Alarmel Valli’s Bharatanatyam… or Odissi? The forgotten heritage of Chokkalingam Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai, the “functions” and the VIP’s.

(this post is based on the report by G.K.)

If you thought that Padams and Javalis are reserved for the elderly, out of shape grandma’s whose only body parts that can still somehow move is their face (well, even this is problematic if there is half a kilo of fat under your face’s skin!), you should watch Alarmel Valli.

The evening of 28th was officially dedicated to the memory of Subbaraya Pillai, and the Shivagami Petachi AUditorium was fully packed despite the fact that the only announcement of this event was a small note in last week’s Friday review. As Mrs. Parthasarathy declared, all the city’s elite gathered that evening to watch Alarmel dance, and no parking space left in the school’s compound. How elite were the VIP’s could be seen by how brutally some rasikas were forced out of their seats in the first row, followed by even more embarrassing evictions of the lesser VIP’s by the more “senior” VIP’s. The fight for the first row seats reminds me of Subbaraya Pillai, who refused to sit in the first rows and was resentful of all these cheri VIP’s. Doesn’t Alarmel Valli gets annoyed while communicating with them? She probably does. On the other hand, just like Subbaraya Pillai, Nandini Ramani was seated in some 20th row on the 28th August.

Alarmel was indeed dancing well, as usual her dance was marked by midukku with liberal use of ottam adavus, light jumps, incredible coverage of stage space, a kulukku in her walk, talukku, an alakshyam as she flicks her wrist in the ullaasa nadai. Every slightest move was fully controlled and chiseled, lending it the artistic, and sometimes artsy, finish. Why Alarmel keeps doing mostly the same padams and javalis every time she does a performance in Chennai is bewildering. Anyway, she has changed her vocalist this time, and Savita Narasimhan was indeed singing with a delicate and powerful voice. Valli can afford to hire the best musicians, that’s for sure.

Alarmel Valli’s “style”, if we can call it so, involves the elements that few other dancers can emulate. The soft and delicate movements are alternated with the sharp, accentuated moves that are probably aimed at not letting the rasikas fall asleep. Every hand movements are supported by the foot movements. And every step is done to the talam. (Something that I very rarely see!). Every “simple” movement is meticulously elaborated into a super-complex set. I noticed that the number of bhedas (and the range of their speeds and amplitudes) that she uses is considerable greater than any other dancer’s. Priyadarshini Govind or Urmila Sathyanarayanan are nobodies compared with Alarmel.

Alarmel’s background in Odissi could be seen in very rich and complex torso movements (some borrowed from Mohiniattam!) that “normal” Bharatanatyam dancers forgot about thanks to the founder of Kalakshetra’s efforts. (Is this why so many professional Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai take Odissi or Mohiniattam classes , I wonder?) Another thing they could learn is how to control their eye lashes. Alarmel has mastered these to a great extent. Usually, people are not even aware of how they open and close their eyes. But it does produce a very powerful effect.

Mrs. Parthasarathy rightly observed that Alarmel Valli’s expressions do not cross that border after which they would turn into grimaces. I wonder how most of our other “senior” bharatanatyam exponents manage to produce so many ugly faces!

In the Yugame padam Alarmel Valli was portraying a miserable woman who was left by her lover. It was an attempt to depict a devotee’s anguish at the separation from the Lord. It appeared that Valli has had no actual spiritual experience that alone would lend this padam more depth.

In another padam Valli was attempting to depicting a mother who was coaxing her child to come and eat something. The child was supposed to symbolize the devotee’s soul who is turned away from the lures of the world. For anybody who has had this spiritual experience (if you had it, you can very easily recognize the other people who had the same experiences), it was obvious that Alarmel Valli has never had this direct spiritual experience, which rendered her padam rather weak.

Another padam that Alarmel did was about a woman who had an intimate encounter with her lover the previous night. This man embarrasses her in public by behaving in a rather rude manner. The spiritual symbolism here is quite obvious for anybody whose social life has been deranged by the direct spiritual experiences (if you watched Jim Carrey’s “The Liar”, you would realize how much a “successful” bharatanatyam dancer has to lie to reach the “top”). In fact, tears filled in my eyes, as the theme of this padam brought out the memories of certain realizations. The tears came before Valli started dancing.

There were no tears while I was watching Valli dance. The impression I had was like… While visiting some friends, I saw some nice fruits on the table, thinking that these fruits are so nice. On coming closer, I realized that the attractive looks were misleading: the fruits were made of plastic. Alarmel Valli’s padams and javalis are sometimes like the perfectly-shaped and perfectly-colored apples, grapes and bananas which, nevertheless, are of little value since you cannot eat them. These will not provide the sustenance for your soul’s spiritual hunger…. The artsy Bharatanatyam items have no real flavour, no taste, and are hollow inside.

If Amarmel Valli was a bit more open-minded and less proud of her achievements, should take abhinaya lessons from some 9-year girls. After all, Lalitha Sahasra Namam describes Devi as “Dhurga who is a nine year old girl” (not an old grandma). At this age, our abhinaya is not yet disconnected from our soul.

I always wonder why the “functions” are held before the end – not after – the performance. Had it been after the performance, the VIP speakers would surely face a very embarrassing situation with 99% of the spectators leaving before the speeches start. Mrs. Parthasarathy was again trying to promote her PSBB, stressing that many PSBB students are learning at Alarmel Valli’s Dipasikha. She did not want to embarrass Alarmel Valli by asking why in the past 4 years there have been just one or two solo performances in Chennai by Dipasikha’s students. Alarmel Valli brought one to dance in Chennai from… the USA, where Alarmel spends a lot of her time. Does she follow Subbaraya Pillai’s tradition and teach very talented students there regardless of how much they pay? She teaches only one-to-one, right? Business skills are not the only thing that Alarmel Valli learnt in America: about 5% of her movements (aimed at impressing the average American cowboy) clearly appear to be borrowed from artsy ballet and modern dance. That’s the application of lokadharmi, isn’t it???

Another speaker who was boring the rasikas was Dr.R.Nagaswamy. In his senile imbecility he referred to Chokkalingam Pillai’s relation with the 108 karanas. (There is no way Alarmel can do the more difficult karanas – unlike this young dancer). Why neither Chokkalingam Pillai nor Alarmel Valli wanted to talk about karanas is very simple: neither of them has ever known how to perform these. And the aging Alarmel is a bit too lazy to spend much time on getting fitter. Another idiocy that Dr.R.Nagaswamy was dwelling on was his idea of making a memorial in Vazhuvoor. Why this village has long forgotten anything related to Bharatanatyam is up to Chokkalingam Pillai to answer. Indeed, why did most of these village dance teachers left their villages and settled in Indian cities? Or American cities?

In a Sruti magazine’s article of February 2002, we find many revelations.

To the question, “I read somewhere that, according to a treatise on abhinaya, one of the chief qualities of a dancer is that she be beautiful…”, Alarmel replies, “I would like to think that for a dancer it is her inner beauty that counts. Take the example of the late T. Balasaraswati, one of India’s greatest exponents of abhinaya. I have been transported, watching her perform at 60.She could make you see her exactly as she wanted you to see her. If you looked at her, you would see a beautiful, young, charming girl of 16″.

The inner beauty…. well, even the ugliest K.J.Sarasa are very beautiful inside if they are famous, rich or powerful. Alarmel is quick to dismiss the ancient scriptures as nonsense, and believes that both Bharata Muni and Nandikeshwara are idiots as they believed that natya in its material expression is to be the expression of the physical body too. But when Alarmel has to choose between a politically correct answer (“when we describe beauty, it is inner beauty and aesthetics we are talking about”) and an honest answer.

Alarmel Valli still is quite sober: “Let me tell you something. Never take too seriously what dancers write! Even scholars are prone to make mistakes – not only factual mistakes but ones relating to interpretation as well.”

Secrets of success of a solo Bharatanatyam recital. Learn how a Bharata natyam dancer can get a lot of fans who had no idea that Bharatnatyam can be fascinating. :)

Warning: this article is not meant for those who are doing Bharatanatyam just as a hobby. Only 1% of Bharatanatyam students have a chance to become real professionals.

While 2000 years ago people had very few options for entertainment, the age of TV, Internet and theme parks brought about the enormous competitive pressure. While they too are already successfully using the new media, the TV and the Internet, the Bharatanatyam dancers are facing a stark reality: their “art” (well, is Bharatanatyam just “art”?) cannot stand the competition as far as the entertaining aspect is concerned.

But Natya has two aspects: entertainment (desi) and enlightenment (margi). As far as enlightenment goes, Natya is beyond competition. The problem is, there is very little left out of margi in the contemporary Bharatanatyam…

Music

50% of your success will depend on your orchestra and music. That’s a lot!

If your vocalist can modulate his voice and produce intense and varied bhavas at least as well as Manasi Prasad or Unnikrishnan…If your mridangist can vary the strength of the beats every 2-3 seconds on a wide range and as fast as K.S.Sudhaman does… If you understand that violin cannot be a replacement for flute, and that veena alone is suitable for making many passages interesting…The reason that Saraswathy holds a veena (not a violin or saxophone) in her hands…

Can you afford additional instruments, such as morsing, kanjeera, tabla, ghatam, etc.?
If you prefer to blur your music in a jazz-like way Udupi Lakshminarayan does, add a keyboard player so that he would completely wash out everything else and destroy your recital. (Keyboard players do not have the same degree of control over their instruments as the non-keyboards, so the timing for each note cannot be as precise as in veena, for example).

The music arrangement is to be done in a professional way that would utilize the strength of each instrument in a suitable manner at the appropriate times. Even the traditional, often performed (stale) items, can be presented in a totally new fashion.

Do your items have only 3 fixed (flat) tempos? It would be boring! “Predictable” means “boring”. The professionals vary the tempos gradually and continuously (with lots of surprises) throughout each item, even introducing pauses here and there. And each item has to end in a distinct way.

If you want your music to be as good as Anita Sivaraman’s, Padma Subrahmaniam’s or Alarmel Valli’s, you may either go bankrupt or invest a lot of time searching for and training a good but affordable orchestra and the composer/music arranger. :-(

Topics & themes

The dancer has to be aware that the selection of the themes (mostly grouped by the rasas) and techniques (classified by the tattvas) for his/her items has to accommodate different types of spectators.

Natya Shastra tells us a lot. Here, we’ll give you some hints. :

The elderly like the tales of virtue and puranic legends.
The reason that 90% of the rasikas are elderly people (who bring their grandchildren along). Bhakti, Vatsalya & Karuna rasas…

Young people are pleased to see the scenes of love.
If your recital does not attract the youth, ask yourself what is the ratio of rati sringara in your items. Want to compete with the young film stars of Kollywood or Bollywood? Look in the mirror first. If your face looks like Meenakshi Chittarajan’s or Priya Murle’s, or if it’s as expressionless as A.Lakshmanan’s, don’t even try to do it. If your figure is Padma Subrahmaniams, people will laugh at your “sringara“. Know your limits. :)

The learned want to see a reference to some religious/philosophical teachings
If the dancer does not understand these, there is no way he/she will be able to present these things adequately. In other words, if you are dumb, don’t try to interpret the mystic doctrines!

The seekers of money love the topics of wealth and its acquisition.
If you want to get rich sponsors at a corporate, that’s what you have to start with! There is a wealth of ancient topics that deal with it. Read the Artha Shastra.

The passionless want to watch the topics of liberation.
Shanta rasa…. If you are going to present your recital in an ashram… But if you are not even close to understanding what liberation stands for, don’t make yourself a clown.

Heroic people want to see the scenes in Rudra- and Jugupsa-dominated rasas, with combat scenes.
Not just the army and police folks. Well, hard to compete with the Bruce Lee movies! Why is it that whenever the Dhananjayans produce anything of this kind, it makes me laugh??? :)
I have just imagined the 80-year-old Sudharani Raghupathi doing a combat scene…. Would put me to sleep… Snoring…

Common women, children and the uncultured men (murkha) are always delighted with the comic scenes and fascinating costumes and makeup.
Since this category is the most numerous, think of putting more Hasya scenes. Make sure you don’t look too ugly while laughing! Get a nice costume and learn good makeup. If you are a fat, clumsy and ugly dancer, that’s your audience.

