Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of cunning NRIs

While Kathak dancer Prathiba raises many valid questions and highlights very valid points, there are a few that put a smile on my face. 

What she meant to say is this:

I hardly ever bother to watch any outstanding classical dancers who never make it to the USA as I may start questioning myself where I truly belong and what the hell I have been doing in Texas, and, more importantly, why I learnt the Persian classical dance Kathak instead of the classical American dance of Salsa.  In recent times, I have witnessed several jaw-dropping, pants-wetting modern performances in Dallas and Houston by visiting Indian dancers who, being old enough, still aspire to look like some teenage American ballet dancers. Their academic presentations made me feel like the classical (shastriya) Indian dance has now been made to sound scientific enough to be taught at the Faculty of Statistics and Measurement at the University of North Texas. The problem for Kathak still remains: to call it classical, we are yet to write a shastra (or “discover” some fake antique book) based on which it would be called “shastriya”.

I have left the auditoriums giggling, jumping and throwing pieces of potato chips around like a teenager who smoked pot on a first visit to Disney Land. Today’s PR specialists, even those who promote themselves as dancing under the traditional labels, incorporate interesting, simple and entertaining MTV-style movements  in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of devolution, inborn inability to learn anything from Natya Shastra or to perform even a few stretches a day to accomplish what most American teenage ballet dancers or gymnasts achieve with ease and little pride. At the same time, there also seems to be something, such as use of those pretty useless and meaningless hand gestures, that is stagnant in its practice and even an evolution in the wrong direction, if I may be so bold. I feel I am entitled to be bold and question everything because I have an American passport.

While artistes like Uttara Coorlawala, Anita Ratnam and Michael Jackson seem to have taken evolution to a new level far away from the place they started from, questioning the concept of evolution  itself, why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas and not on their church affiliations or sex preferences? Based on the relationship with the hero, the Natya Shastra classifies women as the one who dresses for union with her hero (my daughter always goes to a date in the same torn jeans she wears in her bedroom), the one distressed by separation (everybody knows that once you become separated you are relieved as the costly divorce litigation is near its completion), the one having her husband in subjection (only perverts put their husbands in handcuffs in Texas), the one separated by quarrel (quarrels are needed to show that we have the right to have different opinions), the one enraged with her lover, the one deceived by her lover (cheating on one’s boyfriend is absolutely the norm here), the one with a sojourning husband (who came back from Iraq), or the one going to meet her lover (on a blind date).

What about the NRI woman who thinks she is an intellectual or equal of Sigmund Freud? What about the woman who brings home the bacon, sushi, electricity bills, sanitary napkins, the Tea Party leaflets, and condoms? What about the woman who decides that she is better off as a single parent, a single woman or a lesbian in a same-sex marriage? May I remind that many women in Texas marry 4, 5 or 6 times and many don’t even remember who are the actual fathers of all their children?

May I remind that although the Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every NRI dancer should avoid reading, it is religiously believed by all Texan rednecks to be written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE? Its views on women and statistics are as outdated as some of our old American texts that classify humans based on their US visa status or propagate the theory of creationism that contradicts the Bible or the beliefs of the Faculty of Physics at the University of North Texas. Why are we, the modern women driving expensive cars and wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie, clinging to it for dear life if some of us are in danger of being classified by the 14th Chapter not as Goddesses, Gandharvas, Humans but as belonging to other types, such as Pigs, Horses, Buffalos, Goats or even Dogs? How can our democratic society classify people as noble, mediocre or lowly?

I wish Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts and conformed to the MTV standards. As an atheist and a member of the Republican party who thinks that everyone, not just Spiderman, must wear one’s underwear over one’s pants, I wish we overcame the limits of beauty and religion in its practice. I wish we overcame the male chauvinistic ideas portrayed in a Bharatanatyam performance, and promoted the same-sex marriages in India. I am writing this as a woman who is tired of seeing nayikas who long, pine, and suffer for someone who resembles one of my ex-husbands. For the Muslim purists who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for the impersonal and vague truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for years of imagination since the Prophet consummated his marriage with the 9-year-old Aisha?

