Tag Archives: prakriti foundation

Review: The Akram Khan Company’s Gnosis

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In Gnosis, the first production by The Akram Khan Company to be performed in India in eleven years, the eponymous principal dancer appears in two distinct incarnations: Akram Khan as purveyor of beauty, and Akram Khan as perpetrator of violence. In each mode, he exudes power in completely different, but equally riveting, ways.

We are introduced to the former incarnation during the first half of the show, consisting of three pieces: Polaroid Feet, Tarana and Unplugged. Here, the choreography doesn’t stray far from Khan’s kathak roots; it is the music that modernizes. His movements are informed and counterparted by cello and western percussion in addition to tabla and classical vocals. The result is extraordinary, so stunning a sonic and visual experience that dichotomized ideas of tradition versus experimentation lose their relevance. The synthesis is so perfect as to allow their being forgotten.

In Unplugged, an improvisational section, Khan has a certain ease in the shoulders and a wordless amity with his musicians that give one the impression that above all, he is having fun – like someone in a club, who can’t help but groove. His feet, meanwhile, could be instruments of evisceration in their precision.

In the show’s latter segment, consisting only of the titular Gnosis, he takes off his ghugroos and joins Fang-Yi Sheu in a piece that takes its ethos from the contemporary and its sense of drama from the classical. Here, Gandhari and Duryodhana – who in literal or figurative ways chose darkness – are the crux of this exploration of greed, violence and transformation. A powerful dancer, Sheu has a deadly, almost martial, presence juxtaposed with the vulnerability of blindness. Together, the duo evinces a chilling performance.

Pure evil emerges in one surprising moment. Sheu is at centrestage. A pinpoint of white emerges in the darkness behind her, grows larger and larger, until Khan himself steps forward – that eerie looming light was the one reflected off his bald head. If the body in dance is inseparable from narrative, this innovative detail – the use of even the top of the dancer’s head to create mood – strikes an extraordinary note.

In the final minutes, Sheu’s mastery of technique is evidenced in a sequence in which she appears to lose control. Here there are no cheap ruses emulating chaos. Her body behaves as though it has been possessed, as though she is a doll being manipulated. The effect is astounding.

Something inexplicably seamless exists between the kathak-based and contemporary segments of this show, and it’s difficult to place one’s finger on what that is. Perhaps it is a lack of pretension. The emphasis is not on philosophy but on sheer performance. Gnosis is spellbinding: a feast that stirs. Don’t think. Just watch.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

 

 

 

The Mucukunda Murals

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Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.

Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.

He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.

Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.

Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.

The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.

In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.

At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.

Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.

In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Festival of Sacred Music, Thiruvayaru

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It was my pleasure and privilege to travel with the Prakriti Foundation last year to their Festival of Sacred Music, and I am delighted to have been able to do the same again just this past weekend.  This was published in today’s The New Indian Express.

The experience of travelling with the Prakriti Foundation to the Festival of Sacred Music at Thiruvayaru, now in its second year, is a multi-faceted one. The nights are electric with open air concerts in marvellous “found” locations in this muse-kissed small town; the days are filled with sightseeing to nearby monuments, discussions on aesthetic sensibility, genuine camaraderie and long scenic drives that cut through rural heartlands and Tamil sacred geography – the Cauvery river, the fields, the shrines in every grove.

This year’s Festival featured three incandescent concerts, beginning with Vidya Rao’s Hindustani thumri recital at the Husoor Palace. The soft-spoken Srimathi Rao shared an elegant series of thumris that spanned the gamut from Meera bhajans to Sufi poetry, taking pains to explain the lyrics to the audience. As with all the locations, the lighting and stage design was inspired, with diyas settled in the nooks of pigeon nesting towers.

The following night, contemporary-looking palm leaf floral arrangements hung upside down in the tent under which a jugalbandi showcasing the talents of Pandit Krishna Ram Choudary on shehnai and Pinnai Managar Shri. Dhakshinamurthi and K.M Uthirapathi on nadaswaram resounded at the Pushya Mahal Ghat. The competitive-collaborative dynamics of the jugalbandi format reached a crescendo with the solo performances by drummers on both sides, who stole the show with their prowess.

The Festival concluded on an incandescent note, with Aruna Sairam’s powerful voice rising under a glorious full moon at the Panchanatheeswara Temple. Srimathi Sairam selected her repertoire astutely, sharing both complex, rarely performed padams as well as livelier pieces chosen particularly for the many Carnatic music students in the audience. A certain darkness in her delivery greatly enhanced the phenomenal nature of this performance.

As with all Prakriti Foundation projects, the Festival of Sacred Music is founded on visionary principles: it is not kutcheris alone that are the objective, but also heritage preservation and rural tourism. To this end, Prakriti Foundation works in close collaboration with Dr Rama Kausalya’s Maribu Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), taking as a fulcrum the revival of and renewed respect for both the sites and the ethos that made this part of Tamil Nadu so culturally affluent. It is a labour of love that has already been many years in the making and will require much effort yet – but some of its rewards are immediately evident. The concerts themselves, of course, but also the sense of magic that hangs in the air for the duration of the Festival. For the second year running, I looked up at the stars after dinner as friends of the Prakriti Foundation shared poetry and songs at the intimate Husoor Palace, and whispered a thank you to the muses that continue to kiss this ancient land.

