Narayana Katha Bharatanatyam review: enchanting dreamscape

South Indian dance performance with live music provides a plenitude of bliss

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I walked into Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall just in time to catch the emcee making a joke: “If there’s anyone who just comes to these shows for samosas and chai, you’ll be disappointed because there’s no intermission tonight.” I’ve been to dozens of shows put on by Portland Indian arts organization Kalakendra, but it’s been awhile and I didn’t know how much I missed their delicious samosas and chai until I heard those magic words.

It turns out there was no reason for disappointment. The Portland presenting organization does have another show tonight after all, one of their more traditional Hindustani Classical recitals, and I assume there will be samosas and chai at that one (no guarantees though). And I’m glad there was no intermission, because the Narayana Katha Bharatanatyam dance performance I witnessed in Lincoln Hall last Saturday took me into another world, an enchanting dreamscape of light and sound and color and gods and holy movement. Samosas in the lobby would have felt intrusive.

Kalakendra Performing Arts brought Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon to Portland State University.

The music started up and a narrator read the auspicious opening line: “Yes, mankind is fortunate indeed.” Dancers Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon took the stage with a joyous verve, detailed and exuberant body movements, fine flowing costumes in radiant colors, ankle bells jangling in precise rhythmic counterpoint with the live musicians. Vocalist Deepu Nair, mridangist P.K. Siva Prasad, and violinist Easwar Ramakrishnana, sat on a little rug stage right performing raga-based dance music, all beautifully evening-sounding. I thought I heard a lot of puriya kalyan and maru bihag, or rather their Carnatic equivalents, but I’m a little more accustomed to slower classical styles like dhrupad that spool out their melodic material over an hour or more of slow, deliberate singing. By comparison, Bharatanatyam music, like most southern Indian musical styles, is freer, dancier, and at times a great deal more rhythmically complicated than its northern counterparts. And I didn’t know you could lead a band with a tiny pair of cymbals, but bandleader Udayasankar Lal N.U. nailed it.

The lighting was vivid and elegant over the almost entirely bare stage, and a few of the eight dance numbers had simple backgrounds projected behind and above them. The simplicity of the entire thing impressed me: as with Kalakendra’s classical recitals, the pragmatic humility of the setting belies the exemplary and disciplined artistry of the performers.

Projected lighting effects, designed by expert dance and theater collaborator Murugan Krishnan, set the scene better than props would have anyway. Soft blue light and a gentle full moon image in the fourth number illuminated the tale of a disabled woman (Menon) who is taken out dancing by a god (Nambiar), which all reminded me of an old favorite Bollywood number. Green lights over zigzaggy shadows suggested the fifth dance’s forest scene. In the sixth number, Nambiar portrayed four different wrestlers, dashing about in the darkness and popping up under spotlights in different parts of the stage, skillfully giving each wrestler a distinct personality through movement alone.

My favorite dance was the seventh, a timeless love story–not the usual thing about falling in love but about the quests we undertake for love. As a narrator explained before it started, Nambiar is a man who hates wealth, but he has to go find a job because his wife, Menon, is hungry. Nambiar goes out on his heroic quest and returns with food, which he shares with his wife. A simple enough story, but the music and the lights and gorgeous dancing imbued it with a mythic, transcendental quality.

The show ended on a hymn to “the plenitude of bliss” and a prayer: “O Lord of the Universe, may this hymn reach thy ears, conferring long life, good health, and happiness.”

Afterwards, Menon came out, thanked the musicians (“it is every dancer’s dream to have good music; without them it wouldn’t have been possible”) and the lighting designer, and expressed her happiness at performing at PSU: “It is like coming home every time we come to Portland.” Her gratitude is reciprocal: we are all fortunate indeed to hear so much Indian music in Portland thanks to organizations like Kalakendra and Rasika. With or without samosas.

Kalakendra has two concerts coming up in the next few weeks. This Saturday, October 7, santoor player Tarun Bhattacharya and sitarist Indrajit Banerjee are joined by Subrata Bhattacharya on tabla at First Congregational Church in downtown Portland. On November 4, Chitravina N. Ravikiran — the “Mozart of Indian Music” and originator of melharmony — performs at First Baptist Church (also in downtown Portland) with violin and mridangam accompaniment.  And fans of south Indian dance have another opportunity to experience it this Saturday with local choreographer Jayanthi Raman’s latest show, Dance of the Hummingbirds, which sounds like a pretty grand production and will also feature the work of (and a performance by) Oregon poet laureate Paulann Peterson. Read Jamuna Chiarini’s Arts Watch preview here.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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