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????)

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Bharatanatyam competitions: compare these 3 and learn how to win !

Bharatanatyam competition…

Have you read our article on judging Bharatanatyam performances? 🙂

Everybody nowadays seems to be hunting after titles, awards and prizes. While Anita Ratnam describes how politics works on the “senior” level, it is much simpler with the junior dancers. Any dancer from Chennai can get a worthless title of ‘Singar Mani’ whenever she cares to apply for a “competition” in a cultural Sahara Desert (of Mumbai) where 5 hand-picked contestants compete for 3 titles.

What about the capital of Bharatanatyam, Chennai?

Narthaki recently published a very in-depth Review “Bharatanatyam competitions of Natyarangam in Chennai”. It did not cover the 3rd category (professionals in the 18-25 age range), so we added a brief description of it below.

Some of the junior participants came for all competitions, including the crappy TTD competition too (where you cannot win a prize unless the theme is about Vishnu’s avatars or the related like Anjaneya, etc) on 27 July (thanks N. for her report that we have just received!).

It is interesting to compare it with another competition conducted a week ago by the Music Connoiseurs Club (MCC) (another of our contributors, K., was kind enough to send a brief outline of what was happening there).

There were over 150 contestants at the “no limits” Music Connoiseurs Club’s competition. There were less than 50 at the TTD, where a third of the contestants were… between 5 and 8 years old, the age when the kids cannot even walk properly, leave alone understand the lyrics! The other age groups were 9-12 and 13-17. Not for adults. The privilege of performing the first in each category was given to the students of Anita Guha, whose dance school is across the road from the TTD. Mr.Srinivasan, the TTD representative, said to K., “Yes, I give preference to Anita’s, and this is none of your ****** business”.

Does the number of contestants speak about the prestige of a particular competition?

Not just the number: very few schools sent their best dancers for the TTD competition. Among them were Yamini Devi (Gopinath’s student), R.Archana (Vani Gayatri’s), S.Nikita (Divyasena’s), Shafali, Kavya, Rohini and Shivatmika (these 4 as well as a few more are Anita Guha’s) and S.Sahana (Sikkil Vasantha Kumari’s).

Music Connoiseurs Club’s competition had to split the participants into 5 groups, and were holding the competition in 2 groups simultaneously – in 2 different halls. Well, to be precise, one “hall” was a generous 2.5 x 2.5 metres of a corridor in the PSBB school in Mandavelli. While this tiny space was enough for the smallest kids, the 13-15 year olds found it too small to dance there. 😦 The Dakshinamurthy Auditorium, in the same compound of the PSBB school, was empty at the time.

The TTD offered the dancers a similar “generous” 4 x 2 metres of slippery space. The judges were seated not in front of the stage but… at the side. Very innovative! Since TTD is a church whose business depends on how many people attend their functions, they made the parents of the contestants wait for the announcement of the winners from 5 till 8.30 inside the hall (to rescue by their presence the poorly attended “religious” function)

Winners

We do not understand why the TTD representative announced that the chief guests at the competition were… the chief of Chennai police and the chief of the Airports Authority of India. The dancers were neither criminals nor did they want to fly aircraft. It took a record 7 hours for the TTD to announce the winners (obviously, after strong, behind-the-scene, political debates between the chief policeman and the chief Airport authority). TTD’s Mr.Srinivasan said to K., “If Natya Shastra lays down the criteria of who can be a chief guest, I must tell you that I don’t care. TTD does not follow any shastras. TTD is a religious ogranization that is guided in its mission not by the Hindu scriptures but by the latest circulars issued by the atheist business and political community“.

The results of the Natyarangam and the MCC’s competitions were available immediately (within 15 minutes after the end). The reasons were very simple. For example, to keep some visibility of decency , Natyarangam’s Sujatha Vijayaraghavan specifically asked the parents and the gurus not to come and speak to the judges (Natyarangam members were exempt from such an exception, for some reason) while those were tallying their scores (and swearing loudly, we guess!). All the tallying at the MCC was done in the PS school’s corridor, in the open view of a few participants who were still present there.

