In a performance atypical to the usual events taking place in Gasson Hall, On Devi: A Kuchipudi Dance Performance brought a taste of Indian dance and drama. The irony of the location was not lost on the performers or the audience. Garbed in traditional Indian clothing, playing music and singing about the Hindu gods and goddesses, the performers sat in Gasson 100, a room filled with crosses, the busts of various saints, and giant paintings depicting various events in Christian history. This dichotomy, however, did not detract from the stunning performance that took place Sunday afternoon.
On Devi is the second Indian performance, and the first to have dance as its focus, that has taken place at Boston College. The performers and show were introduced by Fugan Dineen, a world music professor at BC, as he gave the audience tips on what to look for in the music and dance. Joining Dineen on the naṭṭuvangam, a two-piece metal Indian rhythmic instrument, were David Nelson on mṛdaṅgam, an ancient-Indian percussion instrument, Kalyan Gopalakrishnan on violin, B. Balasubrahmaniyan on vocals, and the star of the performance, Chitra Kalyandurg as the solo Kuchipudi dancer.
On Devi began with “Saraswati Vandanam.” This piece is typically used to begin a dance, as the lyrics and dance invokes the blessing of the goddess Saraswati. The invocation is particularly fitting, as Saraswati is the goddess of the arts. The usually Judeo-Christian tone of Gasson was immediately changed as the vocals of “Saraswati Vandanam” began. B. Balasubrahmaniyan, also known as Balu, employed his talents as a South Indian Katarnatak performer, sending lofty and lilting exaltations high into the room. This song, as well as the rest of the performance, was entirely in Hindi, but the language barrier was nonexistent. Each section of On Devi has a short blurb in the show program describing the story of the piece. With this in mind, the members audience can easily apply the story to the singing and Kuchipudi dance choreography in front of them.
As Dinnen informed the audience, Kuchipudi is a very unique type of Indian dance. The dance form is named after the village in the Andhra Pradesh province in which it originated. Kuchipudi began as a dance performed by a cast of all male dancers. In the mid 20th century, however, Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry and Guru Vempati Chinnasatyam helped bring women into the art form, as well as introducing the concept of a solo form of Kuchipudi. It was Chinnasatyam’s work that made On Devi possible. This is because Chita Kalyandurg, the solo dancer, is a student of Chinnasatyam’s style. She is a female soloist dancer, a personification of his work in the genre.
The next performance was “Bhama Pravesham,” a piece from Bhamakalapam. Bhamakalapam is one of the most famous Indian dance dramas, and is written by acclaimed playwright Siddhendra Yogi. This piece focuses on a woman in the play named Satyabhama, a very proud and arrogant character. She is angry at the god Krishna for the lack of recognition of her apparent beauty. The portrayal of this character, as well as others in later dances, give the audience a glimpse of the full range of Kalyandurg. While obviously a very talented dancer, Kalyandurg’s real mastery lies in her facial emotes. She uses her smile and eyes to convey multiple emotions, apparent even to those sitting at the back of the room.
In addition to playing characters directly involved in the stories, Kalyandurg doubles, triples, or even quadruples when the story involves two or three characters, as the narrator in her dance. In “Palukuthenala Thalli,” Kalyandurg play multiple characters throughout her dance. The story, set to an Annamarcharya keerthana, a type of lyrical song, is that of the goddess Alamelumanga. The poet, who shares the name of the piece, encounters the sleeping goddess after she spent an exciting night in the bed of Lord Venkateswara. Throughout her dance, Kalyandurg switched seamlessly between the characters and the narrator, cluing the audience in with just a change of facial expression and a shift in body posture. Not once was the audience at a loss for what was happening, as Kalyandurg’s gestures and movements expertly told the story, passing beyond any sort of language barrier.
Kalyandurg, along with the musicians, put on a great performance for all present. On Devi, a celebration of Indian dance, is a welcome addition to the usual events taking place in Gasson Hall, between the saints and symbols on the walls.
Featured Image by Kate Mahoney