Arisi:Rice - Behind the scenes
The idea of making an
entire production on arisi or rice was born when a school teacher asked his
students about the origin of rice, and the children answered, 'from a packet in
the supermarket', said Aravinth Kumarasamy, award-winning artistic director of
Apsaras Arts and the brainchild behind this production. "I wanted to show
how rice is an integral part of every civilization and how it is celebrated in
all Asian cultures, said Aravinth. Thus, was born, Arisi:
Rice, the story of how rice connects cultures through birth and death.
Arisi premiered at Kala Utsavam in November 2022 and was co-produced by Esplanade Theatre, Singapore. The production featured dancers from Bali, Indonesia and Singapore with musicians from India, Bali and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.
During Chennai's Margazhi season, on 30 December 2022, Aravinth Kumaraswamy presented a 'behind the scenes' of Arisi to an invited audience at C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Convention Hall, Chennai. Aravinth showed snippets from the production, and the creators spoke at length about how the show came together. Aravinth's hand-picked 'Team Arisi' has the best of the best. Music composition by Rajkumar Bharathi, who brought to life the verses of Manickavasagar, Kambar, and Subrahmanya Bharathi, along with his own compositions and ace-music producer, Sai Shravanam was in charge of the engineering and sound design.
Sai Shravanam, the brain behind integrating sounds from Indonesia, India and China, said, "Nothing was readymade. We had to work through several challenges, such as integrating Chinese notes, Western music and Indian ragas. I was very particular that we should not mimic each other's genre and worked towards getting a perfect synergy. The whole production was a surreal experience, and I wanted the audience to experience a seven-dimensional sound with both recorded music and live orchestra". Watching Sai Shravanam create each note of the production was a mind-boggling experience. To work through the physics of sound, apply the concept of graham bedham and most importantly, maintain the tempo and jati for the whole music to be 'danceable' was no mean task and kudos to Sai Shravanam to have accomplished this through every moment of Arisi.
Aravinth said the production describes the rice cultivation cycle and the traditional culture of using rice, and also raises awareness of how migrant workers leave agriculture in search of other employment. Aravinth highlighted how Wong Chee Wai of Singapore created an interesting set design with 600 rice stalks, each about 1.6 metres tall! An efficient design, said Aravinth, which was played around with to show a paddy field, a decorative element, rainfall and such. Light design was by Gyandev Singh from India.
Arisi's dance combines the Bharatanatyam of India with Balinese dance. Choreographed by Mohanapriyan Thavarajah (Singapore) and Wan Dibia (Indonesia), the dancers were mentored by guru Padma Subrahmanyam and Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind from Chennai, India. Aravinth roped in a dramaturge, Lim How Ngean (Australia), and also received expert advice from scholar Dr Naditha Krishna who helped the team with the historical facts on rice and rice cultivation. Portions which had to be filmed were done by director K Rajagopalan (Singapore).
To quote dancer Apoorva Jayaraman who saw the premiere in Singapore, "Sitting in the audience watching the premier of Arisi, I was filled with a great sense of pride at the world-class quality and vision artists from our very own industry have been able to create as a performative experience.
Arisi has set a hallmark for music direction and sound design for an Indian arts-based musical dance production. The sounds of kecak and Carnatic music blend as one, creating what sounds like a completely distinct musical fabric - one almost forgets that the sounds and musical grammar come from distinct cultural strains! What an exciting framework on which to place our dance forms! I left with the "arisi" refrain ringing in my ears long after. The dance ideation for learning grains and the scene where the paddy crop is envisioned as the nayika was a brilliantly inventive exploration of traditional ideas. Arisi is a leap forward for the Indian classical arts".