Verses of Longing & Desire

In a documentary that releases today, Bharatanatyam dancer Justin McCarthy and filmmaker Sandhya Kumar revisit the poetry written for the devadasis.

Last night in my dream, you appeared as if real; I woke up with a start, searched, but couldn’t find you; My sari wet with tears, I melted in sorrow…”

These lines — poignant and haunting — were written more than 300 years ago at a small place in Andhra Pradesh called Mowa, and were sung in the the royal courts of Thanjavur and Madurai (Tamil Nadu) by devadasis in the 17th century. Written by poet Kshetrayya, this form of poetry is called padam, and revolves around the devotional and erotic themes sung in the praise of the King or lord Krishna.

Now,a documentary called 'O friend,this waiting!' traces the journey of Kshetrayya’s words and their use by devadasis. Directed by US-born Indian Bharatanatyam dancer Justin McCarthy and Bengaluru-based independent filmmaker Sandhya Kumar, the “poetic documentary” tries to decode the effect of Kshetrayya’s lyrics and his style of compositions in Carnatic music and Indian classical dances. “His padams are sung in dance — Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi — and music recitals,” says McCarthy,who has been working on the documentary since September 2010. “I have always been fascinated by these padams,” he says, adding,“ I had encountered them so many times through my dance.”

“The devadasis used the sexuality of the padams to portray themselves differently from the chaste married women in the court. But their role was to fulfil desire,” explains McCarthy. During an interview in the documentary, Carnatic singer Rama Ravi,who specialises in singing padams,explains the nuances of Kshetrayya’s padams. “A unique feature of his padams is the practice of singing the anupallavi first,and then the pallavi (second verse followed by first verse),” says Ravi.

The documentary opens with a shot of a woman wearing a payal, standing in the rain, as the lines,“ I was like a lost woman in a rain-soaked evening forest; unable to find my way — four or five moons have passed (since I saw you)”, being recited in the background. Shot mostly in Madurai, Thiruvananthapuram and other locations in Tamil Nadu, the documentary has scenic locations —including the Madurai palace and a small palace near Rajapalayam — in the background. With original Telugu poetry being recited in the backdrop, the 32-minute documentary also features vocals by Delhi-based Carnatic singer and musician Sudha Raghuraman, along with Bharatanatyam pieces by McCarthy’s student Bharathi Penneswaran. The film is funded by India Foundation for the Arts, Bengaluru.

'O friend,this waiting!' will be screened today, 6:30 pm,at the India International Centre.
 
Prajakta Hebbar
The Indian Express | 23 Oct 2012
 
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