ARISI : Rice celebrates ancient traditions

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Principal dancer and resident choreographer Mohanapriyan Thavarajah (far right) has choreographed almost 20 works for Apsaras Arts - each one different in terms of concept, approach, collaboration and costume design.

But what he has done for its latest dance-music production ARISI : Rice, which will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre on Nov 25 and 26 as part of this year's Kalaa Utsavam, has stunned even himself as it hits new creative heights.

"Mostly bharatanatyam works have stylised gestures and vocabularies," said Mohanapriyan.

"For ARISI : Rice, we have shifted from the norm - tracing back the movement, rhythm and tunes that are part of farmers' activities in the field.

"In the ancient days, farmers sang and danced to ease their tiredness. This tradition is still alive in some parts of Tamil Nadu. We have amplified that at every stage, from cultivating the land to harvesting."

Mohanapriyan also drew inspiration from his own experience.

"I walked and felt the fields of my ancestors and brought them to life through descriptive verses from Tamil literature and the movements and vocabularies codified in Natya Sastra (an ancient Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts)."

He imaginatively juxtaposed the importance the Balinese people place on rice in their daily lives with Indian beliefs on the subject.

"It was a phenomenal learning journey. Indian and Balinese dance forms have strong aesthetic elements of movements and rhythm that created the platform for a meaningful collaboration," he said.

"The Balinese genre of music, such as gamelan and kecak, has strong mathematical elements that rely heavily on bharatanatyam-like rhythm.

"Imagining movements using the pedagogy of bharatanatyam to kecak resulted in an amazing outcome.

"The movement vocabulary I employed was inspired by the body movements of farmers working in the field."

I Wayan Dibia, an artist and scholar specialising in Balinese performing arts, choreographed the segments showcasing Balinese traditions through dance.

"He pointed out that there is no word in the Balinese language to denote 'art' because it has been part of their life for centuries," Mohanapriyan explained. "The Balinese dance flavour and feel are very organic.

"We worked together to create dance segments that adhered to the core principles of our forms but leveraged the shared foundation between Balinese and Indian classical dance - bharatanatyam. We discovered that both our forms have deep roots in Natya Sastra, which travelled from India throughout South-east Asia."

Mohanapriyan also spent time studying the paddy stalk in order to replicate its movements in a dancer.

"I studied the way a paddy stalk looked and moved, and brought them to life on stage with dance vocabularies that represented the inexplicable movements," he said.

"There are sequences - such as ploughing, buffaloes working in a muddy field, a river flowing, paddy swaying in the wind and thunderous rain - that evoke wondrous emotions.

"Personifying a grain of rice in the form of a beautiful dancer is no mean feat."

ARISI: Rice will feature 25 dancers: eight Balinese, 13 bharatanatyam, a seven-year-old girl, an actor, Dibya and Mohanapriyan.

Dibiya and Mohanapriyan will also perform a duet juxtaposing Balinese and bharatanatyam dance forms.

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