“Vazhuvoor” styles of Bharatanatyam and the magic of abhinaya


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!

8 thoughts on ““Vazhuvoor” styles of Bharatanatyam and the magic of abhinaya

  1. Dear Ashwathy,

    The styles range from the “orthodox” Bharathnrithyam (Padma Subrahmaniam’s “Vazhuvoor style”) to the filmy “Shobana Natyam”.

    The cross-breeding with Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi and Odissi, as well as the intra-style cross-breeding of the Bharatanatyam bani’s (Thanjavur, Mysore, etc) has created countless varieties of Bharatanatyam styles.

    4 men from the Thanjavur Quartet created 4 different styles. Thousands of Bharatanatyam gurus, the famous and the unknown, have created thousands of different Bharatanatyam styles. In reality, every guru has a style of his own. Whether they admit it or not is purely a matter of political convenience.

    Moreover, many fraudulent Bharatanatyam “gurus” claim to have created “their own” styles that are, in fact, modern dance styles.

    If you tell me what you are looking for, I may help.

  2. I too agree, with the statement that every guru has a style of his own. My father {Late Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai}’s Students receive reviews that they had a distinct quality.

  3. Dear Ashwini,

    I know it has been a long time, but I just read your article and would like to clarify a certain aspect of your long monologue on the Vazhuvoor style… While you definitely are free to state your opinions and thoughts, you are certainly not allowed to modify ACTUAL FACTS. Swetha Vijayaraghavan is NOT Sujatha Vijayaraghavan’s daughter. She is NOT even REMOTELY or DISTANTLY related to Sujatha Vijayaraghavan. Just because they have the same sir names, you need not have jumped to the conclusion that they are mother and daughter. And no one had ANY influence on who must get the award. While I am quite sure that Madhula is a very talented dancer, the competition was judged by very able, non-biased gurus and critics and the award was given to whom they thought, deserved it the most.
    I would request you not to throw baseless accusations in a public forum.
    Instead of ‘long live Madras Politicians’, we could probably say ‘Long live Madras Loose Talk’.
    Best regards,

  4. Thanks, Lakshmi, for the correction. Swetha Vijayaraghavan is a disciple of Adyar K. Lakshman of Kalakshetra, where Sujatha belongs too.

    The key question is, why did it take 2 months for the Music Academy committee (not the judges) to decide to whom they want to give the award? Here is what one of the judges (Priya Murle) wrote, “maybe after the judges decision, the commitee meets, discusses and decides— haste makes waste and all that sort of thing? maybe?”

    So, now isn’t it clear that it is not the judges but the committee who selects the winner?
    She is not even allowed to mention the names of the other “very able, non-biased gurus and critics“? The non-biased gurus/critics never not allowed to disclose the judging criteria to the contestants, nor why they gave particular marks to a particular contestant.

    Now we can only guess why Pappu Venugopala Rao not allowed to disclose publicly the name of “the person in charge of Spirit of Youth”!

  5. i wish to learn bharatnatyam from vajhuvoor school of dance…im from jaipur….please help to let me where should i start from…

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