Know your audience

Why nobody wants to watch us dance???? We are discriminated against!!!

Why nobody wants to watch us dance????

Do you know that most brahmins today are of the shudra type, but some (2-3%) contemporary SC’s and ST’s have the sattva-dominated nature of the true brahmin? :( Although Natya Shastra tells us that, for example, the cheri (inferior human type) spectators will not appreciate the finer art that is appreciated by the superior, uttama, spectators, this limitation can be overcome to some extent by mastering all the necessary techniques.

Techniques

We will classify them according to the main chakras:

Sahasrara
No faith (shraddha), no (spiritual) gain. If you have a divine inspiration and tejas, you may already be a saint. The problem is, saints are usually recognized and get popularity long after they are dead.

Soma
Here is the control over the Hasya.  The dancer has to be cheerful and even playful (the dancers with some Kuchipudi training understand what it is better). :-) It has some connection with Medha (it’s not related to Medha Hari! :) ). Open this lotus and learn how to bring joy and humour even to the most depressive of the rasikas.

Ajna
If the rasikas are not paying attention to your dancing, think why one of the 64 vedic arts was “taking control of the crowd by mystic means”. It implies looking into the crowd of the rasikas in a certain way (they have to feel the “eye contact”). It is related to Drishti (something that most dancers are clueless about!). The more focussed you are, the easier you will engage the audience. Take some lessons from Barack Obama :) Don’t complain if you can’t move your eyes at will! :( Want to test your mental concentration? Close your eyes, try to dance and see how good your balance is! :) Oh, you still have the ambition to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer, eh??? :(

Vishudhi
Music and voice (already described in more detail above). Bring good music (and make sure the loudspeakers are good). It is related to Laya, Vacho and Geetam. Train your voice and introduce your items the way Alarmel Valli does, and the success is yours. Before each item she establishes rapport with the audience. Remember, she speaks from the heart or the throat registers, not from the head. You can’t speak? Hire a good compere.

Anahata
Make your bhavas profound and intense. Be sincere, understand your characters’ relations and minds. If the audience are the refined rasikas in a small auditorium, don’t overdo your expressions! :) Remember: those miserable spectators came to seek for a spark of joy, so don’t overburden them with the tragic expressions!

Manipura
Do the brisk nrittas and difficult karanas. It’s about Javaha. :) If you are doing it effortlessly and irradiate the energy, it will draw the attention. Stamina problems? :) Sweating too much? The jaw drops every now and then? :) Look miserable after dancing for 5 minutes? Need to do kapalabhati, eh? :)

Swadhisthana
If you are a woman, have you wondered why your recitals don’t attract men? Cannot do Lasya properly? People complain that you look and move like a eunuck? Ok, we have a hint for you. The people who are selected as “sex symbols” have the uncanny ability to attract the opposite sex. Hint: learn the sexy karanas and bhedas. Learn to move gracefully. And a lot more. See how sexy Alarmel Valli moves her shoulders and chest? Oh, look at the flutter of her eyelashes! Now, don’t you want to murder Rukmini Devi for popularizing her unisex bland Kalakshetra version of Bharatanatyam devoid of talukku, kulukku, alakshyam, midukku,or any graceful ottam adavus?

Muladhara
Purely physical things. How good is your angasudhi? Cannot sit in araimandi, eh? Cannot do atami? Cannot lift your leg? Do your fingers bend properly in all the mudras? How many hastas do you use, actually? (It seems there are 548 , but you need to do Alarmel Valli-style introductions for all these mudras, or else nobody will understand!)

You have to be beautiful, wear a beautiful costume, makeup and jewelry! :) Ever wondered why the scriptures have… errrr… certain physical requirements for professional dancers? :)In other words, if you are a woman and excel by your beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, you will not have to compete for attention! :)

Commercialism in Bharatnatyam. Bharatanatyam copycats. And copyright in Bharata natyam. True Bharathanatyam gurus vs Bharathanatyam dance instructors.

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a Bharatanatyam guru and a Bharatanatyam dance instructor?

Due to the mushrooming of Bharatanatyam schools and exploding number of dancers, the competition has been growing from tough to ultra tough. Who will be the winners of this rat race? This post will explore the issue of copying, copyrights, professionalism and commercialism.

The history of the Indian culture does not know of anything like intellectual property and royalties. Many, if not most, great pieces of art and literature of the past have remained unsigned, their authors anonymous, while the more recent composers make it a point to insert their signature everywhere. This dirty stamp of ahamkar (ego) has marked the advent of Kali Yuga.

Every Indian has an unconscious conviction that knowledge, just like flowers in the Himalayas, cannot belong to an individual. In fact, it is thanks to the enthusiastic copying that the ancient scriptures survived thousands of years. Had they been so popular and successful if their authors insisted on getting royalties from each copy? Indeed, how much did Valmiki charge for each copy of his Ramayana?

The Hindu surprised its readers with the foreboding of the aggressive advance of the western $ culture:

Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (renowned Carnatic musician) of T. Nagar and Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Radha, both of Chennai, filed an application seeking an interim order of injunction restraining the respondents Cleveland Cultural Alliance, Ohio, U.S. and A. Lakshmanan of Annanagar here from staging the dance ballet and infringing their copyrights…

They (Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Radha) owned the entire copyright over the ballet and they staged it in several places in India.

The Indian art, including Bharatanatyam, has long been considered as a religious offering, a gift for the gods, something that belongs to gods only. Other than offering such a gift, the artist had not even thought of making any copyright claims. Such claims would be considered as shameful.

Now, when some works of art are no longer considered by their authors as a sacred offering but rather, as a commercial commodity (or even junk), we can speak of the difference between a true Bharatanatyam guru and a merely Bharatanatyam dance instructor, the difference between an artiste and a craftsman:

Earl Hunsinger explains:

Artists are now respected as gifted, as geniuses, as divinely inspired. Crafts people just make stuff. In an ironic twist, artists are considered professionals, while crafts people may be viewed as amateurs that sell stuff on the weekend at the local fair. Does it matter? Probably not if you’re considered an artist. For someone that has been labeled as a crafts person, maybe so. In addition to the matter of respect, it’s been said, only half jokingly, that the difference between an art object and a craft object is several thousand dollars.

I’ve seen paintings hanging in modern art galleries that look like an child made them for his mother, and not a very talented child. My personal criteria has always been, if it looks like I could have painted it, it’s not art. The aesthetic value of a piece should be determined, not by the label given to it, but by the creativity seen in its design and execution. Ultimately, isn’t that what art is supposed to be, a product of the imagination brought to life for all to see?

Arul Francis gives us his opinion:

A dancer may have put in lots of years and finally have earned an advanced piece in exchange for her ability and seniority. Of course she’s not going to want to give that away to copycats by putting it on video. Others will simply copy the piece and perform it themselves and tweak this or that and ruin the piece. The person who created the piece will not get any credit or mention. It will just be plagiarized. There has to be a way around it though.

Let us single out each point:

no guru will teach the newcomer an advanced piece

Most gurus retain their senior students by creating an expectation that these students will – some day – be taught “advanced and rare items”. What is “advanced”, you may wonder? Do such items exist at all? Have you ever watched such “advanced” pieces performed by your guru’s seniormost students? In what way is it “advanced”? Is this piece something that your guru learnt from their own gurus, or is it what he choreographed himself?

These are the questions that most out-of-shape gurus – whose only body part that somehow manages to move is their “dancing face” – hate to answer. :) But then, if it is only some cheri “mukha abhinaya” that is left to be taught, you’d better run away as soon as you can. After all, since the cat (or rather 8 of them) of Mami’s Magic is out of the bag, everybody can buy those DVDs and see that the king is… naked!

Well, if these “advanced” items are ever performed for an audience, a truly advanced student can just go there and watch, and note down the choreography. That’s, if you don’t have a good cameraphone with video recording capability :)

Well, why do they call dance instructors “gurus”? Well, if there are IT, farming and banking gurus, there must be Bharatanatyam gurus too, right? :(

Minakshi Ajay puts it this way:

The Upanishads have profoundly underlined the role of the guru. Mundak Upanishad says to realize the supreme godhead holding samidha grass in his hands one should surrender himself before the guru who knows the secrets of Vedas.

If your guru knows the secrets of Vedas, you are lucky, as such a guru has attained to the physical immortality as well as all the other siddhas. (We will give you a Rs.10000000 gift voucher if you tell us where to find such a person). Well, why did Minakshi mention all this in her article on Bharatanatyam??? As if she knows any Bharatanatyam gurus who can at least read the Vedas, not to mention understanding them!

One ancient tradition we still keep: the Bharatanatyam gurus will always try to promote their well-paying, high-status but inferior students at the expense of putting down the more talented students. The gurus create all kinds of obstacles for their “less important” students. For example, in case of Bharatanatyam competitions, if the gurus send more than 1 students to contest a prize, sometimes these gurus have to bribe the judges so that they would not give the 1st prize to the most talented dancer but to some other, VIP student. If you are among your guru’s most talented students, don’t be surprised to learn that your guru used the mean and dirty methods to promote other, less capable VIP students, at the expense of your dance career.

Unbelievable? Read what Minakshi tells us:

The most popular legend is that of the amazing young tribal boy Ekalavya on being rejected by the ace trainer Dronacharya, raised his statue and with great dedication practised the art of archery and left behind Arjuna, the master archer, who actually learnt the art under the living guru. And the heartless guru asked for his thumb as gurudakshina or fees, and made him inferior before his royal disciple.

a lot of dancers copy each other’s pieces

“I take my Handycam every time I go to the Natyanjali and other festivals”, confesses one professional Bharatanatyam dancer. “Otherwise I watch Bharatanatyam on TV or YouTube – there is more than I have time for it!”

Some Bharatanatyam gurus give their students the videos of a dancer’s performance and ask them to merely copy it. The question is, how well can they actually copy?

My most advanced students have been trying to copy this piece (performed by an outstanding dancer) for the past 5 years but so far they have not been able to copy more than 80%. They can’t copy the nuances, the smaller details. Well, they can’t even do the mudras properly or the bhedas“, – complained a senior guru.

It takes an exceptional virtuoso to copy a genius successfully. But then, if you are a genius, you will never even think of copying others!

Even if we make a poor replica of a masterpiece, how many people will be able to tell the original from the fake? 2%?
For the ogranizers of the corporate shows, all items will appear identical as long as the title is identical.
Re-packaging, re-labeling, re-mixing and re-branding is now in vogue.

some copycats will “ruin” the “original” choreography by “tweaking this or that”

Other gurus are more cunning: they modify a bit here and a bit there and sell it as “original”.
The question is, isn’t choreography supposed to be evolving?
And, didn’t the traditional Sadir choreography degrade beyond recovery 300 years ago?

there is a person who “created the original piece”

What is “original”????
Can any author really make a claim that he has not used bits and pieces from some other people’s work?

Sirisha believes that:

dance should be an art that should spread with zero inhibitions, and specially to people who cant afford it.

How many students in your Bharatanatyam dance schools are studying for free? If you are learning with a true Bharatanatyam guru who is untarnished by the emerging commercialism, you are lucky.

What makes a Bharatanatyam dancer successful. The dying tradition of Pandanallur style… and the evolution of Bharata natyam. Bharatnatyam career.

This post was provoked by the lonely Arul Francis’s blog , and is related to 3 other posts of ours: Success in Solo Performance, The Future of Bharatanatyam. Through the prism of Bharatnatyam’s great Past ,         The “Hereditary” ones…. And back to karanas!

his post consists of 2 parts: what makes a successful Bharatanatyam career, and then we overview Subbaraya Pillai’s “tradition” (can we call it so?) and the evolution of Bharatanatyam.

While most of Arul’s points are perfectly valid, here we will focus largely on those points that the conservatives (“traditionalists”) tend to misunderstand and misrepresent.

