To be or not to be, I was thinking. Elated, that is. It's surprising how Shakespeare comes to you at the weirdest of times. Like when you are sitting on the steps on the aisles of the Ravindra Bharathi, not exactly your usual style and your usual seat. And yet, perhaps I was being a little too selfish in my craving for creature comforts when I should instead be bursting with pride at the reason for this. A Kuchipudi dance ballet.
That's right. A Kuchipudi dance ballet had a hall of the capacity of the Ravindra Bharathi bursting at its seams. And it only makes you get all the more in awe of this lady who's taken it to the level of nearly a popular art. Indeed, as she appeared on stage with folded hands, the applause was nearly that reserved for a mass star. Or, maybe more appropriately, this was perhaps what the response to Vivekananda's address to the International Congress of Religions might have been.
The maiden presentation of Sobha Naidu's Kuchipudi ballet 'Vivekananda' by her institute, the Kuchipudi Art Academy, was a celebration of its completion of twenty years. And the response couldn't have been better. The lady showed why all the praise heaped on her for getting the non-connoisseurs and even the uninitiated interested in dance was so justified. And why she deserved the Padmasri.
The ballet opened with the child Narendra at play with his friends. It was a prolonged episode of butter-eating (?), with monkeys, horses, peacocks et al joining in the fun. The lad grows overcoming fears of all kinds, and finally evolving into the preaching youth. Sobha initially made genuine efforts to fit into the costume as well as into the role of Vivekananda. But it took a while for the flow of the tale to be absorbed by all concerned. The students playing different roles were often influenced by the art form rather than by the story, like in the case of the artiste who played Ramakrishna Paramahamsa's wife Sarada Devi overdoing her abhinaya.
The life and times of the Swami after he became one were rather interestingly portrayed by Sobha, especially the Chicago conference and the tour of America, though some events involving a self-obsessed king (a lively dancer!) and the Western influence on Indian classical music (a la Sankarabharanam) seemed contrived. They also broke the seriousness of the content. However, Sobha Naidu's sheer devotion to the subject as well as her art form saw her through this production, which, as she confessed in her vote of thanks, was a long cherished dream.
Swami Paramarthananda of Rama Krishna Math in his chief guest remarks admired Sobha's commitment. "When she has already proclaimed 'Idi naa Bhaaratha Desam' in the powerful tones of Vivekananda, what more is there for me to say?" he said, and it seemed a befitting honor to this danseuse, who is humility personified.