Cast : Leela Samson

When the River Dances
A Review of Leela Samson's NADI

Deepa Punjani

 NADI Review

Leela Samson considers choreography to be a problematic word in the Indian context of dance as much as she resists labels such as classical or folk. Indeed, a closer examination of these terms and categories from her perspective lead us to reflect on an Indian counterpoint vis-a-vis the West's conceptualisation of choreography as inseparable from the choreographer who has a very definite role to play and whose instructions must be more strictly adhered to. Similarly, the periods by which works of art and performance are categorised in the West are counterintuitive to what Samson considers as perennial in India.

Yet one may be forgiven to attribute choreography to Samson and her Spanda Dance Company's NADI (RIVER), which was the closing performance at the "should art" festival at G5A earlier this month. Design inevitably emerges where patterns do. Samson understands this very well but she also inherently values the freedom that allows her and her dancers fluidity and the ability to interpret and re-interpret pieces such as the Tamil Sangam poetry piece, one of the six, in this production. It is also one of the more complex poems of the show according to her, which not only requires a more quiet pace ("therav" as she calls it), but which also is a piece that she continues to grapple with.

The select poems included in the production are in different languages from different regions in India. At first glance this may be hardly surprising given the vast tapestry that is India, but it is remarkably reassuring and reinforcing in both its artistic statement and vision in these times of culture wars and polarisation. NADI – the river that can be a metaphor or a symbol, a cradle of myth and stories, a public common in its simplest terms, and an inspiring motif to underpin the range of feelings and emotions that offer vistas into the material and transcendent states found everywhere in the subcontinent.

Over and above, NADI offers an expansion of the vocabulary of the dance form of Bharatanatyam that dancers like Samson have built on and embraced. In these visions tradition and modernity mingle and coalesce to articulate inclusivity and creativity. Tagore and Karnad or Dadri or folk need not be silos but continuities along an overlapping spectrum of cultural consciousness. Not only has Samson always been conscious of this plurality given her own training under teachers like Rukmini Devi Arundale, but also, she has affirmed this all-encompassing, syncretic ethos in her work in dance on and off stage.

In her research for the production, Samson says that she came upon many poems about the river from across India. In her selection she is able to find linkages in poems from very distinct regions, which adds to the interconnectedness of the experience. G5A's Black Box brought an added intimacy and immediacy to the performance. The show had been specially curated by G5A for its line-up of live performances opening its space post the pandemic's lockdowns. Earlier, Samson had also been invited to be part of G5A's lecture series. Their engagement then led to the staging of NADI in line with G5A's vision to engage artistes who are creative and collaborative.

On the whole NADI looks beautiful and even its more conflicted moments are resolved with a spiritual and philosophical outlook. The divine and the profane can coexist. There is simplicity and lucidity in the light design that highlights the costume, as well as elevates the mood, foregrounding the dancers with clean and sharp mudras and captivating formations. The focus is always the dancers and each of them imbues the performance with their own personality.

Samson also dances with an emphasis on abhinaya. It is amazing and inspiring to watch her though it is not rare to find older dancers who are still in their element. However, in watching Samson dance and explicating on her work with clarity and confidence, we also find the last of her generation, embodying the quintessence of the ‘Idea of India', and of a dance that is on the verge of becoming a cultural artefact.

*Deepa Punjani is a lawyer with a background in theatre, literature, and the arts. She has been a theatre critic for several years and is the founder-representative of the Indian National Section of the International Association Of Theatre Critics.

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