Grounded
Here, Arul touches the topic of “success”.

Indeed, what makes a dancer “successful”? What makes a career successful? And a performance?

From the devadasi’s point of view, the only kind of success she was aiming at was her personal spiritual growth, experiences, realizations. Her secondary goal, just as any shaman’s, was the procuring of the divine blessings and protections for the devadasi’s benefactors.

Anjana Rajan put it in simple terms:

No matter how much we talk of Bharatanatyam today being a devotional art, it is only rarely that the inherent spirituality of the form, the mysticism of the scriptures as conveyed through mudras and music, becomes visible. To relate to the spiritual essence without allowing the dance technique to disintegrate into a mash of feeling is not easy.

Not just the mudras and music, of course, but, much more importantly, about performing the karanas like this. Natya Shastra describes 2 types of “Success” (“siddhi”, or perfection) of the performance by the rajadasi types of dancers: daiviki (divine) and manusi (human). There are the signs of the human and the signs of the divine success. There are two expression of human success: vocal and bodily.

Signs of success expressed vocally:

  • slight smile,
  • smile,
  • laughter,
  • exclamations such as “excellent”,
  • tumultuous applause

Signs of success expressed by body language:

  • Joy expressed in horripilation
  • the rising up from the seat and giving away of clothes and throwing of rings (or other gifts)

The signs of divine success are more interesting:

  • there must be the overwhelming Sattva in the display of Bhavas (i.e. the psychological states are pure / expressed clearly)
  • no noise, no disturbance, no unusual occurrence (during the performance)
  • the auditorium is full of spectators

At one of Narada Gana Sabha’s performances, with fewer than 10 rasikas and a below average dancer (from outside Chennai), the compere proudly announced, “We thank you the sabha for making todays performance a great success”. The dancer was so disappointed that she did not laugh. The rasikas exchanged funny looks. :)

Arul writes,
“You meet someone who is very “successful” – they have all the trophies: a fancy degree, a great job, a fancy house, a fancy car – but when you actually try to get to know the person, you realize there is nothing there. A vacuum. A shell. Success seems to destroy some people. I see the equivalent in dance as well. “Success” can be pretty scary and turn someone into a freak.”

A fancy degree can only impress a few old idiots in India, not in the USA, where any idiot can get a fancy degree for a hundred bucks. If the dancer tries to impress the American audience by listing her degree in medicine or banking, the Americans usually either smile or laugh, but are polite enough not to laugh too loudly.

A great job. The “successful” dancers include Srinidhi Chidambaram who spent most of her time on her medical career, got a great and stable job in public health administration, married a rich man, lost the ability to dance. Other great jobs include the Indian Railway administration posts (Ananda Shankar Jayant), insurance agents and bank clerk’s jobs.

Money! :) Indeed, a great measure of success in Kali Yuga. Go, ask how dancers earn money. They will tell you.

Arul forgot to list “titles & awards” because these are looked upon – especially by Americans – as meaningless. After all, we know how much politics and money it takes to get a “prestigious” title !

Arul tells us that

One time a dance-critic wrote mockingly about the awards given out during the December season: “what a clatter of siromanis and … ” and I was laughing along because I agreed with what she was saying. Every time you turn around someone is handing someone else an award, a title, or an honour. It is just ridiculous. All those shawls and shields and plaques. What a waste.

Spending too much time on the political activities will turn the dancer into a fat hypocrite. Arul teaches us some diplomatic tricks:

one of the VIPs accosted me and said: “what did you think of my speech?” and I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t very well answer: “I was outside eating samosas”. So I said: “everyone thought it was a very fitting tribute”. And they continued: “what did you think of my quotes from Shakespeare”. And I didn’t know what to say so I said: “well, you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare”.

You may get in trouble if you lie too much:

Someone came up and whispered something into this VIP’s ear and they turned upon me indignantly and said: “Arul, it seems you weren’t even inside? What’s this? It seems you went outside during the speeches?” and I was caught red-handed!

You have to understand the etiquette and the hierachies:

The last speaker was Karunanidhi – it seems he had released some book or novel – he was a very good speaker. We sat in the back even though Meenakshi’s mother came and pulled Master’s hand and said: “Sir, you must sit in the front row” but Master would not. He sat in the back. Apparently, when the real VIPs arrived everyone who was occupying the front row would be unceremoniously kicked back and that could be embarrassing.

You will not have the time for practising Bharatanatyam. You will have to lie, lie and have to be mean, very mean. You will have to forge political alliances with some Bharatanatyam clans, and fight against the “enemies” (competing clans). You will become very bitter, and the corners of your mouth will move down, wriggling in wry smiles. How else can you smile if you feel like murdering that fat sabha’s committee member who expects a big bribe/donation? :( You will feel like your life is wasted. And wasted it is!

Anita Ratnam wrote:
“There is too much political correctness going around and far too much sycophancy to really help dance…. That dance scene in India has become corrupt and bloated is something nobody disagrees with”.

What the dancers really value and like to list in their resumes is the opportunities to perform a solo at an “established” (old) sabha’s festival or at least at Natyanjali in Chidambaram. Without these performances, you will not get your title or award. To do that, you will have to get various “recommendations” from the “established” dancers & gurus. To get these, you will have to go and kiss their feet (and other parts of their body), become their obsequious student for a year or two, exhibit the utmost sycophancy to the people you abhor and disdain, and tell them a lot of false compliments that you don’t feel like saying. The more you praise them, the faster you will lose the ability to distinguish the truth from the illusions. Welcome to Maya!

Sirisha reveals the undercurrents of the present day dance career and exploitation:

I always wondered that its difficult to perform for big sabhas specially some in chennai, its so tough to get through anyone to avail a chance to perform,i have written letter, mails.I dont get any reply! Is it the fact that only famous dancers are given opportunity there and only known faces get to perform.

its the question again should we keep quiet and just watch the rat race or be a part to win them, i see so many ordinary dancers doing so many big shows,not to say or put my dance on high platform, but i sure dance with better standards than some of them. Wel how much does recognition come:(. I am no more with any guru presently, but did n number of shows for my gurus at their corporate shows and their umpteen lecture demos.I thank them whole heartedly for making me a dancer of really competetive level, it was that gratitude which held me for long all this while. But now am out of the institution for good, cant blame anyone for anything.but thought should voice the exploitation only once and walk out.I have being teaching with them for eight years, and was among their cream of senior ensembles. But how long should i keep quiet?????? No answer,
I think dance should be an art that should spread with zero inhibitions,and specially to people who cant afford it.

Do u suggest any gurus whom i can go to continue my advanced training.just asking out of blue.

i live in bangalore, and i had begun my style of dance with vazhavur style, then continued with gurus for my advanced training, and they dint folow particularly any style, but taught every thing that was special in all styles.

The strategy of an exploitative (selfish) guru is very simple:

  • don’t give your best students a chance to perform solo programmes,
  • don’t teach them too much of advanced solo items,
  • don’t give them credits at a group performance or in a DVD release,
  • don’t let them get in direct contact with the customer (the person who pays for the performance, tour, TV show, lec-dem, film role, etc).

Without performances, nobody will publish the reviews of your dance no matter how much you pay the journalists/critics and fawn over them. Without the good publicity, you will not become famous. To get into the Hindu’s Friday Review used to be the pinnacle of the dancers’ dreams. The problem now is that every small newspaper or web site are publishing tons of worthless reviews whose only aim is to promote (clumsily or not very) the reviewed dancers! :)

Without titles and reviews, it is harder to get recognition. Everybody knows how much it takes to get empaneled at the ICCR. Unless some VIP from the ruling political party calls the Doordarshan panel of judges and gives them instructions, you will not get the A Grade. How can one get, for example, the recognition from the Texas Commission on the Arts? Or from Young Audiences of Houston? What is the value of Certificate of Appreciation from the Governor of California? Or from the Association of Toilet Cleaners of New Delhi?

We could add popularity as another measurement of success. Hmmm…. What kind of popularity? Among whom? I am wondering why some Bharatanatyam videos performed by an 11-year-old on YouTube get 10 times more views than Vyjayanthimala’s videos there! As for Michael Jackson’s kind of popularity… Oh, yea! Yea! It seems that the popularity among the cheri rasikas, the undiscriminating and bored audience who need just some excitement and entertainment. Many dancers dream of becoming another Vyjayanthimala, Kamala, Padma, Shobana… A cheri dancer who dances vulgar dances on TV. Becoming a film actress is an “achievement”: you will forget what is Bharatanatyam. This was the reason how Subbaraya Pillai treated

anyone from the world of “cinema” he automatically refused, as did his father

your life will disconnect from your soul, you will be treated like a prostitute by the film directors (and many others), but you will have a lot of money. When I met Shobana, I felt that this woman is very miserable. Many top actresses commit suicide, but she has not yet! :)

The new developments

As you probably know, before dancing, the dancer propitiates Nataraja or Vinayaka and asks to grant success for the recital.

Arul writes:
There was a time I went to Vani Mahal and saw a lovely performance. The dancer sprang to one corner of the stage in a beautiful graceful jump and sat down and began offering flowers and raising her eyes above – and directly above on the wall was a large picture of a package of Chips – the brand which was sponsoring the show. It was funny!

Many dancers feel they need to worship the green American dollar. :)

There is something Arul does not understand when he writes:
“Someone has to patronize and come up with the money – they always have – in ‘Danike’ there is a line acknowledging the Maratha king Sivaji – in ‘Yemaguva’ there is a similar line about the Mysore king.”

Arul is not aware of the fact that the Maratha king Sivaji is long DEAD. The Thanjavur Quartet’s varnams which Arul describes as the precious gems have never had a great spiritual potential in them, and have grown irrelevant. The ancient Kali or Vishnu kavutuvams have survived many more centuries because of the greater purity of the music, the lyrics and the choreography. You bet that an item that praises Coca-Cola will not survive a few years.

Arul warns us about the dangers of “fusions”:

It’s weird how these “rebel” dancers and choreographers who want to shake up their staid old audience and drag them to the cutting edge don’t get the very basic point that people already watch dance from other genres which are already popular and cutting edge and are outside of the classical dance category. People who compose and perform popular hip music already have their own dance to go with it and it’s very good and fun to watch. And that music doesn’t need any condescending gestures from classical dancers. This whole pose of “i want to shake up the old people” and at the same time “i want to expose and pull in the younger crowd by doing something new and hip” is just so condescending to both sides, I don’t see the need for it.

Subbaraya Pillai… and the living fossils

If you think you know what is “Pandanallur” style (errrrr….. it is less than 100 years old, isn’t it?), can you tell me why there is such a great deal of difference between the “Pandanallur” styles taught by Parvati Ravi Ghantasala, Ranganayaki Jayaraman, Pandanallur Pandian, Alarmel Valli, Meenakshi Chitharanjan , and Dr.Saraswathy (of Vipanchee)? Or at least, tell me what is common in these guru’s styles? :) Baffling, isn’t it? :) It is as baffling as why Vaiko joined Jayalalitha. :)

In Gossip, Arul wonders,

What does he think of each of them and where does he stand on all their rivalries? I am dying to know.

Business competition is business. Or politics, like the rift inside the DMK.

Arul rightly states that not all contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers are ready to perform Bharatanatyam in a strip bar, a cabaret or at a lingerie exhibition:

Along with the dance they also know its context: how to perform and where to leave it. Without ever articulating it verbally or spelling it out – we got from him this sense of boundaries and identity. What it is, and what it is not.

The explanation why Arul is an avid reader of our blog and Narthaki’s is this:

Sometimes I ask the other students, have you read such-and-such or did you see that TV show or that movie – and generally the answer is “no”. Master’s students don’t need any outside input and they’re not looking to critics or other dance styles for direction. They have that already.

Yep! They are already perfect (at least they think they are more perfect than apsara Urvasi). Or maybe, they are just no longer able to learn? To improve? Eh… Why?

Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittarajan were among those students who wanted to learn more and enhance their technique. So they left Subbaraya Pillai a long time ago. Have they achieved what they wanted to? Or rather, have they achieved more success than those students who have not left Subbaraya Pillai?

The dancers have to develop a critical, analytical mind to be able to digest adequately all the comments and reviews. But Subbaraya Pillai’s students don’t have it: they have always been discouraged to ask questions, as Arul confesses. If you have no questions, you are either a genius or are asleep. The number of questions a student asks determine how eager he is to learn and how well he understands the topic.

The students were only allowed to obey their guru’s instructions. Did they understand much? They didn’t. As a result, most of them became brain-dead by the age of 30.

This is how great traditions and great knowledge are lost:

For these crucial hands in the first half, he’s just forgotten. I was so upset. There is no one he’s taught this to – not in a very long time – and back then they weren’t even recording anything. so it’s just gone, gone, gone with the wind.

Subbaraya Pillai explains his lacklustre “creative” genius:

“I still follow whatever Thatha has taught me. Can I ever create something that he has not left for generations of dancers to come? Today choreographing according to one’s own Manodharma (freedom to compose) means different things to different persons. Each has his/her own concepts, values and approaches. “

However, Nandini Ramani interpreted this as “creative” (within the narrow framework of what Thatha taught him?):

“Even now I don’t know what I know” he says referring to his creative approach to Bharatanatyam.

Arul is more honest:

There were no “new items”. He taught what he had learnt and just stopped with that.

Well, the dancers who cannot take the outside input can consider themselves as living fossils. The ability to learn new things (which is determined by the amount of Sattva in your system) decreases from the age of 10 dramatically. Rajas dominates in our youth. After 40, Tamas dominates. In medical terms, so many brain cells die (because of lack of use) that the adults, including dancers, cannot accept anything new. This is why most poets and composers created their masterpieces at a young age.

Among the good things Subbaraya Pillai did (as we see in this VCD) was that he “would teach his students one on one”, which saved them from becoming clones. However, there are some paradoxes. First, Arul tells us about clone dancers:

I had already figured that out for myself in 94, just from attending performances, and watching how the nattuvanars’, certain big nattuvanars’ students always danced differently from their class mates whereas dance schools and dancers-turned-teachers produced people who did the same thing.

Oh, these big nattuvanars who never read the Natya Shastra! :) Be warned:

I would ask: “marupadiyum atha kamingale” (show me again) but of course there was no dancer there, and without a dancer he couldn’t show anything.

The big, great Arul then continues:

The dancers did not learn abinaya from each other. There’s nothing “intrinsically feminine” about it.

Arul’s fundamental problem is that he does not have a mirror, and is half-blind: he does not see that an average woman’s face is capable of rendering 100 times more expressions than an average man’s.

Arul confesses:

this was one skill that I was simply not going to be able to pick up from him…I can catch what the dancers are doing on tape and repeat that tape a 1000 times, but I did not have his expressions while he was teaching it

Even such exceptional abhinaya masters as Bangalore’s Kiran Subramanyam are nobodies compared to many 10-year-old girls from Chennai. Some of these 10-year-olds are so uninhibited and so sincere in their abhinaya that watching them alone will teach you more than spending 100 years learning Bharatanatyam expressions from a big nattuvanar. After all, Natya Shastra states that 25% of what a dancer can learn can be learnt only from observing other dancers.

Master taught it to each dancer, one dancer at a time, and I saw him teach it with my own eyes. To see that transformation, when he shows how an expression is to be done, and repeats it, and repeats, and repeats, and to see the dancer pick that up – it is one of the most amazing and magical things in dance that I have ever seen.

Oh! Subbaraya Pillai did, indeed, ask his students to merely copy his own expressions that he considered as “correct”. It was Subbaraya Pillai who repeated the same expression. A true nattuvanar may give just a hint – once or twice! – and it would be sufficient. Learn by rote is the devise of the current Indian educational system! What is so magical in it?

The magical it would be if the dancer first would understand the lyrics, the characters’ moods, their relationship. Of course you don’t need it if the theme of your recital is about Pringles or condoms, do you? How would a condom speak to a pack of Pringles? Well, I need to watch some American cartoons. Don’t blame me if my abhinaya resembles Mickey Mouse’s!

Only Americans religiously believe that an emotion can be realized by moving facial muscles alone.

 

The serious bharatanatyam dancer should sit and meditate, have some personal (not borrowed) spiritual experiences that would naturally produce genuine expressions. Without the inner realizations and direct experiences, the dancer’s expressions will look a bit too put-on to fool a sharp-eyed rasika. The dancer’s abhinaya will never be powerful, convincing, and will lack Sattva.

The ability to perceive the 3 gunas and their combinations depends entirely on the clarity of your vision. This is something that no nattuvanar will teach you. If you eat the rajasic food, you will be half-blind. Arul likes spicy fish curry, it seems.

And he loves our blog: :)

I became interested in dance I would read everything that was written in the papers and in the books. I was stupid enough to believe what they were saying because all those writers write with so much authority.

The Future of Bharatanatyam. Through the prism of Bharatnatyam’s great Past.

This post is related to The “Hereditary” ones…. And back to karanas! (also see this recent one – about the karanas and more)

This post was provoked by Aneal Krishnamurthy‘s “The future of Bharatanatyam: A rasika’s view” published in Sruti and re-posted on Narthaki. Aneal, an amateur rasika, has made us sit down and analyze the things in depth. We will comment on his and another angry NRI’s, Mukundagiri Sadagopan‘s letter too, as well as Alarmel Valli’s opinions.

We will compare the past of Bharatanatyam with its present, and make a guess of what is it going to be like in the future. There can be no way to predict the future without understanding the past and the present. To understand the developments, you should have a basic understanding of the 4 Yuga’s. Remember: Kali Yuga officially ended just 50 years ago. Most people have lost the sense of the sacred. Spirituality and religion are no longer relevant to people’s life.

Since the sacred music and the dance offerings prescribed by the Shastras, such as Agama Shastra, were recently conveniently replaced by the rice and sweets offerings, we can pretend to ignore that another prescribed offering, asana, started to be conveniently interpreted as “seating of the idol”. Curiously, the degraded Hindu pseudo priests, grown fat and ugly beyond all reasonable dimensions, managed to convince hundreds of millions of idiots that the changes in the Sodasa Upachara rituals were…. holy. As holy as the holy McDonnalds.

We could also refer to The Hindu’s article on this score :

To keep in tune with the changing times and to make Bharatanatyam more relevant to the contemporary audience, Natyarangam (the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha) organises a dance festival every year on various social issues such as male chauvinism, eve teasing, dowry, corruption and politics.

It is not just agricultural themes that became spiritual. The poor Ramaa writes that immigration is, in fact, a deeply spiritual theme too, and the Statue of Liberty is the true American god that every Bharatanatyam dancer in Chennai has to offer a puja to – before taking a flight to New York in hopes to earn some not-so-spiritual hard currency:

My choreography Jwala-Flame about the struggles and discoveries of the immigrant experience and dedicated to the Statue of Liberty elicits that kind of deeply spiritual response from the audience every time we have performed it.

“Spiritual response”? What is it, darling? Ramaa explains:

It is not enough to simply present your work. You must also represent it both artistically and politically.

Politically??? Can’t find it in Natya Shastra!

The current situation is aggravated by the fact that 95% of the present-day “humans” are in the human bodies for the 1st time in their soul’s evolution. Which means that the real people (who can appreciate the finer Bharatanatyam) are a minority. If one was a pig in his past life, he will prefer to watch Bollywood hip-shaking.

You may know there was no Bharatanatyam 500 years ago. Sadir looked very, very different. While you can find traces of Natya Shastra’s styles in the classical Indian dance, these are just traces. Well, the Kaisiki style can be seen in Mohiniattam (where Lasya reaches its pinnacle, and the Bhavas are rendered in the fine and deep manner) and Odissi. But there is very little left of it in the contemporary Bharatanatyam. So… What is Bharatanatyam, to begin with???? A tree without roots will dry up and die quickly.

  1. Kalakshetra style is not Bharatanatyam“, once said Udupi Laxminarayanan.
  2. Udupi Laxminarayanan’s “Kanchipuram style” has nothing to do with Bharatanatyam“, said Sudharahi Raghupathi.
  3. My style is called Bharathnrithyam“, said you know who.
  4. “Not many people believe I dance Bharatanatyam. Actually, I don’t believe it either“, complains Shobana.
  5. I don’t know if it is traditional Bharatanatyam. I think I took it from Kuchipudi“, another Bharatanatyam dancer confesses.
  6. So what if I borrowed this and that from the English ballet?“, replies Chitra Vesveswaran.
  7. Yes, this is Martha Graham’s technique that I use“, confesses Sudharani Raghupathi.
  8. How many people know that there is a lot of Kathakali and modern dance in my…. errrr… Bharatanatyam?“, asks VP Dhananjayan.

Manvantara wrote :
I attended a recital by Alarmel Valli at Memphis…. To me, her steps seemed more like Odissi with some influence of ballet! Her accompanying musicians were very good, though!
Then there was the “Ekantha Seetha” – which I think was specifically for the non-Indian. The choreography (by the Dhananjayans) was good, but predictable and in the end, left me wondering what it was all about. Sujatha Srinivasan seemed to “dance” without moving her body much! Dhananjayan himself was no good – he tried some Kathakali style eye movements, but only the intent was there – the eye balls did not move!

Excuse me, where today can we find… Bharatanatyam???

The glorious past vs. the present :

evolution or… degradation?

There are 4 different historical reference points on which we will base our vision of the great Past and the comparisons with the present practices and trends:.

  1. The episode with apsara Urvasi, described in the Natya Shastra.
  2. The incident on Thillai that resulted in the construction of the Chidambaram temple.
  3. The original devadasi practices in the example of incident with Kallivelli Siddhar..
  4. Abhinaya Darpanam

Although some idiots corrupted by the western pseudo-culture dare to expose their lack of brain by stating that “The body of a dancer of today considerably differs from that of an 11th or 14th century dancer, especially one known only from temple sculptures.” , it is an archaeological fact that the human bodies in South India were no different 50000 years ago from what these bodies look now. It is the styles of sculpture that came and vanished. The bodies remain the same. (Oh! Well, not quite: the ancient dancers didn’t look so old, ugly, useless and worn-out when they were 80 years, and they did not attempt to make a laughing stock out of themselves by exposing their clumsiness and lost figures!) The proliferation of imbecile, half-baked modern authorities on Bharatanatyam is amazing, especially in the rajasic West, where every idiot is encouraged to produce a “different” view as long as he is paid for his/her “research” and “innovation”.

“New” is better than “True”, is the slogan of the superficial Western rajasic mind.

“There are no authorities” is another slogan.

The Hindu’s article on this score:

“There are over 25 Ph.D programmes on Indian dance in American universities alone,” says art critic Sadanand Menon. “This is when there is hardly any such attempt here.”

“Every American idiot is equal to Bharata Muni since Bharata Muni did not have a Ph.D. in Dance from a reputed US-based university” is another democratic belief.
There is an interesting trend that VP Dnahanjayans described very aptly, when a Kerala university imposed its own “selection” of the Bharatanatyam…. errrr… “professors” at the Dhananjayan’s “college”. “The staff they proposed are the worst possible teachers”, commented the disappointed Dhananjayan. “The university wanted the Bharatanatyam professors to have, primarily, a university degree in Bharatanatyam. The problem is, there are no people with a university degree in Bharatanatyam!” Because nobody needed such a piece of paper before.

Although Mother Kali can be heard producing very lound laughter above our heads, let us get serious and find the parameters by which we will compare the present and the past.

