Meera, the 14th century mystic Krishna “bhakt” conjures up an image of the desert of North India.
Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre resounded with the music of the inspirational poems of Meera Bai, and the dancing feet of Padma Shri Chitra Visweswaran and her students enacting out the spiritual journey of Meera Bai, in the 90 minute production Meera — The Soul Divine. The production was presented by the Himachal Pradesh state government, Depart-ment of Language Art and Culture. This is the first time this production has premiered in North India; after its premiere in Chennai in 2016, Meera — The Soul Divine has toured the world to packed halls.
Meera, the 14th century mystic Krishna “bhakt” conjures up an image of the desert of North India. It is an eye opener to see her name and work in a South Indian context. The entire production has a South Indian cast (the dancers are all trained in Bharatanatyam, with training ranging from 11 to 30 years). The music is composed by Carnatic “Nightin-gale of the South” Vidushi Bombay Jayashri; the songs sung by herself and her Carnatic music trained disciples. Speaking of the Carnatic element in the production, Jayashri said essentially it was only through the dance, (bharatanatyam); the North Indian music was interspersed with the “jatis” (the nritya bol, the language of the mridangam).
The production is a seamless enactment, effortlessly using the tools of movement, rhythm, colours, lights, lyrics and music, in unerring proportions by a master craftsman, Chitra Visweswa-ran, in creating a show that is totally riveting. The limited narrative is in English (indeed, in an Indian context one does not really need this, as the visuals are so telling). Using only 9 dancers, no props, except the compelling “murti” of Lord Krishna that dominates proceedings, the production has one glued to one’s seat. Truly, the feast for the eyes and ears is all consuming.
The music is superb; lyrical Ragas like Jaijaiwanti, Kedara, Gorakh Kalyan are used in evocative snatches. When Jayashri changes the Raga of even a familiar much loved and universally heard bhajan like “mharo pranam” (which has been rendered immortally by the late Gaansaraswati Kishori Amonkar in Raga Aiman Kalyan) to Mishra Pahari, there is no feeling of being let down. Her tune is so wistful, sung beautifully by Vijayshri Vittal; the “abhinaya” of the young Meera (played most wonderfully by Priya Srikanth), achingly poignant.
Extremely slick, the production cleverly brings in differing moods, depicted visually, accompanied by very appropriate lyrics and music. These include the dignity of Meera Bai’s wedding procession, with the bridegroom’s manly stance beautifully portrayed by the talented young Jai Quehaeni, the playfulness of the “jhoola” scene, the drama of the snake sent to poison Meera bai. Meera Bai’s overwhelming love for her Lord comes through inescapably throughout the play, making it truly a spiritual experience. In the words of the doyen, Chitra Visweswaran “the life of Meera has been depicted several times earlier in films and plays; I wanted to focus only on her spiritual journey.”
The attention to detail, a hallmark of Chitra Viswes-waran is visible throughout – even the earrings worn by the dancers are images of Lord Krishna. The fabrics of the beautifully complementary coloured costumes were sourced from North India as “Kanjeevaram drapes differently” (Chitra ji); the turban worn by the Rana was in the Rajasthani style, and a host of other details that imprinted so subtly in one’s unconscious mind. Matching her aurally, Bombay Jayashri used only appropriate North Indian Ragas, “ektaal” bols (Ek taal is a North Indian music taal) during a dance sequence, the sound of the shehnai to remind one of a wedding, and much more.
Speaking about the music, Jayashri recalled “I remember “Jhoolat Radha sang Gir-idhar” was in Raga Vrind-avani Sarang; Vrindavani Sarang in my mind brings me the very essence of Vrindavan; the fragrance of that earth, the mood of togetherness, the “shringaar”. Certainly the visualisation of that scene is masterly; the lyrics (jhoolat) matching the physical action on stage of the dancers miming the swing action of the “jhoola”, gracefully going back and forth.
The synergy between the aural and visual experience is another highlight of this production; the mutual respect between the dance legend and Vidushi Bombay Jayashri and their closeness creatively is visible in every scene. Speaking to Bombay Jayashri about composing the music for Meera, she said “composing the music for Meera was a unique experience.” Full of praise for Chitra Visweswaran’s deta-iled vision, Jayashri recalled how it was comparatively easy to compose the music for Meera, as the mood required for each scene had been envisioned right from the start. In her words “Chitra “akka” had decided even on the colours of the costumes worn right from the start, how long each scene was to be, each facial expression, how the subtle lighting effects were built into the choreography of the dance.” After the performance, Chitra Visweswaran said that without Jayashri’s music the production would have been very different and incomplete, and that she wished Jayashri had been present, in Shimla, for this first performance of Meera- The Soul Divine, in North India.
The production features three separate dancers as Meera Bai, during the stages of her life from a young girl to adulthood; the last Meera Bai being Chitra ji herself. The adult Meera Bai is the extremely dexterous SNA Yuva awardee Uma Sathya Narayanan, whose graceful dancing to the familiar “pag ghunghroo baandh Meera nachi” is haunting. The unmatched grace and dignity of Chitra Visweswaran; literally the embodiment of “bhakti” is the best portion of the production. The grand finale is when Meera Bai realises that the Lord she has been yearning for is within her. In an ecstasy of “anand” (bliss), she swirls around, as she awaits the ultimate union with her bridegroom, the merging with the Lord, to the haunting song of “mera olagiya” (my bridegroom is coming) in Raga Des, sung inimitably by Bombay Jayashri. Indeed most of the audience was teary eyed at this point, jumping up in a spontaneous standing ovation. Truly, Meera — The Soul Divine is a fantastic presentation.
Shailaja Khanna, The Asian Age, 03 Sept 2018.
The author writes on music, musicians and matters of music