Recently, I heard someone call the ardhanareeswara concept not as a reference to some unscientifically genderless godhead, Ida and Pingala, or to American women who are indistinguishable from the American men, but as the oldest example of gender equality and the only instance where Shiva carelessly wears unmanageable matted locks for hair while Parvati has beautiful flowing hair.

Shiva shows rage while Parvati is demure, which is absolutely unrealistic considering how much every American woman has to yell, scream and shout every day. Shiva can lift his leg over his head but Parvati (may be able to but) should not. Considering that most American women ballet dancers are excited about lifting their legs as high as possible in order to demonstrate the stylishness of their underwear, what about this really shows gender equality?

Showing that the male is all male and the female is all female is outrageous. Showing that the female does not exist without male enhances the wrong and irrational concept that the Universe that manifests in time and space comes from some unscientific Brahman that exists beyond time and space and is independent of the US Government.

Despite all the good values of Indian culture and its cuisine in particular, a major rule of our society that creates a stumbling block is “do not question your mom.” We stop evolving when we stop asking questions, and the more foolish questions come into our heads, the more we evolve in the eyes of the US Government. Perhaps that is why we label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.’

You’d think that living in a western society as NRIs would help people push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam even beyond the limits of salsa. You couldn’t be more wrong! As an NRI, I have no choice but to witness painful arangetrams performed like weddings with splendor and showmanship but lacking in content and standard that we find in the old school of the American ballet. As a dancer who dances at home every week, I am tired of NRI parents badmouthing their children’s gurus’ practices (Question: If you hate them so much, why do you continue sending your kids to their classes instead of sending them to Madras?).

As an economic migrant who came to the US to earn money, I see all NRI and the visiting gurus treat the art simply as the business of teaching (read moneymaking) and graduating more mediocre and substandard students year after year. I do not believe in religion or investing in real estate but I believe in Statistics and Citibank where I have my savings account. Neither am I traditional to the point of being able to appreciate anything other than rock-n-roll. Yet I cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals and iPods in auditoriums that are not built according to Natya Shastra. I am tired of the standing ovation given to every kid finishing his/her arangetram, irrespective of the standard as if we were at a GOP meeting. I am even tired of the almost ritualistic applause I hear at the completion of every plain jathi, theermanam, and swaram that so takes the focus away from the the glaring evidence of absence of any dance described in 4th Chapter of Natya Shastra.

Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons. Once our barriers start feeling free, we stop reading books and begin investigating the crucial issues: which of the current US party does Nataraja belong to, and why he is not depicted as the top American bodybuilders?

Sadly, most NRI parents today seem to be focused on how many quasi-traditional or semi-traditional or newly-traditional items they can get their children to believe they learn, how many costume changes one can manage in a given arangetram, how many costumes and jewelry they can acquire on their next trip to India, etc. Lata Pada, in a recent lecture said beautifully, “Do not expect me to be a cultural babysitter for your children just because I teach them Bharatanatyam. I am here to do business with you, and not to establish some Gurukula.”  It seems that this is exactly what several NRIs are hoping. Instead of encouraging their children to believe they already became dancers in the true sense by sending them to Madras, they want to create replicas of Priyadarsini Govind or Rama Vaidyanathan so they can be happy that their children are, after all, Indian who can do lecture but not demonstration.

Challenging someone intellectually is, after all, easier than doing it physically. PG and RV became expert lecturers not by following status quo or by practising stretches, but by learning Business Administration, Marketing, PR and carving their own niche in the American market. Of course, there are exceptions among NRIs such as Mythili Prakash and Bhavajan Kumar, to name a few who became proficient in their business promotion.

Why am I now taking it out on the NRIs as if they come here just to earn money and invest it in Chennai properties? Three reasons exist. I live abroad and got burnt in the US sub-prime mortgage scam. I cannot comment about the current practices in India for fear of being thrown into an open manhole in T.Nagar in the rainy season. While many of them hate to read books, NRIs have the financial resources to take the risk and push the boundaries beyond the limits of the ancient Indian aesthetics and sensibility. Living in a western society, witnessing art forms such as strip dance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, opera, etc, and receiving constant encouragement to explore and experiment should foster these experiences (or rather experiments?) even more until we start frying our dosas on Shevron engine oil instead of ghee. Sadly, I am yet to see examples of such, although the popularity of McDonalds in Chennai seems promising. And the question, “Will the NRIs who have the money and the cunning to push the boundaries and experiment help Bharatanatyam reach new heights in the eyes of Michael Jackson fans?” remains unanswered to me still.