-The episode with apsara Urvasi makes us realize that:

  • the origin of Natya is in the Heaven, not in a disco bar (leave us a comment if you believe you are an incarnation of Rambha :)
    Now, Bharatanatyam dancers learn new things by copying western ballet, Indian movies and folk dance. The rest they imagine. They don’t read the Natya Shastra or Abhinavabharathi. Too sophisticated for parrot-brained maami’s! Have you ever heard a dancer saying, “This item was revealed to me by such-and-such Apsara in my meditation?” What is meditation, Madam, errrrr?
  • it takes a king Pururavas, a great soul and a purified mind, to compose a superb piece of Natya
    Few ancient items (incl. poetry and music) have been preserved. “Pay Rs.60000 and I will compose a heavenly item for you” is the tariff language of the contemporary (pop-Bharatanatyam) composer. While some medieval composers were declared saints, where are the modern saints? They are fighting for the Padmashree awards. “How much is this divine set of Jathis, Sir?”, “Rs.23000, Madam”. There is not a single item composed in the past 200 years that could stand comparison with the ancient Kali or Vishnu Kautuvams.
  • it takes an embodied apsara’s skills (arrived at by constant, full-time practice) and a perfect body (you bet she looked far better than Aishwarya Rai!) to truly mesmerize the refined audience (not a bunch of ignorant village bumpkins who believe that “buffalos also dance”… Bharatanatyam? )
    The contemporary Bharatanatyam students have no desire nor time to practice. For what???? With 1000 relatives around, every day there is an important function: someone either dies or is born. The yokels watch the vulgar Indian movies.
  • there are no contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers whose death would result in the immediate death of 1000 of their fans
    When the modern reviews publish “mesmerizing” and “enchanting” and “fascinating” epithets, take it with a pinch of salt. If you see an old fat ugly grandma monopolizing the stage, and junior dancers licking her a** and shoes, remember, this simulated psychophancy does not last long. The same tongue that licked the Bharatanatyam VIP’s feet at a function will blast her to pieces while its owner chats to her friends. Contemporary dancers are the biggest liars and politicians. The fattest dancer is Ms.Jayalalitha, who still gets compliments for her superb nritta.

-The incident on Thillai that resulted in the construction of the Chidambaram temple.

  • the real dancing happens in the invisible worlds, where it is much more fun
    The present Bharatanatyam’s themes include HIV, agricultural irrigation, industrialization of India, sweetness of Coca-Cola, greatness of the State Bank of India, and the most divine condom items that are used with Lingam.
  • it takes a great rishi’s tapasya to get a ticket for such a show
    If you are a Bharatanatyam dancer who “has”(really?) to dance at a car exhibition or a new shampoo inauguration, ask yourself, “How many people came here to watch my great Bharatanatyam?” If you are a Bharatanatyam dancer doing a programme at a Sabha, ask yourself, “Can I see anybody besides my relatives, fellow dancers, neighbors, my parents’ colleagues? Huh! Nobody else came again!”
  • the human shape is used by Shiva in his mystic dance to explain his relationship with Shakti
    “We don’t need anything mystic: there are important meterial (financial, career) problems that we have to solve right now!” . Have you ever met a contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer who has at least 1 spiritual experience??? (not just a dream of buying a new car!) “Maami, let’s get practical: I don’t need any such revelations: I have to prepare for tomorrow’s exams!” What, Bharata Muni was a rishi in the first place????

-The original devadasi practices.

  • The devadasis used to live a very simple life with very basic material needs provided for by the temples.
    Now, every dancer wants to be as rich as Jayalalitha, or Srinidhi Chidambaram or at least Alarmel Valli.
  • Tuition was… free of cost.Now, only the students who pay well (lakhs!) get the attention of the guru. Arul describes the contemporary exceptions:
    There was a dancer who lived down the street of very modest circumstances and she would pay something like a hundred and fifty rupees a month. He (Subbaraya Pillai) didnt’ care. There was no set fee. Everyone paid what they could, it was voluntary and he would never ask. Over eight years she became a good student and he would spent 3 or 4 hours each day, six days a week, teaching her the danyasi varnam. It was such a paltry sum! For all those hours and hours of teaching.
  • Devadasis learnt 64 subjects, so some of them made very good living. Most of these subjects were complimentary to dance (right-brain hemisphere activities), and automatically enhanced the dancer’s dancing standards.
    One of these 64 subjects is… Divination!
    Can’t remember this subject in the Annamalai University’s syllabus! “Spells & charms“? Not a useful subject either. Our ancestors were idiots or what?Now, some professional Bharatanatyam dancers complain that…. they cannot make a luxurious living out of Bharatanatyam alone! Most contemporary idiots believe that computer engineering or surgery (left-brain hemisphere activities) will enhance their Bharatanatyam performances. A typical performance in Chennai starts with, “She has an MBBS”. Or an MBA. When on earth did this cow have the time to rehearse her Bharatanatyam items?????? Stupid: she didn’t! :( Then she will complain that nobody likes Bharatanatyam today.
  • A devadasi danced in the mandapams. No human audience were allowed to watch her dance. She danced for the deity. Her dance was the expression of her soul.
    A contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer dances to entertain the audience that consists mostly of a bunch of bored pigs chewing chips and chatting on their mobiles.
  • There was Tejas emanating from devadasi Valli when she was dancing in front of Kallivelli Siddhar
    The contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer’s brain is too busy focussing on how to impress the sponsors and chief guests who do not understand anything about Bharatanatyam.Tejas??? What is Tejas? :( Is it the name of a new Tamil actor?
  • The devadasis used to do all the 108 karanas. There was a lot of variety in their performances.
    Nowadays the Bharatanatyam dancers (except for very few ones) use just 10% of the technical elements described in Natya Shastra. Most rasikas cannot find the difference between Bharatanatyam and folk dance.

-Anhinayadarpanam

There is a rumour that ABHAI wants to prohibit this book on the grounds that it offends the senior dancers by stating that a Patra (bharatanatyam dancer) has to be youthful, agile, beautiful, with sweet voice, and so on. After all, the modern trend is to let the disabled dancers perform on the stage, isn’t it??? Their parents pay so much, so why not…? Abhinayadarpanam is an outragous text that, for some apolitical reasons, lists the criteria that disqualify the dancer from giving a public performance. “99% of the contemporary dancers would lose their jobs if we followed the scriptures”, said Sudharani Raghipathi at the release function of her recent Bharatanatyam DVDs (She does not allow her best student, Sridevi, to release any DVDs now, when Sridevi can still dance. Otherwise, who would buy Sudharani’s DVDs?) where the old maami looked dangerously pregnant and was moving as if on crutches. What, Abhinayadarpanam reads that such a dancer would be a parody? “Dare call me a clown and your dance career is dead”, said the angry Padma Subrahmaniam.“So what if I look vulgar? What, Chitra Visveswaran is better?”

Recent developments

The recent developments have included such main factors as

Alarmel Valli gives us some insights:

Ever wondered why Alarmel Valli’s technique includes and increasingly larger number of purely western embellishments and artsy ornamentation aimed at telling the spectator, “Hey, look at me, am I not great?”

Perceptions are changing with the cultural onslaught from the West. American pop culture, with its discos, its MTV and its soap operas has made strong inroads. These have contributed to the distancing of our young from our culture.

A true liberal is one who can move across all forms of cultural space with equal impartiality. He does not go around saying: “This is not fashionable, so I will not go to it;” or “It is not contemporary, so I will not watch it;” and so on.

As she spends most of her time in the USA and hardly watches any Bharatanatyam performances at all, here is what she thinks:

There are a few people who tout the idea that Bharatanatyam, or any classical dance for that matter, no longer has any relevance; that it is dead, it is a fossil, it is a museum piece, it is too decorative

Is the dance of Alarmel Valli is purely decorative, and a useless westernized fossil since it has no revelance to most of what is described in Natya Shastra?

the subtle imposition of a Western modern aesthetic, modified by a sprinkling of Indian ‘ingredients’ is not the answer to the development of modern Indian dance. And, we do not need anybody to tell us exactly how our dance should evolve.

Let’s forget the Natya Shastra and listen to the arrogant Alarmel Valli, comfortably settled in her American house:

Although I am a classical dancer, I enjoy good Modern dance enormously and am inspired by it. The ultimate test is whether the dance touches you, moves you, makes you think.

Natya Shastra, though tells us that desi is can only serve as entertainment, while margi is a means of spiritual upliftment. Is Alarmel Valli greater than Bharata Muni??? No, she is just a stupid arrogant woman, a lowly woman who thinks:

The Natya Sastra itself gives you total freedom to be a poet. Can one dictate or curb poetic expression?

Alarmel Valli tells us:

a few questions posed by some Western ‘modernists’: Why is there so little floor movement in Indian dance? Why is Indian classical dance so ‘happy’ all the time? How can an ancient traditional form like Bharatanatyam be contemporary? These questions are as pointless

There are no entirely pointless questions. The answers could be:
1. Bharatanatyam is not meant for horses running in a football stadium
2. Classical dance is to express ananda, and all the miserable ballet dancers in America or Europe don’t understand it
3. An “ancient” form like Bharatanatyam did not exist 150 years ago: 95% of what we see today was created out of scratch very recently, so it is very contemporary, and very boring too.

Why do you think why Alarmel Valli writes:

I love Modern dance and I have seen many of the best Modern dancers from around the world. My experience of their dance is transmuted within me and finds appropriate expression in my own idiom, which is Bharatanatyam… Other dance-forms have their influence on me… For instance, I am a great admirer of Pina Bausch… I am inspired by her and as such, somewhere in my inner consciousness I am influenced and this comes out in my dance

Oh! She borrowed all that crap from the great guru Pina, Pina! You didn’t know, huh?

So, is there a future for Bharatanatyam?

The fate of Bharatanatyam is similar to Carnatic music’s veena. As Madurai T.N.Seshagopalan said in Sruti, “An element of drama and contrived modulation pass for Bhava. What was once considered cheap tactics has become the order of the day…If there is a great artist today on the veena the situation would change”. We will be patiently waiting for a real apsara’s incarnation to restore the glory of Natya.

Our comments (in bold) on Aneal’s article’s statements

In my view, Bharatanatyam does indeed have a strong future but is currently undergoing certain changes that could have a profound impact on the art form. This article aims to discuss certain trends that I have observed over the past few years (the analysis that is based on a few year’s observation is not worth a dime) and attempts to raise some important questions for dancers and scholars in this field.

Trends in Bharatanatyam technique:

Bharatanatyam is slowly but surely moving towards more athleticism. (maybe in America; in India, more and more cows believe that, if Chitra Visveswaran can dance in a skirt, so everybody else can!) Although no one can doubt the strength and endurance required for dancers to competently perform a whole margam, there seems to be a marked emphasis on athleticism by some dancers on stage. The athleticism almost borders on acrobatics and gymnastics (oh, where, where did you watch it???? Show me 1 dancer who can do 108 karanas, and I will believe you). This type of dancing seems to have a certain appeal to audiences and I wonder if more dancers will follow in this path. (no way, they are getting too lazy in India)

Another related point is the growing emphasis by some dancers on nrtta to the detriment of abhinaya (Aneal has never watched a Chennai-based Bharatanatyam dancer). It is commonplace for jathis to last for several minutes tiring both the dancer and the audience. (The US-made jathis are as boring as their synthetic McDonnalds hamburgers). The pace is often fast and furious. (Aneal has not seen a really fast nritta). Sometimes (often!) this pace sacrifices the crisp completion of each adavu. Is this desire for speed being driven by the (American!) audience? (no, Aneal, it’s just the audience cannot see their abhinaya from 200 meters away – in a large auditorium) Are dancers worried that without some spectacular footwork fireworks, the audience will not stay interested? (The audience is bored anyway, but want to appear as “cultured Indians”) With regard to padams and other abhinaya-oriented pieces, are dancers worried that they will not be able to sustain the audience’s attention with a slow-paced piece solely focused on mime? (The dancer’s mime is usually so horrible, artificial, superficial or boring that they don’t want to scare the audience)

Another issue is the apparent loss of importance of the Araimandi stance. (in America???) It is very rare (not so rare in Chennai: go and watch the youngsters) to see dancers with proper Araimandi. If it is acceptable today for a dancer to have just a slight outward turning of the knees (they use the western toilets nowadays, hence the new habit) and sitting a few inches lower than his or her height (their legs are too weak after driving the car to every shop instead of walking 50 meters), why even call it a half-sitting position? Review after review will note in a sentence (usually towards the end of the review) that the dancer’s Araimandi stance is missing or not consistent. (Who paid the journalist for the review? Too little an amount will result in bad review!) What is surprising to me is the minimal impact that the lack of Araimandi has on the overall critique of the dancer. I have observed that dancers are routinely praised for their technique even though there is no Araimandi. Perhaps lack of Araimandi is a result of dancers increasing the speed of their nrtta. (no, they just have 1 hour of practice per week!) Is this only one isolated component of Bharatanatyam that is slowly being lost or are there other components that are suffering a similar fate? (Yes, Aneal, the same is happening to mudras, hasthas, bhedas. Have you seen a dancer who can move her eyes in all the ways described in the Natya Shastra???? It’s just too hard! ).

