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!

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“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.

Anitha Sivaraman, exceptional NRI Bharatanatyam dancers, and more about lokadharmi, natyadharmi and the American lasya. Anita.

Anitha Sivaraman, the world’s fastest dancer?

This post is related to a new post on Anita Sivaraman


Remark: I don’t know why dancers post on YouTube the worst or most boring fragments from their recitals!

A beautiful dancer, with a perfect figure, and very graceful too. How can this 6-feet tall girl move faster and have a better stamina than 99% of the Chennai dancers who are 5 feet tall??? True, at the highest speed, she had to sacrifice the amplitude of some moves, and was sometimes making shortcuts, especially towards the end of the recital, as she was getting tired and was not sitting low enough in araimandi. And did not accentuate her steps and nritta hasthas.

It is quite common that the US-trained dancers seem to focus primarily on the physical perfection, and many are good at thillanas, although it was a surprise that Anita’s balance, agility, accuracy of movements, her laya was far superior to 99% of Chennai’s dancers.

What was far more surprising is that it was the first NRI dancer whose mukha abhinaya was superior even to 95% of Chennai’s dancers in the normal speed range, and far surpassed the Chennai dancers’ in the fastest abhinaya passages. I think the ability to do fast-changing abhinaya is related to one’s ability to speak (and think) fast.

Anita’s expressions were graceful, the transitions were smooth and natural, despite the often lightning speed of the changes. Something that I had hardly ever seen in an NRI dancer. Well, Surya Ravi is another pleasant exception, much younger to compare. Anita’s nritta abhinaya was miraculous (I had never seen anything like that!): the expressions, powerful and sparkling, were changing each other at an amazing speed and accuracy, and were matching the nritta so well! Something that dancers like Swathi Ariyapadi are yet to learn.

Nandini Ramani attributes Anita’s impressiveness not to Papanasam Sivan’s genes, but to a unique combination of Padma Subramaniam’s stamp in Anita’s training with Srikanth, and his experience in the Bhagavatamela tradition. But Nandini forgot about Anita’s Kuchipudi training with Vempati Chinna Satyam. What a powerful blend of 3 schools! I forgot to ask Anita if both Vempati Vempati Chinna Satyam and Padma Subramaniam interpret the karanas in the same way! 🙂

Rupa in The Hindu justly wrote that Anita is “blessed with a keen sense of timing, an extremely mobile face and a vibrant movement vocabulary”. Not only this vocabulary is vibrant, but is rich too, and the sheer variety of moves and their unexpectedness keeps the rasikas from falling asleep, especially the American audience who instantly get bored when a Bharatanatyam dancer starts doing a slow abhinaya piece, hardly moving at all.

Anita is using a few karanas too (not as difficult as these). Without karanas, any recital is boring.”From the standpoint of providing enough action and excitement, it was good, but from the angle of providing some depth, the recital fell short”. Rupa cannot explain what is “depth” or “width”. I think often the dancers are left clueless as to what a particular criticism was about! “Width” is about variety and entertaining. “Depth” is about magic and enchanting.

Well, what was somewhat missing was “magic”, or was this impression created because Anita does not seem to like very slow passages? While Anita Sivaraman’s was nearly “perfect” outside, what she could learn from dancers like Alarmel Valli is how to concentrate within. The deeper this concentration, the better the dancer is dissolved in the dance (laya…), and the more powerful the recital. Depending on how well we are focussed within, we are able to visualize the vivid images and project them onto the audience. The approach is different: we are not trying to impress the audience, we are not trying to prove that we are good dancers, we are not at a dancing competition. We are becoming one with the audience, one in the meditation. Perhaps Nandini was luckier than me when she saw that recital where Anita’s “approach to her technique was one of deep concentration”. Maybe Anita’s mind was indeed more focussed then.

But, should we really blame the NRI dancers for the “lack of depth” if even the Chennai dancers, while portraying nayikas-nayakas, think not of the symbols beyond them, but of copying some vulgar Tamil serial’s actresses? How low! It is harder for the NRI’s to understand the difference between a photograph and a painting. There is no art in photograph. Everyone can take a photo. The painting can go beyond the physical, change it, and bring in the invisible. So much the difference between lokadharmi and natyadharmi. Have I seen much real natyadharmi? Errrrrr…. 1% ? Is there at least 0.0001% of natyadharmi in the “British South Asian dance“?

