Aug 3, 2010

Photo courtesy Varsha Panicker
Last Sunday, I attended the Sopanam sponsored program on music and dance. Kathakali music has a haunting, melodious quality. It was mesmerizing and though my knowledge of its intricacies is a big zero, it was a treat to get lost in the music as it traversed a wide range with slow and fast, high and low notes ably supported by the accompanists. Mohiniattam that followed was initially played by the junior students including Pramila whom I had primarily gone to watch.

It was 8.30 p.m. People were eager to go home. Sunanda Nair, the Mohiniattam teacher came on the stage and set it on fire. Her hour long performance bowled people over as they sat riveted indifferent to everything else. It was a test of physical and mental stamina as the dancer moved vigorously all over the stage for more than an hour embodying the essence of the mythological characters.  It was an unparalleled experience-pure aesthetic pleasure.

So, what was the dance all about? The dancer, dressed in off white sari embroidered with bright golden brocade, gracefully moved all over the stage. One of the scenes depicted was Sita’s swayamvar where the assembled kings had to lift the bow. Initially, she acted out the arrogance of the king as he flexed his muscle and overconfidently moved towards the bow. He tried to lift it putting in all his energy. As it refused to budge, the expression on the face changed from grimace at the effort to a false smile at the insult- then anger then frustration alternating with a mask of all is well. Different kings came forward, each of them arrogant in his own way, forced to retire with heads bowed. And, then it was Ram’s turn. A humble yet confident approach and he had lifted the bow with effortless grace.

Another scene I remember is that of Jatayu, the eagle. A slow movement of the stretched out arms, muscles rippling across and we could imagine the giant bird ready to take off. The arm movement’s increases as the bird gains height and slowly the dancer raises herself on her toes depicting the majesty of the bird. The arm movements and the entire body in tandem settled to a relaxed pace showing the bird in flight. Further on, the bird’s arm is cut off and all the agony and the courage to carry on were reflected in the dancer’s face and body language.

As I mentioned earlier, the dance was an experience of pure aesthetic pleasure. Aesthetic pleasure can be distinguished from sensual pleasure and intellectual pleasure. It is the emotional component of our response to works of art and natural beauty. Sensual pleasure, primarily body based, for example, loud music, raises the heartbeats and as one indulges further, it has undesirable consequences. It leaves you drained of energy seeking rest and recuperation. Intellectual pleasure is a mind based activity that is a self confining event and rarely touches another person.

Aesthetic pleasure is more all encompassing transcending the senses and touching somewhere deep in the soul. As I watched the performance, there was a pure sense of joy, for want of a better word, a feeling of being transported to another world, time hanging still and all encompassing peace and fulfillment. The experience is actually energizing as I felt a sense of power throbbing within me. At the same time, it was also a total sensual experience as the haunting music, the beat of the drums and the song kept perfect rhythm to the action on the stage. I had forgotten or rather my attention had shifted from the fact that I was sitting in a hall watching an artist. I was watching the bird in all its essence, the energy coursing through its veins, its majesty. I was the king who was humiliated, forced to hide the discomfort. Nothing and no one else mattered. It was scenes that were dance, painting and melody rolled in one filling the frame called the stage.

Mohiniattam is based on the Natyasastra, according to which the goal of any art form is to invoke rasa in the audience. Rasa is not easily translatable, an approximation would be aesthetic appreciation or enjoyment but then, this meaning leaves out the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the term. It is like that glorious moment when there is no other reality except that of the art; when the audience and the artist becomes one in spirit, you get the full experience of the rasa.

It was not me alone who experienced the magic. The audience sat through the performance with rapt attention, no one appearing bored or ready to leave. As the audience filed out after a thunderous applause, there was a palpable energy in the air, a sense of awe and reverence. The mood was best summed up by a housewife who spontaneously remarked, “I am lucky to have watched this program. It is a once in a lifetime chance.”