Walking with the Buddha

30bgfrartists_of_a_3027399gThe Hindu, Archana Nathan

Anjasa, a stunning Bharatanatyam production, took its audience on a journey through key Buddhist monuments in South East Asia

When you look at a frieze or a piece of sculpture closely, one often gets an impression that life, in all its myriad splendour, is frozen in time. But what happens when no one is looking? Left by themselves, do the intricately carved swans, the overlapping vines and forests, the majestic lions and horses on these relics and monuments come alive and continue their journey?

It was this thought that crossed one’s mind as one watched Anjasa, a Bharatanatyam production by Apsaras Arts, Singapore, which made its Indian debut at the Bangalore International Arts Festival recently. A team of fine dancers took their audience on a journey through key Buddhist monuments in South East Asia, starting from Lumbini Gardens in Nepal to the Bodhgaya and Sanchi in India to a Vattadage in Sri Lanka, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, Bayon in Cambodia, Borobudur in Indonesia and Wat Pho in Thailand. It was perhaps the best kind of armchair travel possible because not only did the dancers recreate through their bodies the architecture and significance of these monuments but they also gradually teased out the symbols and stories encased in stone to life. In other words, the performance was an example of what it would look like when the rich fields of performing and visual arts collide.

Right in the beginning of the production, Aravinth Kumarasamy, the man who conceptualised Anjasa, made an important distinction though:“The production is not about Buddhism,” he said. In Pali, Anjasa means ‘the path’ and “the production is a journey through the Buddhist monuments, for each monument has a purpose and means something to a community,” he explained.

So, each monument’s segment was carefully thought out– while the story of the birth of Buddha belonged to the Lumbini section, in the next stop at Bodhgaya, the story of Mara, the demon became the narrative. In Sanchi and Srilanka, they focussed on celebrating the architecture of the sites and in Indonesia and Thailand, they concentrated on recreating the meditative environment of these temples through dance and music.

At each venue, they blended storytelling and abhinaya with creative pure dance segments. The team’s strength was best seen in their nritta which was thorough, to say the least.

The highpoint of the performance was the segment of the Vattadage in Sri Lanka. Here, the dancers animated the characters sculpted on a moonstone: swans, elephants and lions. Each animal was creatively depicted through an alaripu set to a particular jati dedicated to it. With the picture of the moonstone projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage, the dancers in front recreated a comparably alive version of the stone. And the result was captivating.

Anjasa didn’t aspire to go too deep into the philosophy behind the structures. While this worked for some segments, in some others, especially the Indonesian and Thailand portions, one wished that the engagement wof the dancers with the doctrine behind the structures was deeper.

The music, while predominantly using ragas from Carnatic music, also tried to incorporate the indigenous instruments of the region. The team deserves credit for their investment in costumes which comprised an elaborate head gear and a mix of red and golden garments.

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