Ramya Sudarshan (a student of Latha Ravi) got the 1st prize at the MCC competition in the seniormost category, where she was perhaps – at the most – very marginally better (the choice of item was perhaps a bit more interesting) than Suvasani Kannan who got the second prize at the MCC. The agile and expressive Jyoti, the best student of Chitra Subramani, did not get any prizes at the MCC, even though she danced very well. The two boys who came were not able to dance at all, which annoyed the judges, Madurai Muralidharan and the other judge, so much that they took pains (the judges rarely do it) to explain to one of those useless guys his uselessness and teach him a lesson right in front of the other contestants.

The winner of Natyarangam’s senior group (18-25) competition’s 1st prize was Suvasani K. The second went to S.K.Lavanya, a student of Sasirekha Rammohan (who did not send her charming Sheha Ramachandran to the varnam category). Mamta Rao and Anaga Bharath, who used to be very good, this time were below the high expectations and above a normal weight. 😦 V.M.Supriya and Madhurika were even worse, but not as bad as Yashini Shankari, Gayathri Vaidyanathan, Vishambara and Srividya Manikandan (these were total cows!). The overweight and clumsy dancers had to swallow a bitter pill: the 2 slimmest and most agile contestants were at the top of Natyarangam’s competition in the senior category.S.Sairam proved that men are no match for women as far as Bharatanatyam goes. Why didn’t such far better male dancers as S.Krishnan (of Ritanjali School Of Arts) care to participate?

Curiously, some students remain some of the strongest prize-hunters (and are among the most visible on the Internet!):

  • the 1st prize at MCC in the 13-15 y.o. group was given to Varsha Uma Balabharathy;
  • the 1st prize at MCC in the 10-12 y.o. group was given to a previously unknown Sandhya Ramesh;
  • the 2nd prize at MCC in the 8-10 y.o. group went to Mridula Sivakumar

We have just received an angry comment (we quote a moderated piece of it, removing the nonsense and grammatical errors 🙂 and insert it here instead of letting it get attached at the bottom of this lengthy review) from Anusha Gopalakrishnan of Chennai:

“It’s not fair and very demoralizing for the other schools’ students to read this blog’s entry stressing the rising virtual monopoly in the Bharathanatyam competitions field since another big school, Bharathanjali, regrettably lost its stature a couple of years back. I fully support Natyarangam’s policy that the big schools must not be allowed to usurp all dance competitions by sending more than 1 contestant.

How harmful it is? In the past 1.5 months there have been 5 dance competitions in Chennai. In your review you write about 3 competitions, but do not mention that SN’s dancers, Uma Ramachandran and Shravanthi, were the winners at the other 2 Bharatanatyam competitions that took place the day before the Music Connoisseurs Club’s competition. These competitions were
A) Chennai district’s competition of National Bala Bhavan, and
B)
Chennai district’s competition of the BSNL Cultural & Sports Wing

If 2 competitions happen on the same day, how can a smaller school find the number of strong contestants to match the big schools’ dancers?

We strongly protest against such practices and will seek the abolition of such judgment parameters as choreographic quality and music quality. It is not fair if SN dancers win because they demonstrate better choreography and can afford to bring studio-recorded music!”

Hmmm… Arul writes that

a piece and how it is performed are two different things. I mean, you can have a brilliant dancer perform a mediocre piece. And you can have a fairly good dancer perform a piece that is a great composition.

The tiny 16-18 y.o. group at MCC had hardly any contestants at all (they are all busy with their 12th Standards and entrance exams!!!). The most impressive was Madurai Muralidharan’s H.Ranjini, even though she forgot that some steps have to be done with both feet, not just with one! 🙂

3 competitions: different approaches and different results! 🙂

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Competitions are merely an external motivational factor. The dancers want to achieve success with some degree of success in competition with others. The dancers with poor motivation experience relief that they have avoided a failure. They do not enjoy or seek feedback.

The intrinsically motivated dancer will
1. prefer challenging tasks
2. respond with effort and persistence after failure
3. be creative and expressive
4. have a high self-esteem

The achievers, thus, establish very difficult but realistic goals and actively pursue them, even take some risks. They experience intense satisfaction from success, and maybe pride. If they feel they have tried their best, they are not bothered by failure. They prefer tasks that have clear outcome. They prefer to receive a harsh feedback from a competent critic than from someone who is friendlier but less competent. They like to struggle with a problem than seek help.