Life in the USA

Let us see what other American girls write:

I’ll admit I was somewhat diffident about performing the piece at all. This was because I wondered whether there was even a possibility to capture such an emotion: the shyness exhibited by a young bride when her to-be husband touches her hand for the first time.

I made several attempts at this expression as my mother repeatedly told me that my expression was far too bold and needed to look more coy. It made me wonder, however, if girls growing up in America are even capable of expressing the emotion at all. Are we perhaps too open-minded and brazen that we cannot portray the timidity expressed by a young bride on the day of her wedding?

“Can the ratisringara themes in Bharatanatyam actually apply to contemporary Los Angeles ? Does not longing, disappointment, anticipation of passionate union and various aspects of love apply to contemporary teenage life in America?”

But as the mother of one of the young Californian dancers notes, “My daughter, at 15, will not reconcile to the fact that this woman is pining for her man. She finds it too ‘cheesy’ because she has been raised in America. The culture is different here, girls are much more verbal and direct here.”

Thus it is the pining, the waiting game with which young girls today can no longer relate. Because they utilize a direct approach in their own love-lives, shyness in the company of the opposite sex is a concept that’s hard to grasp.

So, isn’t it a proof that, for Americans, the nayika bhavas are no longer accessible, and they don’t even understand why or how a soul would pine for a union with the Divine. After all, there is no need to search for God if you have a Social Security Number, a sports car and a fat bank account! America is better than HEAVEN itself! Well, maybe not every NRI feels so.

A typical shortcoming of a US- or UK-based dancer is a poor lasya, but, surprisingly, Anita Sivaraman was good (not perfect, but good) in this respect. Pleasant exception. The Americans’ subconscious mind just does not understand what is lasya, and it is often reflected in the tone of their voice and intonations too. As a result of the feminist movement in the USA, the absolute majority of the women who grew up there are less capable of displaying Lasya. They want to be men, haughty, aggressive, direct. The subconscious attitude is the ready-to-fight-back attitude. These women are ready to assert themselves, to hit back, always on the alert, always competitive, always tense like a fist.

Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana: Bharatanatyam competition

Ranjani Murthy, the winner of Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana’s Bharatanatyam competition in 2007Ranjani Murthy , is a good illustration for the above, would be fit to act in “Dance like a man”. Does sheever relax her face??? Can she be sweet? Can she enjoy what she is doing??? She thinks that Bharatanatyam is a hard workout at the gym (but, as you see from the picture, she cannot lift her leg even half-way to its proper position), and so her face reflects it.

The funny thing, proving the debilitating influence of the American “culture” is that, unlike in any Bharatanatyam competitions in India in the 19–23 age group “each of the items must be either a Padam or Javali”. These items are usually reserved for the 60-70 age group in Chennai. How Ranjani Murthy got the 1st prize in that all-US Cleveland competition (while Anita Sivaraman, though among the “finalists”, did not even get into the top 3) is a miracle. Although, looking back at the US presidential elections in 2000, we cannot deny the fact that miracles can be the result of the political shrewdness of the NRI community who judicially invited only 2 judges (if you know of any other annual competition where the judges remain the same every year , please tell me): Smt. Savitri Jagannatha Rao and Smt. Radha, one of whom privately admitted that they could not follow and did not quite appreciate Anitha Sivaraman’s dance for several reasons:

  • it was too fast (the judges are elderly women who take 5 times longer to realize anything than a college student),
  • too intricate, unlike the Kalakshetra-style straight lines and plain moves
  • karanas are not yet part of the mainstream Bharatanatyam, nor the lively and expressive Kuchipudi flavour is palatable

Smt.Radha said, “I do remember there was one Anitha Sivaraman. I looked at her several (!) times. She was dancing when I was busy chatting with Savithri”. Radha remembers she did a lot of shopping and bought some expensive things after the competition was over.When asked what marks which dancers received and how, she gave a scared look, said she cannot remember, and ran away.

