Last night I got to see a performance of bharatanatyam for the first time. This is a form of dance particularly popular in the Tamil region of India, but now performed throughout the world. The form experienced a renaissance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it is based on the teachings of The Natyashastra, which was written about 2,000 years ago. Today, women usually dance bharatanatyam, though men can perform it as well. There was only one man who danced at the show last night, but he was particularly good.
This performance, Shyama - The Legend of Krishna, was a series of meditations on episodes from the life of Krishna. The program began with an invocation composed by Sri Andal, a devotee of Krishna. This was followed by an alarippu number, which involves neck movements typically associated with Indian dance. The centerpiece was a varnam, a technically difficult piece that weaves together movement and lyrics. The lyrics in this case were taken from the 17th-century poet Sri Thyagaraja. There were then four more pieces, a padam, a javali, a thillana, and a concluding mangalam. I will not even pretend to understand the differences among these types of dances, but they were all lovely to watch!
All of the dances were conceived and choreographed by Ramya Ramnarayan, the artistic director of the Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance. She performed some of the dances solo, and others in combination with other dancers. A couple of the pieces were performed just by her students. Ramnarayan has studied with some of the most famous practitioners of Indian classical dance, including Adyar K. Lakshman, who actually received his early training from Rukmini Devi Arundale
Beginning in the 1930s, Rukmini Devi began teaching and performing Indian classical dance, and she is largely responsible for the art form's tremendous revival in the 20th century. Together with her husband, George Arundale, she established an academy of dance and music that trained numerous performers, thus establishing the tradition that has come down to Ramnarayan and other practitioners today.
Though there was storytelling in the dances Ramnarayan and her troupe performed, it would have been difficult to follow any sort of plot without knowing it in advance. Fortunately, a voiceover before each number explained what was going on in each dance and how it related to the story of Krishna. All of the dancers, but particularly Ramnarayan herself, conveyed tremendous emotion through facial expressions as well as through bodily movements.
Shyama will be performed again this Saturday and Sunday at the 14th Street Y as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. For more information, go here:
Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance