Rediscovering Sringaar
By Justin McCarthy

Navtej Johar's new dance piece, Fana'a: Ranjha Revisited, was recently presented in the capital by the Natya Ballet Centre. The work is designed for three dancers, Johar, Radhica Laukaran and Anil Panchal and two large groups of musicians, one led by Sufi singer Madan Gopal Singh and the other by Carnatic vocalist G. Elangovan.

The Punjabi love legend Heer Ranjha provides the work's thematic base. There is also a counter-narrative, a kuravanji (a dance-drama from Tamil Nadu). The dominant Heer Ranjha story is in the tragic mode. The kuravanji provides moments of idealized bliss, the young heroine Vasanatvalli being promised union with lord Siva by a gypsy fortune teller.

The intricate and comparative intertwining of the two stories gives the work the mysterious quality of poetry. A viewer unfamiliar with one or both of the stories can enjoy the dance through its tantalizing images both ascetic and erotic. Those familiar with one or both texts will experience it at many more levels.

Though particular characters are not assigned to specific dancers, Ranjha is at the centre of the work. In his character, the only constant is impermanence. The dancers reflect this flux by continually traveling from one personage to another, Ranjha becoming Siva becoming Heer becoming Vasantvalli becoming mendicant becoming seer, etc.

The choreography draws from plural vocabularies—Bharatanatyam, yoga, Chhau, modern and Navtej's own Sufi style. The dance slips from one style to another. An invocation recalls a Bharatanatyam recital, yet the hand gestures offer no iconography, the feeling being of nameless natural forces.

The paradox inherent in juxtaposing tragedy and allegory is enhanced by number/gender game; two narratives, two heroes, two heroines, yet three dancers, two males, one female, assuming and shedding roles in a dream-like trance. Bodies moving along the floor are both erotic and tragic, emphasized by the ephemeral and constant re-pairing of the dancers, permutations that lend the piece another, slower rhythmic texture. Modernist movements of devastating lamentation vie with the carefully measured ecstasy of Bharatanatyam. Chhau suddenly becomes unabashedly sexual, while Bharatanatyam is sometimes tinged with fun-filled Kathak!

Heer Ranjha sequences are drastic in both visualization and sonorization, rapture and tortured longing in the same guise. Vasantvalli, the maiden in love with lord Siva, is all stylized innocence, the anticipation of fulfillment actually sublimating carnal knowledge. And yet, both the swinging moods of Heer Ranjha and the calculated playfulness of the kuravanji waver between desire and renunciation. This hovering is actuated in three movement types: one geometric, denying physicality, another sensuous delving deeper and deeper into one's own and another's body, and yet another frenzied and stamping, as if excessive movement would contrarily cause motion cessation, liberation.

Heer Ranjha pushes towards death, inevitably—it is palpable, human. The kuravanji distances itself from the temporal ugliness of physical conditions. Heer Ranjha searches for dissolution by pushing through matter, where as the kuravanji surmounts matter by focusing on a higher, elaborately constructed bliss.

The use of diverse linguistic, kinetic and musical elements—Punjabi/Tamil, Sufi/Carnatic, unmeasured/codified, diverse backgrounds of dancers, ambiguously neutral costumes, a plethora of ethno-centric references and virtuosic asides of stylistic dance quotations produce an extremely complex and fascinating work with multiple entry/exit points for performers and spectators alike.

Understanding existence through the contemplation of desire has always been a constant preoccupation of Indian thought. In that sense this dance piece is a rediscovery of sringaar, the classical sentiment of desire. Traditional or contemporary—this work is compelling and genre-defying.