Salangai oli at Sanchi
Aravinth Kumarasamy’s Añjasa takes raskias on a journey of Buddhism through Bharartanatyam steps
CHENNAI: Short of making a visit and taking in the sites, the way we experience the monumental remnants of ancient history has remained the same for centuries — unquestioned school texts, impersonal tour-guide websites and perhaps a revelatory journal or two. But, for five years now, Aravinth Kumarasamy has been helping the world to indulge in the Buddhist marvels of South-East Asia through the exquisite medium of Bharatanatyam. The artiste’s fascination for architecture and practised expertise in setting a story to tune and dance find a perfect union in this production — Añjasa — Unravelling the Wonders of Buddhist Monuments. Having watched the sneak-peak demonstration of the performance, legendary classical dancer Padma Subrahmanyam remarked, “In one way, dance is also architecture. The architecture that the body creates; not through stone or cement but with the soul. And Aravinth has been able to bring the two arts together.” And how!
For one, this is not the first time Aravinth has attempted to recreate the beauty of distant monuments through the human form. His ‘Nirmanika - The Beauty of Architecture’ explores the stories behind three diverse structures — The Konark Sun Temple, The Meenakshi Temple and Taj Mahal. The overwhelming response to this production had him revisiting the theme over the years. Amid other works came ‘Angkor’, a dance treatise that dwelled upon the story of the Hindu temple complex in Cambodia. Añjasa was birthed by the need to address the absence of Buddhist stories in Indian performing arts. “Buddhism and Hinduism are very closely related and both are from India. But only Hinduism is represented in a lot of performing arts. It was a new area we wanted to explore. If there is a cross-over, why were the performing arts not using Buddhist stories or iconography? Hence, that was the inspiration,” explains Aravinth.
To tell a story and tell it anew is no child’s play. Añjasa too had its own set of challenges, says Aravinth. “In addition to being able to represent Buddhist iconography and narrative, the challenge we faced was in doing a pan-South-East Asian story. We had to rethink the music. It cannot be with just the typical Indian instruments; so, we brought in South-East Asian instruments like the er hu and yang ching. That way, the audio would match the visual. But you cannot lean too far in that direction as well; then, you cannot have Bharatanatyam,” he details.
A lot of effort has gone into the costumes too. Far from the sartorial staples of Bharatanatyam, this production uses outfits typical of Buddhism. Keeping the costumes simple, it plays it up with elaborate headgears to represent different characters (King Asoka, Queen Maha Devi, Prince Siddhartha and others).
Moving away from tales of love and war and human lives, representing monuments, their architecture and history through choreography was perhaps the mother of all challenges. But Mohanapriyan Thavarajah — principal dancer, choreographer and dance faculty member at Singapore’s Apsaras Arts Dance Company and Academy — makes it look all too easy and devastatingly beautiful. The opening act with its tale of the queen mother giving birth to Buddha under a sal tree in a sacred garden is proof enough of this man’s innovative designs. Yet, he goes further and beyond with every scene, bringing stone and static art to life through the human body.
After two years of research and one year of staging and production, Aravinth and company were able to present Añjasa to the world in 2015. Five years and many countries later, they do not see this opus being retired to the shelves anytime soon.
The show comes to Chennai, yet again, today at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha at 1.30 pm. It need not be for the appreciation of Bharatanatyam or the understanding of an aspect of Buddhism, but for the chance of witnessing graceful human beings work salangai-clad magic into ethereal stories. Do watch it!