Seeing her dance school, Natyanjali, turn 30 last year seems to have given founder and artistic director Malini Krishnamurthi a fillip. She has cast her creative net wider this time to bring Persia to Southern California shores. The second half of Natyanjali’s 2011 annual production, “Tales and Legends,” is based on a story from the Persian epic “Haft Paykar” (Seven Beauties) written by a medieval Persian/Azerbijani poet Nizami Ganjavi.
Like the other popular Persian legend “Arabian Nights,” “Haft Paykar” paints a portrait of a king, the interactions with his wives, and his subsequent transformation. In “Haft Paykar,” Shah Bahram Gur, the 14th Sassanid king of Persia, has seven wives, namely princesses from India, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia, Morocco, China, and Azerbaijan/Iran. While it is widely considered to be a romanticized version of the Shah’s real exploits, “Haft Paykar” underscores a Sufi belief that the purpose of life is to perfect oneself in preparation for the return to the creator. Knowledge of the self is the central message in the epic.
The king visits each wife on a different day, and each princess tells him an engaging fable. The seven beauties are each said to embody a celestial body and a color. Nurak (also called Furak), the daughter of the rajah of India, represents Saturn, and is adorned inblack, as is the dome to her abode. She tells her husband a story of a king who lost much of what he had because of his impatience and teaches the shah the importance of being patient.
Though “Tales and Legends” includes only Nurak’s story in their rendition, other princesses in “Haft Paykar” weave tales of truth, faith, passion, serenity, fairness, and devotion to God; all qualities a just and great ruler must have. Starting with black, the shah gradually progresses to white, a symbolism for transcending from darkness to enlightenment. The philosophical nuance between the lines here is that the shah is seeking knowledge and is not afraid to be a spiritual learner. Each tale has layers of stories within, making “Haft Paykar” a perfect choice for the superlative choreographer in Malini Krishnamurthi.
“I like princess stories!” Krishnamurthi says lightheartedly when asked what her inspiration was in staging such an unusual pick for a bharatanatyam production. “What touched me the most is the fact that it depicts a princess from India teaching the king the virtue of patience,” she says. “The theme is so suitable for young girls. Nizami (Ganjavi) portrays women as being complex. Women are strong, virtuous, and sharp on the one hand, and tender, passionate, and beautiful on the other.”
Krishnamurthi had the retold-in-English version of “Haft Paykar” re-poeticized into Hindi, and then set about working on the music. The orchestra comprises Krishnamurthi on nattuvangam, Srinidhi Mathur on vocal, Hari Rangaswamy on percussion, and R. Narasimhamurthy on the flute. Ticket proceeds are in the aid of Akshaya Patra, an organization supporting underprivileged children in India. Dancers in the featured roles include Natyanjali’s post-arangetram (first full-fledged solo performance) student, Abhinaya Narayanan as the Indian princess, and senior student, Nimisha Ganesh as the fairy queen.
That Krishnamurthi has been thinking about this production for a year is evident in the attention to detail—the stage backdrops will display the Sphinx and pyramids, an ancient market scene will be brought to life with hawkers and tricksters; even as serious business folk call for prayers chanting “Allah hu akbar.”
Since the setting is Islamic literature, Krishnamurthi has opted to incorporate a qawwali vignette, in addition to a belly dance-influenced piece. Novelty is further introduced by a Sufi-style performance and a bird dance (in the story a huge bird carries the king from Egypt to a fairyland).
Keeping it all grounded in true bharatanatyam tradition is the first half of “Tales and Legends,” where Krishnamurthi portrays Indian mythology: a Thodaya Mangalam that describes the life of Lord Rama, a stuti on Goddess Saraswati written by poet Bharathiar, a depiction in dance of how Lord Shiva came to be known as Chandrashekara, and an item on the dark Lord Krishna portrayed as the darling of the cowherds.
One can look forward to interesting takes on these pieces as well, after all, Krishnamurthi is known for the varnam in “atta” thalam—a cycle of many beats and very challenging to perform—and the ragam tanam (raga extensions) dance choreography, which is usually attempted only by vocalists. Inshallah, “Tales and Legends” will make enchanted memories.
Saturday, July 9, 4:30 p.m. Sophia B.Clarke Theater, Mount San Antonio College, 1100 Grand Ave., Walnut. $20, $30, $50. Box office: (909) 468-4050; www.4tix.org. Info: (909) 396-6872, (626) 844-0288. www.natyanjali.org.