Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam dances by titans, followed by a unique blend of Hindustani and Carnatic, graced the national capital, in memory of composer Swathi Thirunal

The Carnatic piece in Pantuvarali raga brimmed with a contemplative mood typical of the evening melody. Only that two Hindustani classical instruments, too, joined in to embellish the famed Sarasaksha Paripalaya composed by Swathi Thirunal. For, the celebration was in memory of the 19th-century Maharaja known for his eclectic approach to the arts.

Sitarist Subrata De, accompanied by Gyan Singh on the tabla, added to the novelty of a jugalbandi featuring violinist R Sridhar with Tanjavur R Kesavan on the mridangam. Shortly later, the percussionists from the country’s north and south conjured up an array of rhythmic patterns in the segment titled ‘Taala Vadya Kacheri’. It functioned as a grand climax to the whole programme.

Last week, Delhi saw a cosmopolitan gathering attending the Swathi Thirunal festival 2021. The ambience was particularly striking this time, as it turned out to be the first live cultural event held on stage after a year’s closure of auditoriums in the national capital. Covid-19 and restrictions related to the pandemic had forced performances to be online in the city since last summer.

This February 26, the International Academy of Mohiniyattam (IAM) held its flagship festival, warming up the Stein Auditorium at the India Habitat Centre. The Friday crowd alongside the green and quite Lodi Gardens was full house, but the attendees did stick to the protocol by maintaining social distance and wearing masks. Dignitaries in the field of culture, business and politics witnessed the two-hour proceedings, which comprised a dance section too.

Tunes and talas

The convergence of the two classical music systems came in the final lap of the evening. The ensemble’s sitarist plucked the strings of his instrument, playing Sarasaksha, which is otherwise heard only at Carnatic concerts. Before that was a brief alaap, followed by the taanam where the shades of the raga met with rounds of improvisations from both the sitarist and the violinist. Streaks of unconventional twists pleased the audience, inviting impulsive applause.

Then came a face-to-face session of the mridangam and tabla. Far from competing, Singh and Kesavan complemented each other, essaying systematic combos of gaits. The cycles were in the three-beat tishram, four-beat chatushram and khandam of five beats.

De is a distinguished sitar player of Bengal’s illustrious Bishnupur gharana, while Kesavan belongs to a family known for its trysts with music for four generations. Sridhar lived up to his reputation of imparting novelties in his performance even while respecting the tradition. As for Singh, he is a founding member of the world-renowned Mrigya music band.

The IAM, founded by Mohiniyattam exponent Jayaprabha Menon in 2009, is devoted to the preservation and propagation of Indian classical art-forms with an emphasis on Kerala. Swathi Thirunal (1813-46) is not only a celebrated ruler of Travancore which currently falls under the southern part of Kerala, the king is often hailed as “a prince among musicians and a musician among princes”. With proficiency in 13 languages, he started composing songs from his mid-teens in a life that spanned just 33 years. The festival, typically, explored the repertoire of this genius in various Indian classical styles of music and dance.

Two classical dances

The February 26 programme began at dusk with Jayaprabha lighting the ceremonial lamp along with top Bharatanatyam artiste Geeta Chandran, veteran photographer Avinash Pasricha and author-journalist Shashiprabha Tiwari. The occasion also saw the release of a seventh book by Tiwari. Titled Shashtriya Nrityakaaron se Antrang Samvaad, it lines ups dialogues with classical dancers.

Jayaprabha subsequently performed Mohiniyattam. It began with a composition from Swathi Thirunal’s iconic Utsava Prabandham series, this one set to Husseini raga and Mishrachapu tala. The item described a procession during the annual festivities of Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The dancer sees a calmly radiant figure and wonders about the identity of the person. Her holding a ceremonial plate with a lit-up lamp added to the visual effect.

Jayaprabha, a disciple of octogenarian maestro Kalamandalam Saraswathy, went on to perform on a bhajan. Here the nayika (heroine) is in agony, as she waits for her beloved.

The next segment of the dance session was a Bharatnatyam performance by Geeta. She began with a Swathi Thirunal varnam in the raga Karnataka Kaapi set to rupaka tala.

In her performance that highlighted Geeta’s talent and stage presence, the Padma Shri awardee presented the love-centred sringara. She described a loyal sakhi who addresses Lord Padmanabha to tell him about the love-lorn nayika, who is tormented by the Cupid’s arrows and is pining away for her lover. Geeta’s portrayal of the nayika, whose wait is never-ending, along with her upbeat steps to support the abhinaya, invited overwhelming applause.

The festival, in its earlier editions, has featured dances such as Odissi Kuchipudi, besides other instruments in Carnatic and Hindustani music. “We want the world to know about Swathi Thirunal,” Jayaprabha says about the king credited with 400 compositions. “This time, the resilience of the artistes after the lockdown made the event possible. It has given us a chance to come out of the digital world.”


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