One with the lord

As Chitra Visveswaran and Bombay Jayashri take “Meera – The Soul Divine” to Shimla, the seasoned artistes tell us what makes the dance drama special

Meera, the mystic Krishna bhakt’s appeal spans across the country. A dance drama on her life and poems has been given form beautifully by two leading Carnatic artists Padmashri Chitra Visveswaran and Vidushi Bombay Jayashri. Both these artistes have a pan Indian artistic sensibility as they have lived in Kolkata and other parts of India, and have absorbed the culture of the North.

“Meera – The Soul Divine”, the 90 minute production has an all female cast of talented Bharatanatyam dancers, led by the legendary Chitra herself with the music composed by Bombay Jayashri; the prose being Meera Bai’s. The production opened in July 2016, and has toured all over the US, England and the Middle East, and is to première next year in Europe. In India there have been shows in Bangalore Chennai and Mumbai; the production plays in the North, for the first time, strangely enough, in the hill town of Shimla, on 27th August. Himachal Pradesh has a link with Meera; somehow the “murti” she worshipped all her life is installed in a temple in Nurpur Fort, in the Kangra valley.

Meera –The Soul Divine traces the life of Meera from a child, through her marriage to the Rana; leaving him to go in search of her beloved Krishna. The most significant moment, indeed the turning point in her life is depicted how, when she is watching a wedding procession go by, she asks her mother who her “dulha” would be, and she is told “Giridhari”.

Visveswaran discloses, “Hindi was my first language while growing up in Kolkata and I was always drawn to Meera’s poetry, also perhaps because of the spiritual content. When I came to Chennai, I realised there were a lot of parallels between her and the Tamil Saint Andal, and my late music composer husband and I composed a small piece entitled “Dwarakanath Bhaje”, on both. I had earlier created a 25-minute dance drama on Meera as well. I was very excited when I was commissioned to create a longer production on Meera, who I have always admired. When I was told Jayashri had agreed to do the music, I was even more excited because for me Jayashri’s music has always been the epitome of “bhakti”. I did not want to repeat her life story as a flat narrative, a linear presentation of her life, which has been done before. There are so many myths and fables connected with her, which were not really depictive of her spiritual journey. Jayashri and I decided to use only Meera’s lyrics, which in a way bound me, so I had to research a lot to choose only those poems that traced her spiritual journey. In one poem, there would be perhaps two words that could be tapped to highlight a critical juncture in her spiritual journey. It is a production focusing on Saint Meera, not Meera the person”.

Jayashri says, “The ragas are North Indian (they include Maand, Khamach, Bhupali, Desh, Gorakh Kalyan); somehow in my head I could not imagine Meera singing any Carnatic nuances in her music. I used the sounds I thought she would have used. There are no heavily-laden Carnatic inspired embellishments; no “gamakas”. Visveswaran concurs, “The style of Bharatanatyam I was taught, in the Devadasi tradition, is flowing and graceful and easy to imagine being danced in Rajasthan. In the final scene, I have used the traditional enunciation of the dance bols with the lyrics.”

Clear vision

Talking about their journey in creating this magnificent dance production, Jayashri says, “We used different voices for Meera according to age. Chitra “akka” scripted the play based on Meera bai’s poems. It was great for me to have her clear vision of the production right from the start. It was all on paper, and I saw it scene by scene through her eyes; she explained the mood she needed conveyed through the dance and the music, and accordingly I chose the ragas. I offered two of three melody suggestions per poem, based on what I envisaged it as; and she decided which one to use. She is a wonderful singer herself; more than anything else, she has a very deep aesthetic sense, in all spheres, like all great artists. My students and I would go every morning to her beautiful home, and see the dance being choreographed, and I would tweak the music I had composed, then and there. We both made changes in the music and dance on the spot. This process was unique to this production; it hasn’t happened in the other productions I have composed music for.”

Visveswaran adds, “I used the flashback technique in this production that is not often used in dance dramas. My training under the great Tapas Sen whilst in Kolkata taught me a lot about the effects of lighting; I have also painted in my youth so I understand the use of colour which I have used extensively in this production. All the costumes were specially created to convey the ambience of aristocratic Rajasthan of an earlier age; I used soft flowing fabrics, zari borders, traditional jewellery. Characterisation has been done through suggestion rather than overtly depicted.”

Apparently the last poem Meera composed was “Pyaare darshan” and Visveswaran says Jayashri very magnanimously agreed to sing this in the same tune her late husband had composed it in, giving it her own flavour. “The words of the song include the word “antaryami”; Meera realises her beloved Krishna is omniscient, and in a state of pure bliss “ananda”, merges her being with the Lord.”

(“Meera –The Soul Divine” will be staged at the Gaiety Theatre, Shimla on 27th August.)

Shailaja Khanna

The Hindu, FridayReview

17th Aug 2018