Bhakti Sung And Danced
For many years now, Mumbai’s consistently experimental Kathak dancer Sanjukta Wagh, has been immersed in Kabir and Vitthal. Kabir is the poet of the nirguna or formless god. “Nirbhay nirgun gun re gaunga” (I will sing fearlessly of the formless one’s attributes) he sings. Vitthal is the beloved of the Warkaris. “Roop pahata lochani / Sukh jhale wo sajani” (The sight of your form /Gives me joy oh friend) sings Dnyaneshwar. When Wagh met a kindred spirit, Shruthi Vishwanath, it was inevitable that they should work together. Jheeni, which we saw at Prithvi last week, is their collaboration. Incorporated into it are the words of an absent third, Arundhathi Subramaniam.
The performance opens with the two artists sitting in pools of light flanked by Shruteendra Katagde (tabla) and Hitesh Dhutia (guitar). “There are poems and there are poems,” they begin. This is the first line of Subramaniam’s introduction to Eating God, her book of bhakti poetry. They continue with her elaboration on poems that strike you cerebrally as riddles, and those that hit you viscerally in the gut. The performance that follows includes both kinds. The singer and dancer see no divide between the nirguna and the saguna. They are, as Subramaniam has aptly described the tribe, “omnivorous seekers”.
They begin with Kabir’s song, “Jheeni jheeni beeni chadariya” (He has spun a gossamer shawl) in which the poet speaks of the wondrous warp and weft of the shawl which saints and ordinary men alike use but soil through lack of care. Kabir, however, is ready to return it to its maker in pristine condition. Vishwanath begins with an alap using just one word, “jheeni”, modulating her voice in numerous subtle ways. The alap is accompanied by the dancer’s slow coming to life with a barely perceptible stirring of the fingers. These are exquisite moments. But…yes there is a but. However evocative the alap may be, and it is, a single word stretched beyond its capacity to hold while our ears yearn to hear the rest, snaps our attention. When the song does follow, however, it is sung in a resonant three-octave voice that can go from a whisper to a passionate call in its highest reaches. You are listening to the Gundecha brothers’ composition in raag Charukesi, set to a 5-beat taal that gives Wagh an opportunity to create some tantalising footwork that falls outside Kathak’s normal teentaal frame.
Kabir’s shawl finds its saguna companion in the next song, Janabai’s “Doicha padar ala khandyavari” (The pallu has slipped from my head to my shoulders). But who cares? I stride through the crowded bazaar with cymbals in my hands and the veena at my shoulder. Let me see who dares stop me. “Says Jani I have become a whore / But here I am, Keshava, entering your home.” Jani’s devotion strikes defiantly through the here and now of contemporary society. Social stigmas and constraints are with us even today. A woman still needs to be defiant to break through them. Wagh points out as much by including two lines from Subramaniam’s poem Confession here: “I erupt from pillars / half-lion half-woman”. Meanwhile she creates moments of delicious irony by using a Kathak staple, the coy ghungat, in her sanchari choreography.
After the heady liberation of Janabai’s abhang, we return to Kabir’s contemplation of life and death with “Naiya mori neeke neeke chalat lagi” (My boat is sailing swiftly). While Vishwanath pours her soul into her voice, Wagh traces the flow of water and boat with her limbs and torso. Vishwanath’s occasional movement as an actor enhances the close relationship between the music and the dance; but it also diverts attention for brief moments from the dance. This wouldn’t matter if Wagh’s choreography were merely illustrative. But it isn’t. It is often an abstraction of what the words are saying. This makes even momentary distraction a loss.
In “Abir gulal udhalit rang” (Scattering fragrance and colour in the air) which follows, Chokhamela asks Vitthal how he of low caste may catch a glimpse of the lord when he may not even touch the threshold of his home. But he will dance blissfully on the sandy banks of the Chandrabhaga and, with Vitthal’s name on his lips, forget all else. That evening, as singer and dancer filled the space with impassioned voice, expertly played cymbals and swirling movement, the audience clapped along, dancers in the audience joined in the dance and suddenly, Pandharpur had moved to a Mumbai stage and all was joy.
Published On : 30-11-2016