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Ananda Shankar Jayant: the chief pirate in India and Anita Ratnam’s special friend?

Although I am a contributor to Narthaki’s “Roses and Thorns”, I rarely check it out.  This time everyone was sending me their comments (edited and unedited bits of which I will mark in blue) and asking for my reaction to a recent post by Ananda Shankar Jayant. This is  a hilariously brilliant suicide attempt that deserves praise and encouragement 🙂

There is a heated debate among those who are discussing this article. Some comments are pretty inoffensive: “Many of the videos hosted in the site are at least a decade old. There is no other way that youngsters like me would get to watch these videos, but for dancing india“.  A couple of people complained to me that their comments were censured out.

According to a message of  one commentator (Mahesh), his response to Ranjana Dave’s comment (“the misconception that if they [dancers] post videos of their work online, no one will watch them live“) was apparently cut out.

So, what was there that Anita Ratnam could not bear? (Was it her frustration that her most popular video on  Abhinayastore.com priced at $2.99 was bought as many as…. 3 times since… 1 April 2008 ??? 🙂

The main points of what Mahesh sent me deserve to be expanded.

All dancers, despite their paranoid apprehensions of “what if some students record me on their VHS and learn the full item without paying me???”  or, perhaps more frequent “what if people laugh at my crappy dancing?”,  historically strived to be featured on DD because it was some kind of a “status symbol” and marked their entrance into the “elite” of the classical dancers regardless of the quality of their dancing.

The slots for broadcasting classical dance were few and are still sold out like hot cakes. But no commercial TV channels have been interested in total crap like this DD video of Anjana Banerjee even if Anita Ratnam on her site writes that Anjana Banerjee’s “dance forms entirely a part and parcel of India’s cultural heritage“.

And suddenly, all this crap (along with some good stuff) is uploaded onto DancingIndia to be sold to dance junkies, and appears alongside homemade Bharatanatyam videos on Youtube. The “senior” dancers are outraged and scared.

Of what?

Of not being asked a permission for posting their videos online?
Or rather of seeing how few people are watching their videos online while many younger classical dancers receive literally millions of views? The “senior dancers” feel their ill-gotten “status” is threatened. The decade-long artificial hierarchy is challenged and is on its last legs.

One of the comments posted on Narthaki’s Facebook page deserves a special attention.

 Some visitors may have suspected that Ananda is promoting her own videos on Dancingindia. But the posting stirred something in my memory and put a smile on my face.

It was around 2004 when I was searching for Bharatanatyam videos that had not flooded the Web back then. Specifically I was looking for a few Doordarshan broadcasts, and to my immense pleasure the tapes were being sold on ranidevi.com. At steep prices of $25-$75 for a VHS tape or a DVD. Now I can no longer find them there on Rani Devi’s official site, but the “unofficial page” at http://www.geocities.ws/ranidevi/index.html is still active and seems to be doing brisk business! Rani Devi, though, presents her selling these Doordarshan tapes as her social mission of popularizing classical dance in the US and worldwide, almost in a non-profit spirit.

Ananda Shankar Jayant’s suggestion is that “These videos are being made available to DancingIndia unofficially from Doordarshan itself from every Kendra, by a group of people“.  And if she wanted to know who these people are, why didn’t she ask Rani Devi herself?

It was long time before a DVD of Volume 2 (no one knew when or where Volume 1 was released) of Bharatanatyam broadcasts from Doordarshan Archives was officially released. And it was long before the publication of Padma Subrahmanyam’s interview where she said she was urging Prasar Bharti to release the classical dance archives. With announcements like on http://www.friendsofprasarbharati.org/Recent%20newsYA85.htm, some dancers were elated. Dance students were trying to get the Bharatiya Natyashastra DVD and were frustrated. What do they do now? All the full episodes of Bharatiya Natyashastra are offered on Dancingindia for quick download, and for a dollar or two they can download almost anything. Since the times of Rani Devi’s selling the Doordarshan VHS tapes for $75, the prices have gone down so much, and now people don’t even buy DVDs as much as before.

