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Home Cover Features Dance for the divine

Dance for the divine

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Dance for the divine

Awarded the INTACH Heritage Award in 2002, Shri Rangantha Swamy Temple at Rangbagh witnesses dancers taking part in the temple rituals during the annual Brahmotsavams. Padma Bhushan Swapna Sundari was the first dancer to perform here.

The 365-year-old Shri Ranganatha Swamy temple situated at Rangbagh, 17 km from Hyderabad, near Indian School of Business Campus, is the only Temple in the country, which has aligned rituals of worship with dance, during the annual Brahmotsavams. This year, the Brahmotsavams will be celebrated from 14-21 February.

Present Chairman and managing trustee Shri Sharad B Pitti, son of late Shri Badrivishal Pitti, says that Shri Ranganatha Swamy Temple at Rangbagh, Nanakramguda is the first and only active temple of the present day which has aligned rituals of worship with dance. “It was in the year 1995, during the Brahmotsavams that my family decided to scale the celebrations at the temple. It so happened that I had gone to Kottakkal, for Ayurvedic treatment and there I saw Smt. Swapna Sundari perform at a temple during the Brahmotsavams. I met her and requested her to come to Hyderabad,” Pitti shares.

The Temple trustee says that Swapnaji came down in May 1995 and started performing at the Brahmotsavams at the Rangbagh Temple from1996. “In the beginning, we faced several hurdles in chanting of the mantras along with the dance. Then we were able to locate a priest who knew the mantras and took him to a studio and got them recorded and those tapes were forwarded to Swapnaji, who choreographed the dance pieces. Lot of coordination went into on how and when to perform the dances along with the rituals,” he says.

Dance for the divine

Piiti says that apart from introducing dance inside the Temple, from 1996, cultural programmes were also organised in the evenings in a specially decorated courtyard. The illumination of the Temple and celebrations were also taken up on a grand scale. From 1996 to 2000, Swapnaji and Kanupriya performed dances as part of the rituals inside the Temple, from 2001-2005 – it was the second league of dancers and from 2006 onwards dancers Anupama Kylash, Sanjay Joshi and others joined.

On the selection of dancers, for the rituals, Pitti says that they are chosen based on continuity and long term association. “It should not be that they perform for two years and leave,” he says. “Rangbagh Temple is the only temple in the country, which has aligned rituals of worship with dance. Dances should be revived in Temples. Private temples must take this initiative,” he says.

It was the first time in 1996, post independent India, that dance was restored to form an integral part of temple worship by a premier professional dancer other than the Devadasis. The Trust along with Swapna Sundari garu is conducting regular free classes in Vilasini Natyam where systematic coaching in the technique and repertoire of this style is imparted to selected students.

During Brahmotsavams, the dancers perform during Bala Bhogam, Bali Harana, Pallaki Seva and other certain temple rituals. Bala Bhogam – offering of the day’s first bhog to the deity, the dancer invokes the deity with a Choornika (Oratory hymn) followed by Nritta item called Pallavi. During Bali Harana – Morsels of cooked rice is offered with worshipful dances and music (chants), to the Dikpaalakas – guardian deities of the eight directions. It is said that the artists and priests go around the temple, invoking the eight Dikpaalkas along with Brahma, Garuda and Pashupathi seeking their protection of the temple and its surroundings.

Among the other sevas like Pallaki Seva, Kumbha Harathi and Heccharika – Procession of Utsava Murtis on a palanquin: The procession moves to the accompaniment of Mallari, a staccato musical composition played on the Naadaswaram. When the pallaki pauses and devotees offer prayers, the dancers sing and dance devotional hymns. As the pallaki re-enters the temple, the dancer nullifies any likely evil effects upon deities by performing the Kumbha Harathi. After this act of cleansing, a Heccharika is sung to further ward off inauspicious elements.

Dance for the divine

Devotees state that the temple vibrates with a special energy during the Brahmotsavam. The Abhishekam and Kalyanotsavam of Shri Ranganatha Swamy and Maha Lakshmi are one of the many highlights of the festival.

Rathostvam, which falls on the seventh day of the festivities, the gaily decorated 35’ high, five-storeyed antique wooden chariot, is drawn about half a kilometer by the devotees where a spectacular display of fireworks takes place. After this, the effigy of Ravana is set ablaze to symbolise the victory of virtue over vice. Every year thousands of devotees attend the Brahmotsavam and add to its grandeur.

Week-long cultural programmes are held every evening featuring upcoming and renowned artists during the Brahmotsavams.

On this occasion, we spoke Dr. Anupama Kylash, Sanjay Joshi, Girja Kishore and Pujita Krishna, who have taken part in the temple rituals.

Sanjay Joshi, Kathak dancer, on his association with the Temple festivities, says that it was mainly thanks to his guru Padmabhushan Swapna Sundari. “I travelled with her to all the villages in Andhra Pradesh and was fascinated with the art form from day one, I saw the demonstration of the old Devadasis,” Sanjay says.

Swapnaji trained Sanjay in performing the rituals, but being a male dancer, he had his apprehensions.

“We had an opportunity to perform dance rituals at one of the temples in Pushkar, Rajasthan. While I was training other girls for the performance, the Rangbagh temple trustee came to see the performance. At that time, I informed him that I was keen on performing the rituals at the temple. He replied, the decision had to be taken by Guruji,” Sanjay says.

