The sound of ghungroos (musical anklets) resonates at a stage constructed around an ancient tree that abuts the recently restored, Sri Siddarameshwara Swamy stepwell at Bikhanoor in Kamareddy district of Telangana. Ten dancers from Shankarananda Kalakshetra and a Bengaluru-based dancer Mithun Shyam present Om Namah Shivayah, an excerpt from Ananda Shankar Jayant’s production Tales from the Bull and the Tiger. The presentation of the stories on Shiva promises to be an interesting experience for the audience and dancers. Organised by Paramparaa Foundation, this event is part of the Gudi Sambaraalu series at iconic heritage temple sites, and marks the 10th year of the Foundation.
This is not the first time that Hyderabad has seen stepwells turn venues for dance performances. The stepwell at Ammapalli Sita Ramachandra Swamy Temple at Shamshabad first witnessed a dance performance by Sandjhya Rao, organised by Parampara in 2016; more recently the 17th century stepwell at Bansilalpet too created a cultural connect with music, dance and storytelling sessions.
The staging of the performance at a stepwell itself is a unique experience for performers and audience alike. Where the proscenium stage has the audience seated in front, facing the performer, in a stepwell, the performance area is usually small and at the centre, with the audience seated all around, akin to an amphitheatre. While musicians and storytellers can make do with the small space this could pose a challenge for dancers who need comparatively bigger spaces. How do dancers adapt and explore the space creatively to engage with the audience?
Taking dance to new places
The dancers are thrilled to take their performance to new places, reaching out to new audiences, says Ananda, who has reworked on the choreography to suit the space.
Planning the show without wings — the entry and exit spaces at the side of the stage — is a challenge. “The entries and exits had to be seamless and not disturb the flow, but without wings how does a dancer go off the stage? We had to plan to stay in a character or pose and come alive again,” says Ananda, who has earlier performed Sri Rama Namam – Entha Ruchira… at the Ammapalli stepwell with her troupe in 2018. Conceived and usually presented with digital projection mapping techniques, only the production highlights were showcased at Om Namah Shivayah presentation at Bikhanoor.
At Ammapalli, a flight of stairs leading down to an elevated space in the middle acts as a stage and the stepwell accomodates around 2,000 people. At Bansilalpet however, a platform with pillars transforms into a performance space and can accommodate about 100 people. While the performance takes place on one side, the audience watches from the opposite side . A few more steps from the platform lead to a small space near the water. Any dance presentation has to be choreographed in such a way that it explores the space on this narrow platform and ensure that the pillars do not obstruct the performance or the view.
Kuchipudi exponent Sravya Manasa helmed a show by her four disciples at the Bansilalpet stepwell in September 2023. “We jump and take twirls while performing but such movements were restricted and the focus was more on balance,” she recalls. The dance formations (two or more dancers forming a rhythmic pattern) were minimal to prevent the pillars from blocking the view. Explaining how Tarangam, a unique feature of Kuchipudi was showcased., Sravya says, “The event included audiences from different states, so we didn’t want to let go of the opportunity to show Tarangam, Kuchipudi’s unique piece. Dancing on the edge of a brass plate, the dancers move from the front of the performance space to the back and vice versa in a traditional repertoire. But here, our group did circular movements on the plate.”
Attractive group shows
A group performance is more attractive than a solo dance at a stepwell, says septuagenarian Shanthi Krish of Paramparaa Foundation. Speaking of the 2016 show, she recalls, “The lighting was beautiful and I was transported away from the Earth to some distant place; I felt blissful watching the programme.” Around seven shows have been organised in stepwells till now. “It’s also pivotal to get the performers to understand how the stepwell stage is going to be,” she says observing that the setting could be a challenge for senior citizens who need support to walk. “Youngsters and middle-aged people had no issues walking up and down and some people in the audience even brought their own cushions to sit on the stone seating but seniors like me had to be careful as there are no railings to hold on to.” Restrooms were also a challenge for the audience and Paramparaa built two restrooms at Ammapalli and Bansilalpet, near the stepwells.
A stepwell design/structure plays an important role in dance performances, says Pujitha Krishna, who curated Dharani, the second edition of Feet on Earth festival at Bansilalpet. While the dance performances were held at the amphitheatre, a storytelling session by Kriti Stories was organised within the stepwell. “The idea was to discover new venues where performance, heritage, culture and history can find a happy coexistence.” Bringing people to certain spaces to help them reconnect with the city and its past is a unique experience for the dancers too. “It feels nice to leave people with some new learning and experience which makes them think more.”
The new role of restored stepwells as cultural landmarks are not only creating new venues for dancers to explore the place creatively but engaging enthusiasts and helping them discover the historical context associated with the spaces.