Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022
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Chennai Chess Olympiad: The Art of Dance, War And The Great Game

Choreographed chess moves that hint at medieval statecraft, feudal hierarchy, fight for land and crown, and the art of defending territory. But should we analyse the art and the game this much?

Queen of hearts: Kavitha Ramu, who conceptualised the video

Once upon a time—our time, yours too—there was the black queen and the white one, paired with their kings, knights, rooks, bishops, and pawns too. They lived in this black and white checkerboard kingdom. We hung on somewhere, observed, died, lived, and repeated the same with minor advancements, and a video went viral.

It was of a dance composition, and in its beginning, our kings and queens locked their eyes in the harsh glow of anger. The gauntlets were thrown. The music was that of sticks hitting the drums rapidly. The gamut of the first move was wide open, and as the game danced ahead we knew not always the pawns were the gambits. Here the black can be good. White cannot be a religion. We came to know the way Sun Tzu can be availed in daily life, chess is not a mere game about fights between brains, and dance is not only a form of entertainment. This is the year 2022.

A movement in dance or in chess has a thousand years of practice and pat­ience, and generations of minor falls and major lifts. There are rules, precedents, and innovation bound together by those. The performers and the participants become the protagonists of a myth in the making, unperturbed by the audience or by posterity while very much aware of those numerous eyes from the present and the future following their grace and their pulsating blood within the pliant flesh.

This is the year 2022, and the 44th FIDE Chess Olympiad is inaugurated in Chennai. While watching and returning to play one three minute and forty-seven second video, I thought that like war and chess, above all, the presence of the brain functions on a board, in a field, or on a stage. The clip I talk about records a dance drama and celebrates the hallowed game of chess.

If you watch the video, apart from the dexterity, its storytelling will stun you; mesmerised, you will follow the choreography conceptualised and galvanised by Kavitha Ramu and wonder how it might have perfected time management while chronicling the chess moves and a war story where a woman, the queen, is the almighty. The performance, titled Chaturangam — A Dance Depiction reminds me of the breathtaking single-cell thunderstorms that live briefly and leave an indelible weal in your memory.

Checkmate! Stills from the video
Checkmate! Stills from the video

Kavitha Ramu specialises in managing time in her real life. She holds the balance of mind and walks on the tightrope, taut between two poles of days and nights—being an efficient IAS officer, collector of Pudukkottai, and performing the classical dance, Bharatanatyam. She also runs a dance school that architects hundreds of future artists. IAS and resplendence run through her veins. Her father served as an IAS officer and her mother worked as a professor of economics. The temple city of Madurai, her birthplace, chimes at her heart. Analyse the profusion of these elements.

Kavitha Ramu set her steps right early, and by the age of eight, she performed at the Fifth World Tamil Conference held in Chidambaram. Her guruji Neela Krishnamurthy must have been proud. She won, among other awards, the Yuva Kala Bharati and Nadanamamani. I asked this empanelled artist of the ICCR, who is also an A-grade artist of Doordarshan about the conundrum of mastering time, and she chuckled and said that she leads a life of upright discipline and that of an early riser and a fitness enthusiast. Her days beat to the steady rhythm of nattuvangam (the rhythm of cymbals).

Perchance this is the way the brain is optimised—arranging a point of conflux for the right side and the left side.

In folk dances, war movements have been dep­icted for aeons. We can observe and comprehend the delineations of combat from the feet and knees, toe-heel actions, and supple and aggressive hand gestures even if their movements do not indulge in using weapons as props. The origin of chess has a similar, albeit far more complex, overtone. In the video Chaturangam — A Dance Depiction we witness the symbolism of a battlefield but supremely as the dancers imitate the chess moves the choreography hints at medieval statecraft, feudal hierarchy, fight for the land and the crown, and the art of defending one’s territory.

Checkmate! Stills from the video
Checkmate! Stills from the video

In order to attain the same, Kavitha Ramu and the team presented an amalgamation of traditional repertoire of Bharatanatyam, its  classical nritta and abhinaya, and folk forms akin to ‘Therukkoothu’ and ‘Poi-kaal kuthirai’, with native martial arts like ‘Malyutham’ and ‘Silambam’.’ Although the video seems blurring-fast it combines vilambita (slow), madhya (medium speed), and druta (fast) movements. The rigorous and composite mudras the and presentation of the classical fare threads into Poikkal Kuthirai or what we know as the dance of faux-legged horses, Therukkoothu’s street theatre authenticity, Silambam’s weapons skill, and Malyutham’s wrestling form that stresses on the usage of the brain over physical strength. Kavitha Ramu says she visualised the pawn performing Silambam and that she felt the King and Queen should proceed with the classical steps. The choreography is contemporary and classical at once. Kavitha says Narendra Kumar choreographed about 10 moves, and has been an integral part of this success.

The video flares up with the performance of Sahana as the White Queen and Priyadarshini as the Black Queen while Srinivas and Manikandan enact the White and Black Kings. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.K. Stalin, shared the video via his official social media handles.

The success of the video is also shared by ace director Vijay Raj and the sensory music set to right, and for that, the credit goes to K. K. Senthil Prasath. Both the camera manoeuvres and the music open up widely and narrow down to a spearhead focus. And that paces the spectator to the climax where the power of woman is exalted and the protagonists left for the finale justify their expressive shiro bhedha (head movement), greeva bhedha (neck movement), and drishti bhedha (eye movement).

We should not analyse this much. We should not ask if the finale greets the alternative truths about patriarchal society and the chances of establishing the matriarchal ones, sodality torn apart by skin colour and cast. If there is a message let it creep inside as we enjoy the dance and the game. 

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Art of Dance, War and The Great Game")

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