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Capturing the Human Experience in Nine Movements: A Look Back At Navarasa

The concept of the Navarasa, meaning the nine emotions, originates in its modern form from the Natyashastra, Bharata’s treatise on dance. Rasa is better translated as the ‘flavour’ of an emotion — it encompasses not only the emotion, but the state of mind of the artist, known as bhava

 

Happiness and Love


Born out of love for the art form, Navarasa came into being when Divya Ravindranath (UG’24), the Head of Abhinaya’s Indian Core Team, and Neeraja Srinivasan (UG’24), a Carnatic Singer from Alankar decided to produce a show celebrating Bharatanatyam. While the Abhinaya team has included Bharatanatyam dancers before, never had there been a show focusing completely on the dance form. Similarly unprecedented was Alankar’s tryst with an exclusively Carnatic set. 


While deliberating the possibility of such a performance, Divya took the proposal of a collaboration to Neeraja. The original idea was a dance show, interspersed with musical sets. Over time and passionate reflection, this evolved into the large-scale production that the student body witnessed last October, with Abhinaya dancers choreographing their pieces to music played entirely by Alankar musicians. 


Fear and Sadness


Concerns about how the show would come together were raised early on in the process of production. Divya worried that Abhinaya might not be able to induct enough Bharatanatyam performers at the start of the semester to make the production a success. Alankar singers trained in Hindustani music fretted over not being able to pick up on the nuances of Carnatic music, and the daunting challenge posed by performing for dancers reliant on their live music. 


Neeraja remained positive, noting that singers trained in Carnatic music had often adapted to HIndustani sets in the past. A steep learning curve for both teams, the process became intuitive: with every practice, they built off of feedback from each other.


Courage and Compassion


With the artists putting hours on end into their practice, they began growing confident about the potential success of the production. Only one thing stood between the performers and their opening night: pacing. Both the musicians and the dancers struggled with keeping time, coordinating steps to the beats of the song, and getting in sync with the others’ rhythm. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam performances are aided by a Nattuvangam, a brass musical instrument used to keep time. No one from Alankar, however, was trained enough to use the Nattuvangam, creating a major hurdle for the dancers. Without anything to help the dancers synchronise their steps, they would often find themselves struggling to match the music, having to slow themselves down.


This is where the instrumentalists stepped up. Aditya Ramdasi (UG‘24), one of Alankar’s tabla players, offered to use his instrument as a way to keep time. The beats of the tabla acted like a guide for the dancers, offering a way to make sure that everything was precisely in sync. While commending Aditya’s skills, Divya laughed about how he added an improvised movement on opening night. This was a small caveat that had remained only between the performers and proves now a mark of the synergetic work that went into making their dauntingly ambitious night a rousing success. 


Peace and Anger


The joy at coming closer to bringing this performance into existence was accompanied, however, by a different kind of frustration. Decisions had to be made about the performance venue; an event of this scale could not have been held outdoors, and the team was thus left with two options: Dr Reddy’s Auditorium or the Blackbox Theatre. Historically, Reddy’s has remained the preferred venue for Abhinaya showcases, but upon further consideration, it was deemed unusable for this event. The unstable floorboards and less-than-satisfactory sound systems left something to be desired for the performance that was being planned. 


Blackbox, a space that had thus far been majorly inhabited by various theatre troupes, came with its own set of challenges, which the team decided to face head-on. Having never performed there before, the dancers had to work on figuring out an ideal placement, in line with the audience and the lighting system. The lighting system proved a struggle too, with only a handful of people on campus actually aware of how to work it. Siddharth Siju (ASP’24) stepped in, with no personal stake in either Abhinaya or Alankar, motivated by the desire to help foster arts at Ashoka. Aided by Riya Kwatra (UG‘25), Head of Abhinaya’s Western Core, they were able to provide the performance what it needed to craft that ornate visuality. 


Jealousy


Three tenets of Bharatanatyam are of utmost importance for any dancer: Bhava (Expressions), Raga (Melody), and Tala (Rhythm). While choreographing the various performance pieces, the dancers had to remain attentive to these elements. Each piece needed to be resplendent with visible emotion, allowing the audience to gauge its storyline for themselves. The melody and rhythm of the musicians worked in tandem to frame and often herald the dancers’ statuesque poses, the intricate movements of their feet and hands. 


Every piece in the repertoire of the night beautifully showcased each of these tenets. Where compassion was so clearly visible in Yashoda’s face during Enna Thavam Seithanai, portions of Bho Shambho enunciated the rhythmic ghungroos. Aigiri Nandini was the highlight of the lineup, with the echoing melody of chant-like music. This was my favourite performance for multiple reasons, of which the most important was its reflection of the team’s interpretation of the Rasas. Aigiri Nandini is about Goddess Durga slaying the Asura Mahishasura. The depiction of finding and residing in peace amidst the chaos of the destruction that comes with anger was a spectacle to behold. 


As a (former) Bharatanatyam dancer myself, it’s only fitting that, along with the certain joy I found in the performance, I felt a little tinge of jealousy towards the beautiful performers on the stage. Jealous that they got to interpret something I had had to learn meticulously over several years: the idea and the concept of the Rasas. Although each piece was an ode to a particular Rasa, each of the nine was undoubtedly visible throughout the showcase. Such a hauntingly moving feat accomplished by Abhinaya and Alankar is a testament to the fact that, no matter what may preside in a particular moment, all these complex emotions reside in us perpetually and forcefully.


The production was a poignant reminder of the vibrant arts at Ashoka, and the diversity in them. There are so many skills, niches and interests that are available to showcase, and with effort and passion are born truly beautiful performances, ones that rival their professional counterparts. Hopefully, a performance as unique and special as this one sets a precedent for performing arts at Ashoka and encourages many more artists to share their craft with the student body. 

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