Dance review: Meghadootam: The Cloud Messenger finds contemporary resonance in an ancient Indian poem | Arts

Dance review: Meghadootam: The Cloud Messenger finds contemporary resonance in an ancient Indian poem

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You may associate the feeling of being "on cloud nine" with thinking of your love interest. It evokes the flamboyant gesture of skywriting a proclamation of love. This association between the endless sky and the depths of love goes back a long way.

Kālidāsa, often referred to as “The Shakespeare of India,” was a Sanskrit scriptwriter in the 5th century A.D. who made such connections between clouds and love. One of his most famous lyric poems, Meghadootam (literally translated: Cloud Messenger), has been adapted into a touring dance-drama by the prestigious Cleveland Cultural Alliance. The performance on Aug. 30 at the Cary Arts Center was well worth a Saturday evening.

Since 1991, the Cleveland Cultural Alliance has produced dance-dramas of substance, using dance as a universal language. By combining their mastery of Indian Classical dance with other global styles, they reach out to large audiences to spread positive messages.
Meghadootam
 did not fail in this mission. It reminded us that the pursuit of happiness, reaching cloud nine, is possible with determination and conviction—whether cloud nine means true love or your dream career. 

Indeed, this message resonates beyond romantic love; we can apply it to our personal successes. For this production, the Cleveland Cultural Association partnered with AIM for Seva, a charity that promotes education in rural India. In one of the informational videos, a girl says, after receiving education through AIM, “Now my dream is to become a writer. It used to just be to write.”

In the program brochure, composer and director Bombay Jayashri Ramnath was given top billing, and rightfully so. As a 2013 Academy Award nominee for Best Original Song in the hit movie Life of Pi, Ramnath fulfilled high expectations on Saturday. Choreographers Shijith Nambiar (who also played the lead role) and Parvathy Menon clearly had a knack for combining artistry with technical precision.

In Meghadootam, a King’s servant (a “yaksha”) is exiled for letting his love for his wife (a fellow servant, a “yakshi”) distract him from his duties. While living in a faraway forest, the yaksha is constantly reminded of his wife while looking at nature. Unable to bear the pangs of separation, he asks his cloud friend to carry a message to his love.

The first scene opened with a great lighting effect utilizing scrims, showing the silhouettes of the yaksha and yakshi. It conveyed the impression of a couple that was physically separated and, emotionally, under the same strain. As translated from the poem, the yaksha stated: “I can detect a little of your form in supple vines, your glances in the eyes of a startled doe, your face in the Moon. Your tresses vie with peacock’s plumage. But do not frown; for, in no object is there full likeness of you.” 

Whether depicting the fluidity of river currents, the sensuality of winding vines, the agility of the deer or the briskness in the peacock’s strut, the dancers beautifully personified nature. Sequences seamlessly combined steps from Bharatanatyam (an Indian Classical dance characterized by tight and controlled movements) and the similar yet more fluid and swift style of Kuchipudi, mixed with elements of modern dance.

This led to dynamic choreography as the agile dancers explored the three levels of the stage space in clustered formations. One minute, they were leaping; the next, they were doing arduous floor work that required extensive use of the knees. Because Cleveland-area Indian dancers are generally known for the Kalakshetra style, a post-colonial adaptation of Bharatanatyam, the dance was highlighted by the clean lines of trademark poses with elongated limbs from that style.

The production flowed without breaks, which came with advantages and disadvantages. Relying on narration, there were minimal costume modifications. As a result, all of the elements of nature had the same costumes (though the movements helped the audience follow the various depictions). It may have helped if all of the costumes were the same color for the sake of uniformity. 

The dances of the clouds left me speechless. The audience was able to grasp the experience of unpredictable storm clouds—the joy and ethereal qualities during the calm and the wind helping the cloud get to its destination, soaking up the yaksha’s tears like rain. The creative use of sheer white panels smoothed out scene changes.

However, right before the cloud messenger makes it to the kingdom of Alaka, where the wife is, the story loses its intensity. The production could benefit from less redundancy during the depiction of the cloud’s journey. 

But the intensity comes back full force when the cloud messenger finally greets the wife with the message. At this point, the cloud feels like he has become one with the yaksha, and that all of the feelings rush to him as well upon seeing the wife. Here, the production ends where it began, with a scrim-lighting effect highlighting a physical separation. I could feel the strength of the bond and the ultimate devotion. 

We have text messaging, social media and FaceTime, yet many people are turned off by the idea of long-distance relationships. Imagine the difficulty of “cloud communications” (literally) in the 5th Century A.D. After the message is relayed, the lovers are united as one—only spiritually, yet that is enough for them. It was an inspirational message: that dreams can come true with some hard work and faith. 







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