But this is not the point. The point Ananda Shankar Jayant makes is about “piracy”. But when you hear one of her closest friends telling you that Ananda has more pirated software on her computer than most dancers, you start thinking. Thinking if she is planning to start a Pirate Party in India, to join the worldwide movement that is gaining strength. We all know that the intellectual property rights is a concept alien to our culture.

This comment, however, was not posted on Narthaki.com for obvious reasons: Anita Ratnam’s friend is loath to admit that she herself is one of the biggest software pirates in India. She is too shy: “Some of you have also responded with uncalled for belligerence, and personal comments, irrelevant to the topic under discussion. I would love to respond to them too, and will do so if you mail me“.

Piracy it too private to be discussed publicly. Even if some railway clerks have a Dr. title before their name, they risk being prosecuted. 🙂

Did Shiva dance American rock-n-roll? (a response to “Shivaya: An ode to the dancing Lord”)

This article is a response to Shivaya: An ode to the dancing Lord

Priya Raman tells us that Malathi Iyengar’s ‘Shivaya’ an ode to the NRI American Dream, was somehow “so special that it would have in all its true essence reached the Lord at the earliest”. Quite an ambitious statement, isn’t it?

Every now and then I stumble across some imbecile salsa or classical Persian dancer of Kathak either prentending of “offering their dance to Lord Shiva” or, worse still, trying to make us believe that Shiva himself was somehow doing those crappy dance moves while wearing a garb of the medieval Persian shopkeeper that Murali Mohan tries to sell us. In the first case, Shiva, even in his infinite compassion only accepts what is offered with absolute sincerity. Since it is the quality that is almost unheard-of among the “professional” dancers, Shiva simply ignores their “offering”. In the second case, the dancers get cheeky and try to push their imported subhuman vulgarity upon the Divine. They automatically get cursed for millions of years and will surely be reborn as frogs or worms, thus reducing the human over-population on the earth.

So, what kind of dancing does Shiva do, and why?

This is the question that bothered, for instance, two sages, Vyagrapada and Patanjali, who decided to meditate on a hilltop near Chidambaram and were really sincere (and, thus, successful) in their endevour. Priya Raman from Hyderabad took a different approach. As she “did not find an immediate answer”, she came up with a clever and abstract philosophical nonsense that made her “feel Shiva danced so that he could commission blessed messengers like us to dance in life”. Just like a drunk cheri priest in a dirty temple, she wants us to believe that every strip dancer is somehow Shiva’s messenger who wants to “make an eminent living” (which, according to her, includes “yummy breakfast and foreign chocolates”).

Shiva, the lazy Lord who only responds to the devotee’s absolute sincerity and determination, along with Parvati performed free of charge for the sages (certainly not for the intellectual Priya Raman), and they enjoyed watching it with their third eye (which Priya Raman does not have, so she decided to substitute it with some rational speculation). Natya Shastra tells us that these two sages were not the only ones who saw how Shiva actually dances. Shiva was “reminded” of his dance moves for example by his assistant Tandu whom we see in Mahabalipuram. Patanjali went on and installed the 108 karana statues in the Chidambaram temple. Vyagrapada, who became the founder of the South Indian martial arts, made use of certain karanas in a different way.

While a Cuban salsa or Persian Kathak dancer would argue that their moves, like any other moves, fall within the 84 lakhs of the body positions shown by Shiva, they can’t answer why only 108 of these positions are seen in the Chidambaram temple. The reason is very simple: even though Brahman is everywhere, even in a piece of dog poo, there is a difference between dog poo and an avatar. This is the difference that the hierarchy-averse brain-dead western dancers can’t get. They experiment with their bland “abstract choreography” potpourri of meaninglessness, while the dance of Shiva was as concrete as it can be and created the 8 Rasas.

