It’s impossible for you to be aware of the Bangalore Bharatanatiyam scene and not hear about Parshwanath Upadhye. A guru and a celebrated dancer in his own well-deserved right, he is often the reason performances by Punyah Dance Company (run by him) are always housefull! Defining the ‘male Bharatanatiyam dancer’ of this generation in many ways, Upadhye has built a style and repertoire that is beautifully masculine. It is tough not to be mesmerised by his agile movements — crisp, defined and sometimes like a martial art. But I digress.

I finally managed to catch a performance of Abha, the latest presentation from Punyah Dance Company at Seva Sadan in Malleswaram, Bangalore, recently. This performance has been praised by most critics, but has received its fair share of criticisms too. The bunch of separate pieces strewn together to create this retelling of the Ramayana, focuses on Sita, and Shruti Gopal who essays Sita throughout the performance is more than fantastic.

Needless to say, the last-minute performance (it was announced just a day before it was performed) was packed. I managed to nestle down beside Manasa Joshi (a Kathak dancer and actor from Bangalore) and in no time we were both exchanging notes on how ridiculously brilliant this performance was.

What worked for me was the sheer progressiveness of Shruti’s Sita/Abha. Choosing episodes from the Ramayana that have often been portrayed with an unnecessary limiting deific halo around Sita’s character; the realness of Sita as a woman — not just as a wife or a daughter or a sister-in-law — blew my mind! Here was a Sita who was playful, who was full, who wasn’t necessarily worshipful of her husband but respected him immensely… here was a retelling of Sita from a woman’s eyes — and it was wonderfully refreshing.

The performance began with a mallari, which was atypical to the form. Brilliant choreography, some amazing nritta and a beautiful celebratory ambience — the return of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana to Ayodhya was a pleasure to watch and listen to. Abha stands apart in terms of music production thanks to the use of non-traditional music. From bits in Marathi and Sanskrit being composed around non-Carnatic pieces to the usage of Kannada in other parts — the lyrical and musical ambience created is not one common to a Bharatanatiyam performance.

The mallari was followed by a jatiswaram that was a retelling of the episode of Rama sending Sita back to the forest with Lakshmana. What absolutely worked in this piece was the unbridled confidence of Sita in an almost feminist retelling of the tale. Rama decides to send Sita back to the forest based on gossip about her chastity. Lakshmana is given the task of leaving her at the forest. Once he drops her off, he breaks down and tells her that Rama decided to give her up because of the gossip. Sita responds powerfully: who is he to give me up? I do not belong to anyone. Shruti’s powerful performance in this jatiswaram sends shivers down your spine — a truly emancipating experience.

The jatiswaram was followed by a varnam that meanders through different episodes of Sita’s life. Needless to say the trio do a fabulous job here. From playing the female friends of a young Sita, to the portrayals of Rama, Hanuman, Lakshmana, Ravana and everything in between… the pinnacle in the varnam is a rare retelling of a tale not much heard of. Once Ravana is vanquished and Sita and Rama are about to leave Lanka, a lesser known asura brother of Ravana attacks the couple. Rama springs into action. Sita chides him: destroying Ravana was written in your fate. Pushkara Ravana is mine.

Sita takes on the avatar of Kali and in her uncontrollable rage and kills the asura. Shruti shines through this transformation. From the coy Sita, to Sita the kshatriya princess who is ready for a fight, to her taking on the Kali avatar, and then returning to the coy and dutiful Sita — you are left with goosebumps and pure uninhibited awe.

The choreography throughout the performance is brilliant. For a fan of pure nritta, like myself, there are enough of sequences that had me holding my breath from sheer amazement. Adithya PV as Lakshmana is perfect. The nritta sequences with Parshwanath Upadhye and him are a visual delight. The only flaw I could point out — and this is me really trying to find one — is how packed each piece is. There’s no lull in choreography and you are forced to pay attention from the beginning to the end. A breather in between might give rasikas like me some respite. It’s too much brilliance to take in without a much-required break.

As Manasa Joshi, whom I watched Abha with, pointed out — when the trio are performing on stage together — you’re often left torn between who you ought to pay attention to. They’re all so good!

The varnam is followed by a padam on Lava and Kusha in Rama’s court, which is then followed by a beautiful tillana on the ashwamedha sacrifice and Sita returning to mother earth and the performance then concludes with a mangalam on Vaikunta and the next Vishnu
avatar — Krishna.

While the three pieces that followed the varnam were beautiful in their own right, I was left reeling from Sita’s killing of Pushkara Ravana and how beautifully the whole scene was portrayed. Be it Parshwanath’s Rama standing in awe as Sita slays the asura or Sita quickly changing back into the coy wife of Rama after unleashing the Kali within — this is the kind of high-octane drama that you tend to remember forever.

Abha was one of the most watchable Bharatanatiyam performances that I have seen in a long long time and, irrespective of the criticisms, I would encourage you to go watch the performance for the sheer pleasure of seeing Bharatanatiyam in all its wondrous glory!

Catch Abha, presented by Soorya
December 9, 2019
Ganeshan Auditorium
Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

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