Kalalaya, one among Bay Area’s oldest fine-arts institution and schools, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary by bringing to stage a timeless saga, “Silapathigaram,” choreographed by Madurai Muralidaran. The production has been staged successfully in India, New Zealand, and several cities in the U.S. since February 2009. Kalalaya’s presentation comes with an infusion of local talent: Leading dance schools from the Bay Area will be participating, some along with the gurus.
The story is set in the city of Madurai around the first century AD, and is about a couple, Kovalan and Kannagi. Through a series of missteps and misfortunes, the former is wrongfully given the death penalty. A wrathful Kannagi curses the king who passed the sentence and burns down the city. Muralidaran will play Kovalan, and Vidhya Subramanian, artistic director of Lasya Dance Company, will play Kannagi. Other key roles to be portrayed by local luminaries are that of the evil goldsmith-thief by Santosh Lakkaraju (Natyalaya Kuchipudi School of Dance), Madari, the shepherdess who shelters Kannagi by Deepa Mahadevan (artistic director of Tiruchitrambalam Dance Company), and narrator/ Kannagi’s friend by Sreelata Suresh (artistic director of Vishwa Shanthi Dance Academy).
Given the scale of the epic, the production will comprise approximately fifty dancers, representing schools from India as well, including Muralidaran’s own, Nrithyakshetra. The second lead female character of Madhavi will be played by a popular kuchipudi dancer from India, Uma Muralikrishna. Several types of dancing have been incorporated into the vividly dramatic scenes and over 12 group ensembles, set to different flavors of music, including pure instrumental. Among the participants that will bring fruition to this brilliant choreography are students of the schools mentioned above, as well as Abhinaya Dance Company, Jayendra Kalakendra, Nritthyollasa Dance Academy, and Pushpanjali Dance Academy.
Muralidaran is known for his passion for the Tamil language and for his several hundred compositions, which have put to use all the 35 thalams (beat patterns) in the Karnatik vocabulary. He has also composed over 15 dance-dramas. His work is regularly applauded for precise laya (rhythm), originality of thought, and choreographic excellence.
“‘Silapathigaram’ is a gem amongst Tamil literature,” he says, “so it was but natural for me to choose it as my next production. I feel invigorated to present the essence of this composition to astute U.S. rasikas.”
Indeed, the ability of this priceless literary treasure to move audiences is a fitting choice for Kalalaya’s celebratory year. “Silapathigaram is the first of dance-dramas Kalalaya intends to present every year. My aim is to get local schools and talent to collaborate and stage a superlative production,” says Kala Iyer, founder/director of the Fremont institution.
Arguably among the first Karnatik music teachers in the Bay Area, Iyer is also known for hosting superstar musicians and dancers from India, such as Dr. Balamuralikrishna, P. Unnikrishnan, Padma Subrahmanyam, Alarmel Valli, and Chitra Visweswaran. A musician with an analytical bent of mind (Iyer’s graduation honors included comparative studies in Indian and Western music), she has been featured on the CD Mama’s Lullaby by Ellipsis Arts, where she sang “Madhava Mama.” Her prolific career includes jugalbandhis with Hindustani musician Rita Sahai, and performing at various Bay Area locations, Chicago, Miami, and Cleveland. She also provides vocal sustenance to dance recitals.
Iyer says she doesn’t tire of teaching. “I love teaching my 50-plus students. You could say I grew up on a staple diet of Karnatik music,” she says.
“I started learning at five, and went on to graduate with music honors from Delhi University. Yet, with a performing art, one learns as much when performing as when experiencing maestros perform.”
After 20 years, things are not slowing down for Kalalaya, which is already planning its fall program when it will present a Karnatik concert with Ranjani and Gayatri (vocal) and A. Kanyakumari and Embar Kannan (violin duet).