Bharathaa Arts to present a confluence of music, dance and drama at Kalaa Utsavam 2021

Singapore-based Indian classical dance studio Bharathaa Arts is set to present a musical adaptation of 'The Silappathikaram' by Ilango Adigal, one of the first epic Tamil narratives, at Kalaa Utsavam 2021.  The show will be from from November 19-21 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

The founders, Suganthi Kumaraguru and Jeyanthi Balasubramaniam, widely known as the Kesavan sisters, aspire to teach students the traditions and rich heritage of Bharatanatyam.
The founders, Suganthi Kumaraguru and Jeyanthi Balasubramaniam, widely known as the Kesavan sisters, aspire to teach students the traditions and rich heritage of Bharatanatyam. Photo: Connected to India

The production revolves around the lives of three characters: Kovalan, a rich businessman, his wife Kannagi and the courtesan, Madhavi against the backdrop of the cultural and geographical depiction of the Tamil land nearly 200 years ago.

Titled 'Kaanalvariyum Kaarigei Nilaiyum – Madhavi’s story', the narrative will dwell on the emotional upheavals in the life of Madhavi, who falls in love with Kovalan but chooses to renounce her life to become a Buddhist monk. This dance-drama is set to bring alive traditional folk dances practiced in those times and show the rich cultural heritage of the Tamil people of the Sangam Chola period.

Since its inception in 1997, Bharathaa Arts has become synonymous with innovative, creative and exciting dance presentations. The founders, Suganthi Kumaraguru and Jeyanthi Balasubramaniam, widely known as the Kesavan sisters, aspire to teach students the traditions and rich heritage of Bharatanatyam. 

Speaking with Connected to India, creative director and guru Jeyanthi Kesavan said, "Over the years as our culture evolved we kept playing with ideas to make Bharatanatyam more relatable to the current generation, without losing the essence of our mythical stories and traditions."

You can buy tickets for the show online.

Here are more excerpts from the interview.

Connected to India (C to I): This is a Tamil classic told from a fresh perspective. What was brought out through the change?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: Madhavi is often referred to as the woman who separated Kannagi and Kovalan. There is however so much more to the layered character of the epic. Delving into her character leads us to discover the strong and independent woman she was. Seeing the story unfold through her eyes will offer an intriguing perspective of the ancient epic. Retelling the story from the viewpoint of the marginalised character Madhavi itself makes the epic even more relevant to today’s times. Women have been breaking the shackles of societal norms but are constantly judged for their decisions. Madhavi’s story highlights the importance of having one's own mind and not succumbing to the societal ideals and roles imposed on one. 

Since its inception in 1997, Bharathaa Arts has become synonymous with innovative, creative and exciting dance presentations.
Since its inception in 1997, Bharathaa Arts has become synonymous with innovative, creative and exciting dance presentations. Photo courtesy: Facebook/Bharathaa Arts

C to I: What twists and changes have you added to one of India’s literary masterpieces to make it relevant to contemporary audiences?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: The reason 'Silappathikaram' is a classic one is because it is based on timeless emotions and situations. Such situations can even be applied today’s context. In this adaptation we focused on the journey of Madhavi the courtesan. We looked at the dramatic events in the story from her perspective. The whole story is presented through a conversation between an older Madhavi and her daughter, Manimegalai. Certain episodes in the 'Silappathikaram' were chosen to highlight Madhavi and her experiences. While the lyrics are from the original text of Ilango Adigal, the dialogues between mother and daughter capture Madhavi's innermost thoughts. It shows how Madhavi matures because of her experiences and finally attains the peace that Kannagi herself possibly never found. The music, choice of jathis and konakkol create the drama and multifaceted nature of dancers in those times transporting the audience to the past. 

C to I: Tell us a bit about the performers. How long have you been working together?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: The performers in this production are all students of Bharathaa Arts, and have been working together for this performance for the last five to six months. Being of various ages and backgrounds, we find our commonalities through our shared language of dance. Certainly, spending time to understand the concept behind this unique production, learning the choreography and spending rehearsals together, has led us to grow closer as a family over time. In Bharathaa Arts, there has always been a strong emphasis on team synergy, and this especially shines through during our ensemble productions such as this. 

C to I: What were some of the challenges you faced in putting together such a complex performance?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: The production is complex in two ways – conceptually and artistically. Handling a storyline so rooted in Tamil history and culture required us dancers to put ourselves into the shoes of these larger-than-life characters and embrace their stories. We had to transport ourselves to a world of the past, to understand the lifestyles, beliefs and emotions of Tamil people of the Sangam era. On the other hand, there was also the artistic challenge of envisioning this magnificent gem of Tamil literature. After all, the 'Silappathikaram' is a confluence of music, dance and drama, and Madhavi – the production's protagonist – was an accomplished, professional dancer who had mastered the arts. Therefore, when presenting the story from her lens, we had to piece together intricate, soul-stirring music with equally vibrant, challenging choreography. Additionally, the production tested our versatility as dancers – to adapt to unique lighting changes, work with music very different from the typical Bharatanatyam repertoire, and even learn some theatre basics.

C to I: You’ve participated in Kalaa Utsavam multiple times. How have you seen it evolve over the years?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: Since its inception, Kalaa Utsavam has evolved into a full-fledged festival that features multiple genres of Indian arts. Over the years we have seen more innovative and interesting work of local artists being showcased. It is very heartening and motivating to see the recognition of our local artists, many of whom are well deserving of the credit that comes with being part of the festival. 

C to I: What is the biggest difference you’ve seen this year at the festival?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: As we are still in a pandemic, there are various safe management measures that we had to adhere to and take into consideration in planning and choreographing the items for this performance. That is definitely something we never had to do before. It has been challenging but also an exercise in creativity. We had to think differently and challenge ourselves. This is also the first time we are collaborating with a foreign artist virtually – we had to exchange ideas through Zoom calls and videos which was interesting to say the least. 

C to I: How do you feel about returning to live performances?

Jeyanthi Kesavan: Live performances are indeed energizing and it has certainly been sometime that we have performed. As liveness is very much an important element in the performing arts, the pandemic had certainly disallowed that to occur due to health and safety reasons. However, the pandemic also gave us the time to refine our craft, revisit our fundamentals and most importantly reconnect with dance. Thus, we are most excited to be back on stage and present this show to all of you. Our rasikas are truly our pillars of support.

C to I: Anything else you’d like to add.

Jeyanthi Kesavan: We would like to give special thanks to the Esplanade Kalaa Utsavam team for believing in us. Their continuous support enables us to come up with new work and push frontiers in the field of dance. We look forward to many wonderful years ahead. Thank you Kalaa Utsavam and Happy 20th anniversary!