Friday night, Medha Kirtane ’00 and Ammu Ramakrishnan-Kirtane ’95 captivated the Adams Memorial Theater audience with devotional dance. The two wore golden ghungroo, or ankle bells, that rattled chum chum, as their expert footwork ignited the theater’s atmosphere. Diya, or oil lamps, added to the fire, as incense smoke further purified the warm and celebratory atmosphere. In conjunction with the Multicultural Center’s tenth anniversary, the duo of devis invoked the blessings of the gods, sanctifying both the dance and those who witnessed it. The auspicious event attracted a diverse audience, including alumni of color.
The Kirtanes were joined on stage by Medha’s brother Anirudh, who emceed the performance. A senior at Johns Hopkins, Anirudh assumed the role of instructor, informing viewers of the significance of bharata natyam, an ancient style of Indian classical dance. The three syllables in bha-ra-ta allude to three elements of the dance, coupled with natyam, or drama. Bha refers to bhava, the eminent facial expressions essential to performance. Ra designates raga, or spiritual music that the dancers incorporate into the choreography. Ta is an emblem of tala, the rhythm pronounced by the drums.
In awe of the breathtaking art form, one could not help but absorb some of the spirit flowing from the soothing hymns. Even without understanding the lyrics, the listener could access passion through the reverberating, insistent beat of the dancers’ feet. The dancers’ gestures gilded the space as their bodies worshipped the energy of the divine. Their feet glorified the apotheosized surface upon which they danced. Their articulation of emotion transcended speech, creating a unique language venerated for its elegance in form.
As they paid homage to Sri Ganesha (son of Lord Nataraj, the god of dance) and Laxmi (goddess of wealth, generosity, and good fortune), the gold fabric of their costumes glittered, accentuating the dancers’ postures. The stage was strewn with flower petals that perfumed the air. These fragrant remains were shed from gajra (strings of blossoms intertwined in the dancers braids) by incessant and disciplined movement. The sweet-smelling debris befitted the introduction Pushpanjali well because it offers flowers at the feet of Lord Ganesha.
The most exquisite part of the sequences was Mirabai (Medha) revering Lord Krishna (Ammu). The character of Mirabai, a saint in ecstatic adoration of her lover and god, danced joyously in angelic white and gold attire, sewn by Medha’s mother. Particularly pleasant was the grace with which Mira and Krishna danced as a pair. Endearing were the antics of Krishna as he played tricks on his darling devotee Mira. As his teasing made her cry, Krishna assuaged Mira’s unhappiness by placing a garland of flowers around her neck to symbolize their eternal union. After her mystical dream ends, Mira attains salvation by remembering Krishna. As she dances away with her anklets jingling, the song echoes the legend, “Pug ghungroo band Mira nachi re.”
Also sublime was the depiction of the disrobing of Draupadi, the intense gamble where evil nearly triumphed over good. Krishna benevolently answered Draupadi’s desperate prayer to retain her dignity, “Draupadi ki lajj rakho,” by miraculously making her sari unending in length and therefore non-removable.
The variety of episodes portrayed from religious texts included parables of amusing animal interactions. Complemented by Medha, Ammu was especially remarkable in her rendition of male heroes and demons, crossing gender boundaries in her portrayals of proud, fearsome warriors.
Credit can be given to her for continuing to maintain her composure in spite of her falling ornamental metal waistband when she saluted the goddess Saraswati, deity of the arts. In any case, the overall impact of the performance could not be blighted. At the conclusion of the dancing, the Kirtanes were showered with thunderous applause.
After her performance, Medha commented, “It means so much to know that there are people in the audience who came to see this amazing art form and to try and understand my culture, a crucial part of both me and Ammu. I find it absolutely unbelievable that people sat through two hours of dance in a language other than that which is familiar to them, and they seemed to enjoy it.’