Pooja Kumar, who did win the 1st prize in 2008 after learning more plain Bharatanatyam under… Savithri Jagannatha Rao (!!!), explained the strategy, “If you don’t have the cash to bribe the judges at a competition, try becoming a student of the judge”. Well, after eeveryone saw how the competition was judged in 2007, no strong contestants cared to apply in 2008, so Pooja was beyond competition anyway. 🙂

George Bush said he is proud of the NRI community. 😦

Want to talk to the two shrewd judges? Here they are:

“Pradakshina”, Savithri Jagannatha Rao, 13, 2nd Crescent Road Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, Chennai 600020 Ph: (044) – 24412624

“Pushpanjali”, Rhadha R, 8A, Lambeth Avenue, Off Bawa Road, Alwarpet Chennai 600018 Ph: (044) – 24997715

“Ranjani Murthy dance”

ranjani murthy dance” is what a lot of people (to my surprise) enter in the google search box before they discover this post. Ranjani Murthy is probably quite annoyed, but will have to bear with my blog until she publicly renounces her ill-gained first prize and until her parents disclose the circumstances under which she got it.

I really don’t understand why the American NRIs blame India as one of the most corrupt countries in the world while themselves are as honest as an average politician in Tamil Nadu.

Until then, let Ranjani Murthy dance!

Judging Bharatanatyam: good and bad. Contests & competitions. Judges & criteria.

Technically speaking, since “good” and “bad” are relative (“relative” does not mean “subjective”), how well you judge is partly determined by how many performances/styles/dancers you have watched. Or learnt. The most basic (primitive)  style is Kalakshetra as it is shaped after the European ballet’s angular, simplified lines. Several of the London Tamil dance teachers interviewed presented Rukmini Devi’s famous dance school of Kalakshetra as the epitome of authenticity, using Kalakshetra style as criteria to judge standards of Bharatanatyam performance. The Kalakshetra style has the fewest number of elements. Will you find there any talukku, kulukku, alakshyam, midukku,or any decent ottam adavus?

Some weird people, like Vyagrapada and Patanjali, were not at all interested in watching the relative stuff : they wanted to see the absolute and they saw it. Not an easy task, is it?

Ok, back to the relative things.

If you have you read about this Bharatanatyam competition report ,you have probably learnt a lot.

After watching the first 10 performances, your mind will not be able to tell what is Bharatanatyam and what is Kuchipudi.

After watching 20-30 performances, your mind may start to understand vaguely where is the better dancer and where is the worse.

After watching 100 performances, you may come to notice the difference between different Bharatanatyam styles.

After watching 300 performances, you may be able to predict how the dancer is going to perform a particular movement the next moment.

After watching 700 performances, your mind will start appreciating the nuances. Even in an utterly poor and boring recital, you should be able to single out some good points.

After watching 1000 performances, there is a high probability that your judgment will be detailed and quite professional.

After watching 2000, you may consider yourself as a serious judge. 🙂 Someone like Roja Kannan.

After 4000, you may consider yourself an expert. 🙂 Someone like Nandini Ramani.

You may want to read how dance competition between apsaras Urvasi and Rambha was judged. Clearly, it is the control over one’s mind and body that was deemed as paramount in that case.

There is a scientific method of determining how well a judge judges Bharatanatyam, since there are defined criteria. Usually, these include the broad categories, such as nritta, abhinaya. More detailed parameters may be easy to determine, such as Bhramari (balance) or Javaha, or more difficult to define, such as Rekha (one cannot provide a rational definition of what is grace as beauty is above the realm of the rational mind).

The most important question is, what are the different parameters’ weightage in the total score? This is usually a big secret that the judges fear to disclose. Will your laya count more than your abhinaya? Will your charisma or your make-up matter more than your angasuddhi? Will your caste, social status, political connections or your skin colour matter more than your nritta?

In any case, if you want you can make a more or less scientific experiment and see how objectively you judge 1 criteria, for example angasuddhi, do this:

1. Ask someone to prepare for you 30 short (5-10 min) clear videos of the dancers who you have not seen before. Watch them and rate them.

To judge angasuddhi, you have to choose the appropriate pieces where there is a wide range of body movements is involved – obviously you cannot do with just mukha abhinaya passages!) . So your videos should cover both nrittas and angikabhinaya.

Since you are judging angasuddhi, the dancer’s face should not be clear (otherwise, your mind would favour the more beautiful faces, or the types of faces that are associated in your mind with something that you like). Your mind will try to mix in other factors, such as lighting, camerawork, angle of view, costume (your mind prefers certain colours), quality of music, etc. You need to identify all these unrelated factors and make your mind disregard them. Sorry, it involves quite a bit of yoga, doesn’t it?

2. Put the rating paper away for a month or two (the more, the better), and then re-do the procedure. The discrepancy between the old and the new ratings will give you a rough idea of how good your judgment is. If you want to improve the test, let your assistant select the videos where the dancers perform identical pieces.

