Roses and Thorns: the thorny facts in “Bharatanatyam competitions: lessons from Concern India”. Narthaki.com and political correctness in the Bharata natyam world.

Bharatanatyam competitions, Concern India and political correctness.

We will analyze and comment upon a curious write-up by Meenakshi Ganapathy that appeared in Roses and Thorns and was evidently irritating some dance VIP’s for 3 weeks. So much so that it was just recently deleted (luckily, Google saved a copy of it :-) ) by the politically conscious Narthaki.com editor. We will also refer to the excerpts from the messages several people sent us about this event.

This topic is related to some of our blog’s previous posts: this one, this one , this one and this one.

The competition started a bit late, with probably 30 spectators most of whom later appeared on the stage: the functionaries, the judges, the musicians, the parents, fellow dancers, and a few stray individuals in Narada Gana Sabha’s main hall.

The competition was not announced in the press. A private event?

A representative of Concern India made a brief introduction, dwelling on the NGO’s work and urging (the 30 spectators?) to contribute to its charitable activities and sponsor Bharatanatyam performances.

Each participant in the preliminary round had to pay Concern India Rs.3000, making it one of the most profitable Islamic charitable activities in India. Of course, Concern India themselves do not sponsor any Bharatanatyam-related performances. Why? Well, why would the Muslim man who was in charge of organizing Concern India’s Bharatanatyam competition in Chennai be seriously interested in promoting Bharatanatyam instead of trying to make even more money (“raise funds”) from dwelling on the necessity to addresss the material needs of the poor Indians. Forget about the Vedic culture and the Hindu spirituality. Allah akbar! Next time if some senior Bharatanatyam dancers organize a psalms recital contest, don’t be surprised.

The dancers, 95% of whom arrived on motorbikes, many of which had 3 riders, have had a hard time trying to sponsor themselves, as Concern India‘s Bharatanatyam competition required them to be able to afford to bring a live orchestra for the solo recitals. Remarkably, the group performances were miraculously exempted from this highly charitable requirement.

The group performances hardly had to do anything with Bharatanatyam.

Before the competition started, a representative of Concern India announced to the dancers that after each solo performance “the judges would speak, give their comments and ask the dancer questions.” The judges in the final were the same (!) as in the preliminary round: Madhumati Prakash, Rajashree Vasudevan and Dakshayani Ramachandran. Why they could not produce any comments on the solo recitals is up to you to guess.

We guess they are just dumb! :-) Or just afraid of the political repercussions. The fact that Concern India could invite such a sec0nd-rate dance guru as Rajashree Vasudevan speaks of the profile of the competition.

The preliminary 3-day elimination round held in November promoted, according to Chitra Visweswaran, “quite a few dancers” (she probably meant the number of the dancers in the groups) to the final competition held on 23 January. At the preliminary itself, out of the astonishing 10 applicants in the sub-junior (below 10) division, only 2 were deemed worthy of dancing in the final: Simran (of guru Sheela Unnikrishnan) and Aishwarya Raman (of guru Divyasena). It was Simran who danced the first on 23 January, and it was Simran who got the 1st prize. As you could have already figured out, the second prize went to Aishwarya, who was so significantly less impressive that led to the humorous speculations that the first prize winner could have been decided upon in the preliminary round itself.

It’s a great idea to have a competition where there are 2 contestants in the finals and 2 prizes! :-) Curiously, Simran and Aishwarya met at another competition with the same outcome.

The two solos of the youngest contestants were followed by a most baffling mix of solos and group performances in no special order. Was it indeed on a “first-ready first dance” basis? Shuffled like a stock of cards, the order of these performances was presumably to confuse the judges so that they would not be able to remember (for any meaningful comparison) the performances of the contestants in the same age division. Of course, the order did not matter if the prize winners were determined in the preliminary round itself.

The third was Poornima (of Anusham group) who was quite proficient in her rendering of “Padma Ananda Dayinee,” especially in the passage describing how the snake’s poison was coming down in ashes. Sudharma Vaidyanathan (of guru A Lakshman) was dancing leisurely and error-free, mostly due to the fact that the choreography itself was not at all intricate or demanding. The more plain, the better? Nevertheless, she was somehow allocated the second prize in the junior (11-14) division, which had another 3 contestants beside her. A very “big” competition indeed.

More and more people come to know Sudharma as the daughter of Chella who does all videography for… the judges who… like A.Lakshman very much. :-) Leaving the sarcasms aside, Sudharma was a remarkable dancer 2 years ago, and was the only one in A.Lakshman’s school who was dancing with grace. Unfortunately, the health problems and A.Lashman’s Kalakshetra-like schooling left very little of the former – graceful, lively and expressive – Sudharma… How fast life changes us… Not to the better…

The stiff-bodied and frozen-faced girls who want to dance like a man, or rather like a soldier (with the marching soldier’s expressions attached, of course) will like A.Lakshman as a guru. What happened to K.J.Sarasa’s “Vazhuvoor style”? Well, just as she did not want Urmila Sathyanarayanan to unlearn the Kalakshetra style, she just let A.Lakshman to do his version of Kalakshetra too.

