First things first, a couple of minor quibbles should be mentioned. Sampradaya Dance Creations’ presentation of Punyah Krishna & other works by Parshwanath Upadhye in July hit a few snags due to the limitations of the venue. Sampradaya Theatre, a ninety-three-seat venue, is a beautiful space, but it’s better suited to intimate performances.
As a result, there were some technical issues throughout the evening. A handful of music cue mistakes were amplified by the fact that the sound was too loud for a major part of the evening. The first and third pieces of the show — Devatraya Vandana (an invocation to Hindu deities Saraswati, Lakshmi and Ganesha) and Punyah Krishna (stories of the playful god Krishna) — were simply too big for the space. I didn’t think it possible, but when you can make out the contouring makeup on a dancer, there’s a sense of being too close to the action. There were some instances when close proximity to some dancers meant I missed out what was going on in other parts of the complex choreography.
But these are minor issues in an otherwise wonderful evening of contemporary bharatanatyam dance. As Lata Pada, the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations, pointed out in the remarks after the performance, Upadhye is considered a “rockstar of bharatanatyam” today. It’s easy to see why he is a sought-after dancer and choreographer. While he presents traditional repertoire of the classical Indian dance known for being danced in a plié position, use of mudras (hand gestures) that are significant to the storytelling and precise movements to the taal (rhythm), his approach is informed by other influences including his training in Asian and Indian martial arts as well as production values from film and theatre.
None of that would matter, however, if Upadhye didn’t have solid training, which he clearly does. This was evident in the solo varnam called Swayam that Upadhye performed, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, also known as the Lord of Dance. In a traditional performance, the varnam is often considered the centrepiece of the show, where the dancer builds on the theme, playing with both the rhythmic and expressive elements of the dance.
Upadhye’s interpretation of a devotee’s adoration of Shiva, more specifically at the famous Chidambaram temple, was a sight to behold. His performance was both athletic and graceful. His high kicks, leaps and knee turns did not come at the cost of nuances such as beautifully articulated mudras or clarity of movement in his adavus (basic bharatanatyam dance steps). To top it all off, he kept up the intensity of the dance until the very end, building a sense of crescendo. There were quite a few audible sighs in the audience, who were clearly moved when the devotee was granted audience by Lord Shiva.
Sampradaya Dance Creations has had a long association with Upadhye. He’s performed as a guest artist in several productions such as Vivarta (2008) and Pralaya (2016) among others. This year’s presentation of excerpts from Upadhye’s choreography was meant to present “his choreography which we find very dynamic and exciting,” said Pada in an email exchange following the show. It was “an opportunity for our dancers to work with other choreographers and grow into more versatile interpreters of other choreographic styles and approaches as well as our audiences being offered a diverse range of choreographies.”
To that end, the show was successful. It was a joy to see Canadian dancers keeping up with Upadhye’s demanding work. Five of them — Govindi Dyal, Nithya Garg, Atri Nundy, Donya Sandhu and Purawai Vyas — have trained with Pada and now perform as part of her professional dance company. Kalaisan Kalaichelvan, Kanna, Harikishan Nair, Nivedha Ramalingam and Shobi Ruban performed as guest artists. The concept was akin to The National Ballet of Canada performing James Kudelka’s version of Swan Lake, which has been lauded for giving a contemporary edge to the story’s fable-like character.
The stories told in Devatraya Vandana or Punyah Krishna are part of India’s mythological canon. Most South Asians would at least know the outlines of these stories: how Parvati created Ganesha from her own body, Shiva killed him by mistake and then brought him back to life with an elephant’s head. Or how Krishna was transported from the prison cell that he was born in, as Seshanaga (king of all snakes) shielded the baby from torrential rain, and the river Yamuna parted its waters to let him through.
Upadhye’s interpretation of these stories clearly borrowed a smidgen of spectacle from Indian film conventions, giving the stories a much more cinematic scope than is traditional. While many Indian classical dancers have also used elements of the Indian martial art kalaripayattu in their performances, Upadhye’s kalari jumps became of part of this new narrative. Some of the enactments were a little bit too literal for my personal taste; Krishna’s amorous adventures with gopis (young women) needs to be rethought as societal conversations around gender equality and consent demand more attention, in my personal opinion. But vignettes between Nundy and Ramalingam or Kalaichelvan’s turn as Ganesha more than made up for those moments.
At one point, watching Upadhye’s varnam, I wondered if my personal experiences of visiting the Chidambaram temple or growing up with the stories of Krishna as my version of Grimms’ Fairy Tales played into my enjoyment and whether one needs that kind of insight to appreciate such a performance. But the admiration I overheard from non-South Asian audience members, even if it was about the stamina of the dancers and the beauty of their movement rather than the subtleties of the form, makes me think that such performances will eventually find their own attendance.