“It was Sanjay Joshi, who introduced me to the temple and I first performed during the cultural evening in 2005. My performances inside the temple began a year later and I have been dancing every year since then,” recollects Anupama Kylash.

Dance for the divine

Dancers Girija Kishore and Pujita Krishna Jyoti began learning Vilasini Natyam under Swapna Sunadri and Anupama Kylash, who had already been trained under her, from 2003 and 2007 respectively. “After being trained in the fundamentals of Vilasini Natyam, I was taught few segments of the ritual dances of this form which is an integral part of it. One year, I got to perform Bali Harana, Bala Bhogam, Pallaki Seva, Kumbhaharathi, and Hecharika,” says Girija Kishore.

Pujita says that she got an opportunity to perform the rituals for the first time in 2008. “I have performed every year since 2008 till last year, except for in 2009 when I was away at University of California for my Master’s in Dance,” Pujita says. Sharing their memorable moments at the temple, Sanjay says: “The first ritual I danced for the God.” For Anupama, it was when she saw Swapna Sundari do an elaborate dance at Pashupathi sthana in front of the Dikpaalakas. For Girija, it was in 2008, when she was given an opportunity to perform in the ‘Kalyanotsavam’, which is celebrated at midnight muhurtam in the beautifully decorated kalyana mandapam, outside the temple premises.

“It gives me an immense pleasure to perform in the annual Brahmotsavam in the Rangbagh temple,” says Girija, adding: “As the Brahmotsavam occurs during winter season annually, the pleasant cold winter night, the mystifying moon, the chilling, wet mud floor, decorated with beautiful rangoli designs, the echoing wedding mantras, the music on the ‘sannayi’ and the ‘dholu’, creates magic in the atmosphere. Any dancer in that ambience would sense a vibrant energy seeping into them. The dance then becomes heavenly. I experience goose bumps even while recollecting that performance of mine. No performance, either in Kuchipudi or Vilasini Natyam, on stage, has left me with this kind of thrilling and mysterious memory.”

Pujita says that there is excitement of preparations and rehearsals, especially if one is presenting something new. “It is one time of the year that handful of Vilasini Natyam dancers set aside all their other personal and professional commitments for the week-long Brahmotsavam celebrations. Sometimes, we even spend the nights there, since the rituals especially on the day of Kalyanotsavam go on into the wee hours of the morning. Also, one looks forward to watching performances of artists from across the country, who come and perform on the stage erected outside the temple during the festival,” she says.

Dance for the divine

The only male Vilasini Natyam dancer agrees that dances should be performed at all the temples. Anupama too says that after painstakingly resurrecting dance as a ritual, an artist finds fulfillment. “Definitely, Music and dance are, expressly mentioned in our shastras, as an important feature of seva in temples,” says Pujita. Girija points out that the very purpose of dance was originally meant to please the Divine and to be a powerful means to bring the dancer as well the spectator, back to its final destiny, the experience of merging ‘jeevatma’ into ‘paramatma’. This sacred dance form should be performed more in the place where it originated. Even the Aagama Shastra states very clearly that dance is a part of the ritual of the temple.”

When quizzed about whether temple managements must have performing artistes on board, Anupama says that she would always come back to perform at the Rangbagh temple. She agrees with Sanjay that there should be well-qualified dancer who is trained in the ritual dances to check whether rituals performed are correct to the context of the rituals. Girija says that dance should be brought back to the temples, only by recruiting dancers, who are well-trained in the aspect of ritual dances, under the guidance of able gurus.

Pujita definitely wants musicians and dancers representation on Temple management as they have a direct connection to the art as it is practiced and its relevance in a place of worship, not necessarily as ritual, but even simply as an act of artistic offering or ‘seva’ in performances.

Just like puranas at temples in the evenings or special days, musicians and dancers too can perform at the local temples, to propagate our rich culture heritage. “Temples have always been centre of culture,” says Anupama, and cultural performances have begun in temples. “Of course, we should have performances at temples as it was always there and the temple management should allocate funds for such activities,” Sanjay says. Pujita says that during Dusshera time, many temples organise cultural programmes. “What is NOT happening is restoration of dance as ritual within the temple complex except at Rangbagh,” Pujita says. Girija adds that at temples, dancers danced to the stories based on Hindu mythology, epics and puranas, in the temple courtyard to entertain and educate pilgrims.

Dance for the divine

“They used to perform very popular dance operas like Parijatham, Golla vesha kadha, etc.  to propogate Hindu culture and tradition. But unfortunately this practice has vanished in the ravages of time. It would be significant if musicians and dancers were allowed to reinstate this culture back in the temples, which was considered to be one of the key torch bearers of Hindu culture,” Girija says.

Explaining the coining of the word Vilasini Natyam, dancers Anupama and Sanjay in unison say that Vilasini Natyam comprises of Alaya Sampradayam, Kacheri Atta and Aata Bhagavatam. “As Alaya Sampradayam deals with the ritualistic aspect Kacheri Aata, in royal courts and darbars and Aata Bhagavatam in temple court yards for the common man, the then Devadasis used to do all these aspects of dance. So, to come to a common terminology to name this art form a panel of scholars, dancers, artists, etc. was sent an option of names and the majority of the panel members chose the name Vilasini Natyam.” Anupama and Pujita state that the term Vilasini Natyam was coined by Dr. Arudra.

Courtesy Photos JASS4team/Hyd

 

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