Curiously, the solos in the junior and the senior (15+) divisions were supposed to last for 10 minutes each, but some dancers were – for an unknown reason – allowed to dance for over 15 minutes, while other dancers’ performances were cut immediately after 10 minutes had elapsed, by completely switching off the stage lighting. Sudharma’s was followed by Divyasena’s group performance of some kind of fusion or modern dance. The group’s 11 dancers found it a bit hard to move (leave alone dance) when lined across the stage in one row. The smallest, Aishwarya Raman, was given the central role, although Nikita would have certainly been a better choice.

Next there was Subbalakshmi of Anusham. She surely did deserve her second prize in the senior division for her impeccable rendering of Shakti Kautuvam and a thillana, leaving some contestants wondering why they had not been told that they too could include 2 fragments rather than one continuous passage from one item. The 7th slot was Revathi Ramachandran’s ballet full of folk dance, Dayinee. Out of the 5 dancers, the only one worth mentioning was Darshana.

The status of Concern India’s competition is illustrated by the fact that Revathi Ramachandran’s own daughter did not even bother to apply!

It was followed by Sai Swapna’s (of Anusham group) recital. It was already 7.30pm, and the auditorium was filled by at least 200 people by that time.

Next there was S Sahana’s (who recently joined Roja Kannan’s school) impeccable performance of the varnam “Nee Inda Maye.” Sahana had a mobile face and smooth expressions that changed each other seamlessly and naturally. Her style of nritta was very crisp. Every simple nritta step involved a visible and sharp movement up and down, which was well coordinated with the movements of her chin, her eyes and eyelids. Sahana was given the first prize (just as in the 2008 Natyarangam’s competition) in the junior division.

Narthaki.com ‘s editor attached Saatvika’s comment:

“Oddly enough, in the Concern India competition the first was again Sahana and the second was Sudharma”.

If you are looking for a perfect Kalakshetra-style dancer, see Sahana :-) In other words, if I am to write about a Kalakshetra-style dancer, it will be her.  This virtuoso is capable of moving from the super-sharp movements to the ultra-smooth, and in this sense her range of movements is extraordinarily wide.  Even if some dancers did not like her hopping manner of walking on the stage, such sharp vertical up-and-down movements actually accentuated each beat of the cymbals, and kept the audience spellbound. Compared with her, the other dancers dance as if they were trapped in a quagmire! :-) Her neck moves very interestingly too.

Perhaps she deserved it. Or perhaps it should have been given to the 10th contestant, Harinie Jeevitha (of guru Sheela Unnikrishnan), who attempted a much harder job to do as she was performing very demanding nrittas, peppered with the most complex moves and karanas that one hardly ever gets to see in Chennai. Well, Harinie’s performance was not as error-free as her videos on YouTube would suggest: the sheer complexity of this highly demanding choreography requires more practice.

It should have been clear that any inclusion of karanas in the choreography will be considered as an error! This is the reason very few Bharathnrithyam dancers ever participate in the Bharatanatyam competitions. The 3 judges have never even read the Natya Shastra, leave alone attempt to do some difficult karana!

Funny enough, if a CCRT scholarship examinee recites the viniyogas in the Natya Shastra-prescribed way, it will be counted as a mistake, because the folkish “Bharatanatyam is supposed to be” performed according to Abhinayadarpanam, not according to Natya Shastra.  This is how our “classical” dancers betray our ancient heritage – and they have the cheek to praise the Natya Shastra in public at the same time! What a hypocrisy!

Sridharini in the senior division (of guru Revathi Ramachandran) was the 11th participant, and she proved that even the worst contestant can still get the first prize. Her performance was followed by Anusham group’s fusion dance dedicated to Shiva and Shakthi, where one dancer, Sulochana, deserves a special praise. The masala fused together modern dance, Bharatanatyam, Odissi and god knows what else. The 13th was a very decent recital by Shivani (of guru Revathi Ramachandran) who was placed the 3rd in the senior division. The 14th was Padmaja (of guru Divyasena) in the junior division who presented keertanam “Om Kara Karini” in a graceful manner, although the skirt costume limited the scope of her nritta. It was the same K.Padmaja who was awarded the 2nd prize at the Indian Fine Arts Society’s competition 2 weeks ago. The competition’s last solo was a very interestingly choreographed Sadaksharam kautuvam performed by the 16-year-old Sruthi Kalyana Sundaram (of guru Manimekalai Sharma), ably assisted by excellent beats of the mridangam. The choreography was very sophisticated and involved frequent use of fast, full-range attamis that blended harmoniously with everything else. Sruthi was masterful in her presentation, and stood above all other contestants in the senior division. Unfortunately, guru Manimekalai Sharma is hardly known even in Chennai.