Women are more interested in goals that relate to social interaction. Women are more likely to feel good about their interpersonal skills than concrete achievements. Men who succeed believe they have done so by virtue of their abilities, while women believe they have been lucky.

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Although, unlike Sangeetha, I do not really like the idea of being a merely re-poster of some stuff found elsewhere, I will nevertheless incorporate this review (“Bharatanatyam competitions of Natyarangam in Chennai”) here – with our (indented and bold) comments, of course!!! 🙂

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Contrary to the announcement published in Kutcheribuzz stating that the number of participants in each category would be limited to 20, in reality there was no limit in the Jatiswaram category. After the number of applications reached 42 in the varnam category, Natyarangam decided to cap the number of applications on a “one student per guru” basis, which reduced the number of the eligible candidates to 25, 4 of whom did not turn up. Perhaps, the democratic and egalistic “one student per guru” basis implied that the “Best guru” type awards are of no consideration.

June 14: Jatiswaram competition for children of 8 to 12 years

The judges, Ganga Thampi, Lavanya Ananth and Rupa Srikanth were introduced according to their height: from the taller to the shorter, probably with a compromise that the last one to be introduced will be the first one to announce the winners. The first prize winner, S Nikita is indeed a good dancer.

The fuzzy video clip that she posted on does not show her best. K. wrote that Nikita (a student of Divyasena) was far more impressive at the TTD competition, her nrittas were crisp, her abhinayas expressive and the footwork neat.

It was not particularly surprising to hear that Rohini, a student of Anitha Guha, got the second prize. According to another contestant, who studies in the same PSBB school in KK Nagar, Rohini was the best one of the 4 dancers. “Rohini is the best dancer in our dance school,” was the comment from another dancer, A J Subashree.

Rohini Rammohan took part both in the MCC and the TTD competitions, where she was not particularly impressive in the nritta part.

Interestingly, the first and the second prize winners were among the first 4 performers out of 28. I remembered my mother always told me, “At any oral exam, you should try to go in first: normally, you will have some advantage.” Rupa Srikanth praised the “surprisingly” high level of mastery of the contestants. Perhaps, the judges were so impressed at the very beginning, that they were marginally more favourable to the first few performers. To avoid such surprises, Rupa Srikanth could ask the Friday Review’s publishers to include the reviews of the younger performers more often: the children deserve it, and need it more than the senior dancers.

The contestants

“All the participants today deserve the first prize,” announced Rupa Srikanth. The little girls’ ears drooped as they heard this politically correct but incredible statement. Their eyes turned to their parents, begging for an explanation, probably perplexed how on earth Nikita and Rohini could be overall better than A J Subashree, Mridula, Ratna Ramesh, K V Shivatmika, or Vinisha Karthiravan.

K V Shivatmika proved to be quite mediocre at the TTD competition.

When I asked a few of them if they would agree with the judges’ decision, these outrageously candid little girls were unanimous: NO. Their eyes were very sad. I felt a bit uneasy and thought that, instead of advertising their workshops, Natyarangam could instead have provided a feedback session where the judges would explain to the contestants their marks and point out the dancers’ strengths and weaknesses. That is, if the judges made any notes. Otherwise, when the participants are not convinced by the authoritative judges’ verdict, what is the value of such authoritativeness from the contestants’ point of view?

“They are too young to understand the nuances of the technique and assess their performance objectively,” said a Natyarangam’s committee member. “Well, they are old enough to understand who dances better and who dances worse,” objected another spectator. Indeed, while some of the contestants made the crowd turn quiet, other contestants made their spectators turn their heads away from the stage and indulge in light gossip. Why would that adult-looking contestant eagerly take out her Handycam as soon as Mridula came onto the stage?

