‘Akasha’ showcases southern Indian music, stories, dance

Shantala Shivalingappa showcased her mastery of Kuchipudi-style Indian dance last Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Elian Bachini.
Shantala Shivalingappa showcased her mastery of Kuchipudi-style Indian dance last Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Elian Bachini.

On Wednesday, Feb. 25, the ’62 Center’s Mainstage hosted “Akasha,” a recital of Kuchipudi dance solos by an acclaimed master of classical Indian dance, Shantala Shivalingappa. She performed five pieces during her recital at the College, each accompanied by singer Ramesh Jetty, percussionists Ramakrishnan Neelamani and Haribabu Balan Puttamma and flautist Kikkeri Suryanarayana Jayaram, all of whom are internationally renowned musicians.

Hailing from Madras, India, and raised in Paris, Shivalingappa has danced since childhood, first learning under the tutelage of her mother, dancer Savitry Nair. Since then, she has choreographed, collaborated and performed with artists in festivals around the world, both in theater and in dance. In 2013, she won a New York Dance and Performance Award for “Outstanding Performance” in a piece she choreographed and danced in during the New York Fall for Dance Festival, the first time the award was presented for the performance of a South Asian dance form. Throughout her career, Shivalingappa has focused in particular on Kuchipudi, a style of classical Indian dance popular in southern India that has roots in storytelling.

Akasha means “sky” or “space” in Sanskrit, and that “infinite, undefinable space of being” was the centerpiece of Shivalingappa’s recital. Each dance was set to an opening poem, singing and/or chanting, rhythmic drumming and the impressive melodies of Jayaram’s flute. Shivalingappa’s first piece, entitled “Om Namo Ji Adya” and self-choreographed, was inspired by the sacred sound “Om.” As the performance began, single spotlights descended upon each member of the musical group, sitting in pairs on either side of the dark stage. The stage design was spare, with hanging red lamps forming an arc above the performers and what appeared to be a small gold figurine at the top of that arc. The simplicity of both the lighting and the set throughout the entire show kept the focus solely on Shivalingappa, who was dressed in a striking gold ensemble. “Om Namo Ji Adya” opened and closed in relative darkness and without Shivalingappa herself onstage, which heightened the audience’s senses to the captivating and almost haunting chanting of the musicians.

Shivalingappa’s second dance, “Krishnam Kalaya,” was a faster-paced ode to the Child Krishna, “the Supreme God.” With her gestures and facial expressions she seemed first to be beckoning a small child and later playing and frolicking. “Jata Jata Durge,” the next piece, was, in contrast, a praise of Durga, the Goddess Mother and warrior. Shivalingappa danced a portion of this work on a brass plate, a traditional Kuchipudi technique, and embodied the spirit of a tiger, Durga’s mount. The recital’s penultimate dance, “Kirtanam,” was perhaps its most narratively captivating, telling the story of a love quarrel between a god and goddess. Shivalingappa played each of the story’s characters with swiftness and dramatic flair, highlighting themes of loyalty and deception. The final piece of the night was entitled “Bhairava” after an aspect of the God Shiva, who is known as the Divine Protector. The work opened and closed, like the first, with an impressive and energetic performance by the percussionists.

Shivalingappa, along with her musical accompaniment, kept the Mainstage audience of College students and community members enthralled throughout the 90-minute show. “I’d never seen Kuchipudi before and was blown away by the energy in Shivalingappa’s performance, especially in her facial expressions,” attendee Miranda Hanson ’17 said. “The narrative was stunningly clear, so I was surprised to find myself focusing more on its overall beauty than the actual story. I guess that speaks to how beautiful the production was, that I could lose track of the narrative while staying completely invested and entertained.”

Though “Akasha” was admittedly my first exposure to Kuchipudi as well, Shivalingappa’s technique appeared flawless to me, each twist of the hand and stomp of the foot deliberate and rhythmic. Her lively and animated facial expressions served both to aid in her storytelling and delight the audience, and the attention to detail in her movements was astounding. Dance has been a defining part of Shivalingappa’s life since birth, and it shows.