Priya tells us that “The team travelled all the way from Los Angeles to collaborate with dancers from Chennai and Bangalore to pay tribute to the Panchakshara Mantra and to the five elements, to stillness and to movement”. If the Panchakshara Mantra has nothing to do with the five elements it doesn’t matter as long as you can sell it to the dumb American audience who understand what is water or fire but don’t understand what is rajas or tamas. Since akash (ether) was too impalpable, Malathi decided that it should be presented to the American audience as “Sky” (something that every American butcher can see). After all, American butchers don’t read books, do they?

The tamasic Priya informs us “of how group work can be re-defined, of what technical brilliance is all about and what it takes to have intricate, nerve wracking choreography”. Their nerve-wracking choreography, I assume, is partly responsible for the fact that California’s rate of schizophrenia and other mental disorders is the highest in the world, so everybody goes for counselling after a nerve-wracking dose of cocaine that every American artiste sniffs before attempting some “new artistic production”. Their group work fell far below the Pindi formations mentioned in Natya Shastra. Their “technical brilliance” was supposedly demonstrated by Renjith Babu Choorakkad who, according to the photo, was struggling to keep his foot up. For some reasons, the proud “professional” dancers thought they were better than the dancer in the video below (see the passage at 1 minute 11 seconds):

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJczIpsICFg&t=1m11s]

“Attention to detail was something to watch out for” although we are yet to see where that “desired ‘wow factor'” was supposed to be. Malathi Iyengar “brought in a strange discipline adopted from the west to make things as simple as they can get”. In this simplification process, the artistic sophistication and excellence were discarded as unnecessary. The Recakas, which formed an intrinsic part of Shiva’s dance, were discarded by the westernized “dancers” too. While it took our ancestors years of practice before they performed a piece, it took Malathi Iyengar’s team “a whole two days to get into the groove”. McDonalds would be proud of this record achievement.

“Malathi Iyengar had the best people in the business (yes, it is merely business, not art) work together – Rajkumar Bharathi, Embar Kannan, Praveen Rao, Gurumurthy G, Srihari Rangaswamy and other traditional composers”. How traditional these composers are if they can’t compose in the 22 srutis to which Shiva actually dances, and didn’t even read what music can be used with which angahara?

Rukmini Devi in Sudharani Raghupathi’s TV series in 1981 tells us that some songs “were composed by Divine inspiration”, while Malathi’s team decided that it’s better to have “brain storming sessions of ideas” that mutilated Adi Shankaracharya’s Nagendra Haraya beyond recognition. The fact that music used to be (according to Natya Shastra) composed for a particular piece of dance (after it was choreographed!) and not the other way around is something that the debilitated dancers didn’t get. Rukmini Devi says that true composers (not Malathi’s businessmen) “had actually the Pratyaksha, a vision” of the Divine and they “saw everything in a divine form“. Whether a composer really had a true vision or not is debatable, although we can safely say that Adi Shankaracharya did have it. The enlightened and even the not-so-enlightened composers keep confirming that Shiva’s favourite music is Sama Gana, while what the composers offer is of much inferior value (just as Malathi’s dancing is inferior to the dance fully based on the 108 karanas and choreographed in accordance to Natya Shastra). Unfortunately, to render even such inferior songs properly, the music arranger and the musicians too must tune in to this divine vision.

Gradual death of Bharatanatyam competitions in Chennai

It is not a big secret that Bharatanatyam competitions, however faulty they may have been, are very beneficial. Regardless of who wins and who loses, these competitions help the dancers assess their skills on a more objective level. They establish the standards and create the fabric of the dance community.

Few may have noticed that the Indian Fine Arts Society cancelled their Bharatanatyam contest this year, following Natyarangam’s, Music Connoiseurs’s Club’s, Gana Mukindhapriya’s, and others (e.g. ISKCON’s). We know no reasons for their decisions, no explanations or comments are given by these organizations. Perhaps it is a top secret.

What is not a big secret is, for example, the reason for the 2009 abortive straight-jacketed ABHAI competition where the dancers were severely restricted in what and how they can perform, obviously to suit the ABHAI’s president’s own agenda, as if it was some third-grade contest on Rukmini Ramani’s compositions which nobody attends.

