Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival
Temple of Fine Arts
11 & 12 July 2009
At every performance, the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) would allocate a VIP seat for the late founder, His Holiness Swami Shantanand Saraswathi, or fondly referred to as Swamiji. They would cover the seat with a beautiful cloth and garland it with flowers.
My new friend, Shanti, whom I got to know just minutes ago, was seated next to ‘him,’ and she asked if I knew Swamiji. Regrettably, I did not. Not in person, at least. But I was one of the privileged few who saw him alive blessing Butterfly Lovers in 2003, the first of TFA’s many large-scale productions to raise funds for their now, near-completed performing arts building. While waiting for the show to start, I discovered from Shanti, that he was not only a kind and wise man, but a beautiful Bajan singer. No sooner did I express my desire to hear him sing, TFA played Swamiji’s Bajans to commence the programme – it was as if the ‘man’ in the garlanded seat heard my request. As we listened to the beautiful singing, Shanti was moved to tears, as his voice brought back a flood of fond memories for her.
Kaadambari simply means a garland of flowers. Just as the qualities and talents that make Swamiji a beautiful person, each item in the programme represents a flower strung together to make the beautiful garland that was presented to the audience.
The performance took us first to the southern part of India’s dance geography with Premanjali, a Bharatanatyam fare with throes of young dancers, each holding a small light in both hands. Against the deep purple backdrop, the dancers remind of delightful little fireflies decorating the night with random sparkles of light. Their movements were far from random though. ‘V’ and ‘X’- shaped formations dominate its structure and the dancers moved in ordered pairs. However, there was a kind of grandeur in the new-age like music that did not blend very well with a typical invocatory item. The battery-operated light that the dancers held introduced no danger and thrill into the performance, which perhaps, reflects on the rather safe choreography, having included very young dancers.
The second Bharatanatyam item, Dashavataram, was performed by seven talented young men, including Hariraam Tingyuan Lam, who made his debut with an Arangetram in May this year. Having followed their progress for years, I felt a sense of pride seeing the third generation of TFA coming of age. At the same time, I was absolutely delighted because male dancers are so difficult to come by – and there, on stage, were seven of them in their kinetic best. This piece featured the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The young men with their youthful looks and playful demeanour projected Lord Vishnu as a young God getting acquainted with the characters, the roles and the divine responsibilities to be undertaken. The dancers satisfied the essence of the incarnations with convincing nritya and near-seamless transitions of transformations; and ending with each posing a manifestation of Lord Vishnu.
Andhra Pradesh, another state in South India, is home to Kuchipudi, an ancient dance form, whose genre is likened as the older cousin of Bharatanatyam. An artwork with a dusty aura featuring grand columns and shaded corridors of a nameless ruin became a looming backdrop for the dancers, who used their bodies to reveal the nine sentiments or navarasa of human emotions in Marakatha Mani Maya Chela/Tarangam. The dancers displayed a strong sense of musicality, and this was evident from the coordinated jangle of the bells strapped at the ankles, augmenting the intricate footwork, which they managed almost flawlessly. For the finale, the lead dancer stepped onto a brass plate, to execute the “dancing on the plate” effortlessly, much to the audiences’ delight. As the Nattuvanar led the dancers into the more complicated jathis, the lead dancer, with her feet still bound to the brass plate, displayed body and hand movements that were as eloquent as those whose feet were free.
Compared to the earlier piece, Vajrakanti Pallavi, an Odissi piece, was more low-key. Odissi is a temple dance with origins in Orissa, west India. It was a subdued interpretation of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir’s original choreography, to display the sport of indolent maidens. The darker and smeared sketches of buildings served as the backdrop for the dancers’ casual and laid-back movements.
Contrary to the temperament of the Odissi piece, Theen Taal, a Kathak dance from north Indian, featured vibrant and energetic movements. The dancer made sharp head movements turning to the left and right, and sometimes diving down in both directions. Her footwork was swift, just as her hand movements were, deftly slicing the space about her with cutting motions. A key feature of this dance is the crescendo of pirouettes. Anchored at an axis, the dancer spins and spins with increasing speed until her yellow skirt and scarf blurs into a soft yellow trail. We held our breath anticipating a possible fall from the dizzying spin; but she did not. Just as quickly as she moved, she came to a quick stop and concluded with a triumphant pose.
The Bhill Dance of the Bhill tribe who are forest dwellers and hunters, and Call of the Desert, a contemporary folk piece about a journey across the desert, are works based on folk traditions. While each was delightful with their colourful costumes, lively music, and beautiful set, the choreographies befit a segment of a musical rather than a stand-alone item.
And finally, One Malaysia, a contemporary dance presentation that included several dances representing the multiplicity of our racial make-up was presented to celebrate the colourful cultural diversity of Malaysia, much like the variety of flowers that make up the beautiful Kaadambari.