My somewhat boisterous five-year-old niece Pavithra who sat beside me watching Anjasa, the opening show of the Shantanand Arts Festival 2016, was unusually calm throughout the six acts of the dance theatre presentation.
Only the technical anomalies like the five-minute or so waiting time before dancers first appeared on stage or the sound system glitch halfway through the show when the dancers remained motionless on stage waiting for the song to come on, daunted Pavithra.
She leaned over and whispered to me at the second instance, to inquire: how are they going to dance without the song?
Maybe the culmination of the Noble Eight Fold Path that of right concentration as espoused by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha – whose life, influence and monuments erected in honour of, was celebrated in Anjasa – had touched the innocent heart of my little niece.
This must be so as the full house audience at Shantanand auditorium also appeared to be bathed in an atmosphere of calmness, peace and serenity. Such was the rasa created by the immaculate performance of the Apsaras Arts dancers, in re-enacting various historical instances of Buddha’s life and influence.
Apsaras Arts’ principal dancer Mohanapriyan Thavarajah and his team comprising Seema Harikumar, Sangeetha Venkitt Karthik, Meera Balasubramaniam, Banupriya Ponnarasu, Nikita Menon, Aarthi Devarajan, Brinda Balasubramaniam and Anandaraj Jayaraj were in their element, effortlessly switching roles and costumes as the presentation progressed without a break.
The journey of Anjasa, meaning path in Pali, started with the tale of Lumbini in Nepal, believed to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama. It moved on to Buddhagaya in India, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment and to Sanchi where King Ashoka established the Great Stupa.
The tale continued in unravelling the spread of Buddhism to Vattadaga in Sri Lanka and its subsequent flowering in Southeast Asia – in Bayon, Cambodia; Shwedegon in Myanmar and Borobudur in Indonesia.
In choreographing Anjasa and costuming its dancers, Mohanapriyan it appears, has successfully given a new perspective to the audience’s Bharatanatyam viewing experience.
While maintaining all the intrinsic ingredients of a Bharatanatyam performance including the traditional items from Alarippu to Thillana, postures, Adavus (basic dance steps) and Mudras (hand gestures) – he has infused through clever variations and stylisations embellished with interesting jaati adavu sequences, a distinct Buddhist flavour to the presentation.
And through Mohanapriyan’s excellent choreography, the audience probably for the first time ever got to see on stage, the birth of a child in graphic detail – the Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya going into labour and delivering her Divine son while supporting herself with the branch of a sal tree.
In the scene of the demon Mara’s attempts to prevent Buddha from attaining Enlightenment in the Buddhagaya episode Mohanapriyan appears as the dreadful Mara wearing a fearsome branched helmet.
He wildly pranced about the stage, his mouth twisted in a grimace and eyes prancing menacingly glaring at a projected image of the Buddha deep in meditation.
This scene where Mara is joined by his horde of fellow demons in particular two dancers wearing a cloak and dreadful mask caused my niece to recoil into her oversized seat and close her eyes.
In treating a narrative minus the Nayika-Nayaka love theme and a general lack of high drama except for the Mara scene, Apsaras Arts handled the presentation admirably well.
Especially in the last three acts where it had to rely heavily on the vibrancy of the musical score composed by its artistic director, Aravinth Kumarasamy and ample dose of Nritta (pure dance) sequences, to hold the audience’s attention.
Speaking at the beginning of the show Aravinth said although Apsaras Arts helmed by its co-founder Neila Sathyalingam had fared well in its 39-year artistic journey, it needed the blessings and full support of the audience to move ahead.
The Shantanand Festival in hosting the production on its opening day yesterday (Nov 29) has indeed given Apsaras Arts the full blessings of all Malaysian art lovers.
Review by R. Sittamparam