“ANUBHAVA” A Mesmerizing Musical And Dance Experience 

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By Suparna Salil

WOODLANDS:The bells adorning the dancers’ ankles chimed softly as they waited behind the curtains to perform in “Anubhava”, an Indian classical music and dance production hosted by The Hindu Temple of The Woodlands. The musicians took their places and with the first lilting notes of Carnatic music, the audience found themselves instantly enthralled. Choreographed and composed by the 12 dancers and musicians who performed in the production, “Anubhava”, meaning “experience” in Sanskrit, more than lived up to its name.

“Anubhava”, comprising youngsters in their late teens and early twenties was formed earlier this year, in February 2015, with Bharatanatyam dancers Shriya Srinivasan (from Cleveland, OH), Joshua George (from Chicago, IL) and Nivedha Ramalingam from Toronto, Canada. Together they began choreographing a production for the Cleveland Aradhana festival held in April 2015. They teamed up with other dancers Mathangi Sridharan (from Cleveland, OH), Bhavya Kumaran, and Sutikshna Veeravalli (both from Chicago, IL) and started working on the repertoire.

Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music have an intricate relationship – the raga (melody) of the song, as sung by the vocalist and played by the instruments in the orchestra, determines the dance sequence and the sahitya (lyrics) of the song determines the dancers’ interpretation of the song. Even the jathis (percussive footwork) performed by the dancers and accompanied solely by the nattuvangam (a type of cymbals) can be considered music in their own right. The musicians for the dynamic production were Mathura Sridharan, nattuvangam (from New York, NY), Keerthana Sankar, vocalist (from Detroit, MI), Sushmitha Ravikumar, violinist (from Dayton, OH), Shashank Subramaniam, flautist (from Novi MI), Athrey Nadhan, mridangist (from Chicago, IL), and Arthi Nadhan, veena (from Chicago, IL).

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“Anubhava” first opened at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana festival in April 2015 to a rousing audience. The troupe was invited to perform in other cities across the U.S. Members of The Hindu Temple of The Woodlands (HTW) heard about the popular production. No stranger to hosting successful and well-attended Indian classical arts productions, HTW decided to bring “Anubhava” to The Woodlands, a town of more than 100,000 people outside Houston, TX with a thriving South Asian population.

On Saturday, August 1, bells announced the dancers’ entrance onto the stage at the Nancy Bock Auditorium, and the orchestra opened with the traditional Mallari. The dancers followed with an Alarippu, with sharp, perfectly synchronous head movements and matching flashes of dramatic eyes. Next, the artists prayed to Lord Ganesha with the song Shri Mahaganapathim Bhajeham.

The main piece of the evening was the Varnam (Shri Krishna Kamalanatho). In this dance, the group soulfully portrayed the troubles of Nanda, during the birth of his son Lord Krishna. The dramatic story unfolded with expressive but subtle skills. For example, the dancer playing Putana, a demoness who stole infant Krishna to kill him, gracefully took Krishna from his unwary caretakers with only a sly glance to the audience to signal her nefarious intentions. (Spoiler alert: Krishna survives by killing Putana.)

The artists then moved on to showcasing the most popular piece of the night – scenes from the Ramayana, during Rama and Sita’s 14 years in the forest (Aranya Kandam). The performance showed the thoughtfulness and talent of the show’s creators.  The evocative music wound seamlessly through the story (as when the vocalist called out “O Sita! O Lakshmana!” as the deceptive golden deer). The dancers adapted the Carnatic musical tradition of Ragam – Tanam – Pallavi in choreographing and structuring the piece and every dancer excelled in the portrayal of their character (including a wonderful Hanuman who simulated airy flight without the benefit of wings).

The production culminated with a lively thillana, a tribute to the maestro, Lalgudi Jayaraman.

The nuanced emotion and intricate jathis of the dancers, skilled energy of the musicians and incredible vocal range of the singer demonstrated the inspiring beauty of Bharatnatyam and Carnatic music through each of the pieces. The composition and choreography of the youngsters was on par with experienced artists in these art forms. They adhered to the age-old traditions, while simultaneously exercising their creativity. It was easy to see that the artists are perfectionists – the dancers’footwork,mudras (hand gestures) and formations were flawless and the confidence, energy and range of the musicians echoed throughout the auditorium.

Mesmerized by the immersive show, the audience gave the artists a standing ovation.  Smita Centala, president of the HTW Youth Club, noted that “this event, performed by inspiring students brought up in America, provided an incredible example of youth growing up in a Westernized culture and still managing to nurture and be dedicated to their close ties with Indian and Hindu culture.” When asked about how the team could rehearse while living dispersed across North America, Shriya Srinivasan acknowledged that it was difficult to work with the geographical distances and many styles of Bharatanatyam they had learnt, but the group made full use of technology, communicating with each other constantly and having online training sessions. They have now evolved as one unit and feed off each other’s ideas.

Noted gurus from the Houston area, Dr. Rathna Kumar, Pandit Suman Ghosh, Mrs. Sravanthi Modali, and Vidushi Rajeshwari Bhat graced the performance. As renowned artists and teachers to Indian American students in and around Houston, the gurus had a special appreciation for this artist-driven production. Pt. Suman Ghosh and Dr. Kumar were very generous in their appreciation of the program and applauded the young artists for their commitment to excellence.

The Woodlands community would not have had the chance to experience “Anubhava” without the relentless efforts by members of the HTW Board and Executive Committee, especially Jagan Allam, S.R. Pinnapureddy, and Krishna Hari. Rajee Hari as emcee and numerous other volunteers from HTW, ensured the production was a success.

Of course, neither the artists nor HTW are resting on their laurels. The “Anubhava” artists are on a constant path of improvisation and planning newer pieces. And HTW is looking onward to the next eagerly anticipated cultural event it’s hosting – violin concert by the world famous duo, Ganesh and Kumaresh, at the Berry Center in Cypress, TX, on Saturday, September 5th.

I look forward to enjoying more classical art from the “Anubhava” artists and from HTW!