Reflecting on FRENEMIES - Navtej Johar & Lokesh Bharadwaj

Navtej Johar & Lokesh Bharadwaj
July 3, 2015
O.P.E.N. Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015
72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road 

It was a quiet and intense start to the evening. The two male dancers Navtej Johar and Lokesh Bharadwaj were seated on the ground next to each other, the only movement for a few minutes being that of the neck and eyes. In that repetition the viewer was drawn into the dark and silent space - one that as time went by, became filled with myriad emotions - love, sensuality, sexual desire, frustration, anger and hatred. And then an ethereal calm.

Frenemies a 60-minute work was presented at 72-13 as part of O.P.E.N at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. I have to confess that I hadn't planned on writing anything - I thought I would just go, experience the work and saunter off for dinner by the river after that. But here I am.  

The dance duet saw Johar and Bharadwaj work through the medium of Bharatanatyam, internalising the form to such an extent that the viewer knew it was there and yet it seemed to have an elusive presence. It existed almost as a trace and a memory in the melodies, lyrics, glances, stances, hand gestures and movements. Sometimes it was more pronounced as when Bharadwaj held his arm out in a natyarambha position striking his feet in a tattadavu that was imbued with forceful emotion. At another point in the work the dancers’ arms and torsos created a lissome kita thaka thari kita thom sequence. The dancers maintained a powerful connection within themselves and with each other throughout. They also drew from multiple historical and cultural contexts – temple dancers and courtesans, devadasis (which translates to 'servant of god') in South India and taiwaifs in North India and tying it with French dramatist Jean Genet's "The Maids", in which two domestic servants conduct sadomasochistic role-playing rituals while their mistress is away.  The connecting thread was the power play, inequality and tension embedded in the relationships - between slave and master, courtesan and patron. Also evident in the performance was the dancers' tension with Bharatanatyam, a love-hate relationship of sorts, that was somehow implicit in the very title Frenemies. 

The hereditary temple dancer and courtesan was kept ever present in the popular padams of the repertoire. Especially when Johar himself sang "Netru Varen Endru" a 19th century Tamil composition in which the heroine says to her sakhi or female confidante – “He who told me so sweetly that  that he would come yesterday, has not come even today. How I regret not taking full advantage of his presence the other day, my friend.” In that moment it became so clear that the devadasi can never be extricated from the dance form, even when the dancer (Johar) is wearing a sleeveless white cotton dress cut a couple of inches above the knees with his grey hair, beard and moustache in place. The costumes were simple and highly effective.

Johar and Bharadwaj did not present the padams in the conventional mode. Abhinaya was not restricted to the face and hands, it extended to the entire body.

Dramatic moments include what came across as Bharadwaj’s frustration and anger as he lay on a white sheet, eventually rolling on the ground and curling up to wrap himself up in it completely. The loud drumming on the table that caused the white tea cup to make a soft rattle as it shifted slightly. The same tea cup was clanked repeatedly to produce a wail of sorts. At one point, the dancers sat facing each other and holding the ends of a long white cloth. They gradually moved their fingers along the cloth, creating a powerful tension as they came very close, clasping each other’s palms and rolling the cloth up, their necks and faces reaching towards each other.

We didn’t always understand what was happening in the piece. But then, it did not seem to matter. At times, the piece dragged making it feel like a rather long 60 minutes. And yet that deliberate meditative quality is what made it work at so many levels. Watching this work, I could not help but think of the famous verse from the Abhinaya Darpana (the 13th CE dramaturgical treatise that along with the Natyasastra forms the basis of Bharatanatyam) that translates into: 
Where the hands (hasta) are, go the eyes (drishti);
where the eyes are, goes the mind (manah); 
where the mind goes, there is an expression of inner feeling (Bhaava)
and where there is bhava, mood or sentiment (rasa) is evoked.

In retrospect, it is as if this verse was embedded in the work right from the start with the focus on the eyes. Also Bharatanatyam, that initially came across as being elusive, had actually maintained a constant presence in a multitude of ways. It was there in all the aspects of abhinaya - angika (limbs and facial expressions), vachika (lyrics), aharya (costume that conveyed the context) and satvika (emotions). And ultimately the performance evoked empathy obviously touching some delicate chord in me for I found myself tearing at the very end. This in spite of the uncomfortable seating in the theatre and the fact that it was impossible to have an unblocked view of the stage unless one was seated in the front row. One audience member called it "highway robbery" as the tickets were priced at $35 each. 

It was indeed a bold move on the part of the organisers to feature this work in a context such as Singapore where Bharatanatyam is ardently revered as a symbol of cultural heritage. What Frenemies also seemed to tell us in no uncertain terms is that India has moved on.


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