Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Gentle Meandering

Arun Khopkar’s ‘Sanchari’ is an enduring romance between camera and choreography capturing Leela Samson’s artistry in his own perceptions of time and space.

ONE has become skeptical over the years about attempts made to film dance. A classical style like Bharatanatyam is multi-dimensional by itself. A Bharatanatyam dancer is like an ancient Thanjavur painting springing to life to animate frozen sculptures and personify lyrics. Add to this that esoteric mysticism which veils the interpretation. Can a modern medium like film capture this magic?

 Sanchari is a 33-minute film by Arun Khopkar on Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson. His previous films have international and national awards. Leela, who teaches in Delhi, is the author of the book Rhythm in Joy. She was awarded the Padmashri in 1990. Khopkar has tried to recreate the myriad flavours and the varied spectrum that constitute Bharatanatyam. Sanchari gently meanders (sanchari) in and around the life and personality of a dancer.
The film opens with a round of applause as the curtain goes up. We are taken into a classroom with the dancer in her role as a guru. The intense concentration and tension of the strenuous practice session is offset by a nostalgic trip inside the dancer’s Chennai-based alma mater Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra.

The dance sequences of Sanchari were filmed in Chandigarh’s Rock Garden. The items performed are slickly condensed versions of the Alarippu (Misram), Varnam (Rupamu Joochi in Thodi) and a Thillana in Natabhairavi. The melodious music is one of the high points of the film. Adyar Lakshmanan, Sai Shankar and Geetha Raja have sung with vibrancy and charm. Here the work of Vikram Joglekar and Rajat Dholakia have to be commended by the excellent sound design and recording.
What is striking is the unique approach of this film-maker in filming dance. Sanchari (one who moves along in step), is an enduring romance between camera and choreography. Khopkar emerges like a Degas working at his Ballerinas. His treatment of dance is unique. He has transcended the director’s role; his sensitive artistry and feel for aesthetics capture the thrust of the dancer’s movements in a most arresting manner, his perception of contour and space, geometry and fantasy, mime and movement, all reveal an insight that comes out of doing one’s homework.

The directorial focus is on a delicate probe into the mysterious relationship between light and shadow. The simplicity of traditional lighting like an oil lamp is attempted by simulation, albeit with modern sophisticated equipment. The chiaroscurist approach conjures up for us the sanctified tranquility inside the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. Careful conscious choreography of camera, light and dance movements ___ imparts and ethereal quality to the dance. The textured background of the rocky grotto is a perfect foil to the sensuous sheen in the silk of the costume. The lights catch the dancer’s sprightly pirouettes in space. Piyush Shah’s cinematography and Khopkar’s directorial brilliance are in perfect harmony throughout.

At yet another level, Khopkar reveals his insight into the spectator-dancer link. His camera moves in smooth curves, and sometimes against the flow of the dancer’s movement. This creates for the viewer a felt experience of near physical resistance. One can feel this ‘pull of gravity’ in the Thillana where the dancer glides away from the camera in a linear movement in one frame, and sweeps towards the lens in the very next, in a continuation of the step.

In the choice of items the balance is tilted towards nritta or pure dance sequences. Abhinaya, the art of telling the story with facial expression, is in reality the emotive core of Bharatanatyam. The shortening of the elaborate Varnam is effected by reducing the abhinaya portion. The brevity of the exposition of Pallavi in the Padam Balavinave (Kambhoji) was disappointing. It is here that one felt the need for more close-ups of the dancer’s expressive eyes and gestures that come alive in the Sanchari bhava. The clean bodyline and clarity of footwork - the hallmark of the Kalakshetra style- in Leela’s dance excludes any dramatic attempt at sensationalism.

Sanchari deserves to be screened by Doordarshan both as an art film and an exposition of classical dance. The film is a pathfinder. A modern with a classical tradition behind her emerges as a new identity in the hands of an art film maker.
Published November 10,1991 in The Sunday Review , Times of India.

( It was my privilege to share hostel rooms with Leela at Kalakshetra. I have followed her brilliant career with admiration and respect. Leela is one of those rare wonderful artistes blessed with a charmed life as a dancer exploring every aspect of dance as a serious challenge.)

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