By Prema Sriram
Guru Rhadha danced right into our hearts in August this year at the Mission City Center for Performing Arts, Santa Clara, California.
It was with great excitement and eagerness that I went with my parents to Rhadha’s first solo recital, under the auspices of Sankritilaya, in the San Francisco Bay Area. We had heard a lot about this living legend being a great choreographer, excellent dancer, and above all a good friend and confidante to her students.
True to her reputation, Rhadha performed a complete Vazhuvoor style margam, without cutting corners or compromising on fundamentals. Her performance at the age of 71 totally blew us away.
The highlight of the programme was her effortless string of muzhu mandi adavu-s, sprinkled generously throughout the nritta items. The quick transitions from standing to half sitting, to getting down on to the floor, then all the way up, without flinching, combined with her impeccable and powerful footwork (many a time improvised when you were least expecting it), felt surreal.
Rhadha began her programme with a traditional pushpanjali, followed by a beautiful Hanuman stuti, Anjile onru petran, from the Kamba Ramayanam. The song describes the five facets of Lord Hanuman in relation to the five elements. Born of the wind god, Hanuman crossed the mighty body of water, by leaping across (the sky) space to find Seeta, the daughter of mother Earth, and in a rage, he burned down Ravana’s Lanka with fire. From the first item itself, we came under the spell of Rhadha’s mesmerising dance.
The next item was a brisk Chokkeswara kavuthuvam in praise of Chokkanathar or Siva of Madurai. Rhadha delighted us in the Mandooka Sabdam by describing the scenic pond full of leaping and croaking frogs, where the story of Gajendra moksha takes place. The onomatopoaeic syllables in the lyrics were beautifully sung by Sindhu Natarajan.
The beautiful varnam, Karunai seididal aagatha in praise of Lord Kapaleeswara of Mylapore told the story of how goddess Karpagambal came into being. The five jati-s, including a mridanga jati—nicely articulated by Vidya Balan and Sangita Vasudevan, two senior disciples of Rhadha—were powerfully executed with unflagging stamina and perfection by Rhadha.
During the intermission, the whole place was abuzz, with everyone talking about Rhadha’s incredible jaw-dropping performance.
Rhadha opened the second half of the programme with Yarukagilum bhayama? in which she convincingly depicted a self-assured abhisarika nayika standing her ground.
In the piece de resistance, Krishna nee begane, Rhadha awakened the vatsalya bhava in each one of us, by bringing to life baby Krishna delighting his mother Yasoda. The story of the Vamana avatara was seamlessly woven into the piece and delineated at the line, Jagadoddharaka namma.
The javali Yera, rara brought out yet another facet of Rhadha’s uncanny ability to depict sambhoga sringara, with subtle and nuanced suggestions of romantic and intimate moments between the nayaka and the naive and boisterous nayika, who is tormented by Cupid’s arrows.
The playful Mand tillana – a composition of Lalgudi G. Jayaraman – was the perfect finale for Rhadha’s energetic and effervescent presentation, beautifully choreographed to sync with the lilting movements of the musical notes. The intricate, rhythmic and dynamic movements, interspersed with sculpturesque poses, were handled with ease and finesse, till the very end.
Sindhu Natarajan, a budding singer, provided melodious and confident vocal accompaniment, ably supported by her parents N. Narayan (mridanga), and Shanti Narayan (violin). Nattuvangam support by Rhadha’s disciples Sangita Vasudevan and Vidya Balan was truly remarkable. Samyuktha Narayan, also a disciple of Rhadha, was an outstanding emcee for the programme. It was a pleasure to see all three disciples beaming with pride and joy, on seeing their teacher’s ecstatic dancing.
Sankritilaya deserves all the credit for sponsoring Rhadha’s first Bay Area appearance. We hope to see Rhadha again and again.