Cultural confluence on a chessboard  

Two Bharatanatyam dancers from Pudukkottai bring alive the pieces on a chessboard using Tamil traditional art

Published: 02nd August 2022 07:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd August 2022 07:01 AM   |  A+A-

A screen grab from the video

Express News Service

CHENNAI: If you can look beyond the binary of the black and white squares, a game of chess can be much more than pieces moving across the board. The pieces can take on the role of characters, the moves can further their story and the game can turn into a war between two kingdoms. Add to this the drama and grace of traditional dance forms and martial arts and you’ll find yourself in a video created by Pudukkottai district administration.

The video took to social media last week through the Chief Minister’s social media handles, garnering much support. “This was conceptualised around 20 days ago. We wanted to do something unique from our district (with the Chess Olympiad in mind). I have over 25 years of experience in Bharatanatyam and that is why I wanted to showcase folk dance and martial arts through chess,” shares Kavitha Ramu, Pudukkottai district collector.   

Behind the scenes
For the project, Kavitha collaborated with Bharatanatyam dancer L Narendra Kumar, who took on the role of the choreographer. To Narendra — who had also been working on the performances for the inauguration ceremony of the Chess Olympiad at the time — transforming a chessboard into a stage was a welcome challenge. “I used to play chess when I was young and loved the game. I recently started playing it with my seven-year-old daughter and this (method) is how I describe it to her. I refer to pawns as maaveeran and such, because I don’t want her to feel like it is just a game but rather characters on a board,” he explains. 

The video takes on a similar concept, associating pawns (as the frontline fighters) to Silambam performers, bishops (with diagonal steps) to Therukoothu artistes, knights to the horse-riding Poikkaal Kuthirai, rooks with strong Malyutham players and the kings and queens with Bharatanatyam dancers. In a 10-move game — that inspired the choreographer — the artistes perform in a colourful confluence of styles to checkmate the white king.

“For the video, I searched through 50 games that concluded in 8-10 moves and settled on this. The queen is brilliantly moved in the last minute and sets the essence of the game. If you sit on the black side, you see that it starts out with an active right side of the board and ends with activity on the left. It’s a nice zig-zag and I loved the path.

The video was directed by Vijey Raj (and shot by Illayaraja) and for the shoot in Chennai, I asked him over to the studio and played this game with him, telling him about the characters. In a movie, things are different and mixing folklore and classical into it needs to be given thought aesthetically. He took the board home, moved the pieces and really got into the subject. The cameraperson also did a brilliant job,” he says. The shoot was a continuous 26-hour affair. 

The music was composed by KK Senthil Prasath, who scored the track in three days. “He is relied on for several traditional performances in Bharatanatyam and so he knows all the nuances for dance. The percussion artiste also plays for me,” Kavitha shares. 

Bringing tradition to the fore
With its creativity and spectacle, the video has highlighted an array of artforms, but Kavitha wishes it can continue as a trend. “Dances should be forthcoming to explore more themes. Bharatanatyam does have the repertoire of a normal format but apart from that, dancers should be willing to experiment and explore other themes like in the video; something through which they can let out their creative juices and do something unique.

This is applicable to other artforms as well. While many stick to traditions, there is a lot of scope to experiment,” she mentions, adding that she would like people to take away the idea that art grows and has no barriers in terms of exploration. She also wished to capture the attention of those who are not well versed with the formats. “I do not want to create the perception that classical artforms can only be appreciated by those who know them but are something that can even appeal to the layman,” she explains. 

Where the chessboard has lent their performances a unique stage of sorts, the two — dance and sport — have likeness in some ways as well that allows for such a seamless mesh. “I find that there is a lot of movement and permutations and combinations in both and — in layman’s terms — there are a lot of lines involved,” she says, to which Narendra adds, “Any artform moves in various directions but in chess, particular characters move in a particular direction. What was interesting was that Therukoothu, much like the bishop, had traditional moves that worked diagonally and so, I wanted to use that and blend it into the choreography.” 

And if you look beyond the binary of the black and white of a chessboard, you’ll find similar, secret paths as well.

 Making magic
While several artistes were auditioned for the roles, the ones selected made magic on screen:

Silambam artistes

  •  R Murughakani Aasan
  •  M Raja Aasan
  •  Manigandan 
  •  Karthigeyan
  •  Manojkumar 
  •  Prathapan
  •  Karthick  
  •  Lakshmanan
  •  Divakar 
  •  Priyadarshan
  •  Nishanthi  
  •  Oorvasi
  •  Rithika
  • Jayalakshmi
  •  Narmatha
  •  Krupavathi
  •  Durga
  • Soundarya Malyutham performers
  •  Balakrishnan N
  •  Karthick M
  •  Kesavaaperumal
  •  Gurusamy Therukoothu performers
  •  E Prakash Raj
  •  P Hari Prasath
  •  S Muthukumar
  •  S Nandakumar Poikkaal Kuthirai artistes
  •  C Muthukuran
  •  N Deepan 
  •  S Baskar
  •  Cheran Queens
  •  Suram Sahana 
  •  R Priyadarshini Kings
  •  S Srinivasan 
  •  Manikandan Muthupandian


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