By Shekhar Shastri
Art in the highest form can take us on a flight beyond our senses. When the benchmark is transcendental bliss, the artist has to master many dimensions and traverse many worlds – all of it in the limited space of the stage and in finite time.
Be it music, dance, or sculpture, Indian classical arts are always engaged in a symbolic storytelling of cosmic legends – essential communication in an aesthetic envelope. On August 17, 2019, Sheejith Krishna and Soumya Rajaram performed in Lexington, Massachusetts giving us a glimpse of that ideal.
Sheejith Krishna, a dancer, musician and choreographer is a star alumnus of Kalakshetra in Chennai and has taught there as well for many years, before launching his own school of dance and music, ‘Sahrdaya’ in Chennai. His innovative productions have included, Masquerade (2007), Don Quixote (2015), and Yathadarshe Tathaatmani (2014).
When Sheejith Krishna opened the space with a lyrical enactment of ‘Kala-Bhairava’, a question arose as to why begin the show with the terrible Bhairava, the skull-carrying, fearsome guardian Sherriff of Kashi? What is common between the entry to the city of light and the beginning of a dance recital? I was pondering, observing the dancer skillfully transmute the disgust and fear latent in the civilized audience –unclear when the blood dripping from Brahma’s severed head turned into ambrosia of aesthetic delight.
The ferocity of the eternal flow of Ganga looked uncontrollable in ‘Bhagirathi’, which came next – Sheejith dancing on a musical garland of poetry of Adi Sankara, Valmiki, Kalidasa, Anandatirtha—and from Kalki Purana, set to music by Jyothishmathi Sheejith. While Bhagiratha’s indomitable resolve and penance inspired, Shiva’s matted locks capturing the descending river generated awe, which gradually turned into playfulness of the lovers and creatures of the plains, endlessly getting nurtured; concomitantly watering the hearts of the ‘rasika-s’, the audience, which has come to expect a refreshing bath in the entire emotional spectrum from the consummate dancer and a brilliant choreographer, Sheejith.
Just then, Rama returned to Panchavati after destroying the golden deer; on returning to the ashrama, he finds Sita gone. Separated from his beloved, he seeks her whereabouts from the tree and the forest, who appear to be laughing at his misfortune. In ‘Rama’s Lament’, Sheejith magically transformed into a Rama immersed in memories of ‘srngara’ and the pathos (‘karuna’) of the separation. His touching ‘abhinaya’ took the ‘Sahrdaya’, the resonating audience on an emotional journey into our own search for our eternal beloved.
Finally, Sheejith lit the hall in a magical performance of the well-known ‘Jnanapana’, the popular poem by Malayalam poet Poondanam Nambudiri. As if Nataraja had manifested himself in calling all beings to create, co-exist, and celebrate this universe together, Sheejith’s dance opened up the dimensions that lie beyond the temporal entertainment of the senses. In this traditional composition in Kalyani, the delightful Jathi interludes in Sindhubhairavi were composed by Jyothishmathi Sheejith.
Soumya Rajaram, a Bharatanatyam dance teacher based in Lexington, MA, who has studied at Kalakshetra, then with Guru Savitri Jagannatha Rao and now a student of Sheejith Krishna, organized and performed at this evening of fabulous dance. Soumya’s dance is a superb reflection of her training at Kalakshetra and great mentorship by Sheejith Krishna; she is striking in her poise and in her internalization of the dance.
Soumya began with a piece on the ‘Panchakshara Stotra’ by Adi Sankara along with an entertaining ‘Nandi Chol’, a composition of rhythmic syllables. She started on the stage with thoughtful, deliberate movements indicating Shiva’s iconography and delightfully contrasted with fast paced yet strong jathis in the Nandi Chol. Her clear stance as Shiva and Nandi was evocative of a memorable performance to follow.
Then, Soumya presented a Yathi, a composition depicting Lord Shiva’s Ananda tandava in the midst of his devotees. Yathi is the ninth element of ‘Tala-dasa-prana’, the ten life-breaths of tala or rhythm. A raga-tala-malika, Yathi showcased five different rhythmic and geometric patterns: Sama yathi, Mridanga yathi, Damaru Yathi, Gopucha Yathi and, Srothovaha Yathi. This central piece allowed her to showcase her deep understanding of the music and lyrics. She deftly switched playing the role of Shiva and a devotee watching Lord Shiva’s dance with complete wonderment and reverence. Her grip on laya came through clearly in this beautiful choreography.
Next, Soumya presented ‘Surya’ – a celebration of the Sun by the great Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramania Bharati. Through spoken word, melody, and movement, the choreography invokes both classical philosophy and contemporary physics. Soumya’s presentation of this was a sheer delight. Her perfect geometric movements juxtaposed with thoughtful lighting compelled the audience to immerse in all the glory of ‘Surya’. In that glow, I saw that Soumya Rajaram, a Boston area dancer could easily be placed alongside professional dancers rooted in India.
Embedded in Vedic philosophy and the arts is an elusive enigma, which is ever-present and fleeting. Indian classical arts are always aspiring to touch and point a finger to that which is always visible and yet beyond perception. In this Bharatanatyam performance by Sheejith Krishna, one could see the pursuit of that sublime secret. He clearly has the blessings of the great masters he has studied with.
Sheejith Krishna is a complete artist with deep insight into music, laya, melody, choreography, and the ability to transform the stage into a magical space. His stage presence is striking and we were all left wanting more. The evening was beyond a temporal feast for the senses.
(Shekhar Shastri is a poet, music, and a dramatist. He is the Director of Meru Education Foundation based in Lexington, MA. He lectures on Sanskrit Poetics and Natyasastra.)