“Everything is subjective, and your judgment is subjective”, a banana vendor tried to convince me that I should buy his “good” rotten bananas.

Subjectivity arises when people, as it happens in 99.99% cases, do not observe the workings of their mind, and are unaware of their ego (ahamkar), that is the core of all subjectivity and distorts our judgment. By doing yoga, you can detach yourself from your mind, learn how it works, take control of it. It is much more difficult to get rid of ahamkar in our mind. You have to get rid of your likings and dislikings (for example, try to read an utterly boring book from the first page till last, and you will see how much control you have over your mind). There are numerous objective (scientific) methods of determining how well you control your mind.

The Hindu, Rajeswari Sainath… and Uma Namboodripad

The Hindu’s reviews… Nobody knows how the editor decides which performance is to be covered. Yes, the reviews are mostly about Padma Subramaniam, Chitra Visweswaran… Mostly about those who are out of shape and too old to dance, but even some young ones are no better if you look at Rajeswari Sainath’s daughter Vaishnavi who is mostly famous for having her mommy award her the  “Most promising Bharatanatyam talent” title from Times of India, after which her mom sponsored Vaishnavi’s DVD.

Most “non-senior” dancers have no clue about what mesh of political intrigues is involved in the infamous reviews…. and how much it costs to get one. After Nandini Ramani left the newspaper, the reviews’ standards plummeted. The rich co-owner of Giri Trading produces lame Bharatanatyam DVDs (why??) and does not need to work any longer.

“Clear footwork, energy and pleasing rhythmic patterns were the hallmarks of Rajeswari Sainath’s performance”, says Rupa Srikanth in her review, shallow, biassed and amateurish, as usual. Can Rupa see the details at all? Nandini Ramani, dancer and guru herself, should probably train a new generation of journalists with some background in Bharatanatyam.

Rajeswari Sainath

There is a positive improvement in Rajeswari Sainath’s dancing (she released her recent Rangasayee DVD). It is to do not so much with the ratio between mathematics and mime but with the quality of her abhinaya. The dancer usually focusses on her brisk footwork and this preoccupation usually dominates her recitals. But this time there was more balance, although still her mime is not as polished as her sense of rhythm (thanks to her uncle and to Indira Rajan). Although many of her expressions look as artificial as any NRI dancer’s, her main problems are… transitions between one expression and the following one. Rajeshwari, who has already so many titles, would be too proud to take classes from a dancer who is a master of anhinaya at her relatively young age. I am talking about Uma Namboodripad, Chitra Visveswaran’s senior assistant. Uma is the undisputed champion if you look for two things:

  1. depth, variety, spontaneity and power of bhavas
  2. transitions between expressions

The only problem is… Rajeshwari is much older than Uma… 😦 But Rajeshwari (she is 45, isn’t she?) should teach Uma Namboodripad how to maintain the figure and get some strength and stamina and speed. Rajeshwari’s daughter is far behind her mom in every respect. And, Uma, Uma… Even Anita Ratnam got back into a very decent shape with her kalari exercises! Why are our best dancers – for rare exceptions – so lazy??????

Clear footwork, good energy, pleasing rhythmic patterns and a good range of adavus are the hallmarks of Rajeshwari’s performances. The precision of the ending of her theermanams is amazing.

Her uncle, Karaikudi Mani, is one of the hidden reasons for her success. His hobby is to create new , unique and very complex jatis that no other dancer has performed. While Shobana too tries to do some simple maths, Shobana’s arithmetics tastes as artificial as her abhinaya looks, while Karaikudi Mani quite often manages to produce the rhythms that have much more depth and are vibrant.

On the musical side, Murali Parthasarthy (vocal) was perhaps not always on track, although I like his style and usual accuracy in rendering even the most difficult passages. As a vocalist, he cannot compare with… our dear Uma Namboodripad, who is 1000 times more impressive. I wonder how Uma manages to put so much depth and power into her voice as well as into her abhinaya! She becomes one with the song.

Back to Rajeswari, her husky voice is… far from perfect, and I am sure if she starts taking vocal classes (from Uma? 🙂 , it will automatically improve her abhinaya. Dancers used to take mandatory vocal classes before, and in Rajeswari’s case we can clearly see why one of the most important qualities for a dancer is geetam. Somehow, how well you sing has such a tremendous impact on your abhinaya!!!!!!

