Indian music and dance

The sound is indescribable: Dozens and dozens of small brass bells jingling and tingling together, worn like thick anklets on the legs of two performers as they dance ``Kuchipudi'' style on two large brass platters. The performers are Radha and Raja Reddy, a husband and wife team who are part of the India Festival of Music and Dance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The show is now touring the United States.

He is sinuous and sleek in a draped saffron costume, she diaphanous in turquoise and gold silk. At times they look like sculpture in slow motion. But during the brass plate dance they beat out a centuries-old belled duet in dance which rings in the ear long after the curtain has fallen.

In the traditional form known as Kathakali, the stage is suddenly peopled with weirdly wonderful figures in masks, crayon-colored costumes, and headpieces that look like halos merged with tiny skyscrapers. For this performance of Kathakali, the Kerala Kalamandalam dance troupe dazzles as they spin out stories and legends from India's ancient epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Rajasthan folk songs have a wailing, primitive beauty as performed by Langas and Manganivars, itinerant desert musicians whose traditional ballads are backed up by the compelling rhythms of the lute-like kamaicha, the drum called a dhol, and the fiery Khartals, which sound like castanets. The joy with which these performers sing and play is one of the highlights of the evening.

The India Festival of Music and Dance is uneven, though, to the eye and ear of a Western audience. It begins with a somewhat monotonous percussion ensemble, which includes the ghatam (a clay pot), the mridangam (a double-ended drum), and an ancient percussive instrument, the kahnjira. Malavika Sarukkai's Bharata Natyam, a highly stylized solo dance, is too subtle for those not schooled in its nuances. And Birju Maharaj, India's most famous Kathak, or story dancer, loses something in translation in his c omplex duets or duels in which his ankle bell dances challenge the rhythms of the tabla, or drum, player. But as a total evening, the music and dance are stimulating enough not to be missed.

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