Alchemy, Sama: Divine Music
16th April 2011
Queen Elizabeth Hall
by Jahnavi Harrison
Sama: Divine Music formed the second of two evenings of ‘the dance, music and poetry of love’. Only having a very shallow understanding of Sufism, I went along to the film screened before the evening: Sufi Soul by Simon Broughton and William Dalrymple. Over an hour it showed how Sufism broadly affects the lives of millions across a swathe of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The later performance felt a fitting continuation of this exploration, as artists from varied disciplines and backgrounds took Sufi poetry as the inspiration for their offerings. Most intriguinging to me were the two bharatanatyam dancers presenting work: Malavika Sarukkai and Navtej Johar.
Malavika began with a slow acting out of lyrics that compared the longing of the lover to different aspects of nature: the lotus drenched by water that reaches for the sun; the mountain that stretches to touch the clouds. Bharatanatyam is no stranger to such analogies, and the existing language of mudras didn’t need to be augmented to accommodate. The charged, emotive recorded voice of Shubha Mudgal provided an unusual accompaniment that enhanced the at times slightly repetitive and predictable choreography.
That said, Malavika certainly radiated grace, strength and poise, and really excelled when her choreography reached beyond the familiar, like the fluttering moth symbolising her lover that left her helplessly rooted to the spot, or the repeating aradhi in the closing tarana that depicted a rushing river- a flowing, diagonal swing of the body across the stage. The music alternated between recorded and live, but the transitions felt a little choppy. The times she interacted with the on stage musicians were much more dynamic and interesting, and the close of the tarana, choreographed by CV Chandrasekhar built up to a beautifully controlled crescendo.
After a brief introduction and a quick change of orchestra, Navtej Johar and his duet partner, Anil Panchal began ‘Fana’a: Ranhja Revisited’. From the first moment they captivated, as the lights slowly rose on the pair - centre stage, facing one another, hands exploring the negative space that separated them. The piece examined love through the well known legends of Heer-Ranhja (Punjabi) and Kutrala Kuravanji (Tamil). Though a sense of episodes divided the piece into parts of each story, the movement and imagery, both abstract and literal, flowed seamlessly into each other. Music by Madan Gopal Singh and a fantastic band, did more than just accompany the dance. Rather the music became another dancer, giving voice to the stories just as much as the visuals. The juxtaposition and balance of the different elements was masterful and always striking - at one point a single banjo plucked a simple melody as Navtej stood under a spotlight, hands upstretched in the bliss of loving separation. In this moment of stillness, Panchal burst in and barrel jumped with abandon around Navtej, still lost in meditation. At another point the traditional tattu mettu and tirmanam sequence of bharatanatyam simply exploded to the accompanying dhol and the band, powering away under the stirring voice of Rekha Raj.
Both dancers were equally riveting to watch, but Navtej was glorious - his dance both light and effortless, yet with a power and yogic control that remained in the mind long after the performance ended. Using contemporary influenced contact and floor work they created what seems to be the best kind of fusion - where every element is introduced with intention and sensitivity to create a unique and deeply affecting blend. The piece ended as it began, with the pair playing off one another - mirroring, intertwining and diverging, like twin curls of smoke .
Azalea Ray next took to the stage, bringing the music and poetry into greater focus. Her voice was smooth, robust and expressive, and she held the space with skill, but in comparison to the previous acts, the one song she performed felt rushed and perfunctory. Perhaps those that heard her the night before didn’t mind so much, but it seemed a little odd, given the late hour and the number of songs performed by the next artist, Malini Awasthi.
Over the next forty five minutes she mesmerised with her effortless musical prowess, singing four Sufi poems in the Awadhi musical style. Unfortunately only one was included in the programme, and she seemed to speak no English, giving little chance to the many in the crowd who would’ve appreciated a chance to understand the spiritual meaning behind the impassioned songs. This was the only detraction though - her deep investment in the philosophy and emotion behind the music was evident, as was her lack of affectation, despite the stunning range and depth of her voice.
Though the evening felt overlong - almost three hours with no interval, the quality and depth of each performance definitely lived up to the fanfare, and felt true to the aim of the organisers to ‘foster mutual understanding’ and ‘enhance sensitivity’ to the unifying ideal of Sufism.