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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earl Hunsinger explains:

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

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

Arul Francis gives us his opinion:

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

Let us single out each point:

no guru will teach the newcomer an advanced piece

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

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

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

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

Minakshi Ajay puts it this way:

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

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

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

Unbelievable? Read what Minakshi tells us:

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

a lot of dancers copy each other’s pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

there is a person who “created the original piece”

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

Sirisha believes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anjana Rajan put it in simple terms:

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

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

Signs of success expressed vocally:

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

Signs of success expressed by body language:

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

The signs of divine success are more interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arul tells us that

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

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

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

You may get in trouble if you lie too much:

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

You have to understand the etiquette and the hierachies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new developments

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

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

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

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

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

Arul warns us about the dangers of “fusions”:

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

Subbaraya Pillai… and the living fossils

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

In Gossip, Arul wonders,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how great traditions and great knowledge are lost:

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

Subbaraya Pillai explains his lacklustre “creative” genius:

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

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

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

Arul is more honest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big, great Arul then continues:

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

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

Arul confesses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

And he loves our blog: 🙂

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

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… 🙂