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Kapila Venu Nrithya Upahaar Festival img credit: Sujith Kumar

Nrithya Upahaar Festival

12th October 2019 at Rich Mix

21st October 2019 at Waterman’s Arts Centre

Reviewed by Meenakshi Ravi

The fifth edition of Nrithya Upahaar, curated by Upahaar School of Dance, featured internationally renowned dancers along with UK based artists over two evenings of choice performances. Notable was the presentation for the first time in the UK of the Kuttiyaatam performer Kaplia Venu who is unparalleled in the theatre dance art.  

The first day of Nrithya Upahaar 2019 at Rich Mix in East London gave audiences a flavour of the classical dances of south India - kuchipudi from Andhra, mohiniattam from Kerala and bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu. Newcastle-based kuchipudi dancer Payal Ramchandani opened the evening. Her central item, Chaurapanchasika was a compelling tale of a poet sentenced to death for the crime of forbidden love. Upahaar Mohiniattam Ensemble took the stage next - Guru Shalini Shivashankar, Pallavi Anand, Daniella Zak Varghese, Rani Shenoy and Piya Varma showcased a range of items - from Guru Shalini’s padam Aliveni Endu Cheyvu to a group thillana in Desh ragam. The final dancers of the evening were the headliners of the night - bharatanatyam duo Renjith & Vijna. The Chennai-based couple have a dedicated following of students and collaborators around the world and they utterly charmed the audience here. Their duet items - from the opening Panchadeva Stuti, to the swarajathi dedicated to Goddess Kamakshi, to the final Radha-Krishna bhajan - were arresting. The two solo abhinaya items - Vijna’s jhavali and Renjith’s padam - added nuances of light and shade to a perfectly formed repertoire. In the artiste and audience interaction that followed, there was a clear sense of the intensity of time and commitment that is a prerequisite for a life in the arts. 

At the master class the following day, Renjith and Vijna shared details of the rigour and focus they put into their physical conditioning routines. With the generosity that is their trademark as teachers, they led an intensive warm up routine, spoke in depth about body awareness and alignment and taught a beautiful piece of choreography.

A week later, day two of Nrithya Upahaar took place at Watermans Arts Centre. It was a night of truly one-of-a-kind headline performers - Sujata Mohapatra performing odissi and Kapila Venu presenting the ancient Keralite theatre art of Kuttiyaatam. The evening opened however with London-based kathak duo - Saloni Saraf and Raheem Mir. The highpoint of their performance was the debut of a new work in which they explored the duality of Radha and Krishna and how their energies can be swapped, intermingled and multiplied. Next came the bharatanatyam dancer Divya Kasturi from Stevenage who gave an exposition on the concept of bhakti or devotion. The penultimate artist the famed odissi dancer -Sujata Mohapatra commanded the stage with her chaste and refined technique delivered with inimitable grace. Her elaborate enactment of the interaction between Lord Ram and his devotee, the elderly Shabari was a transcendental experience. Sujata held the audience in her thrall until the very last moment of Shabari’s heartfelt embrace of her beloved lord. Following the odissi, Kapila Venu and her accompanying percussion (mizhavu) players put on a display of Kuttiyaatam the likes of which has not been seen on the UK stage. With its codified language of gestures, intricate facial expression, and the almost other-worldly presence of the performer - Kapila Venu transmitted an all-encompassing experience. 

In the master classes that followed their performances, both Sujata-ji and Kapila imparted deep insights into their practice of their arts. In the Kuttiyaatam workshop in particular, there was an emphasis on the complexities of intricate forms of abhinaya - hasta abhinaya, netra abhinaya, saatvika abhinaya.

It is virtually impossible to sum the significance of these artistic encounters. Their impact isn’t meant to be for an evening or a weekend. It is hoped that it affects everyone - audiences, students, organisers and performers - deeply and in the sort of elevating, transformative way that only art can.

The organisers acknowledge the support of Arts Council England National Lottery programme.