While slices of the Indian epic Ramayana have been staged by innumerable groups in various forms, ever imagined one with an animated backdrop? In his upcoming performance Avadhara Purushan, which premiered at the Sydney Music Festival earlier this year, dancer Madurai R Muralidharan, uses a heavy dose of technology to create the sound of thunder and depict the lush greenery of the woods, as over 60 dancers bring out the story of lord Rama with traditional bharatanatyam moves. “The technology-driven elements are add ons, they elevate the performance. Having that said, at no point am I steering away from my traditional roots. All the ragas — be it Ananda Bhairavi, Todi, Kalyani or Sankarabharanam — are intact,” he assures us.
While most artistes, even today, think technology adulterates classical dance, Muralidharan’s urge to give his productions a tech touch comes from his experience watching Broadway Musicals in New York, 15 years ago. “I was so inspired after watching Cinderella and Phantom of the Opera. I began wondering why we aren’t presenting our rich music and culture in a similar way. Why aren’t we able to reach that level? We have so many styles of dance like Kathak, Manipuri, Mohiniattam and so on, belonging to every State. But in the West, they have just one — ballet,” says Muralidharan, who runs the Nrityakshetra Dance Academy in the city.
Since then, he began improvising his dance dramas, evolving them to a Broadway level. “There are artistes who even restrain from using the keyboard! In the past, I have used harmoniums and clarinets, but now, I use multitrack recordings,” he says. For Avadhara Purushan, he devoted nearly four months to get the recordings done by experts and 26 musicians in Mumbai.
That apart, in his previous productions Silapadigaram, Yagnaneni and Amarar Kalki’s Sivagamiyin Sabhadam, he used props including a life-size elephant model, a huge boat, and sets on wheels, that helped switch between two different scenes in a matter of seconds. “In Sivagamiyin Sabatham, I wanted people to feel that they are in the seventh century. So I got black and white paintings of that period, done by the famous artist Padmavasan as the backdrop,” says the dancer, who trained under Chamundeswari in bharatanatyam, Madurai Sethuraman in percussion and Madurai Sreenivasan in music.
For the production Avadhara Purushan, he has been working for over a year. “We have used verses from Kamba Ramayanam, that narrates the story of Rama going to the forest and the lord’s Pattabhishekham, is very difficult to understand. I had to decode them, and also talk to experts about the right choice of songs,” he says. “I think I have succeeded in presenting it in an interesting and simple manner as not even a child moved from its place when we presented it in Sydney,” he tells us.
While the show here will include his students from the Nithyakshethra Dance Academy, the one in Sydney included close to a hundred local dancers whom he had trained. “There are Indian students abroad who do not get enough opportunities to perform. So I go to the country I am performing in three months ahead, and train them,” he says. “It is very challenging as these kids do not know the story. So they ask a lot of questions, which I have to answer patiently. But in the end, they are happy to learn the dance. In a way, I am spreading the divine art to foreign students, making them aware of the puranas,” he adds.
The show will be staged on July 15 at the Narada Gana Sabha (main hall) under the auspices of Karthik Fine Arts. Entry is free.