Last year I wrote about Sruthi in this post. Despite some minor imperfections in her mukha abhinaya, she is surely one of the top dancers in her age range, and the originality of Manimekai Sharma’s choreography could certainly not be appreciated by the 3 dumb judges who are considered as some of the worst choreographers in Chennai.

As recently as 3 years ago Sruthi was listed among Srekala Bharath’s students. So, what happened, may we ask? A possible reason may be that Srekala’s choreography is relatively plain, maybe too plain for Sruthi’s taste, but would be just fine for the 3 dumb judges who would be just scared of Srekala Bharath’s political authority too.  Will you trade an opportunity to learn some interesting Bharatanatyam from an unknown but talented guru for an opportunity of winning a useless prize? :-( Most dancers would not… :-( Well, it seems even under Madurai.R.Muralidharan she was quite a performer even 5 years ago:

SN’s was the last group performance that had a larger share of elaborate Bharatanatyam proper than the previous groups’ items. Most of the dancers, among whom was Harinie Jeevitha again, were admirable, the costumes and accessories were very impressive. Not surprisingly, SN got the 1st prize for its ballet. It was also not surprising to hear one of Concern India’s representatives explain that, “ethically speaking,” it would be wrong to give more than 2 (out of the 4) first prizes to the same school.

The award function started at 9.30. There was a speech by Chitra Visweswaran who was praising the efforts of Concern India and was urging everyone to support its activities. It was quite different from a “speech” by a differently abled gentleman from Concern India when the audience could not understand a word.

“Helping people help themselves” ran the slogan through a huge backdrop just under ‘Concern India.’ How helpful was this competition for the dancers? And how seriously was Concern India taking the dancers’ concerns? If fewer and fewer Bharatanatyam schools care to come and showcase their best students at Concern India’s competition, does it reflect how much importance the dancers attach to this event? Well, if the Blue Cross, Coca-Cola, the Communist Party of India, or the ICICI bank were to hold their own Bharatanatyam competitions, how many dancers would apply?

December season started: with Bharatanatyam…. and Suddha Nrittam performed by Manasvini Ramachandran!

The mad rat race started! :-) Last year 75 sabhas organized 2000 concerts (mainly music) during the December Season, leaving the absolute majority of the performers frustrated seeing fewer than 30 rasikas attending their programmes. The competition is tough, even tougher than the rush-hour traffic in Chennai.

Meet Manasvini Ramachandran

Instead of Kutcheribuzz’s schedule’s “Deepti Ravichandran” (Sudharani’s student, nothing special), The Hindu wrote that the one to be dancing Bharatanatyam at the inauguration function of Brahma Gana Sabha was some cryptic “K.R. MANASVINI”… Never mind, that’s Manaswini Ramachandran, Revati Ramachandran‘s daughter…

The performance started when the function was over. All the VIPs left, hurrying to attend their other functions (who cares about Bharatanatyam????), leaving some 200 people in Sivagami Petachi Auditorium. At the end of Manasvini’s performance, only 60 or so remained… Blind idiots! They missed a lot!

Revathi Ramachandran…

Manaswini Ramachandran is lucky that tailor-made was not only her costume but the choreography of her items. Her intellectual mommy carefully selected the items that Manasvini is good at. Does your Bharatnatyam guru teach you only the items that you will be good at???

Another advantage of having your mommy as your guru is that you can rehearse daily without going bankrupt. Manasvini’s every move was obviously ingrained in her body memory very deeply.

There is one thing that the rasikas are normally not aware of. It is called “bad eye” (“evil eye”) and “good eye”. Have you ever wondered why it is easier to do something well while nobody is watching you? Most rasikas have “neutral eye” in the sense that they do not actively anticipate (in magic it is called “make”) the dancer’s errors. Revathi Ramachandran was so engrossed in actively anticipating Manasvini’s perfection in every movement that it was actually Revathi dancing in Manasvini’s body. If a sledge hammer dropped on Revathi’s head at the time, she would not budge. Good concentration, ma’am. :-)

Manasvini Ramachandran

No wonder Manasvini looked very confident and mentally relaxed, which probably contributed to her dancing fully: with every movement done unreservedly (she was trying to do her BEST!), with full energy and amplitude (like this dancer), in contrast with Coimbatore’s Lavanya Shankar’s half-hearted students whom she brought to dance in the Mylapore Fine Arts Club at the time of Manasvini’s Bharathanatyam peformance.

