Shantona Kumari Bag’s solo Bharata Natyam debut keeps Antares on the edge of his seat and restores his optimistic outlook
Whenever I get invited to a show in KL these days I experience a mild anxiety attack. You see, it’s a 3-hour drive to the city and back from my mountain hideaway; and since the price of petrol shot up and my van’s air-con system broke down, these excursions have become drastically more arduous. I usually manage to find a few good reasons to stay home – but on the evening of July 27th, as the musicians took their place on stage and the lights went up on the stunning set of Storming Destiny, I felt extremely privileged to be present.
Every aspect of the production restored my faith in the possibility of total excellence – from Sivarajah Natarajan’s brilliant lighting and set design to the impassioned and impeccably performed live music. And, certainly, the sheer poetry and precision of Shantona’s epic dance was no less than a divine revelation. It seemed to me she had fully internalized the choreography and was simply reveling in the ecstasy of pure expression. This became more obvious as the 24-year-old dancer warmed up during the second sequence, Jatiswaram, and from there on, surrendered her whole being to embodying the Dance of Life itself. By the time she launched herself into the climactic Thillana, Shantona had sections of the audience cheering and gasping at her virtuosity. She received a well-earned standing ovation.
Though I am by no means an authority on or even knowledgeable about Bharata Natyam, I sensed that this was an entirely fortuitous and ground-breaking collaboration of remarkable talents. Storming Destiny successfully navigated the hazardous artistic seas where innovation collides with tradition. Shantona Kumari Bag injected a palpable intelligence and self-assured awareness into Jayanthi Subramaniam’s robust choreography and made it her own; she also broke with tradition by adding a contemporary feel to her arangetram (solo debut) with her self-penned poetic narration and the inclusion of dramatic devices – like bringing her younger sister Shobhna Devika on stage as her alter ego.
Bharata Natyam performances are famously taxing on the dancer as well as the audience. Quite often in the past I have found myself closing my eyes and drifting away, usually towards the middle of the show. However, my attention did not falter for an instant throughout Storming Destiny. So riveting was Shantona’s stage presence, and so exhilarating her joy, that time seemed to accelerate and space expand, energizing me on a deep, cellular level.
We have in Shantona Kumari Bag a very determined and strong-spirited young dancer who will soon be affectionately referred to as “the dancing doctor.” Currently a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Shantona took a year off to reclaim her divine gift of dance – having decided against sacrificing her artistic nature to the rigorous demands of medical science. Instead, she would make a bold attempt to combine her true passion with her chosen vocation (she comes from a family of doctors). Storming Destiny proved conclusively that it can indeed be achieved – and with magnificent aplomb too.
As a young student at Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Academy, Shantona displayed a fondness and flair for Odissi (an expressive, almost sensual dance form from Orissa, India) – excelling particularly in abhinaya, the esoteric art of portraying a whole spectrum of emotions through one’s physical form. Perhaps the mental discipline of her medical studies helped steel Shantona’s resolve to master the more formal technique of Bharata Natyam.
Ramli Ibrahim, who ranks among the world’s best male Odissi dancers (earning the highest praise from connoisseurs and critics during a recent tour in India), has an unerring nose for talent. Over the decades he has wet-nursed the birth of at least a dozen dancing stars in the Classical Indian Dance firmament – including the likes of Geetha Sankaran, Mavin Khoo, Guna, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, January Low, Revathi Tamilselvam, and Vidhya Puspanathan. Shantona Kumari Bag undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in Sutra’s permanent hall of fame.
Another outstanding performance at Storming Destiny was delivered by the musicians comprising Gomathi Nayagam (vocals), Jaya Sekhar (veena and violin), Theban Arumugam (mridangam), A. Perampalam (flute), and Ashok Kumar (tanpura) – with Ramli Ibrahim doing an absolutely masterful job of timekeeping on the nattuvangam. Gomathi Nayagam (who currently teaches at the Singapore Fine Arts Society) blissed out the audience with the celestial beauty of his voice and his flawless pitch.
An unexpected bonus on the first night of Storming Destiny was the marvelously humorous and touching speech by guest of honor Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan. Everyone present shared the profound pleasure and pride that Shantona’s parents, Drs Arun Kumar Bag and Mridula Kumari, must surely have felt.
When the very air we breathe is befouled with pollutants – and the banal misrule of mediocrity seems oppressively unchangeable – an event as consummately produced and aesthetically gratifying as Storming Destiny becomes all the more therapeutic and laudable. I salute Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra for being such good medicine for the soul. And, of course, for nurturing such quintessential talents as Shantona Kumari Bag and for giving Malaysians a genuine cause for celebration.
14 August 2007
[First published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2007. Photographs courtesy of Shantona Kumari]