Imagine, suggested Anuradha Naimpally at the start of the concert, 18th century Thanjavur, the arts-rich district in southern India, where Naimpally's guru's grandmother was a devadasi, a temple dancer. To aid us in this exercise, she presented a music ensemble from Chennai, India. The quartet – vocals, mridangam (a two-sided drum), flute, and violin – performed three songs, at times meditative, at other times virtuosic, as the musicians challenged one another in rhythm and speed. One song was a new composition, offered in appreciation of Naimpally, internationally renowned Bharata Natyam dancer and teacher, and Naimpally's daughter, the dancer Purna Bajekal.
When the musicians ceded center stage to the dance, Bajekal joined them on one side, introducing the solos her mother danced and keeping time – with small cymbals and chanted syllables – as the nattuvanar. Bajekal's voice was youthful and clear, a foil for brief moments of sagelike wildness in the performances of her mother. Swift circlings of Naimpally's arms, tracing hemispheres from back to front, right and then left, seemed to access generations, as though the rings of the tree were made visible. When mother and daughter switched places, Bajekal's dancing was pure, confident glee, the geometry and art of ages newly secured under her intelligent and benevolent reign. Similar in so many ways (Bajekal's gurus are her mother and her mother's guru) yet individual in expression, mother and daughter allowed us a multifaceted view of their art.
The duets that ended the performance, however, showed the art less as fixed facets than of a continuum. In one, Naimpally played a mother at the moment when she discovers that her child, Bajekal, is the god Krishna. After moving through a range of emotions – disbelief, awe, acceptance – the mother was pulled back to domestic earth, because even divine children, it appears, can be lured out of trouble with snacks.
The continuum is mother-child, and guru-student, but it's wider than those, too. I noticed Gina Lalli, the octogenarian who introduced Austin to Indian classical dance in the Seventies (and also known as the sidewalk psychic in Slacker), sitting alone in the audience. Her spine is no longer easily coaxed to straighten, but she erected herself for the dance performances. In 2010, Naimpally invited Lalli to take part in two multigenerational performances: Lalli's movements were limited but expressive, and the teenage Bajekal debuted on the scene. The dance continues, now and indefinitely, without Lalli. After the show, the white-haired Lalli slowly rose, leaning on a cane, to pay her respects to the younger generation, stewards of a beloved art into the future.
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