Trends in Bharatanatyam performance content:

A highly visible development over the past few years is the move towards more thematic programs. (If your sponsor is McDonalds, your item must be about hamburgers. What, ancient dancers depicted devas??? Where are these devas now? Why they are not sponsoring the contemporary, dirty-minded Bharatanatyam dancers?) Within thematic shows, particularly abroad, there is a movement to make Bharatanatyam relevant to non-Indian audiences. ( the dancers love the non-Indian dollars, and the opportunity to write in their resume, “Have done 4 tours in the USA”) Modern social issues are often the themes chosen. Is the traditional margam no longer enough to sustain the attention of the modern audience? (No, modern brahmin desis don’t know what is Bhagavad-Geetha). Are dancers making efforts to educate rasikas on the complexities of a margam? (Who cares?)

What do dancers think about the future of the margam format? (The margam format is only 200 years old. Let it vanish like a bad dream. After all, devadasis danced 18 items for 6 hours non-stop! But then, there was no important local cricket matches to catch on TV) . Although this has been the traditional performance structure for several centuries, (Aneal does not know what he is talking about) do dancers find the traditional items limiting in scope? (The dancers do not know the traditional items). Do dancers feel that, through a margam, they cannot fully express their thoughts? Already, the Shabdham has more or less made its exit from the margam. What is next? Javalis? (I hate the boring Javalis!!! Let them vanish like a bad dream! Aneal does not know that hardly anybody in Chennai dances the boring Javalis) As many Bharatanatyam performers are young (especially at the amateur level), how can they be expected to exhibit the maturity (not so long ago they were supposed to reach maturity in Natya by the age of 16 and have an arangetram) required for performing these more intense items? It is interesting to see the relatively recent (no, not really so recent) incorporation of the Pushpanjali into many margams. It is quite possible that other items from a margam will be added or deleted as the years go by. (Yes, now they do the Bhajans to the Hindustani music to please the north Indians).

Another trend is the broadening of the music used for Bharatanatyam. (The composers just don’t know what is Carnatic music). Traditional Carnatic music is being supplemented with compositions in other Indian languages. Just as the language of Bharatanatyam music shifted from being predominantly Telugu to encompass Tamil and Kannada compositions over time, it is not beyond the realm of imagination to think of a day where compositions in a non-Indian language like English could become acceptable. Western classical and contemporary music is also being experimented with by some dancers. (Yes, the hard rock fans demand it.) Obviously, over time and with enough dancers moving in this direction, the music of Bharatanatyam will not stay static. (It will sink below the bottom)

Fusion of dance styles and music is all the rage in some circles. (If you had a 1 week’s of Bharatanatyam classes in your entire life, and 2 weeks of Odissi, what else can you do to impress the public???) Can a Bharatanatyam dancer performing choreography interwoven with different dance styles remain uninfluenced by the other styles? (There are over 500 hasthas in Mohiniattam. How many does Aneal know there are in Bharatanatyam?)

Although group performances are not a new concept (in India, there are usually 5 passengers seated on 1 motorbike, and I saw 12 people in 1 autorickshaw), there seems to be a feeling among some that the more Bharatanatyam dancers there are on stage, the better the show. (the dancers hope that nobody will notice their mistakes) Perhaps it is an economic issue as well. The more dancers you have on stage, the more friends and family that may attend which will result in increased ticket sales. As there are more and more group performances, will there be any negative impact on the scope for a solo artist? (Yes, the ambitious solo artist will have to be content even with 20 rasikas)

Trends in Bharatanatyam teaching and learning:

Bharatanatyam seems to be developing in two parallel tracks – the professional and the amateur. The vast majority of dancers treat the art form as one of their extra curricular activities, not as a profession. The dancer’s arangetram is seen by many as the culmination of training rather than the traditional ascension of the stage and the start of the dance career. (Right. In 10 years’ time, there will be no really professional Bharatanatyam dancers at all)

Particularly among Indians settled abroad, Bharatanatyam is viewed as an important tool in teaching Indian culture and values to children being raised away from the cultural influences that shaped their parents. (See the attached letter below Aneal’s article and have a laugh)

There appears to be a noticeable trend away from the mastery of the fundamentals. (American-born kids have dyslexia, no?) Children who are often not ready for the stage are decked out in beautiful costumes and jewelry for the visual consumption of their families and friends. (They are used to prop their parent’s social status) Praise is lavished a little too freely and the epidemic of standing ovations for mediocrity is spreading. (People do it at any stupid political gathering, so what?) Is it any wonder that audience sizes are dwindling? (Nobody will watch your boring and amateurish pseudo Bharatanatyam in 10 years’ time)

It is also very interesting to observe the generational shift among Bharatanatyam dance teachers. The great gurus of the 20th century were themselves taught by great nattuvanars who were keepers of the Devadasi tradition. (The nattuvanars had little to do with the devadasis) The gurus of the 21st century will be composed of dancers a generation or two removed from the great gurus. (Thank God!) In the modern age, the strict gurukula pattern of learning dance is almost extinct. (They advertise the gurukula style learning DVDs – no need for the guru) As the decades pass by, it is not unreasonable to expect that what is being taught is going to change. (There will be no need to have a greedy and incompetent guru) As an extreme anecdotal example, a teacher, herself trained rigorously by a great guru, teaches only a set of Thattadavus and Nattadavus as the foundation before moving on to teaching items. I fear that this type of teaching is not just an isolated event but is something that is spreading. (Come on, who needs your Adavus?) It is alarming to think that a student receiving this kind of training may someday go on to become a Bharatanatyam teacher. (Nattuvanars could not dance at all, anyway)

Trends in societal acceptance:

It seems to me that some of the primary obstacles for choosing Bharatanatyam (or any art form generally) as a profession are societal and the monetary costs associated with being a performer. (True) It is quite rare to see Bharatanatyam dancers who do not have another profession to rely on it for their livelihood. It is even more rare to see dancers with parents who encourage their children to pursue Bharatanatyam over academics. (I don’t watch such dancers’ programmes, and don’t recommend it to anyone else) Bharatanatyam is encouraged by many families so long as it does not ultimately interfere with other more “professional” ambitions. Even if a dancer is encouraged by her parents, when she gets married, she has to hope that her husband and in-laws are supportive of her choice. (Errrrr… If Bharatanatyam is not the most important thing in your life, you’d better not think of yourself as a “professional Bharatanatyam dancer”. Padma Subrahmaniam had to divorce…)

Perhaps, her new family will only be accepting of her teaching dance and discourage a professional dance career. The path becomes even more difficult if a dancer becomes a mother. As with any profession, juggling motherhood and professional aspirations is no easy task. (Don’t exaggerate: Alarmel Valli, Rajeshwari Sainath, Urmila Sathyanarayanan are good examples) A serious pursuit of Bharatanatyam requires a lot of time practicing (come on, who practises now more than 6 hours a week???), rehearsing, choreographing, performing and traveling. For a young mother, time away from her child can be very difficult emotionally and cause feelings of guilt. As she gets older, can she maintain her beauty and graceful figure? (Yes) If she succumbs to the aging process, can she develop a thick skin (yes, this is what the majority of the senior dancers do very easily: a sponsor can even sh*t on them and these dancers will smile) to not get affected by comments that she is too old or too fat?

Young men equally have difficult challenges ahead of them if they choose to pursue Bharatanatyam as a profession. Men are generally not encouraged to follow careers in dance and face many uphill battles with society to gain the recognition that they seek. The very small number of men pursuing Bharatanatyam either as amateurs or professionals is testament to the difficulty of getting more male involvement in the art form.

Trend in expenses:

Even if societal obstacles can be overcome, another development is the exponential increase in the cost of performing. Factoring in the cost of a live orchestra, costumes, jewelry, traveling etc., Bharatanatyam is a pricy profession. It is also very likely a self-financed profession. With so many dancers vying for attention, most sabhas feel no pressure to compensate the artists. (True….) It really is a business and those dancers that can draw ticket-paying audiences can reap some reward. (Why don’t these dancers learn how to dance first????) The lucky few who perform abroad on tours on a regular basis have the chance to supplement their income. The rest have to rely on income earned from other professions or their families to fund their Bharatanatyam careers.

Another trend is a vast increase in the number of performances and a corresponding dwindling of the audiences. With the exception of certain of the established veterans, do most Bharatanatyam dancers have an established fan base? Not just family and friends who attend a program but rasikas who are excited to see the dancer perform? Are most dancers prepared for the years of toil that it may take to gain the support of rasikas? (No! )

With so many competing societal influences, I wonder if enough is being done to educate (HOW???) the young of today to grow into the rasikas of tomorrow. After all, it is the young who will financially sustain the art in the future.

Parting thoughts:

I hope that by laying out some of my own personal observations of trends that I see in Bharatanatyam and raising many questions, this article will get people talking about the future of Bharatanatyam. At this point in time, Bharatanatyam at the amateur level is exploding in popularity. Bharatanatyam at the professional level, however, is a big question mark. With so many obstacles to overcome, will talented dancers have the perseverance and resources to achieve their goals? (No, they are too lazy) Finally, upon achieving these goals, will they be greeted by an auditorium full of adoring fans or by a vast sea of empty seats?

As a rasika, I believe that if Bharatanatyam (either at the amateur or professional level) is to continue to flourish, dancers must present the best. There are far too many mediocre programs these days (Why don’t you dare to name a few? According to the reviews, everything is “fantastic”, and the rivers in Madras are clean – according to the press), and when we in the audience see performers whose technique hasn’t been perfected and whose expressions are lifeless, our desire to support this beautiful art form will surely fade. (Idiot, go and watch some good performances!)

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Another write-up we want to comment on:

Are USA-touring Indian dance groups really of top quality?

Author: Mukundagiri Sadagopan of Illinois, USA, discusses this issue in this article he e-mailed to KutcheriBuzz.com

As the 2008 music and dance season starts in North America (USA and Canada) I have a personal peeve regarding the visiting classical dance troupes coming from India. I suspect that a large percent of lay-audiences in North America share this complaint.(Yes, soon they will stop attending such crappy performances)

In recent years India-Based Dance Troupes- with a few notable exceptions – leave much to be desired. To state briefly, every troupe is anchored by a main dancer who is past his / her prime (a chief clown represented by a buffalo) and is physically unable to move rapidly on the stage. Because of this the programs they offer are slow and boring.

These India-based troupes are mostly anchored by a senior artist who exceptional in her Abhinaya (hand gestures) (These senior dancers have no graceful or subtle expressions left on their fat faces) and Nrityha (expressional or narrative dance) – but is lacking in Nrutta which is pure dance. “Pure dance” – the rapid-fire stepping and dynamic footwork is what differentiates a dance from a “Katha Kalakshepam” – a musical, often a tear-jerker.

There is intense competition among highly talented troupes to win trips to America. Out of these only those with the most economic power and political clout get the contracts.(Business is business, as well as foul politics) However, it takes decades to build the required combination of talent, money and influence. By that time the Anchor Dancer, who by now is also the owner of her own dance school and its artistic director, has almost completely lost the physical strength to prance and leap forcefully as Nrutta – true dancing requires.(Such a dancer thinks that nobody knows what is real Bharatanatyam in America anyway!)

