Toeing the Line

Danseuse Veena Murthy Vijay is reviving figure dancing performed in ancient temples of south India

Written by N V Shoba | New Delhi | Published: June 8, 2012 2:25:38 am

Danseuse Veena Murthy Vijay is reviving figure dancing performed in ancient temples of south India

The music begins routinely enough,propelling the young Kuchipudi artiste forward: her eyes flash and her feet spring to the tempo as she darts across the stage. If you watch closely,however,you see there is nothing routine about this performance. Set to a rare raga and the even rarer Simhanandana tala — the longest tala in Carnatic music,famed for its insurmountable 18 angas,128 kriyas and 512 aksharas — this is a dance plucked from the past. One of several ritual dances performed in the temples of south India — Andhra Pradesh in particular — in the 16th and the 17th centuries,Simhanandini,a dance in praise of the demon-slaying Goddess Durga,is for the most part,a lost art. Which is no surprise considering the demands it makes of the dancer: while following the rigours of classical footwork and submitting to the complex beat of the music,she must also etch a lion,whiskers and all,with her feet,on a floured floor.

Chitra nritya,or figure dancing,is an exacting art that has been all but wiped out for want of practitioners and teachers. “There are a few other traditional ritual dance forms,like the Mayurakautvam,which features the drawing of a peacock,” says Veena Murthy Vijay,a Kuchipudi exponent from Bangalore who is among the few dancers to revive the dance. “There must be a handful of other dancers who are familiar with these forms but they are reluctant to teach them to their students and pass on the knowledge,” she says. Vijay has stylised the dances,traditionally a mix of styles,and choreographed them as Kuchipudi routines. She learned the dances as a young disciple of the late CR Acharyulu,who gained international fame for his purist style and old-world jathis.

At Vijay’s third-floor residence in Vyalikaval,Bangalore,one of her star students,12-year-old Sangeetha Phaneesh,is poised,hands on her hips,for the music to start. The CD clicks on and a paean to the goddess flows forth. Phaneesh has performed Simhanandini over 300 times on stages across India. “She holds the world record for the maximum number of performances,” says Vijay. But that doesn’t stop the 50-year-old danseuse from admonishing her pupil for drawing the lion’s stomach “too thin”. Starting with the eyes,Phaneesh goes on to trace the face with quick,precise movements,looking up every now and then to assume a majestic stance and expression.

A black 10ft by 10ft sheet,covered in white flour,is her stage and her canvas,and in a span of five minutes,she covers it with the figure of a majestic feline: a folk-cave art-style lion with a full mane and rounded eyes which looks just like the one from Vijay’s YouTube video.

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