The entry of the character in dance and theatre is known as Patrapravesam. For Rukmini Devi, all characters were important. I have selected a few that clearly illustrate Athai’s genius of dramatic imagination in her characterization of human and non-human beings.
In the dance drama Kurma Avataram, choreographed in 1974, four apsaras appear one after another as devas and asuras churn the ocean. The postures and picturesque scene give the impression of the dancers floating over the surface of the water, clear evidence of Rukmini Devi’s choreographic genius and innovation. The verses are from Srimad Bhagavatham. Papanasam Sivan composed the music with the assistance of Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma and Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma, who has composed music for several songs in the dance drama and made necessary modifications under Athai’s direction.
With the passing away of Mysore Vasudevachari, there was a break in the production of the Ramayana series. Athai felt that his grandson S Rajaram, the present director of Kalakshetra, had fully imbibed his grandfather’s sampradaya and urged him to compose music for the rest of the Ramayana series, starting with Sabari Moksham. In the captivating group dance from Choodamani Pradhanam of Ramayana, composed by Athai in 1968, 6 colorfully costumed dancers describe the ’Pampasaras’. To a ragamalika with beautiful tala patterns, sollukattus and swaras, they depict lotus, water birds, bees and creepers.
The dance drama Sabari Moksham was composed in 1965. Enroute to Panchavati, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana encounter the mighty eagle Jatayu. The eagle’s simple and suggestive costume and his realistic movements as envisioned by Athai illustrate her powers of observation.
To demonstrate a demonic character like Surpanaka in dance, some Kathakali elements have been introduced. Generally in a dance drama, the emotions to be expressed in the lyrics and the abhinaya to follow are hinted at in masruni nritta. It may not necessarily come before the abhinaya part, but may be inserted between passages of sahitya linking them and still conveying the bhava and rasa contained. This colorful Patrapravesam of the ugly rakshasi Surpanaka is from Sabari Moksham. I remember that Athai herself danced to demonstrate the bold movements, the fierceness of the character further accentuated by the movements covering the whole stage space. The dancer who was to portray Surpanaka could clearly comprehend her role on seeing Athai’s picturisation. The costume and makeup are appropriate for this demonic character.
Ravana’s Patrapravesam dance to a song in Nattai, befits his power and strength. While the maids in his court extol his greatness in a thillana, his deformed sister Surpanaka enters in great pain. She tells Ravana how Lakshmana disfigured her when she tried to fetch Sita for him. Ravana consoles her.
The Patrapravesam of Rukmini is a unique creation of Rukmini Devi. The Patrapravesam song in atana and adi tala is used for Rukmini’s nritta as she is seen swaying in an imaginary swing with her sakhis. The dance and abhinaya of the two sakhis describing Rukmini’s beauty is a novel way of presenting the heroine. Kalyaniamma presented the Bhagavatamela nataka script of Rukmini Kalyanam to Athai, who composed, choreographed and transformed it into a highly acclaimed temple dance drama.
Rukmini Devi gave Hanuman innovative facial makeup, a suggestive tail, and dance steps most suited to indicate his monkey character, valour and power of flight. Hanuman’s Patrapravesam is to a song in Hamsadwani with appropriate sollukattuswaras from the 1968 dance drama Choodamani Pradhanam.
As kavi vakya, the orchestra recites how Sugreeva challenges Vali for a fight. Signifying his coming out of the cave in Kishkinta mountain, Vali emerges on the stage on his knees, moving with ferociously suggestive monkey movements, sounds and jumps as he challenges Sugreeva to a battle. Vali’s Patrapravesam to a song in mohanam begins with arohana swaras, with brigas and sollukattuswaras in different gatis.
In Choodamani Pradhanam, Vali’s wife Tara demonstrates another example of masruni nritta, meticulously composed by Athai. Having premonition of her husband’s death, a troubled Tara enters and tries to persuade Vali to abandon thoughts of a fight with Sugreeva, as it will definitely be fatal. Before interpreting the song through gestures, Tara performs nritta in which the adavus are adapted to the mood of the character. An epitome of arrogance and valour, Vali enters with typical animal characteristics. Tara cautions Vali that Sugreeva has befriended Rama. Vali chooses to ignore the fact, confident of his victory since he had not offended the Lord. Tara’s dance brings out her anguish and sorrow for Vali’s arrogance and impending doom.
"Kodai nayaki vandaal, kola nayaki vandaal,
Naada nayaki vandaal, gnana nayaki vandal."
Andal’s Patrapravesam depicts her childlike innocence, playfulness and joy of living. Born to be the consort of Sri Ranganatha, Andal was the daughter of Periyaazhwar who lovingly called her Kodai. The tantalizing tirasheela first reveals only the feet and hands, then the face and when the tirasheela is dropped, the dancer is transformed into the character.
Kodai is a mugdha nayika. Having heard stories of Sri Krishna, she innocently falls in love with the paramapurusha. The verses have been taken from the Divya Prabhandam, the music scored by Papanasam Sivan. The group choreography of Kodai and her sakhis to ’namam aayiram’ is testimony to Athai’s excellence. Though the dance drama was choreographed as far back as 1961, people never fail to be astounded by its brilliance to this present day. Another exemplary group choreography where Kodai and her friends are in conversation is to ’apttimeindador kaareru’. They ask each other if anyone has seen Sri Krishna. Others reply that they have seen him in Brindavan caring for the cows while Garuda’s wings formed a canopy over him to protect him from the sun. They describe Krishna as the sun rising from behind Udaya Giri. The dance of Andal and her sakhis portray picturesque dance movements, positions, varieties of grouping and also miming in dance form.