Saayujya by T.M.Krishna & Priyadarsini Govind
Concert Review by Toni Shapiro-Phim
Human freedom is … indivisible: if it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people.
–Vaclav Havel (writer, dissident and former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic)
April, 2016, brought a performance of Saayujya (The Merging), by composer and vocalist T.M. Krishna and choreographer and dancer Priyadarsini Govind to Philadelphia. The notions of “freedom” and “liberty” as reflected in Philadelphia’s history and mythology served as inspiration for Voices, a prominent section of this evening-length presentation. Voices, indeed, was a world premiere, commissioned by Sruti. Emanating from a core concern with liberation from and evolution beyond the individual to encourage consideration of a larger collective and of more inclusive realms of meaning, Saayujya as a whole, and “Voices” in particular, offered an opportunity to delve into these aspects of Hindu philosophy through the experiencing of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance.
Scholar of Indian music Dr. Bonnie Wade has written that the “voice is the vehicle for sacred chant from which Indian music evolved.” Much, though not all, Carnatic music has developed as a means to express bhakti, devotion to a deity. T. M. Krishna explains that, “The act of singing is also about the act of thinking,” and, further, “The act of thinking is also an emotional act,” thus revealing links between spirituality, the intellect and emotions, and the practice of this art, and hinting at some of the breadth of Saayujya.
The music, and the dance, look to the word as potent source: “The body of poetry that has been created by our [ancient Indian] poets is stunning, is staggering,” according to Priyadarsini Govind, “to say the least. In different languages, every possible emotion, nuance of emotion felt by man, has been dealt with, with great detail, understanding and empathy by our poets, and reproduced in music, in song and dance.”
Saayujya, as both a collaboration between renowned artists of India and an exploration of the relationship between Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam and humanity, invites audience members to share in spectacular visual and sonic traditions and innovations. And it is not only the compelling aesthetics that serve as inspiration: questions are posed about perception and about responsibility for all on this planet. Saayujya is “a collaboration to discover the beauty of another art form through the practitioner of that style,” says Govind. “Being exposed to the beauty within art forms, being exposed to even … expressions of violence within art forms, makes you think, makes you realize, makes you empathize. It creates a community … with aesthetics and values… When that is done, peace is … an extension.”
Voices was the first piece ever commissioned by Sruti, and the organization’s first venture into a thematic focus outside the art forms themselves. They took these steps, according to Sruti president Balaji Raghothaman, after extensive conversations with the artists and with members of the staff of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Krishna and Govind eventually proposed, explains Raghothaman, an exploration of the ways in which, as a musician or dancer, “you use the freedom you have to improvise, to help the other artist on stage with you.” And this area of concern broadened to include additional features and forms of “freedom.”
Voices pairs the words of remarkable women and men — poets, singers, statesmen, philosophers, everyday activists — from numerous eras and myriad geographical and cultural origins with one another, and interprets them through music and movement. A multi-tiered dialogue across boundaries of all sorts, the focus is on both ideals of freedom and liberty and the very real struggles waged in pursuit of those ideals centuries or decades ago, as well as ongoing struggles for justice. Here we have the brilliance of 20th-century African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks, 16th-century Indian mystic poet Mira Bai, South African icon Nelson Mandela and Indian poet and independence activist Subramanya Bharathi, among others, set against percussive dance and mellifluous music. Together, the stories and messages remind us of the complexity of notions and experiences of freedom and liberty. Perspective matters. Position matters. No stark dichotomies are proposed; no claims of resolution are made. Rather, the piece plants seeds of empathy, seeds for further contemplation and, perhaps, action.
Beyond the consideration of societal or political freedom, or the freedom associated with a climb to spiritual heights, the evening included a focused journey into experimentation with aesthetic freedom. We were treated to musicians and dancer responding to one another, and to one another’s art, in-the-moment. In the piece, Pratyaksha, for example, the music is seen, represented in abstract patterns and colors, electronically signaled and projected on a screen. The music composition is created with its visual representation in mind. The dance evolves in response to both the music and its visual counterpart.
Improvisation in this context does not mean complete abandon. On the contrary, working creatively in the traditions of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, each of which celebrates improvisation in its practice, requires superb mastery of technique so as to be able to compose on-the-spot. What emerges as new does so upon a base of what is already understood as central to these particular expressive forms — basic postures, ragas and relationships between singer, instrumentalists and dancer. As Pratyaksha’s music and glorious cascading vocals appeared as mesmerizing lines, waves, bands, squiggles and squirts of green, red, yellow, blue and brown, Govind answered with restraint and vigor, tremulousness and fluidity, her footwork’s syncopation heightened by the jangling of bells that adorned her ankles.
Prior to the Saturday evening performance, the Curtis Institute of Music hosted workshops presented by Krishna and Govind for musicians, dancers and other aficionados. Participants brought with them a range of familiarity with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Inviting those present into the “why” and “how” behind-the-scenes of some of the compositions to be performed at the concert, Krishna and Govind, as one example, de-constructed an emotive exploration of the love of a mother for her son.
Part of a trilogy covering a woman’s loss of her father, then husband, then son in war, this piece finds the woman preparing her young child for battle, placing a sword in his tiny hand. Learning that he was felled at the front, she is mortified when told that he was killed from behind, signaling cowardice on his part: he must have been running away. She vows to recover his body and seek the truth about his final moments, risking her life to make her way through the battlefield. As she holds her child’s lifeless body, she sees that indeed he was attacked from the front: he perished a hero. In the afternoon workshop, Govind explained the careful passage from tenderness and pride to devastation, resolve and vindication through the potent use of gesture, body posture, travel across space and facial expression.
Toni Shapiro-Phim is a cultural anthropologist with a specialization in the arts of Southeast Asia. She is currently program specialist at the Philadelphia Folklore Project, where she conducts research about urban expressive culture and coordinates an arts and social change education program.
- Bonnie C. Wade, Thinking Musically, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004
- Githa Hariharan in conversation with T.M. Krishna at the Kerala Literature Festival, 2016 https://youtu.be/NV7h0jZ712M
- Priyadarsini Govind Talk on Peace through Art at SASTRA University, 2014 https://youtu.be/Bivaxa2nWxI
- Bharatanatyam: A Reader, edited by Devesh Soneji. Oxford University Press, 2010.
- A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, by T.M. Krishna. HarperCollins, 2016.