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Esoteric Mudras Come Alive in Atlanta

October 2006
Esoteric Mudras Come Alive in Atlanta

"How do you know so much?" remarked a small child at White Hall on September 23rd where Anita Ratnam gave a lecture, demonstration and performance for dance enthusiasts. With a career that has been inter-disciplinary ranging from dance, theater, cinema, poetry, TV ambassador and personality and social activism, Anita Ratnam is surely a multi-faceted woman. Deepika Bahri, Director of Asian Studies, and Preeti Shah, Artistic Director of The Narasimha Academy of Arts, co-sponsored and organized this event. More than 125 people arrived in eagerness to see Anita Ratnam perform for the first time in this city.

The theme chosen was, "Arayer Sevai- from temples to theater". In her concise and informative lecture, Anita talked about Arayer Sevai (a ritual from the 13th century) which means ‘the service or offering of the royal priests through music and dance'.

The main text for these priestly actors was an impressive volume of verses called the ‘Divya Prabandham' that contained 4000 verses. From legends of Vishnu, it is known that he preferred to be worshipped through music and dance. The art of 'Arayer' exists only in four temples, three in Tamilnadu and one in Karnataka. With the passing of time, this ritual will be lost forever as documentation of any sort is prohibited by the priests.

Dr. Bahri introduced the artist and Ratnam came onto stage elegantly dressed in mustard and red. She demonstrated the Arayer chant as being high pitched where each syllable is stretched to its ultimate. The tonal quality is very unique from recognizable Carnatic music. She said, "The accompanying gestures and movements to the verses are very circular in nature when compared to the linear and somewhat percussive movements of Bharathanatyam".

The audience sat in rapt attention as they immersed themselves in the depth and seriousness of this ritual while much to their surprise Ratnam sang in the Arayer style, showed the Arayer movements and embodied the Arayer spirit.

Ratnam added that there are strong links between the Arayer ritual and modern day Bharathanatyam. For one, the movements and gestures are strikingly similar and for another, the lyrics to most Bharathanatyam songs come from a nayika's (female dancer) perspective, which was a practice started by the arayer priests who wrote in the female voice. In simplest form, both Arayer sevai and Bharathanatyam have form and spirituality in common.

Being Navaratri time, Ratnam chose an apt piece titled, "Lalitha", named after the thousand names of Devi. A hypnotic chant by Aruna Sairam recorded in the crypt of Mary Magdelene in France, provided the back drop for a stream of esoteric Tibetian tantric mudras (hand gestures). These mudras were taught to Ratnam by Tibetian monks for her recent solo operatic production, "Seven Graces".

She concluded her presentation with an excerpt from "Neelam", which recently made its world premier in Toronto. She showed how emotions from the Arayer sevai have permeated into Bharathanatyam. What made this performance outstanding was her unusual use of a prop—a six-foot garland which became an extension of her body—to create images that have cultural resonances. She creatively used the garland to portray the ten incarnations of Vishnu while skillfully maneuvering the elegant wreaths into a myriad shapes and forms.

Audience members had a brief question answer session with this Emmy nominated TV personality. When asked about the Arayer priest's reaction to a female observer, Ratnam answered, "After nearly a decade of interaction and conversation, I gained the confidence of the priests and observed them. I have been striving to create an awareness of this dying ritual and to preserve this rare Vaishnavite tradition".

Dr. Bahri remarked, "Anita uses the formalism of her training to engage with contemporary issues and today's audience." She then thanked Preeti Shah for introducing Ratnam to Emory and for arranging the event.

Preeti Shah, the Artistic Director of The Narasimha Academy of Arts said, "Ms. Ratnam is an inspiring woman with an abundance of knowledge. In a field where purists rule the roost, she had the gumption to think out of the box and explore avenues that no dancer has dared to venture."

Atlanta art lovers can expect Ratnam's style called "Neo-Bharatam" to become a part of their vocabulary and for her work to take over mainstream Atlanta culture.


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