This is Mridula Sivakumar who got the second prize at the MCC competition. The first prize went to Kavya (Anitha Guha’s unusually fat and clumsy student who has reasonably decent abhinaya though :).
This is Mridula 2 years ago, I guess:

Why didn’t she want to shoot B M Akshaya Lakshmi? Why did another girl take out her mobile phone and was recording Subashree’s performance and was not particularly interested to watch K Vaishali?

I was wondering if, next year, the Natyarangam’s judges are going to be embarrassed in the same way as at some incidents at Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festivals where 5-6 contestants, who had obtained the video of the previous year’s winner’s item, had the impudence to perform this same item with the identical choreography.

Comment:
You are going to hear more about scandals at the Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festival’s competitions.

In the absence of Natyarangam’s archived videotaped records, it would be impossible for a contestant to prove the copyright of the original choreography.

The judges indeed had a very hard job selecting the top 2 contestants. While such contestants as A J Subashree, Mridula, Ratna Ramesh, K V Shivatmika, Vinisha Karthiravan, or perhaps even R Abhinaya and E Aishwarya Lakshmi were surely not worse than the first two prize winners, there were others, such as B M Akshaya, Y K Aishwarya or Shwetha Mahalakshmi, who were clearly far behind the other contestants. Rupa Srikanth mentioned the names of Shafali and R Ananditha as the ones who could have won the prizes too. While the petite charismatic Shafali surely deserves it fully, Ananditha, like H Shreya or Akshita, could only marginally be included in the first league.

Shafali did not win any competition’s prizes for one simple reason (her guru’s approach): she has only 1 expression on her face.

Yamini Devi, Gopinath’s student, was nearly as impressive as Subashree.

Criteria and marking

Some of the parents said they had an impression that the individual judges’ marks are to remain a big secret and would never be disclosed to the contestants. Perhaps, they did not want to embarrass the judges asking to substantiate their marks. Otherwise, the vague general statements do not always sound very convincing. The judges were to divide the “Angasuddhi” criteria into 2 sub-criteria: “General” and “Hands.” Well, I had always thought that angasuddhi included the overall co-ordination and synchronization of the hands with the rest of the body. The judgment criteria included a cryptic “Presentation & package” column, which seems to cover the make-up, costume, choice and quality of the recorded music, complexity and originality of choreography, and god knows what else. Another criteria was “Grace.” I assume it referred to Rekha.

Wrong: “Grace” means “Anga-Madhurya” and is related to “Lalita”.

Curiously, “Grace” is the term that I don’t remember Rupa Srikanth using in her reviews of the senior dancers’ performances. What about the term Angasuddhi? You will not find it even with a microscope. One may wonder then why the “Bharatanatyam recitals” that totally lack both Angasuddhi and Grace somehow manage to be reviewed in the Friday Reviews. Perhaps, the senior dancers thing, “After all, who reads Abhinayadarpanam or Natya Shastra today? Who cares about what is written there? Who knows that the dancer, according to Abhinayadarpanam, must be youthful, slender, beautiful? How many little dancers’ parents or even gurus know what is “Javaha”, “Rekha”, “Sthirathvam” or “Drishti”?”

It occurred to me that when Rupa Srikanth said the the little girls displayed a surprisingly high mastery, she could mean that none of the elderly dancers who occupy the Friday Review’s pages can dance Jatishwaram so well anymore. Perhaps, as Mukundagiri Sadagopan suggested in his letter published in Kutcheribuzz, Rupa could re-qualify the senior Bharatanatyam dancers as Katha Kalakshepam exponents?

While many of the girls displayed remarkably vivid, graceful, varied and genuine facial expressions at their nrittas, yet it appears that abhinaya was not counted, leave alone such time-proven criteria as Javaha or Drishti.

Promotional value?

Natyarangam gives the winners an opportunity to perform in Narada Gana Sabha’s mini hall – as a talent promotion.

Well, this time the fraudsters from Natyarangam cheated the winners: neither Nikitha nor Rohini were given a slot to perform!