Invariably, there are fabulously athletic dancers touring with each of the teams, but they are junior members under the control of the Anchor. When the curtain opens, like most normal humans would do, the Anchor hogs the stage, not giving scarcely a chance to the stronger dancers. (So why didn’t you throw some rotten tomatos?)

So what should the buyers – Classical Program Organizers in North America do?

First they must inform the “export agents” in India that the audiences here are tired of watching over-the-hill dancers from India. That sends home a message for the 2009 summer season.

Second, they should soon place advance contracts for 2009 season dance programs from dance companies right here in North America. (Yep. Nobody needs those Indians from Chennai!) There are dozens of outstanding dance schools in every US / Candian metro area. (Where???? Where???? Where???) Many have been here for over 30 years. (And completely forgot what is Bharatanatyam) Their audience appeal and talent matches the imports. (Yea…Both are rubbish!) In addition, this would further enhance the talent pool in North America – which is a great goal in itself.

Third, Classical Program Organizations and Dance Schools in North America should set up a North American Dance Agency. The NADA should investigate, inform, and screen India based troupes that plan to tour North America. They should verify that the visiting dancers are physically able to do comprehensive classical dances that including brisk Jathis and Nritta.(How much are the bribes?) It will be in the interest of the Dance companies in India to cooperate, because verification from NADA would ensure favorable terms and bigger audiences. (Really????)

Secrets of Lasya and Abhinaya. Divyatha Arun: a lonely bright star among the mediocre K.J.Sarasa’s Bharatanatyam students? Bharata natyam careers.

After watching 20 or so of her mostly mediocre or outright bad students in the past few years, the only thing that urged me to go and see her programme was the picture of her dancing with Shanmugha, K.J.Sarasa’s senior assistant, that my daughter discovered in The Hindu last year. “If he was dancing with her, she should be really good”, she exclaimed. And she was right!

Shanmugha understands very well who is good and who is not so. His schoolmate’s – Jayalalitha’s – government awarded him with a title in 2000 :-) K.J.Sarasa has a lot of political connections in both parties, so if you need a government or other title, go and join her school, pay your fees, show a bit of sychophancy and the title is yours. :-)

It was not a surprise that the mediocre dancer, Subanjali Sadgurudas, who danced (very primitive choreography) before Divyatha, had the mini hall of NGS fully packed with the social circles of her gurus, the Narasimhacharis. The senile voice of the Narasimhachari was probably not too inspiring. Vasantha looked at him as if he was a senile idiot. He did look so. How can Vasantha Narasimhachari look like as if she were his daughter??? What is the secret of her youthfulness? :-)

Less than 50 people watched Divyatha. The better the dancer, the fewer the rasikas? :-)

As soon as Divyatha started, I realized, “Aha, now we are watching some serious choreography!” Usually Sarasa’s students dance some simple (boring!) pieces, but this time it looked really complex. In most, if not in all, schools, some items are for beginners, some for the middle level, and some are for the advanced, so you can very easily tell if the dancer is “advanced” or not. Divyatha is very advanced, and has already opened her own Bharatanatyam school in Coimbatore.

Divyatha will impress you at once with her elegance, her perfect araimandi and excellent angasuddhi. I noticed that some dancers do not have this ability to capture instantly their rasika’s minds. Divyatha has a pretty face, perfect figure and is extremely agile, and fully performed every pose, very sculpturesque! Although as far as flexibility goes she could not fully bend (for example, while lifting her leg) in a couple of instances, but even then it was not as bad as Ranjani Murthy‘s awkward stiffness. (Unfortunately, lately, Divyatha’s dance looked more and more like a male Kalakshetra dancer… :-( )

I think that from her guru’s point of view, Divyatha’s technique was very good. This girl had an excellent control over her body, and her steps are very crisp and her laya is superb. Her poses were so excellent because she carved them in her mind and only then let her body assume them. This mental “pre-shaping” is a sign of mastery. She bent her torso effortlessly, swiftly and fully in every direction!

She also displayed a mastery over the dancing space too: even though NGS’s mini hall provides the dancer with hardly 9 sq metres of floor, she used this limited space remarkably well. I think it shows her experience. Very few dancers can do it.

She stooped a few times in a Nataraja-like pose, arching her back – have you ever seen such a pose? Curious… Sleeping Nataraja? Still I was a bit surprised that she lifted her arms stiffly upwards (in Kuttadavu), in a clumsy way, and occasionally she did not complete the left turn fully, unlike the right turn (again in Kuttadavu). Is it Kalakshetra, or what??? :-(

My friend V.R.D. told me that K.J.Sarasa’s students, even the girls, are notoriously bad at mukha abhinaya. Primarily, they lack the expressiveness, the richness, the depth and the subtle details. For example, although both the girls’ schools are formally “Vazhuvoor”, Krupa Rajul Shah in her depiction of the Vamana avatara’s episode was far more subtle, deep, delicate and detailed, and her expressions changed each other much more seamlessly (seen very well in the portrayal of Bali).

It is interesting that both the girls’ interpretation of the Vamana story was so different from the classics. In the original story, we are told that Vamana put his third leg on Bali himself and crushed Bali to the nether or the Patala loka(underground world), thus helping the Gods out. In Divyatha’s and Krupa’s depiction, we see Bali taking off his crown in amazement and adoration of Vamana, and then Vamana blesses him with his foot gently! Wow! Bali is transformed and his life saved! :-)

Portraying asuras are an interesting area where most dancers fail miserably. While it is easy to show a rakshasa, it is hard to depict an asura. Asuras, in their outward appearance, manners, and behaviour are often indistinguishable from the avatars. The difference is very subtle, and frankly speaking, I have not seen a single dancer who has succeeded perfectly in this kind of depiction. Dancers are so shallow nowadays! Cheap!

Divyatha should read the dice game story, meditate, and understand that Sakuni’s expressions and reactions did not look like a cherri boy’s from Chennai! And Yudhishtira was perhaps more noble, self-contained and refined than what Divyatha showed us. As we do not see any living (real) high-ranking kshatriya’s in the cherri-dominated Madras of Kali Yuga, the dancers’ imagination (and the purity of mind) is the only source for their depictions. But why then portray Bali as if he was a saint???

Ok, Dussasana did treat Draupadi in a rough way, but I am not sure Draupadi felt and behaved in that way. Draupadi was a highly noble woman, she did not behave in a hysterical manner perhaps… Well…

There were 2 typical errors that took away from the perfection of Divyatha ‘s mukha abhinaya. One was the screwing of eyes, and the other error was the smile’s sudden fluctuations (jitters) when the corners of the mouth move unexpectedly down and then suddenly up again and then down and then up. As if the dancer was unsure of whether to smile or not to smile! Divyatha was not as bad here as Urmila Sathyanarayanan and her students. When Urmila is dancing, she demonstrates, “Hey, am I not funny: now I can smile, you see? Now I don’t. You see?” Very coquettish. It is as if the dancer shows that she is not serious at all. The rasikas get the impression, “Huh! This girl is not for real: she is just pretending!”

Divyatha should understand that a smile is when your mouth’s corners are up, not down! Don’t you get a funny impression when you see someone’s lower lip move over the upper teeth? :-) Or when the lower jaw moves slightly back? :-) Occasionally, this is what this girl did.

Both Divyatha and Krupa were brilliant at conveying the supreme power of the Vamana; Divyatha was superb too in the prayer pose when the song dwelled on invoking Krishna… Krishna… Krishna… Divyatha’s soul is stern, and its power is quite concentrated. She actually understands tapasya more than self-surrender. Unlike most women. Divyatha’s voice is very powerful and vibrant like Arjuna’s voice on Kurukshetra, but I would prefer that it should be more tender, sweet, mellow and warm.

Krupa could learn from Divyatha the lasya ways in angika abhinaya and nrittas. Lasya is much more demanding. From a purely physical point of view, it implies moving not only with a wide range of speeds but, most importantly, a wide range of accelerations (Chitra Visveswaran’s students try to do it to some extent). It is a wide range of accelerations and decelerations that brings out the depth of the angika abhinaya and makes your ntritta intricate and graceful and captivating and professional. Without a wide range of accelerations, you will look like a primitive American robot dancing or doing aerobics. These accelerations lend life and emotional hues to every body movement. And this is what made Divyadha’s angika abhinaya and nrittas so vibrant and graceful.

Perhaps Divyadha can learn some abhinaya from Vani Nagarajan? :-) After all, Vani’s mind is not focussed on medical studies. :-) And Vani is much less inhibited. Sarasa, like a bad tailor, thinks that everyone’s clothes have to be stitched like a one-size-fit-all uniform: without measuring the poor client’s body.

Sarasa has not had the time yet to pull the ready-made clothes of the wrong size onto the little Vani. Vani does not understand that, in the future, she will be expected to lie a lot and wriggle her face while uttering heaps of flattery for the cherri VIP’s in order to get “opportunities to perform”, titles, and to “succeed in the Bharatanatyam career”. Our life’s experiences leave a deep imprint on our faces. Our disappointments, sufferings, tragedies… This creates a crust, or a shell, through which an adult dancer’s soul’s light cannot penetrate. When I first saw this shell, I was shocked. Very unpleasant.

Divyadha appeared to be preoccupied with one thought, “What impression am I making on the rasikas?” If you look at the dancer after the performance, it is very common to see the dancer’s face displaying 1000 more expressions than they do on the stage. Why do the dancers restrict their expressiveness so much? Because the guru tells them, “You have to do only like this”, “This expression is a mistake”, “That expression is wrong”. This over-correcting suppresses the dancer’s spontaneity and creativity. The Hindu says about Anita Sivaraman, “Srikanth has imparted the aesthetics of the dance style to Anita without curbing her innate enthusiasm.” Anita is lucky that her gurus do not “curb” her individual ways of expressing herself! Unfortunately, most of the gurus are too restrictive (some even introduce it as qualitative abhinayam!), and some gurus (pisacha type) even take delight in killing their student’s expressiveness. They feed on their students’ vital energy. Don’t allow them access to any children or students, and they will die in a week’s time. These people only look human. Two legs, two arms…

“Bharatanatyam careers”!

While she has visibly improved from the last year, I wonder how she manages her medical career. Jyotsna Jagannathan was very happy when she was able to finally – after her marriage – renounce her doctor’s job (still keeping the “Dr.” in her invitations). Jyotsna Jagannathan‘s soul’s urge prevailed over her rational mind’s choices. What about Divyatha?

She proudly announces her MBBS. But…. If you break your leg, would you choose to be treated by a surgeon who tries to impress you by telling you that she is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer who works full time as a software engineer who got a Master’s degree in psychology, and that she dedicates all of her free time to playing cricket on a professional level????

Would you like your house to be constructed by an architect who tries to impress you by saying that he has a PhD. in zoology, M.A. in Greek philosophy, Diploma in acupuncture, and has authored many books on Carnatic music??? It is an unpleasant surprise that most highly talented Bharatanatyam dancers think that Bharatanatyam is merely a “timepass”, or an expensive hobby – like golf! Divyatha is of course quite stupid and very young. Let us hope she grows wiser, like Jyotsna did. :-)

As Natya Shastra states the qualities required of a female dancer narthaki, “Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four (!!!) arts and crafts (kala)… are known as female dancers (narthaki)” . 64!!!

How can anybody nowadays dare call herself “a classical danseuse”? We are sure medicine, business administration or computer science or sewage management are not among these 64 subjects. These 64 subjects (such as the vocal and instrumental music, etc) are related to natya, and enhance the dancer’s performance. We are pretty sure that, had anyone learnt these 64 arts and crafts, she would be making much more money today than a doctor, business manager or a software engineer!

