Chandrabhanu hardly needs introduction. His illustrious career as a professional dance artist spans over 30 years of creative and pioneering work. His contributions toward the development and promotion of Asian performing arts in various countries, including Malaysia, remain unsurpassed. In addition to studying classical Indian dance and music, he received tutelage from great gurus of other Asian art forms in Malaysia (Gendang Terinai Classical Dance) and Indonesia (Javanese and Balinese Classical Dance). He has also travelled and performed extensively.
Bharathanatyam is a semi-dramatic type of dance performed by a solo dancer who plays more than one role through gesture and mime. In the seven-part work, Chandrabhanu portrayed the different aspects of Lord Krishna, providing a broad compass of Krishna’s personality from various angles.
He insisted that the performance was not his alone but that of O.S. Aruns as well. In fact, the seven parts of the work were both song and dance titles at the same time. The songs were sung in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, and Hindi.
The vocalist and his live ensemble, sitting at the right of stage, accompanied Chandrabhanu with captivating Carnatic music, on which the dance is based, adding zeal and vigour throughout the performance.
As this was a charity event by the Northern Indian community here in Malaysia, the performance incorporated two bhajans (Northern Indian songs) in the second half of the programme. These are songs chanted and sung in praise of various divinities. Although usually sung in a light manner, Arun sang them in a powerful classical way, putting emphasis on devotion and its lyricism.
The stage was simply set against a backdrop made of colourful cloths creating a temple arch with a picture of mirror-imaged peacocks at the top, symbolic of Krishna. The pillars at the side were sewn pictures of pots, each with a plant creeping upwards. These depicted spring, which is always associated with Krishna and love.
Chandrabhanu maintains that the structure of Bharatanatyam in this performance is still the same except that Thoday Mangalam (the first dance) replaced the Alarippu, Swagatam Krishna (the second dance) replaced the Sabdam, and the two bhajans replaced the Padams and Javali.
Chandrabhanu opened Krishna Krishna! with Thoday Mangalam, a very traditional, invocative dance giving praise to Lord Vishnu. More challenging than the Alarippu, in this dance the dancer has to quickly accommodate with the changes in the music – there were five different Ragas (scales) and Talas (rhythm cycle) in this piece alone.
Here, he constantly looks up in awe and puts his hands together in prayerful clasp to worship his deity. He introduces Krishna for the first time, depicting him as ‘the one with the flute and a peacock feather in his hair’.
This was portrayed with double-handed gestures (samyukta) implying the flute and a quick movement of his hand upwards behind his head showing a feather. In a pose, Krishna is always standing on his left foot with his right crossed-over in front and resting on his toes. His signature static movement is a stately 4-beat footwork consisting of a stamp-heel on the right foot, followed immediately by a toe-heel on the left foot.
This was recognisable in any form Krishna took throughout the repertoire, with various personalities differentiated by expressions and more elaborate combination of movements.
In the second dance, Swagatam Krishna, where Krishna is welcomed as King of Mathura, Chandrabhanu explored more circular movements both in terms of hand ones as well as when travelling in space. He wasted no time in displaying the variations in movements by inserting a lot more jumps, turns, and poses into this dance. He also created clear diagonal lines by subtly moving first his lower body and then shifting his central median (upper body).
In taking jumps to squats, he provided a refreshing variety in varying (height) levels in the otherwise traditional earthbound dance. He also took many opportunities to create triangular forms, the basic shapes of Bharatanatyam, in his movements and poses.
Varnam, the next piece, was the most difficult in the repertoire – it combined Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (expressive, symbolic, interpretative and semiotic dance), and Natya (dramatic components and role-playing).
The rendition showed both musicians and dancer pushing the boundaries of music and dance. Musically, it has a complex structure with powerful jathis (vocal percussion) that lend majesty to the work. This is interspersed with the poetry and lyrics of the piece, the abstract musical phrases, and variations on the raga.
Ambika Docherty, foremost disciple of Chandrabhanu, assumed the difficult and crucial role of the Nattuvanar, the musician that recites the vocal percussion. She determined the point of change in timing and gave signals to both musicians and dancer. Both Ambika and the mridangist, Balasri Rasiah, did well in holding the rhythmic fort together.