But what is the value of such a promotion? A disappointed parent said, “It is not a problem for 2 dancers to pay the rent of the mini hall for 3 hours and give performances: the orchestra fees are much higher than the rent, anyway. What matters to us is how many people will come and watch these performances”.
The opportunity to perform is still considered as the key element in promoting young dancers. However, if 90% of the (normally scanty) audience who come and watch such performances include the dancer’s relatives, friends, schoolmates, parents’ colleagues and neighbours, what is the promotional value of such an opportunity? “You see, my 8-year-old daughter’s Bharatanatyam video we uploaded on the Internet a year ago has been receiving more than 5000 views a month,” smiled one parent. “How does it compare with 50-strong audience at a Natyarangam’s program?” she asked. One of the top contestants’ father, when asked if they can imagine Natyarangam posting the video of the competition on the Internet, commented, “It would be great! I am sure it would support and re-assert the judges’ authority too, as they were up to the mark today.”

June 15: Varnam competition for children of 13 to 18 years

While the Jatiswaram competition gave the contestants 5 minutes, the Varnam offered 7. And the judges were Priya Murle, Manjari and Sujatha Srinivasan. The contestants in this category too had no idea of what the judgment criteria were here. Just as it was the case with the Jatiswaram competition, in the Varnam category too, the winner was the first dancer who danced far better than the few preceding dancers. It seems that it is not only the level of the dancer’s performance but the order of the contestants that determines the winner. Few were watching Rahij Ramsharan’s dance. Next, you could see much higher standards in V Kripalakshmi’s performance, if it were not for her fixed smile and arms bending to 230 degrees when there should have been 180. R Keertana was marginally less impressive, and V Soundarya demonstrated that a girl doing nritta in a tandava style and making a thousands of shortcuts may not look particularly impressive. The next was R Reshma Krishnan’s slot, where she demonstrated very good nritta and overall danced somewhat better than the previous contestant.

The winners

And next…. was the winner: S.Sahana. While her nritta was abundant, in rather simple, straight lines, I bet she had rehearsed this fragment so well that every move was chiseled and had a professional-looking finish, the moves were absolutely crisp, and everything looked absolutely perfect, including her abhinaya. She was a head above all the previous contestants. No wonder she impressed the judges.

Sahana (a student of Sikkil Vasantha Kumari) has, first of all, 10 times more colors in her palette of abhinaya than most other contestants. Sahana was the only dancer with a “live”, rich, exuberant and bubbly abhinaya at the TTD competition’s seniormost (13-18) group.

Next was the second prize winner, Jai Quaheni. Even though her nritta movements were very limited and quite simple, each of these movements were very well polished.

Jai Quaheni won the 2nd prize at the MCC competition too. As for the the Natyarangam competition…. Well, Jai Quaheni is Chitra Visveswaran’s student, so the Natyarangam competition’s judges did not want to disappoint the VIP… Chitra Visveswaran was the guru under whom Sujatha Srinivasan had her arangetram. Any more questions?

And, thanks to Uma Nambudiripad’s tuition, Jai Quaheni’s abhinaya was powerful, profound, realistic and convincing. Sudharma Vaidyanathan shared the first prize with S Sahana. Sudharma won Natyarangam’s last year’s Jatiswaram, and has grown one year older.

For those who don’t know the undercurrents, Sudharma is the daughter of Chella who does all videography for… the above-mentioned judges. In addition, A.Lakshman is a close associate of Priya Murle, so she could not… You know!

Despite the fact that she underwent a surgery half a year ago, she was in excellent shape and the way she performed was very similar to S Sahana’s. Sudharma had one big advantage: even though her nrittas and nrityas were not particularly intricate, nevertheless the jathis that she started with, created by A Lakshman, were composed in a very original way, and the audio, obviously recorded at a studio, was very original too: an intricate combination for solo passages for nattuvangam, mridangam, sollukattu – and the pauses that caught the spectators’ (and the judges’) attention.

Most (stupid) dancers do not understand the importance of good music!

The would-be winners

The judges mentioned Swathi Ashok and Medha Hari as the contestants who could potentially have won the prizes. In fact, Jai Quaheni and a few other contestants too thought these two were going to win the prizes. So, why didn’t they? Swathi Ashok had the greatest stage presence and the most accentuated and powerful movements among all the other participants. Swathi Ashok’s guru, Urmila Sathyanarayanan (the other contestants’ gurus did not turn up), was sitting in the last row and perhaps could not see well what the judges noticed very clearly: that young Swathi’s abhinaya was quite superficial, quite artificial and rather unconvincing. The older Medha Hari’s performance displayed this shortcoming too, though it was not as obvious.

