A three-day dance workshop conducted by Gopika Varma at the Kuthiramalika palace focused on Swathi thirunal’s rare compositions, dance workshops and the history of Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy temple.

A group of 63 young dancers delightfully experienced the numinous bliss of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, the great patron of music and dance, from the premise where he spent the last year of his life and created matchless musical pieces.

Swathi Thirunal’s name is indivisible from the history of Mohiniyattam and hence from the minds of rasikas and performers. The dance workshop organised by Kalaimamani Gopika Varma from May 13-15, 2022 was an opportunity to perceive the essence of Swathi Kritis, from the mystical ambience of the Kuthiramalika palace at Thiruvananthapuram. The three-day workshop was a productive exercise for the dance fraternity and young aspirants with its unique pattern comprising training and talk sessions, lec-dems and spot visits. 

Gopika Varma, the Mohiniyattam exponent, is the recent recipient of Kendra Sangeet Nataka Academy award. Considering she is a member of the Travancore Royal family, she also helped provide this rare platform for the young dancers to learn dance as well as to relate to the rich cultural milieu of Swati Thirunal. 

The choreography

A less popular and a rarely choreographed padavarnam composed by Maharaja in Ragam Adaana was taught as part of the workshop. It was a special effort of Gopika Varma to explore rare kritis, especially those not used in dance until now and popularise them among the new generation dancers.

“The Kendra Sangeet Nataka Academy award reminds me that today I am more responsible towards my disciple and the younger generation, to pass on the knowledge whatever I received from my gurus, my family, and through my efforts,” said Gopika Varma.

“We have a rich treasure of music unexplored. Now I take up this duty to delve into it and bring out them for the dancers and rasikas the way I can. With Padmanabha swamy’s grace, now I am able to do it, and it’s just a start” she added.

The kriti used during the workshop was sourced from the old written records. Musician Prince Rama Varma helped her by setting and singing the kriti according to the old notations. Gopika also took guidance from Sanskrit scholars and writers to perceive the krithi completely since it is in pure Sanskrit and has been rarely used in concerts. 

Thepadavarnam portrayed a Nayika (heroine) who longs for the Nayaka (hero) Lord Padmanabha. Choreography of this typical Swati Varnam stands out for Gopika Varma’s unique techniques on intrinsic Shringara abhinaya.

The varnam depicts the episodes of NarasimhavatharaGanga uthbhava from the feet of Trivikrama and Sarpadoothu in the charanams and Panchabaanas of Kaamadeva in the anupallavi portion. The sthayi bhava ‘Viraham’ is balanced with veera, roudra and hasya depictions, which shows the artistry of the choreographer and makes this piece eccentric out of other varnams and padams of similar themes.

The dance piece was basically set for Mohiniyattam and additional Jati pieces along with the full music were also set for Bharathanatyam as the workshop was arranged for both Mohiniyattam and Bharathanatyam performers.

Talk sessions and spot visits

The workshop was inaugurated by Princess Pooyam thirunal Gowri Parvathy Bhai on Friday, May 13 at 2 pm. Even at 79, she dances gracefully and is an inspiration for the young dancers. At the workshop, she motivated the participants to learn and explore more in dance. She spoke about the value of art in human life and how important it is to be dedicated to our passion. 

Different talk sessions were arranged each day. Writer and historian  Uma Maheswary addressed the participants on the first day and gave a detailed introduction to the architecture of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. She spoke about some of the important mural paintings and sculpture references in the temple and mentioned the role played by Travancore in promoting art and culture. 

The talk by Nalin Ganesh, Assistant professor of English, University of Kerala and a prominent historian, was a true revelation of Swathi Thirunal’s life, his contributions to the art and to the land of Travancore. Ganesh rectified many misconceptions about Swathi’s period like, Sundaralakshmi, the danseuse from Tanjavur, who was later married to the Maharaja and other major incidents of Swathi’s period.

Nalin Ganesh delivering a talk

Kathakali exponent Ettumanur Kannan shared a comprehensive account of the concept of eastern aesthetics and ‘Rasanubhava’ in particular and mesmerised the participants with his demonstrations.

Nangiarkoothu artiste and teaching faculty of the department of theatre at Sree Sankara University, Usha Nangiar’s session on the third day was another highlight of the workshop. She started with an introduction to the ancient theatre Koodiyattam and explained the unique training system of abhinaya. Nagiar also demonstrated and guided the participants on the techniques of Nethrabhinaya and ‘Kannu saadhakam’ (eye movement practice). 

The eldest daughter of Pooyam Thirunal, Lakshmi Bhai Nalappatt and language expert and Sanskrit scholar Sanal Kumar were also present during the workshop. Pragalbh, musician, singer, dancer and Sanskrit scholar was helping in explaining meanings, talas and was also singing songs for all the practical sessions for the whole three days.

Temple tributes

The major attraction of the three-days workshop was the much-awaited visits to the Padmanabha Swamy temple and Kuthiramalika Palace Museum. Workshop delegates were invited to the temple on the second day of the workshop at 6:00 in the morning. Rajesh, a guide, accompanied the group and gave a detailed account of the temple, architecture, ritual practices, and the history of Travancore. The morning session on the second day was scheduled for the Kuthiramalika Palace museum visit. The team explored 20 out of the 60 rooms of the palace. Balachandran guided and offered an explicit description of the museum pieces, the rulers, and their ventures. 

Aswathy Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bhai, who is also Gopika Varma’s mother-in-law, was the chief guest for the valedictory function on Day 3. Her talk on Lord Padmanabha proved to be an enlightening session as she described the special features of the temple, the idol, and the concept of devotion. The participants were allured by the simple yet dynamic way of presentation of Aswathy Thirunal followed by the distribution of certificates to the registered delegates. 

Jayanthi Ramachandran, a direct disciple of Vazhavoor Ramaiyya Pillai and Gopika Varma’s fellow dancer in her early days of dance, was present throughout the workshop and offered feedback at the end of the sessions. “For old masters, art was something that should be kept a secret and could be transferred only to a few who were deserving. Here, Gopika finds all artistes who are enthusiastic are deserving of her art and she spreads it without any hesitation. This is something that should be really appreciated,” she said acknowledging Gopika Varma’s efforts in the field of dance.

Gopika Varma expressed her gratitude to all her pillars of support such as the family, the well-wishers, and the group of students through whom she expects her lineage to continue among future generations. She specially thanked her senior disciple Jayasree Sankaran for her assistance in the practical classes. Kanakavalli and Gayathri Padmanabhan represented the workshop delegates and shared the joy of the overwhelming experience of the workshop.

Write to us at editor@indiaartreview.com


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