Apart from the Music Academy (Spirit of Youth, very closely resembling Indian Fine Arts Society’s style of handpicking just 10 contestants) or National Bal Bhavan, among the other people who keep conducting Bharatanatyam contests it in Chennai are the TTD. These never announce it (perhaps for fear of their tiny space being overcrowded).

Unfortunately, the Bharatanatyam competitions they conduct are hugely inferior to the Kuchipudi competitions featured on their own SVBC TV channel where the judges are required to substantiate in detail their marks and provide comments on each item performed by the contestant.

See for yourself:



The reason the judges there are more or less honest and try to do their best is simple: they are well aware that their very reputation is at stake since tens of thousands of TV viewers watch the programme.

There is no comparison between the professionalism of the SVBC contest (where we can actually watch the entire classical Kuchipudi items performed by the dancers) and such TV contests as Jaya TV’s Thaka Dhimi Tha or Podhigai’s Konjum Salangai where we can at best see some bits of folk or fusion dances. The only thing we have worth watching on TV is Jodi No.1.

A Telugu friend of mine teases me from time to time, saying that excellence in classical dance or life in general quit Tamil Nadu long ago. Even in Kerala they have very well organized (where the dancers have the option of an appeal in case they are not satisfied with the judges) Kalotsav (www.schoolkalolsavam.in) featuring all classical dance styles, while there is nothing like that in Tamil Nadu.

Now, with so many sabha’s in Chennai claiming that they somehow are not responsible for the decline in the standards in Bharatanatyam, why is it that they they cannot organize regular Bharatanatyam contests and broadcast it easily on the biggest TV channel in the world, YouTube, allowing the viewers to discuss it and post their comments there? Of course, then the sabha’s hidden political agendas may suffer.

Perhaps they may be awakened to a new reality when Anita Ratnam decides to do it on Narthaki one day.

V.P.Dhananjayan buys Madras Music Academy’ BEST BHARATANATYAM ARTISTE AWARD for Madhavi Chandran! (Madhavi Chandra)

Madhavi Chandran

She got the first prize in Mohiniyattam at Kerala’s school youth festival and went on to get Balasri as Mohiniyattam dancer too. Curiously enough, Madhavi Chandran failed to get anything in Bharatanatyam at both events. Who would have expected the Music Academy’s committee to award her the first prize of their coinage? But miracles happen, especially if the young shrewd girl says she aspires to do her postgraduate studies not in dance but in… political science, following the path of Jayalalitha and Rukmini Devi.

In order to reduce the audience who may wonder by what miracle just 10 contestants were “shortlisted” out of 400 applicants, the schedule of the secretive Spirit of Youth contest is no longer published anywhere, nor the names of the judges are made public. What is announced, however, are only the “results”: the title “winner” (the highest bidder). Like the voting results in the Ivory Coast, the organizing committee, it seems, has overruled the judges’ secret marks. The judges don’t know how their marks were counted, or who counted them. Moreover, if the marks were made public, the judges would risk losing any remnants of respect in the dance community.

Here is a convincing and simple proof of criminal negligence of the editor of Narthaki.com, and the illustration of the level of corruption (and a total lack of professionalism) at the Madras Music Academy’s dance competitions:

Madhavi Chandran

Madhavi Chandran

“Madhavi Chandra, a student of Bharatakalanjali (The Dhananjayans) and Regatta Cultural Academy, Thiruvananthapuram ( Girija Chandran), has won the prestigious Madras Music Academy’s BEST BHARATANATYAM ARTISTE AWARD (Spirit of Youth award) for this year. She will be performing on the inaugural day of the Madras Music Academy’s annual Art festival 2010-11.”

The well-known fraudster V.P.Dhananjayan, whose MBA degree helped him to set up a mass production of half-baked “Bharatanatyam” (utterly stupid NRI and outstation dancers whom he “teaches” a few days in a year in a fake “gurukula” system), does not have time to teach them even correct mudras!

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

Bharatanatyam competitions, Concern India and political correctness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group performances hardly had to do anything with Bharatanatyam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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