The margam in bharatanatyam is a traditional repertoire consisting of core sections (or items, as they’re called in the form), strategically arranged to evoke a spiritual journey. It begins softly in alarippu, crescendos into varnam and ends joyously with tillana. This format is no simple feat.
On June 30, six dancers and seven musicians from Toronto performed a margam titled Darshan. Elegantly conceived and choreographed by KH Kanna, it consists of five items composed by Saivite saints and Asthana Vidwans (royal composers) of the Tanjore, Mysore and Travancore kingdoms. Kanna’s ambitious undertaking impressively balances ancient tradition with modern sensibilities, all while showcasing homegrown talent.
Darshan begins with the draw of the curtain revealing a Carnatic music ensemble seated upstage centre. Typically found stage left, the ensemble’s unusual position is intentional, shifting their importance forward. A flautist (Praveen Prathapan), two veena players (Aranya and Athithya Thambiappah), male and female vocalists (Myuran Thananjeyan and Saibruntha Arunthavashanmuganathan), a mridangist (Sriparan Yoganathan) and a nattuvanar (Kalaimathy Vageesan) promise rich orchestral accompaniment. With a few gentle notes, the audience is poised for a visual and sonic feast.
The first item is a Pura Ranga Vidi, or Mysore Jati, a preliminary number that wields nritta (pure dance) and abhinaya (expression) to perform a spiritual ritual. The dancers — Nithya Garg, Kalaisan Kalaichelvan, Yalini Rajakulasingam, Mithunan Raveendran, Shobi Ruban and Kanna himself — enter walking and create an outward-facing circle. Their circle holds special significance: inviting ancestral presence, warding away evil and honouring the earth. A moment of stillness passes before they initiate the namaskaram. Gradually, the piece gains momentum, and dancers expertly weave between each other performing complex patterns of adavus, seamlessly shifting from one sequence to the next.
As the Pura Ranga Vidi ends, the Thevaram immediately unfolds, transitioning from ritualistic steps to devotional practice. Sung in praise of Lord Shiva, the piece begins with the depiction of a sanctuary. Rajakulasingam, Ruban and Garg dynamically create flower garlands, while Raveendran performs the Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) behind them. Shortly after, Kalaichelvan and Kanna swiftly enter, layering the scene with their own form of worship. Together, they build a world imbibed with prayer and sacred offering. Their hastas (hand gestures) describe the resounding beat of Lord Shiva’s damaru (two-headed drum) and the gushing rivers that split from His head. In one moment, they each take a pose to form Lord Shiva’s iconic stance — left leg raised, four arms stretched. I am transported.
The next piece is the varnam, Danike Tagu Jananra, which is the culminating act of the program. This varnam, like most, oozes with love and longing. It tells the story of sakhi (friend), tasked with convincing the great King Shivaji that despite the distance, there is no greater woman than nayika (the heroine). Kanna reinvented this classic varnam, traditionally performed as a solo, to suit six dancers, without removing its mood of romance and impassioned yearning.
It opens with a musical prelude, beginning with the strong hum of the veena and sweet call of the flute. With the establishment of a lush soundscape, the theermanam (opening sequence) starts and Kanna’s choreographic brilliance shines. The dancers perform controlled adavus, holding their postures for elongated periods, only to pierce these stretched moments with quick steps. They switch positions with enhanced awareness, easily producing triangular, linear and circular formations. This bursting energy carries into the jathis (rhythmic patterns) and garners spontaneous applause from the audience.
The charanam, however, is perhaps where the electricity of the jathis does not transfer. The uniformity of the hastas amongst the six dancers feels like a lost opportunity for dramatic storytelling and manipulation of plot. While at times monotonous, the execution, commitment and relationship to the narrative is profoundly moving. Each dancer’s command of abhinayam is unique but equally intense. They show variations of wide-ranging emotions, and I am left pining for the reconciliation of sakhi, nayika and King Shivaji.
The varnam is followed by a bhajan, Aaj Aaye Shyam Mohan, describing the Raas Leela (divine dance of love) of Radha and Krishna. The stage is lit blue and green, creating a mythical effect, and the dancers hold Krishna’s flute upon entering. The piece is soft, adoring and simple. Most notably, they make grand sweeping gestures, leaping while clapping their hands in a circle. This joyful movement evokes folk elements of North India and invites celebration of love and living. At one point, a dancer’s pendant falls and rests awkwardly onstage. Within a single rotation, the pendant is gone.
Tillana marks the end of the program. The dancers begin in perfect unison and turn to face each other in playful jest during the pallavi. They take turns performing adavus, producing a cascade effect within koorvais. Thananjeyan’s and Arunthavashanmuganathan’s voices richly blend together creating a pulsing melody, uplifting the item, providing the perfect finale.
It is worth mentioning that Darshan is Kanna’s official choreographic debut and a product of his first major grant from the Toronto Arts Council. The calibre, ambition and finish are a testament to budding talent within a new generation of Indian classical artists and the importance of making space for them. In her concluding remarks, Lata Pada, artistic director and principal choreographer of Sampradaya Dance Creations, decidedly stated, “To see artists that have committed themselves to the art form and pursued it against many odds is incredibly memorable.”
Darshan is a Hindi word, originating from Sanskrit, that translates to a process of spiritual fulfillment. In this five-part margam, Kanna curates pieces that behave as a form of prayer — adeptly honouring tradition while inspiring renewal. The dancers and musicians play equal part in the delivery of this worship, and collectively it is a grand success.
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