Rajeswari ‘s recital commenced with a beautiful ‘Laya Kavidhai- Anbe Sivam’ (Priyadarshini ragam, misram) conceived by veteran mridangist Karaikudi Mani, penned by Su Ravi and composed by Balasai. Whether it lived up to its claim of ‘poetry in rhythm’ or not is a big question if you consider what is poetry and what is not. In poetry itself, there are different standards.

The verse and mnemonic syllables (Adit Narayanan has a mighty voice but is often not so good at keeping the talam!) resonated in perfect harmony. While the vilamba and madhayama kaalam sollus were straightforward counts of seven, the dhurita kaalam was manipulated to include a third speed tisram sequence and a fourth speed misram section. In reverse order, the sequence turned a full circle and came back to a slow vilamba kaalam count-this descent was one of the most beautiful moments that evening. The Siva Tandava was both an aural and a visual treat. I wish Rajeswari managed to show us some Lasya as well! Ever seen Indira Rajan’s student who is good at Lasya????

The same technique of symbolism in nritta that worked in the opening composition was not as effective to espouse the theory of the three deities being one in ‘Trimurthi Tatvam’ (ragamalika, panchatalam, written by Kavi Kannan, tuned by Balasai). This was despite the liberal (how well it fit in the overall composision is a big question!) injection of “spirituality” provided by vedic chants compiled by Seshadri Ganapadigal and recited by G.K.Srinivasan.

The only composition that presented abhinaya without a framework of tala was the varnam, ‘Adiyarthanai’ (ragamalika, Adi, written by Rajkumar Bharathi and Kavi Kannan) on Vittala of Pandarpur. Rajeswari portrayed the stories of Vittala’s devotees- Namadeva, Janabai and Chokkamela- with warmth and involvement, although sometimes she overdoes it. As usual, she was focused in the nritta portions; her fast paced ‘tha tai thams’ that featured in the second half of the 45-minute varnam said it all.

The Tanjore Quartet, the “hereditary” folks…. And back to karanas!

A born dancer – non-hereditary???

One would assume that there would be a hall packed with rasikas to watch a programme by a grandson of Balasawaswathy. When hardly 30 people were initially watching Aniruddha Knight‘s performance, this number was quickly further reduced as many rasikas were unable to digest it at all, and probably were in a bit hurry running to the toilet. Aniruddha came onto the stage in a Kathak costume (thankfully, not in jeans), and was trying to dance a new style that combined new, advanced (genetically engineered) American abhinaya with a hybrid of jazz and flamenco natyam.

Not everybody living in a human body is a real human being. Indeed, where in India can you find anyone with these expressions:

American abhinaya

My daughter commented on Ani, “Poor man, they forced him to learn the dance. Not everybody is a born dancer.”

Arul confirms (with Ani in mind?):

Lots of Indians who live here are full of nostalgia and longing. In their memories, the India they knew lives on, time stamped with their year of departure. And they take it out on their children, forcing them into this life of hypocrisy.

Aniruddha kept biting the left side of his lip while doing jathi’s, trying to dance like a eunuck, with Very miserable expressions. “Is he drunk?”, my daughter asked! Will Shobana’s new film be titled as “Dance like a eunuck” or “Dance like a drunkard”?, I wondered.

“Hereditary” was the most frequent word in S.Niveda’s programme’s flier. Chitti convinced me to go and to watch her a few months ago. “Tapasya Kala Sapradaya is happy to present Niveda from the family of the Tanjore Quartet”, ran the proud intro. Tapasya was lauding its efforts “against commercial exploitation of the arts and meaningless distortion in the name of innovation”. It appears that Tapasya’s only achievement in that effort was the heavily funded documentary Marayunduvarum Marabugal that was made out of 50 hours of tape. It is wonderful that all the knowledge of the hereditary folks fit into one short documentary that not many people had the privilege to watch (why didn’t they release those 50 hours on DVDs?) . While the frontpage of the flier was displaying the Thanjore Quartet, next to them was Niveda with her hands in a lame Anjali: her palms did not touch each other. Oversight? The poor 10-year-old started dancing but could not move at all. Hardly any movement was completed fully, even though the tempo was superslow. Any eye control? Forget about it! The poor thing was too stressed, and kept forgetting the simple, hereditary steps. After watching this bharatanatyam performance we decided to limit our visits to the “hereditary” dancers’ programmes to a minimum.