For those who do not know the ubiquitous Medha Hari, I suggest to compare 2 sets of her video clips on YouTube: the ones of 2002 and the ones of 2006 (you’d better get her DVDs). See the difference and the effect of the infamous “clone molding” she got at Bharathanjali.

A recent review of Medha Hari’s performance on ChennaiOnline reads “Her araimandi, attami, mudras needs a special mention as she was just too perfect” while the sad comments are like this:
hi medha! my friends were very impressed at your recital, and nritta especially! but also they expected to see beautiful araimandi lik you had few years back…

Medha Hari’s jathis, for some unknown reason, did not include the ultra-fast and complex nritta that helped her win the first prize at this year’s Indian Fine Arts competition. However, Medha’s movements were clean and clearly defined, while Swathi kept her feet too wide apart in araimandi and could not do atami properly. Another possible runner-up was one of the youngest participants, Harinie Jeevitha, who demonstrated a very original style and the most intricate nrittas and nrityas that, perhaps, needed a larger space than the meager 10 square metres of the mini hall. Her nritta movements still need to be polished to gain some more finish and precision. Harinie’s abhinaya was a bit too strained and overdone. The 13-year-old Harinie did not understand that she was dancing literally under the judges’ noses, hardly 2 metres away from them. The closer the spectator is to the dancer, the greater impact the abhinaya will have.

Natya Shastra says that the judges have to sit 6 metres away, in front (not at the side, like the TTD competition was arranged) of the dancers.

I guess the reasons that Medha Hari and Harinie Jeevitha did not win are simpler: none of the 3 judges appreciated the modern masala style of Medha Hari (on her web site they wrote that the style includes elements of Pandanallur, Vazhuvoor and Kalakshetra, but they are using Sudharani Raghupathi’s jathis, and many Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi elements!), nor were the judges familiar with the standards of the rarer, Melattur style of Harinie Jeevitha (who does it with a lively Kuchipudi flavour).
The lowest common denominator, Kalakshetra, rules! 😦

The rest

The competition was quite tough. S Akshaya’s performance level was very marginally lower than the runner-ups’, followed by Nithya Subrahmaniam. Aparna Jayaram demonstrated a yet lower level of proficiency, followed by Poornima Balasubramaniam, Divya Sanpath (who brought the most horrible and noisy audio tape) and Reshma Krishnan. Shravani Joshi, for some reasons, could not demonstrate as high a standard as she did at last year’s TTD competition. Her movements were very constrained and looked quite weak. N Gayatri and S Ananthashree were quite mediocre but not as bad as C.Tara or the last competitor, who made the tired judges eager to end up the event as soon as possible. Their prayers were answered: neither Aishwarya Raghu, nor Divya Malayappam, nor Nithya Ramasubramaniam, nor Sanath Kumar turned up.

Sanath Kumar was the only boy who came for the MCC and for the TTD competition. He is quite tall and extremely lean, like a broomstick. 🙂 His footwork was reasonably good.

Conclusions

The competition revealed a winning recipe for the top contestants: to win a prize, (1) Be one of the first 5-6 contestants and (2) make sure that, out of these 5-6, the others are the dancers who dance much worse than you do. The prize is yours.

Not quite. You need to select the item that would be suitable for the particular space!

There was indeed a very marginal difference between the top 5-6 contestants in each category. It is the individual judge’s weightage of the various sub-criteria that determined the winners. This weightage is not something that every judge is well aware of. For example, would one dancer’s perfect araimandi and mudras count more than another dancer’s agility and flexibility? What type and tradition of mukha abhinaya would be considered more favourably? Would a wide-range, accurate atami weigh more than the full-range, accurate footwork? Will the adavus performed in one style be given more marks than the adavus performed in another style? Indeed, would a particular judge consider the fully-lifted heels in Kudhitametti’s sixth step as more impressive (and how much more impressive?) than the half-lifted heels? How will it be reflected in numbers? We don’t know.