Poetry With Prakriti 2009

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I really should have blogged about this already, but I’ve been so busy, so with apologies for tardiness, don’t forget to check out the Poetry With Prakriti festival if you are in Chennai this month.

I was a featured poet at last night’s Brave New Voices slam, jointly organised by the US Consulate and Prakriti Foundation, and what fun it was! Fifty people showed up to compete – well done, Chennai!

Prakriti Foundation and The Park Present… Witchcraft

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Prakriti Foundation in association with The Park is delighted to invite you

for the launch of Witchcraft, a book of poems by Sharanya Manivannan

on Friday, March 13 2009 at 6 p.m.

Venue: Leather Bar, The Park, Anna Salai, Chennai – 600 006

Dress code: Black

Praise for the book:

“Sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife,” Ng Yi-Sheng, winner of the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize

‘Bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils,” from the foreword by Indran Amirthanayagam, winner of the 1994 Paterson Prize and 2006 Juegos Florales

[Update: ABOUT THE DRESS CODE
I’ve been getting enquiries about the dress code. Why have one? Because we’re poking fun at the “Witchcraft” connotations. That’s why Friday the 13th and black outfits. Please remember that it’s *black* and not *black tie*, so wear a tee shirt by all means. It’s fine. :) ]

The Venus Flytrap: Bearing Witness

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Somewhere on the road between Thanjavur and Thiruvarur, on the scorching afternoon of the last day of February, I see them. The women among the rice crops. They are bent over, their fingers among the wet and the growing, only their lower halves visible from behind. The van passes them for only a moment but it is enough. I think about them for days. When a reporter calls shortly after to ask which female personality I would like to be for a day, I think only of them.

Where was it written that I could be this person – an artist, a traveller, a young woman fortunate enough to number among her graces the ability to chronicle her own life?

A guest of the Prakriti Foundation, I’m on a hegira from the city, heavy with sadnesses I can’t quite shake off even for the weekend. But what privilege to be among a small group of erudite aesthetes. To see Darasuram not as a mere tourist collecting photographic evidence of having been there, but with the luck to be with those who look upon every tiny carving with love, see the story in every stone, connect mythology, history, postmodern theory and the practical. To participate in a beautiful private puja in the home of the Senior Prince of Tanjore. To sit down on the dry Cauvery riverbed as someone explains the constellations above, illuminating the links between Orion and Nataraja, between the Southern Cross and Trishanku.

Where was it written that I could have this? Where was it written that I would not be one of them, a woman living somewhere on a sacred trail, tending to rice crops under a merciless sun?

What would my life mean if I had no language for it, if my interior world was the only one I could experience, let alone create? How much richer would it be, stripped of the filter of observation, the casual voraciousness with which I regard my experiences, knowing I can alchemize them into art? There is a point at which you become mercenary about the things you do, the ways you let the damage be done, because it’s inspiring. There is a point at which you justify anything because of the knowledge that you’re Rumpelstiltskin, and your life just straw ripe for the spinning.

I want to know it for a day, yes. A life exposed to the elements, so close to the earth, so far from mine. And on that day I want to forget myself, forget there was ever another way of seeing or being, forget that whatever happens, I possess the power of baptism. I want to know an interior life that cannot be absolved or celebrated in art. I think that, upon return, that day would devastate me. I think it would teach me things I do not have the language to imagine.

Later that evening, after a kutcheri during which the women I’d seen earlier continued to scatter seeds in the arable of my heart, we assembled for dinner under the stars at an old house in Thiruvayarur. We took the opportunity to share simple, impromptu performances. The Dutch musicologist recited what he called a poem for “adult children”.

“I saw two bears smearing honey on bread”, it went. “What a miracle! Ha ha ha he he ho! I saw two bears smearing honey on bread. What a miracle. I was watching them.”

The last line was the cinch, he said. The most magnificent miracle of all was not so much that it happened, but having been able to be there, witnessing it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Ameen Merchant’s The Silent Raga

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Anything that combines the powerhouses that are the Madras Book Club (supposed to have a membership of 800) and the Prakriti FoundatioAmeen Merchant & Sharanya Manivannann equals, at the very least, fantastic turnout. I calculated between 150-200 people at the Taj Connemara last night, at the launch of Ameen Merchant’s The Silent Raga. Reading from the novel were Madras Players’ Yamuna and Deesh Mariwala, classical singer Subhashri Ramachandran and yours truly, as well as the author of course.

The Silent Raga was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and is published in Canada by Douglas & MacIntyre and in paperback (Rs 395) in India by HarperCollins. A couple of interviews with the author are here and here.

With Ameen at the post-launch gathering at Amethyst