TQ or nothing is the extreme radical heading of another post of Arul’s.

Sounds like Arul’s Christian sect. The spirit of confinement.

Imagine meeting somebody whose motto is “Mangos or nothing”. Or “Pringles or nothing”. Hey! Weren’t the Thanjore Quartet guys anything more than royal court musicians???? (not dancers!) If Muthuswami Dikshitar, their music teacher, somehow managed to get the recognition as a little saint (or at least a prominent religious scholar), there is no mention of TQ’s spiritual achievements. Because there were none.

One of the TQ’s (Vadivelu’s) “achievement” was the introduction of violin in the Natya recitals. As a result, the ancient veena is on the brink of extinction. The instrument that has the largest range of harmonics (no other instrument can compare with veena!) is giving way just like the natural seeds cannot compete with the aggressive GM crops that are quietly destroying our planet.

Arul writes:

These seven glittering kohinoor diamonds – master gave them to me: sakiye, yemaguva, mogamana, adimogam, yemanthayanara, danike, sami ninne.

Real diamonds are millions of years old. Perhaps, Arul calls the 200-year-old creations of the Tanjore Quartet so in regards to the tuition fees he charges for teaching them. 🙂

… Other gurus reserve the best for family.

The non-hereditary….

Arul continues:

I think also that the fact that Master comes from an ancestral family of teachers has a lot to do with it. They are the ones who know the art of teaching as it existed historically. They know how to give of themselves and when and to whom and under what circumstances.

Now you understand why Alarmel Valli, who left the Master, wrote about her vocal guru:

To find a good guru is a result of one’s past karma. Smt. Mukta never held back. She was generous to the core.

The hereditary gurus were never generous: holding back as much as possible was a matter of economic survival in the tough business competition with few opportunities.

Cursing Chennai’s traffic jams, our driver managed to get us to RK Swamy’s Hall just in time for Surya Ravi’s programme that was recommended by Anusha K. Surya Ravi’s nattuvangam turned out to be Sujatha Mohan. After we started watching Surya, we again realized that there are still wonderful dancers and talented, non-hereditary gurus. Surya was fantastic in her crisp adavus, beautiful and expressive abhinaya (well, there were a few gaps when she froze for a couple of seconds like an ice-man, but it was not her fault: the choreography has to be improved). Sujatha, admitted that she substantially modified “Bharathnrithyam”. The karanas, which Padma Subrahmaniam, who lost the remnants of her sense of beauty as soon as she got a “Dr.” title, never succeeded to combine in a graceful and organic manner. How well did her seniormost disciple Sundari Santhanam do it you can see from her recent DVD on Karanas.

Non-hereditary Sujatha, learning all the best from the non-hereditary, theoretician Padma, managed to produce a superior choreography, which can be illustrated by the passages from the varnam where Surya Ravi portrayed Kalinga Krishna (really beautiful, and such a superb balance when she was jumping thrice and turning 360* on one leg – hardly any professional dancers can do it!), and the snake itself! Such grace! And how subtle was the portrayal of Kuchella’s story, how refined, how charming was the mukha abhinaya, how perfect the angashudhi!!!

When I watched the Varsha Shankar at her brilliant arangetram (it was the first time when I was convinced that karanas CAN be performed gracefully!), I did not even expect that Sujatha Mohan would show us more of the outstanding dancers like Surya Ravi! Even Sujatha’s little kids, like Shreya Balakrishna, are so amazing! Their guru really inspires them. They are so lucky!

It is Surya Ravi whose recital should follow (if not included within it) after the recitals of the IFAS talent promotion (where Nandini Ramani was one of the judges), not the clumsy Balasaraswathy’s grandson. Well, if it were not for Nandini’s insistance (oh, these stupid political obligations!), who would ever have invited him to Chennai???

Everyone who considers being trained by a hereditary guru should watch Pandanallur Subarraya Pillai VCD and hear how he explains that the hereditary gurus teach properly only their own children. The hereditary ones are unable to explain to a genetic engineer where are those Bharatanatyam genes that can transmit true natya skills. He is unable to explain why the hell the hereditary gurus teach the non-hereditary students like Indu Varma! I think this is the reason that the “hereditary dancers” are no longer taken seriously by anyone, except by the hereditary toilet cleaners and hereditary garbage collectors.