In this piece, Chandrabhanu played both Krishna and the devotee-in-love. Stretching his ability in Nritya, he expressed the pain experienced by the devotee who pines for Krishna and waits in vain for him to come to her. The feelings and expression emerged from the very details of describing the way she worships and adores his entire being, including his wardrobe, accessories, and body. As Krishna, he had to assume the trickster in each form transcended, whether human or animal.
In dance, he chose to be a bit more simplistic and disciplined. He characterised walking with a series of (foot) stamps with both hands resting at his waist, and there were a lot of movements symmetrically repeated. He also introduced a new move – leg-lifts, not by way of extensions but rather lifted in a tucked-in or inward manner.
In addition, Chandrabhanu went all the way to the floor when he impersonated the woman falling asleep while waiting for Krishna. In jumps, his leg extended towards the back when he landed, while both hands were extended in a slant looking like a triangle on the ground. In terms of timing, the dance progressed from one movement per beat to double time as feelings became more intense.
The cheekiness and smile on his face masked the exertion and tiredness. He ended this piece with a pose on one leg, while the other was tucked under the left knee, complete with sturdy, perfect balance.
The varnam took all of a master to perform as it requires a thorough understanding of music, the lyrics, mythology, symbolism and philosophy, besides the virtuosity in the hand gestures, body movement and facial expressions.
The dance immediately after the interval was Parthasarthy, a signature item of Chandrabhanu. He seemed to relish the challenge offered by the most dramatic part of the repertoire as it provided him enough scope to show off the different aspects of abhinaya. It was indeed very demanding having to switch roles in very quick succession – at least 6 roles, I counted: male, female, and animal.
Chandrabhanu brought to life the episodes of the Mahabharata: from the dice game to the abuse of Draupadi; from the battlefield of Kurukshetra to the revelation of Viswaroopam; from Arjuna’s awe to his slaying of Karna.
In the two ensuing bhajans, Chandrabhanu manipulated the more feminine abhinaya (dramatic expression) when he portrayed Meera Bai the tease in Meera Bhajan: Shyamatori, and the jealous and disappointed courtesan in Sur Das Bhajan. He made a very convincing woman in all seductiveness, coyness, and girlishness.
If Jim Carrey had a million faces in the movie, The Mask, Chandrabhanu had a million facial expressions, in a manner of speaking, with just one role revealing his prowess and control over dramatic expression.
He took advantage of this to convey the concept of Rasa to the audience. In essence, he wanted the audience to ‘taste’ the aesthetics of the dance and to evoke the concept of rasa in them by way of emotional and intellectual appeal.
Arun sung the delightful bhajans with such intense feelings and empathy. And being the ingenious and creative artist he is, he conveyed so much passion and expression that it felt as though he were serenading each member of the audience personally.
The night ended on a high note with Thillana, a joyous celebration of dance and rhythms. Phrases of pure dance were presented in different time measures, each ending with a complex flourish of theermanams (rhythmic finales). This he did with precision, speed and rhythm essential in the execution of the adavu, a rhythmic cadence of movements.
Prior to each dance, he took time, like a patient guru, to tell the story and philosophy behind the dance. His charismatic presence, the depth of knowledge, and the physical and spiritual strength he exudes on stage, as well as his ability to communicate his art to the audience, had given him the status of being a stirring, dynamic and magical artist of the theatre.
His great skill, style, eloquence and elegance were combined with depth and intellect to produce a unique artistry blending the elements of aesthetics, mysticism and scholarship in the form of Krishna Krishna!.
Short of a perfectly smooth show, there were more than a few jarring technical glitches due to inexperienced sound and light handling. At one point, Arun hit the microphone in annoyance and glared towards the direction of the console box. And Chandrabhanu, prior to his first storytelling, had to say, “Can I have some lights please? I think the audience would like to see me,” making a polite joke out of it. During Thillana, the last section of the Bharatanatyam performance, the air conditioning either broke down or timed-out, leaving the audience fanning themselves with their programme booklets.
Personally, Chandrabhanu has very great affinity with Krishna Krishna!. In this production, he emphasises bahkthi, which is a sense of devotion. This can be seen in the recurring theme where the female characters’ yearning to be one with Krishna can take on a more spiritual theme, where the yearning to be one with God is the basic ideology.
On Bharatanatyam in Malaysia, he is pleased to see that the dance has flourished but stresses that it is primarily a solo art form and that more weight should be placed on classicism.