Manasvini has a perfect figure. She is not totally perfect. Her face below the eyes is not particularly mobile. Personally, I like that her upper lip is slighly raised, making her appear to smile slightly even when she fully relaxes her mouth. But it makes certain expressions more difficult. Her mukha abhinaya, although not her strongest point, was nevertheless quite subtle, graceful, and often very powerful (I guess the rasikas had goosebumps when they saw the scene when Manasvini was depicting how a deva was rising out of a lake – a perfect Adbhuta!). Well, while Manasvini’s face looks perfectly beautiful even from 2 metres away, it looks pretty average at the closer distance, so I don’t think they will ever show a lof of her close-ups on TV. No need, though.

Fast & strong!

She is. If you had so many rehearsals as she does…When she was rotating her hands before making a “lotus”, it was so fast and so perfect that literally the image of a lotus opening emerged before my eyes!!! If you placed a burning piece of camphor on Manasvini’s fast-moving head, it would blow it off in a second. This girl has a really flexible and very very strong back. Of course, when she is making fast steps she does not lift her heels high, and her knees move forward in araimandi, but these are minor flaws.

What a Laya!

All the senior professional Bharatanatyam dancers should watch Manasvini to learn what is Laya. If Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s abhinaya is hardly ever connected to the music at all, Manasvini’s every little movement of eyebrows, neck, shoulders and so on was so perfectly attuned to the change of every note that it made me say to myself, “Hell, is this dancer’s body a loudspeaker? Is the music itself created by her super-intricate graceful movements???????”

For example, while doing the theermanams, her joined hands above her head and her elbows were not held rigidly (unlike most other dancers’): they moved up and down very fast according to the beats, and along with the slight fluctuations of her chin and the rest of her body, which gave a spectacular effect. If the elderly buffalos “dance” without moving much, Manasvini is the exact opposite: she is Bharatnatyam itself!

If Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s arms can move detached from the rest of the body, giving you an impression of a robot, or a marching soldier or a hysterical break dancer, Manasvini’s body moves in a very natural and graceful manner.  In other words, when you move your arm, your neck should slightly move too. I do not know how Alarmel Valli manages to preserve this ability at her age. Normally, women gradually lose this ability after getting married. :-(

If the musicians are professional and creative, the dancer’s job is already half-done. Does your mrigangist bring just one drum? Here, we had 2, and a kanchira too (not as good as Sudharani Raghupathi’s son’s arsenal, but still…). While most musicians NEVER look at the dancer at all (they actually are supposed to FOLLOW the dancer;  the dancer is not supposed to FOLLOW the music!!!!!), Manasvini’s orchestra were keenly intent on following her. So when Manasvini touched the floor with her hand, the mridangist gave a few very distinct beats, emhasising and underlining her move. It was done so well that the rasikas wanted to give a spontanous round of applause. (the surprised Revathi cast the mridangist a fiery look, but she was happy too).

Suddha Nrittam..

Well, Natya Shastra defines it as “a sequence of karanas”, but in the desi Bharata natyam tradition it came to mean something else… Anyway…

You thought that your salangai can produce only one or two varieties of sound? Manasvini demonstrated that salangai is a musical instrument!! It is very rare to see a Bharatanatyam dancer fully explore the potential of the salangai. The tapping techniques of the Melattur style require an immense strength, control and speed that most dancers lack. Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer was very pleased watching Manasvini from his garlanded portrait. :-)

Revathi Ramachandran, with the help of Haridos, created a very original piece of music, where Manasvini’s salangai danced in line with the beats of the 2 mridangam very precisely even at the lightning speeds (the drummer has 10 fingers to do what the dancer has to accomplish with just 2 feet!!!). A very interesting passage was the dialog between the mridangam and the salangai, when Manasvini faithfully echoed each beat. So well that a picture of the tap dancing emerged in my mind:

Looks like Bharatanatyam? :)

Are all Bharatanatyam dancers so great?

Swarnamalya, who cannot dance Bharatanatyam at all (to judge by her video),  in ‘The mad stampede,’ The New Indian Express, artfest@margazhi, Dec 3, 2007 wrote:

Margazhi for dancers is, indeed, a mad stampede. Are we happy about this? Absolutely. Yet, as I dream about the flavor and fragrance of the forthcoming festival, a small part of me aches. The tragedy is audiences today are only more familiar with the ‘mass scale Bharatanatyam’ and are unable to recognize a first rate performance. Even some of these performers are forced to realign their style to the ‘popular level’ by imitating the tricks and mannerisms of the ‘stars’ for that is how one can draw crowds. Large doses of these have resulted in our acceptance of mediocrity.

If the outright bad dancers like Swarnamalya (who realigned her style to the ‘popular level’ in her cine career) complain about “mediocrity”, what can I say???? :-) I can say that she learnt a lot of political thought-twisting for her MA Bharatanatyam degree at Madras University! :-)
Manasvini is different :-)

Oh, my… Bharatanatyam! :-)