For Mohanapriyan Thavarajah of Apsara Arts Dance Company, Singapore, dance is a quest, his artistry a constant search for things that reflect the reality of this world.
In this journey, the production Parama Padam staged at the Riverside Theatres in early April, in collaboration with Shivam School of Dance, Mohanapriyan’s exploration of a game of Snakes and Ladders on stage was a metaphorical representation of a soul’s goal to reach the 100th square, or moksha.
This performance was not merely a visual spectacle but a thought-provoking experience, a profound integration of art, life and philosophy.
The soul in search of liberation plays the live game of snakes and ladders, without leaving the board for 60 whole minutes. It makes choices, good and bad, climbs with each virtuous deed, and falls with every depravity. The audience sit on the edge of their seats as the protagonist manoeuvres his way through the squares of the game, artfully presented through lighting design by Gyan Dev Singh. The soul is confused as to why some people in his knowledge have achieved the feet of the Lord, when he struggles to get through the 7th door which will lead to enlightenment, breaking the cycle of birth and death.
The combination of technical precision and emotional depth of Mohanapriyan enhances the storytelling and brings the narrative to life.
Be it the intimate moment when Saint Thyagaraja realises that he has just had a divine visitation from Rama, Seetha and Lakshmana in his humble home, or the deep seated devotion of Tukaram represented through the blissful chanting of the name of Vittala, or the majestic procession on an elephant danced to a Mallari in the story of Periyalvar, Mohanapriyan created magic through every nuanced expression of body, mind and soul.
The two contrasting characters of Mirabai and Ravana, both powerful in their own right but deeply impacted by their choices of vice and virtue, was a layer that got the audience reflecting on their own life choices. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that one could hear the whirring of the tumultuous thoughts of each individual in the audience, reflecting on their particular choices. The air was electric with the tension of what was happening on stage, sparking a response in each of us.
Artistic director of Apsara Arts, Aravinth Kumarasamy introduced the presentation with the origins of the board game of Parama Padam, and the creative process which added context. He also acknowledged stalwarts in the field of art, Priyadarshini Govind (artistic mentor); Lin How Ngean (dramaturg); Dr. Rajkumar Bharathi (music composition), and Gyan Dev Singh (light design), who enriched this production with their contribution.
Mohanapriyan proclaimed, “In our world of globalisation and modernity, we need to create opportunities to look back to our roots, which will take the audience on a journey of learning.” This intent was achieved without doubt, as the audience walked away with a soul-searching experience, a meaningful interaction with art and each wondering how they could reach the 100th square in their own lives. This was the spellbinding allure of Parama Padam.
Speaking to Mohanapriyan about this unique concept and creative approach, it came to light that his art is made relevant as it stems from the deep roots of spirituality and is shaped by social interactions with his environment. “I was deeply involved in temples and rituals as a young boy, and song and dance became a part of my expression,” Mohanapriyan revealed. “Learning dance formally came later when I realised that the art form not merely gave me joy, but a chance to express myself.”
He also saw the power of art as a source of healing when he worked with communities during challenging times such as the Tsunami (2004). “With very little food to eat and no roof above their heads, a few moments spent with dance brought a smile to the faces of those that suffered,” recalled Mohanapriyan.
This sparked his understanding that art cannot live in isolation but has to be made relevant and at the same time used for a greater purpose. Mohanapriyan believes in learning from every person that he meets in life, and this talks volumes of his sensitivity and humility which makes his art so accessible.
The presentation by Shivam School of Dance under the guidance of Saipriya Rahulan, especially the Endaro Mahanubhavulu, a gem of Saint Thyagaraja’s Pancharatnam, was a captivating and fitting prelude to the exquisite main act of Parama Padam. Engaging choreography, thoughtfully designed costumes and dancers moving gracefully in perfect synchronisation made it an immersive experience for all. Shivam School of Dance
The evening was a multi-dimensional experience, taking us on a metaphorical journey which was both eloquent and exceptional.