“Vazhuvoor” styles of Bharatanatyam and the magic of abhinaya

Madhula…

I was surprised to see among the 50-strong audience many Bharatanatyam VIP’s, “senior” gurus, critics and young top-notch dancers (and hardly any “ordinary” rasikas!) assembled in the ahe previous performance that K.M.D.Madhula did at the “Spirit of Youth” in the Music Academy, she had to dance even though she had a fever and had had only a few days for rehearsal, as the Academy sent her the “happy news”  only a few days before! The funniest thing is that Madhula did not even know that this festival was actually a competition. (It was part of a brilliant political manoeuvre by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, the Music Academy’s committee member (!), who realized her plan of making her protege, Swetha Vijayaraghavan, the winner of the “Spirit of Youth” competition-festival. Long live Madras politicians! :-)

This time K.M.D.Madhula was in excellent shape, and every move was well-rehearsed (she complained after the programme that she had to put so much of hard work into this success! :-) ) This is the girl who looks absolutely beautiful with or without makeup, and every woman on earth envies her. Have I seen anyone else like her? Hmmmm…. Smitha Madhav’s beauty is more mature and her expressions and movements are not so refined (got worse after her tour in the US, though), while Madhula looks like a 12-year-old girl and her expressions are as pure and delicate as of a little child’s! So elevating, and so inspiring!

Good genes? She moves so gracefully and completes every move. Supple! She has amazing stamina (she announced every item herself, and was never short of breath immediately – even after the varnam!), can be very fast, and she can do the slow passages too. Any shortcomings? Well….. When she got a bit tired, her feet in jatis were spread a bit too far apart, and sometimes she did not sit low enough.

There is one unique thing about Madhula, and this is her eyebrow movements in her abhinaya. Her eyebrow not only move totally independently, but every little section of each eyebrow seems to respond individually every moment to every change of music. Madhula can move her eyebrows in all imaginable and unimaginable ways, and she does it so well that one can only exclaim, “It is natural! You cannot learn it!”. Yes, you can. Without a full control over the eyebrows, the dancer will lose a major part of that captivating magic that most of us can only dream of doing.

I think Madhula’s mother and guru, Amudha Dandayudahpani of Coimbatore’s largest (thanks to Madhula too?) Bharatanatyam school, was determined that she would give birth to a girl who would excel in Bharatanatyam. Perhaps some other women, like Revathy Ramachandran, had this determination too – it has nothing to do with the “hereditary” genes. How little do men’s wishes matter when it comes to choosing what soul is going to be embodied in a particular body! :-)

Amudha ‘s choreography, although not too rich in terms of variety of elements, is very interesting too (one of the seniormost disciples of Ramaiah Pillai was not happy about a couple of things, though). Madhula dances so well that every moment her body does 1000 extremely complex and elaborate movements (she is very flexible in every joint) that enabled Madhula to have a perfect laya and compensated for any perceived simplicity of choreography. Amudha’s nattuvangam was not flawless, according to the Music College nattuvangam teacher who stood up after the first item and rushed to watch Jyotsna Jagannathan in Sivagami Petachi Auditorium. Well, did many other people care to notice it if Madhula danced so well???

I hope the charismatic Jyotsna does not curse me for not attending another of her recitals, but it was a Vazhuvoor day in Mypalore that Sunday. At the same time (why do they do it???): Madhula’s, Jyotsna’s and Srithika Kasturirangan‘s performances! A very difficult choice for most rasikas! The three stars competing with each other :-) You would never believe that all these three dancers are of… “Vazhuvoor” style! Which Vazhuvoor, eh???? :-)

“Madhula is my friend”, said (with admiration and love in his eyes! :-) Shanmuga Sundaram, a seniormost assistant of K.J.Sarasa of Vazhuvoor style. “Madhula is my friend”, said Devi Ghanshyam Das. Devi became the number one among Lakshmi Ramaswamy’s (seniormost student of Chitra Visweswaran, one of the well-known Vazhuvoor style gurus) students after Roshini Rajamohan regrettably lost her shape a year ago. Devi Ghanshyam Das recently released her DVD video (you can see a piece of it on YouTube), which is one of the best one I have watched!

While Chitra Visweswaran’s girls (except, perhaps, for Vijay Madhavan’s Sri Gayathri) dance only in skirts that severely restrict the leg movements so that the “dance” is more like walking or running around the stage, Madhula in her elegant pyjama costume was moving her legs effortlessly, powerfully and effectively in all directions, making a great impression! I think it impressed even V.P.Dhananjayan, a Kalakshetra-style guru, who came and was waiting to do the second slot’s recital. Did V.P.Dhananjayan appreciate the graceful charm and fluidity of the Vazhuvoor school? :-) No, he likes the simpler lines of the Italian ballet more. And the grotesque Kathakali abhinaya that is suitable for watching only from 1 km away.

But then, Madhula was fantastic even she did a piece portraying the fierce nature of goddess Kali: everything, her amazingly expressive face (she even put out her tongue), the sharp moves full of power, her acute sense of rhythm, brought out Kali so vividly that I could not take my eyes off her! While one of the typical errors that plagues the professional dancers is what we can call the “mechanical mudras“, when they do it automatically, Madhula was doing each mudra and hastha accurately and put her consciousness into every finger’s move. A mudra cannot be powerful unless we do it consciously! This consciousness was one of the hallmarks of Madhula’s recital. Without it, every American robot can dance “Bharatanatyam”.

Madhula got a Master’s degree in Bharatanatyam in Chennai. I do not know why she needed that useless degree! She is much better at Bharata natyam than her university phoney “Bharatanatyam” “professors” who do not have any degree! (I will ask Chitra Visweswaran if Ramaiah Pillai had any “degree” in Bharatanatyam!). Madhula’s mom was not entirely happy with the side effects of this “academics”: the Kalakshetra stamp. A few months ago Amudha said, “I promise that by winter I will make her unlearn all the stupid Kalakshetra trash that she learnt in Chennai”. And she did keep her promise. Fortunately! :-)

Girija Ramaswamy was again at her best, singing with powerful yet not hysterical emotions (why does Alarmel Valli keep her hysterical vocalist?) that flow from the depth of her heart, filled with profound bhavas. Girija is one of my favourite masters. Her delicate voice brings out the subtle nuances of the lyrics, and it is full of Bhakti!

Bangalore Bharatanatyam dancers, Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai vs Kalakshetra, lasya, tejas, the dancers age, purity of mind, and the secret of movements, Kalanidhi Narayan and Balasaraswati

(Based on new writings from A.)

Priyanka

” Smt. Revathi Narasimhah is one of Karnataka’s leading dance gurus” is a standard beginning in her students brochures. And I fully endorse this statement. I do not know what kind of students she has in Bangalore, but when she brings someone (usually, quite rich girls… :-) ) to  perform in Chennai, you bet these recitals are truly worth watching!

Revathi Narasimhan is among the top 3-4 choreographers that I know of (and I know more than 150). Her choreography and style is quite different from anything we are used to in Chennai. When I first saw Priyanka Chandrasekhar, it was such a pleasure to see such a dignified, beautiful and delicate girl trained so well.

While a trained eye will notice a plenty of momentary ugly expressions on 99% of the professional dancers, there were none on Priyanka’s face. Very polished and dignified mukha abhinaya – at the expense of variety? Every movement was very well-practised and was full of force. The forceful movements, the forceful abhinaya and accurate nritta and decent angasuddhi were the hallmarks of her schoolmate, Krupa Rajul Shah, who gathered in Vani Mahal almost as many rasikas as Alarmel Valli managed to draw to her first recital this year in Bharat Kalachar. People know that Revathi Narasimhah has high standards, and it ensures the attendance.

(Krupa is on the left)

Both Priyanka and Krupa were suspiciously similar in every way, and looked like sisters. Partly, it is because of the makeup (some of the best styles that I have seen). While 60% of all dancers’ makeup make them look worse than they do without it, the other 40% use it to enhance their features.

I do not know why Rupa wrote that in The Hindu, but I saw a lot of vigour in Priyanka’s and especially in Krupa’s recitals. This vigour and forcefullness, matched with the angular movements, made me doubt if it is indeed Vazhuvoor style. “I had to modify the Vazhuvoor style, as the rising popularity and spread of the Kalakshetra style forced me to make it more attractive for more people”, said Revathi. The cost of such modification was huge: most of the charm and delicate softness of Ramaiah Pillai’s heritage vanished. While both Priyanka and Krupa excelled in the passages that required tandava, they both (especially Krupa) failed in doing the passages where lasya was dominant. The intricate patterns and elaborate movements of Ramaiah Pillai’s style were replaced by the simplified, straight lines of Kalakshetra. Such a pity!

Krupa‘s varnam Devar Munivar was full of inspiration, bhakti, nobility and power (the passages with the Narasimhah and the Vamana avataras in particular were full of tejas and the images were so vivid and awe-inspiring that it gave me goosebumps, and my mind bowed down in humble adoration to the feet of this girl)

The next item, padam Indendu Vachidevira, was quite a contrast, as it required a lot of lasya and subtle mukha abhinaya, but Krupa‘s face was quite rigid, the movements were manly, and she obviously did not understand the symbols behind the lyrics. Priyanka was a bit better in this respect.

While Revathi said I cannot expect such young girls to be able to bring out all the nuances of the nayika bhavas, I told her that, in my opinion, some “mature” little uninhibited girls of 11-12 years old (when our soul, chaitya purusha, influences our nature most) such as Sivasri, Medha Hari (she lost it now :-( ), or, to some extent, Vani Nagarajan and Manaswini Ramachandran (her mom will make her great!), produce richer, more subtle, more refined, pure and more elevating abhinaya in the “adult” padams and varnams. “Such abhinaya is inadequate”? What is “adequate” then, we have a question?

The popular misconception is that some items are “suitable for children” and some are not. The Bhakti movement made use of adult (often crude) human relationships, experiences and feelings, and showed how these can be used as symbols to signify the spiritual relationships, experiences and sentiments. Unfortunately, if we focus more on portraying the details of a token itself instead of what this token stands for, we fail in Natya.

In a Narthaki.com’s article, we read, “The middle class housewife could never be successful in abhinaya because, she was too comfortable and satisfied in her domestic security. The Devadasi on the other hand had to constantly rely on her wit and talent to keep her lover(s) coming back to her. Only a woman who gets up in a morning to find her lover gone knows what viraha is,” maintained housewife Balasaraswati insisting that all poetry and art arise out of this pain of separation rather than from staid fulfillment. Now one of the foremost authorities on abhinaya today is housewife Kalanidhi Narayan. While the general belief is that a dancer’s training is incomplete without learning abhinaya from Kalanidhi, a senior dancer, on condition of anonymity (!!!), expressed her disapproval in the way abhinaya is now being defined as how Kalanidhi Narayan sees it.” The housewife Kalanidhi Narayanan, who released a plenty of her abhinaya lessons on DVDs,made us all believe that, unless a woman has experienced a sexual intercourse with a man, she would not be able to portray the union with the Divine in her Bharatanatyam recital! What a lie! Kalanidhi is only good for training young actresses for vulgar Tamil movies. Kalanidhi will not be able to explain to you why the original devadasis were celibate their entire life!

No, Maami, Natya is not like photography, not the Tamil movies, it is like painting the invisible, the spiritual.

While the children may not understand the concrete expressions and the gross adult experiences, they subconsciously understand and feel the spiritual truths behind the symbols much better than the adults.

One of the things that the bharatanatyam dancer must possess for doing a “soft” style is the flexibility and mobility of the joints and muscles, and, most importantly, the movements must originate from the area around the swadhisthana chakra (the centre of physical movement) – something that both the girls somehow did not show (interestingly, some students of Bangalore’s Sundari Santhanam did it very well in their DVD on Karanas )

If a movement does not originate from this natural center, it makes it look forceful, and the dancer soon gets tired. This is one of the first things that you learn in most Asian martial arts.

I noticed that that the girls of 10-12 years old are the best in this respect, and, as we grow older, our bodies become stiffer and lose their responsiveness to music. Some of these 10-12 years olds dance in such a way that every beat, every change of note in the music produces not one, not two, not five but 30-40 well-co-ordinated and spontaneous movements, some of them very small, in every joint, in every muscle. This mobility and responsiveness of the sattva-dominated body helps achieve angasuddhi and laya. A tamasic or rajasic body is unsuitable for Natya.