The more I see the work of Piyal Bhattacharya with his young disciples, the more I am astonished by the ease with which he unites scholarship of the Nātyashāstra and its esoteric commentaries with the rigour of performing in classical styles while keeping an open contemporary mind. Usually experts in theory and practice are different people, and usually traditional artists insulate themselves from other classical, leave alone modern, forms. But Piyal combines all four aspects in one, and knows theatre, dance and music equally well.
His Chidakash Kalalay Centre’s Bhānikā left me spellbound by its beauty, aesthetics and difficulty. Piyal has recreated one of the many uparupakas – minor Sanskrit-Prakrit genres that proliferated in the medieval period – and, after studying Abhinavagupta’s and Bhojadeva’s definitions of bhānikā, fitted it to Jayadeva’s descriptions of the Dasavatara in Gita-Govinda. No manual or precedent exists, making this an original achievement in reconstruction. Also, he synthesizes Jayadeva’s central Vaishnava text with Vajrayana Buddhism, the Buddha as the culminating evolutionary avatar, and refers to the ancient Tripitaka which mentions bhānikā as expressing the teachings of the wise.
Although the preliminary purvaranga rituals take more time than necessary, Piyal presents everything with immaculate grace and sublimity. He considers bhānikā as gynocentric, embodying gati shakti or female creative cosmic energy, so he has eight women (he calls them ashta prakriti) commanding the stage, performing, dancing and singing the incarnations. He has coached them to deliver the lines in Brajabuli and old Bengali. I must name all of them: Pinki Mondal, Manjira Dey, Rinki Mondal, Shreetama Chowdhury, Satabdee Banerjee, Moumita Sankhari, Amrita Dutta, Ruminti Jana Mondal, the luminosity of their apparel, ornaments and makeup designed by Chhandak Jana.
Those who know Piyal also know of his passion for collecting antique instruments. He uses some in his orchestra; not just the relatively ordinary vina, but the unfretted kacchapi vina and the fretted kinnari vina, besides classical mridanga and more Vaishnava khol. Punctiliously following Jayadeva’s instructions, he has composed the “Srita Kamala” in Raga Gurjari and Tala Nissharuka, and the Dasavatara slokas in Raga Malva, recreating the ragas with Sayak Mitra from medieval treatises.
Patrons of the arts, and schools and colleges with students ignorant about their own heritage, must invite Bhānikā for shows preferably off-proscenium or outdoors, to encourage Piyal to find appropriate spaces where it can have maximum effect. It is not only elevating, but educational – even for museologists interested in the history of costume and instrumentation.
(From The Times of India, 12 October 2018)