Had Natyarangam taken pains to print out a few awards for the dancers, such as “Special award for abhinaya,” “Special award for Nritta,” etc., and for the gurus, like “Special award for choreography,” more of the young dancers would receive what they need most: appreciation. It would be conducive to create the atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. The gurus would not complain that the judges’ decision was politically motivated.

It was interesting to observe that some of this year’s 1st prize winners, such as Medha Hari (1st prize at the Indian Fine Arts competition) or Harinie Jeevitha (1st prize at the all-India level competition in Hyderabad) did not win any prizes at Natyarangam’s competition, even though Medha Hari, along with Swathy Ashok, did receive a special mention by the judges. There are many reasons behind it. One of these is that, as we know, every dancer has his /her own favourite item or fragment that he / she performs the best, and it is not necessarily a Jathiswaram or a Varnam. Will Natyarangam hold a Thillana, a Kauthuvam and a Swarajathi competition next year? We don’t know.

The judges highlighted another reason: the children cannot do their best while dancing to the recorded music. While the Indian Fine Arts competition or the Music Academy’s Spirit of Youth provides the dancers ample time, more space and the support of a live orchestra to showcase a few different items that gives the judges a chance to make a comprehensive assessment of a particular contestant’s full range of strengths and weaknesses, a 5-minute fragment from a Jathiswaram or a 7 minute passage from a Varnam in Narada Gana Sabha’s tiny Mini Hall will not give the judges an opportunity to make a well-founded decision. This is why the judges clearly stated, “We are not judging how good a particular dancer is: we are judging today’s performances only.” Will most of the dancers tend to interpret it this way too in the absence of the judges’ specific comments? This is a big question.

Most of the contestants left unconvinced by the judges’ verdict. “I don’t think the judges are willing to explain and substantiate their assessment,” said one participant. Had each of the judges spared 20-30 seconds to comment on every contestant’s performance immediately after it ended, this competition would have not been considered as a waste of time by most of the participants. The absence of such comments and clarifications does not enhance the judges’ authority – on the contrary.

There is one thing that the organizers of almost any Bharatanatyam competition, and even more so the judges, are scared of. They are afraid of exposing the inadequacy of the judgement, and therefore would never even think of recording on video the contestant’s performances, even if these are mere 7-minute fragments from jatishwarams or 12-minute fragments from varnams. Maintaining such video records – even for the internal purposes, locked safely in Natyarangam’s archives – would pose serious risk to the reputation of the judges in case of an appeal, as they do at some Bharatanatyam competitions in Kerala, for instance. Appeal? Not with Natyarangam.

Unlike, for example, some Bharatanatyam competitions at Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festivals, Natyarangam’s competitions envisaged no place for an appeal, as no video records were made and kept in Natyarangam’s archives for internal purposes, allegedly, due to some gurus’ objections. Such objections, though, do not sound particularly valid after a recent slew of TV broadcasts of full programs of full-length Bharatanatyam recitals recorded at various festivals as well as in the TV channel’s own studios.

Thanks to Narada Gana Sabha’s reputation, the competition attracted many young talents from Chennai’s Bharatanatyam schools. It is a pity we saw only 50% of those who applied for the Varnam competition. We don’t know why such potentially strong contestants as Anusha Narendran’s Bhargavi, Shobana’s S Anuroopitha and Shivani Shandiliya, Vijay Madhavan’s S Sri Gayathri, Roja Kannan’s S Sivasri, and many others apparently did not apply at all. Most gurus keep ignoring Natyarangam’s competition. Nevertheless many of the names listed above will determine to a large extent what the Bharatanatyam landscape will be in 10-20 year’s time. Perhaps next year Natyarangam could bring this competition to a higher standard, so that more participants would give it more importance, and fewer of the registered competitors would fail to turn up.

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Sujatha Vijayaraghavan became the Music Academy’s committee member in order to ensure that her own daughter, Swetha Vijayaraghavan, became the winner of the Music Academy’s “Spirit of Youth” festival-competition in 2007. Here is the poll :

Oh, these Bharatanatyam competitions… 🙂