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A Mesmerizing Journey Through the Temples of Ekadasa Vishnum

It is an annual ritual for Asha Krishnakumar, a name well-regarded in the realm of dance and cultural storytelling. Year after year, she delves into a Vaishnavite theme, and after extensive research, she metamorphoses her findings into a fully-fledged multimedia natya nadakam (dance drama). This year, she chose the 11 Vishnu temples often referred to as Tirunangur Divya Desams, which form a part of the 108 Divya Desams. The result of her dedicated work was the recent presentation titled ‘Ekadasa Vishnum’ at Narada Gana Sabha, brought to life under the banner of her Darshanam Art Creations.

Conceptualized and curated by the visionary Asha, this grand spectacle was executed to perfection by Sheela Unnikrishnan along with students from her esteemed dance institution, Sridevi Nrityalaya. The aural experience was masterfully crafted by Rajkumar Bharathi, while Sai Shravanam provided exemplary work on the soundscape. The narration and chanting that lent an ethereal quality to the performance featured voices like Malola Kannan, Chitra Madhavan, Rangan Bhattar, Vedharajan, and Damal Ramakrishnan, who also served as script consultants. The dramatic lighting was orchestrated by Murugan, and the striking creative LED display was crafted by Chella Videos. The enchanting temple setting was meticulously designed by Shanmugam.

The narrative journey of ‘Ekadasa Vishnum’ was structured in a way that highlighted the association of the eleven temples with the legends of Rama, Krishna, Thayar, Perumal, Varadar, and Srinivasa. Over 70 dancers participated in this intricately choreographed performance, bringing to life the riveting tale on stage. The dance production opened with a fiery tandavam performed by Shiva and 11 Rudras, emerging dramatically as if from the follicles of his hair, setting a powerful tone for the rest of the production.

The early life of the king Tirumangai Mannan and his transformation into Thirumangai Azhwar formed the introductory segment of the narrative. Following this, the audience was taken on a spiritual voyage through the Kshetras, accompanied by Azhwar and his wife Kumudavalli Nachiyar. Scenes depicting the king’s pride in feeding a thousand devotees daily, his dilemma as his treasury runs dry, his turn as a cunning dacoit, and ultimately his spiritual surrender upon meeting Perumal were artfully choreographed and performed, making each transition felt seamless and authentic.

Sheela Unnikrishnan’s ability to sustain audience interest throughout the performance was truly commendable. With the limited historical and mythological information available on the sthala puranas of the temples, Sheela wove an engaging, cohesive presentation.

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. Short stories or incidents pertinent to each segment—such as those involving Govardhana Giri, Varaha Avataaram, Rama Ravana Yudham, and Sempon Sei—were introduced with effective brevity, enhancing the audience’s understanding and engagement.

‘Ekadasa Vishnum’ stood out as a remarkable amalgamation of excellent choreography, mesmerising music, dynamic lighting, splendid costumes, a majestic stage setting, and elaborate make-up. Working with more than 70 dancers is no small feat. Sheela not only coordinated this complexity with aplomb but also remembered each dancer’s name during the curtain call, a testimony to her commitment and dedication which was evident in every segment of the performance. Transitions, synchrony of movements, and expressive portrayals were executed with such finesse that they flowed seamlessly.

The brisk changes in scenes and costumes added to the visual appeal. A blend of traditional Bharatanatyam dress and attires relating to specific characters kept the audience enthralled. Furthermore, video projections between scenes provided insightful glimpses into the architecture and rich history of the temples, deepening the viewers’ appreciation of the narrative.

The musical score, a harmonious blend of Carnatic and Hindustani ragas, included popular compositions such as ‘Sri Lakshmi Varaham’ and ‘Varadharajam Upasmahe,’ seamlessly integrated into the performance. The chanting at regular intervals enhanced the spiritual ambiance, creating a truly immersive experience for the audience.

The final sequence of ‘Ekadasa Vishnum,’ undoubtedly the highlight of the production, depicted the grandeur of the Garuda Seva utsavam of Tirunangur, where all 11 forms of Vishnu converge. This climactic act began with a beautiful portrayal of Hamsa Vahana, upon which Azhwar and Nachiyar arrived. The ensuing introduction of each form of Vishnu and Garuda in well-coordinated sequences using combinations of twos and threes was captivating. The finale, featuring all 11 forms dancing together, left the audience in a state of awe, bringing a spectacular end to an unforgettable evening.

In the hallowed space of Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai, ‘Ekadasa Vishnum’ stood as a testament to the seamless collaboration of vision, talent, and devotion to art. Under the meticulous eye of Asha Krishnakumar and the artistic execution by Sheela Unnikrishnan and her team, the dance drama not only illuminated the spiritual legacy of the Tirunangur Divya Desams but also carved a vivid memory in the hearts of all who witnessed it.