Kuchipudi dancer Bhavana Reddy has spent hours studying swans, scrutinising YouTube videos one after the other. “I had to observe how they walk, place their feet, bend their backs and arch their necks,” says Reddy. She is performing at the NCPA’s Mudra Dance Festival as the golden swan of the Mahabharata that unites princess Damayanti and king Nala. The cultural festival, which has a different theme every year, will celebrate the influence of animals on Indian dance forms this time, from April 21 to 24.
Bhavana believes that Kuchipudi is the ideal dance to portray an animal. “In Kuchipudi, we try to evoke real characters as closely as possible, so that means that I have the freedom to act exactly as this swan would in the story,” she says. Her father, legendary Kuchipudi dancer Raja Reddy, choreographed the piece. “One part of the story is of king Nala capturing the swan. We tried to ensure that Bhavana’s movements replicated the swan’s reaction precisely when it shakes its leg and tries to bite to get free,” says Raja. Bhavana says this performance has challenged her as never before. “It requires a range of totally different movements to portray an animal. The way a human would react to a situation is very different from how an animal would. I really had to push myself,” says the Mumbai-based dancer.
“Animals in Indian mythology are matchmakers and moralisers; they can bring about the downfall of an empire or save one,” says Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, head of NCPA’s dance programme. “They appear in countless myths, folklore, epic tales and literature. While some are eaten, others, such as Hanuman, Garuda and Jambavana, are worshipped,” she adds.
Human relationships with animals are complex and ever-changing, but one thing is clear — they will always serve as creative inspiration. Many postures in Indian classical dance are based on those of animals. The Natyashastra, a Sanskrit text on the performing arts, details more than a hundred karanas (positions), of which 20 are inspired by the gait of animals.
Other performances to look forward to are Kathakali dancer Probal Gupta’s portrayal of a snake goddess from a Bengali folktale; Chauu dancer Rakesh Sai Babu’s enactment of the stories of Garuda; and a Manipuri dance by Bimbavati Devi, which depicts various animals that have saved the world. There is also a performance by Kathak dancer Vishal Krishna, which is designed around peacocks in Hindu mythology.
Though Kathakali doesn’t allow as much deviation from traditional styles, Gupta brings alive the vengeful and sly character of a snake in his depiction of the tribal goddess Manasa, who is the daughter of Lord Shiva and goddess of snakes in Bengali folklore. In the legend, Manasa tries all means to make Chandra, a Lord Shiva devotee, worship her instead so that she can make her way to heaven. Using cobra poison, Manasa kills all of Chandra’s sons and forces Ganga to destroy his merchant ship by threatening the river with poison as well. “I will be starting with a stuthi on snakes,” says Gupta, who has also choreographed the dance. “The performance will incorporate elements of Koodiyattam, a much older Sanskrit ritual dance drama, which is perfectly suited to portraying Manasa,” he adds.
To add another layer to his performance, Gupta will have an artist from Bengal drawing out the scenes from the Manasa folktale using traditional forms.
The NCPA will host workshops as part of the dance festival. One will be conducted by Santosh Nair, an artist who specialises in Chauu, a martial dance form from Odisha. “Something that started to interest me was using the dance to portray both a hunter, as part of the martial aspect of the Chauu, and the hunted animal,” says Nair.
In collaboration with the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BSPCA), the festival organisers will go to some Mumbai schools and present some of the animal-based dance sequences. “We’re doing this for two reasons — to introduce classical dance forms to children, especially boys who think it’s a woman’s domain, and talk to children about people’s relationship with animals in the present time and not just in mythology,” says Dasgupta.