Glittering 'Gita'

Big ballet from a very big book

On the battlefield, a warrior grapples with despair. He's certain his cause is just. A rival family has stolen his family's kingdom, but the price he must pay to regain it is too high. Many of his friends and relatives fight on the side of his rival, and killing his kinsmen would be wrong. So Arjuna lays down his bow and declares he will not fight.

But his charioteer counsels him otherwise, telling him that a person must do his duty no matter how unpleasant it may be. The charioteer is Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and his dialogue with Arjuna comprises the 700-verse poem, the "Bhagvad Gita." Krishna's teachings reveal a mixture of practical advice, noble sentiments, a path to self-realization, and for many followers of the Hindu religion, a true historical account of a civil war in ancient India between the Kauravas and Arjuna's people, the Pandavas.

Written between 400 BC and 100 AD, the "Bhagvad Gita" is the best-known chapter of the Mahabharata, an immense Indian epic that is probably the longest poem in all of literature. On the sheer narrative level, the "Bhagvad Gita" bursts at the seams with unexpected plot twists, ethical puzzles, and larger-than-life characters. Too vivid to be confined to the pages of a book, it has been presented in many forms over the centuries, from the shadow-puppet performances of Bali to films, CDs, the theater, and dance.

The ballet interpretation by the Shakti Dance Company strips down the complexity by concentrating on a single theme that runs throughout the text. "It is not an entire "Bhagvad Gita" rendition or delineation verse to verse, nor is it a rendition of the stories of the Mahabharata," explains Viji Prakash, the production's artistic director and founder of the Shakti School of Bharata Natyam. Instead, her ballet concentrates on the concept of injustice, choosing a scene from each of the "Gita"'s 18 chapters that illustrates an example of the oppression of good by evil and setting that particular injustice to spectacular solo and ensemble dance accompanied by traditional Indian music.

"Take the plight of Draupadi, the Pandava queen, who was liberated and honored as a woman," Prakash says. In the play, she is hauled before the Karauva court, dramatically disrobed, and insulted. This ancient injustice has parallels in modern times, according to Prakash. "Equality, women's rights, and the emancipation of modern times are nullified in the vulnerability of women as we read about the heinous rapes, abuse, and violence that women undergo each day."

Call the Shakti Dance Company's energetic ballet "Riverdance with aP conscience." Spectacular choreography, stunning costumes, and imaginative stage effects join forces with a mixture of Hindustani and Carnatic musical genres. Precision dancers slap bare feet on the stage with ankle bells ringing and arms swinging the showy South Indian dance style known as Bharata Natyam. "Bharata Natyam interprets life, communicates feelings, explores rhythm, and delineates the essence of bhava [physical being] through facial expressions, through subtle eye movements, intense footwork, and hand gestures," she explains. Sitar legend Ravi Shankar, father of Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones, recently told Prakash, "Of all the dance productions of yours that I have seen, your 'Bhagvad Gita' is the best."

Shankar's sister, Lakshmi Shankar, is principal vocalist for the performance, singing verses of the "Gita" in the Tamil, Sanskrit, and Marathi languages. Best-known for her ethereal singing on the soundtrack of Richard Attenborough's 1982 Academy Award-winning film Gandhi, Shankar is accompanied by Mahesh Swamy on flute and the sarod-like veena lute, Venkatesan Vedakrishnaram on mridangam hand drum percussion, and Krishna Kutty on violin. Palai Ramachandran, an award-winning Carnatic singer, and vocalist Debur Srivathsa, who arranged most of the music for the ballet, also lend their voices to the show. Shankar is no first-timer with the Shakti Dance Company. She was lead vocalist for Prakash's ballets Purandaradasa, Meera, and Shyama which toured the U.S. and Canada. She's also toured with brother Ravi, late ex-Beatle George Harrison, and several prominent Indian performers, including legendary dancer Uday Shankar.

The national tour of the ambitious three-hour, two-act ballet celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Shakti School of Bharata Natyam, which Prakash founded in 1977. Dance has been a lifelong passion for her. Beginning at an early age, she received intensive training with the grand masters of the Tanjavur tradition of Bharata Natyam, Guru Kalyanasundaram and Guru Mahalingam Pillai, directors of the Raja Rajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir, Bombay. In honor of her years of teaching, she received the "Best Guru" award from the Madras Music Academy, Chennai, India, in 2001.

Prakash turns in a gender-bending performance as Krishna, while her daughter Mythili Prakash plays the Pandava queen Draupadi -- and also Karna, the half brother of Arjuna. Females playing males is an unimportant detail in the grand scope of the ballet. "This dance drama is based on Ekaharya, which is the depiction of different characters by one dancer, and the characters within the dance drama are differentiated by suggestive embellishments of their costumes," Prakash says. "It is vital that the spectator perceives not solely the person or character portrayed but the universality of the traits of these characters, inherent within all human beings." Malaysian-born Ajit Bhaskaran Das and the athletic Harikrishna Kalyanasundaram are the other two principal solo dancers in an 18-member troupe.

The text of the "Bhagvad Gita" can be daunting for outsiders unfamiliar with the Hindu religion, and the complexity isn't merely doctrinal. The character names alone are bewildering. Krishna is variously known as Mohave, Hrishikesha, Keshava, Govinda, Madhu, Janardana, Varshneya, Vasudeva, and Hari. Arjuna has almost as many nicknames, and so do the other main characters. But the ballet is audience-friendly: If the sheer spectacle of the stage presentation isn't self-explanatory, ongoing narration in English sets up each scene and translates the relevant verses from the "Gita."

The battle scenes in act 2 showcase the full talents of the dancers as they explode in choreographed warfare in front of a painted backdrop of charging elephants. Lighting effects enhance the passionate emotions. These scenes also give the ballet an up-to-the-minute relevance.

"We have leaders absolutely unwilling to negotiate peacefully, in the name of good Dharma, that is, justice, for the world," Prakash says. She goes on to list other features of the ancient war that are relevant today. "Bribery, making pacts, offering lands and weapons to helpful neighbors who were once enemies... Witness senseless killings of young and innocent in the name of power, knowing peaceful ways are the best ways and yet pursuing active force and aggression to justify the cause. As our country seems to be on the brink of it all, how do we not draw parallels?"

Prakash is excited about the ballet on the sheer artistic level, she says enthusiastically: "I am fortunate to have wonderful artists on my team, dancers and musicians, all who feel as passionately about this production as I do." But ultimately, she's drawn to the "Bhagvad Gita" because, "To me, it is the absolute truth."

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