The mythological Shabari and her story are a familiar theme to Indian dances. But when it comes to the production Vasundhara, 71, staged the other day, expectations of a bewitching choreography ensured that the hall was jam-packed. The audience’s watched it with their eyes glued on the renowned Bharatanatyam exponent till the very end.

Young Shabari

Dr Jyothi Sankar’s script appeared a unique narration of Shabari’s life, as she had prepared it after going through different versions of Ramayana. It began with the birth of the woman who lost her mother when she was an infant. Father groomed her as a hunter following the lifestyle of the forest dwellers. But a marauding elephant killed her father and Shabari became an orphan . Thereafter, Sage Matanga taught her the ways of meditation to get moksha. Before his death he assured her that she would get the darshan of Rama which would lead her to salvation.

Vasundhara has an inborn penchant to create the right ambience for any performance. One of her techniques is to begin the recital with ‘melaprapthi’, an inspiring feat that is related to the very genesis of suddha nritta. It was at Siva’s insistence that dance was tagged to the poorva ranga (traditionally staged behind the curtains) by Bharatha as depicted in the ancient treatise of Natyashastra.  It embraces a flourish of enchanting rhythms, swaras and dance.

The pure dance sequences unfold through a plethora of adavus executed with geometric proportions and rhythmic perfection in fast tempo.  The vibrancy of the movements of each part of the body was commendable. In any case, Vasundhara was first among the pioneer-choreographers to add this item to the Bharatanatyam repertoire.

Amazing transformation

The dancer’s costumes suggested the young Shabari. The description of the forest was awe-inspiring as the dancer could delineate its denseness and further the animals, birds, rivers et al. The elephant she portrayed was ferocious for its movements. Utilization of space while depicting this animal along with its violent antics was enough indication that it was preparing itself for a deadly act.  

Conversation with sage Matanga who advises her to lead a life of sanmarga for attaining salvation received an enticing portrayal with short commentary in between.

Old Shabari

The audience was awestruck by the metamorphosis of the character into the old Shabari, post a short interval. Shabari’s wait for Rama darshan seemed never ending. One could see through her weary eyes, her sufferings of waiting for Rama’s arrival. Finally, when he arrived, she could not make out, for she was expecting a king. Instead, she saw a man totally tired wearing soiled clothes. As Rama introduces himself, her joy knew no bounds. She brings the fruits she had collected to give him. Bites them to ensure they are ripe and only the good ones are presented. Rama seems to regale himself with them. Finally, when he says that she is like his mother Kousalya, Shabari is transported into a world of bliss. The curtain descends as Shabari attains moksha.

Music support for the show was highly laudable with D S Sivasta (vocal), Sujay Shanbag (nattuvanga), Janardhana Rao (mridangam) and Jayaram Kikkeri (flute). Costume design by Badri Divya Bhusan contributed immensely to the making of the character.

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