Bharatanatyam styles: winning the war for the spectators’ attention? The competition in the Bharata natyam field reaching its heights.
In the past 10 months as many as 85 (!) visitors to my blog bombarded me with their messages, writings, links and requests to post articles on various upcoming Bharata natyam dancers of the younger generation. As most of these visitors asked about Harinie Jeevitha , we decided to dedicate some space to this famous teenage virtuoso who not only reached the heights of popularity among Chennai rasikas and Bharatnatyam dancers but became ubiquitous on the Internet – even more than Medha Hari. Apart from various blogs mentioning Harinie, such as this one, Narthaki.com recently published another review of her recital (there was one last year) which we will quote and comment upon first. Following Sangeetha’s example who prefers simply to re-post what she finds elsewhere…
Well, tomorrow, we will add more comments and try to find out what makes her so successful.
Why do most dancers performing in early January see nearly empty auditoriums? The 7th of January offered 11 dance programs (apart from quite a few music concerts) taking place at the same time. There were solo Bharatanatyam recitals by Malini Srinivasan, Priya Venkatraman, Suma Mani, Shradha Balu, a ballet by students of Ranganayaki Jayaraman, a group performance by students of Parvathy Mohan, another by the students of Swaralaya, yet another by dancers of Bharata Kalanjali, a Kuchipudi recital by Deepika Reddy and
an Odissi performance by Sujata Mohapatra. The 11th dance program was a Bharatanatyam solo that, surprisingly, attracted over 150 rasikas to Rama Rao Kala Mandapam who came to watch a recital by Harinie Jeevitha, a student of S.U..
Whenever any big Bharatanatyam school’s best dancer is performing, the hall is never half empty. What is surprising about it? Some rasikas who went there told us that there were just a dozen of foreigners.
Harinie’s opening item, Ganesha Kautuvam in ragam natai and adi talam, was full of refined sculpturesque poses, intricate movements and high jumps that her supple body performed with ease, delineating each curve and bend with precision. While many dancers hardly lift their heels or hardly lift their feet while doing fast steps, Harinie’s feet moved fully and sharply, making her salangai produce a variety of sounds.
The next item was Annamacharya’s kirtanam “Vande Vasudevan” in sri ragam and kanda chapu talam, where Harinie’s expressions brought out the depth of bhakti and the devotee’s perceptions of the Lord. Varnam “Aadal Nayagam” composed by Madurai R. Muralidharan in kalyani ragam and adi talam, was full of difficult adavus where Harinie accentuated each beat with sharp movements of her chin and her eyes. Each jathi was choreographed in a distinct manner.
Srinidhi sent in her comments:
If many say that Madurai R. Muralidharan has reached the bottom of his career, it is because of the primitive music and very poor lyrics of pieces like Aadal Nayagam. Incessant repetitions and paucity of substance make it even worse! Why should good musicians and dancers try to salvage his poor compositions?
The varnam had a lot of surprises for the spectators in its complex and
fast nritta passages that contained a large number of the most difficult karanas. “The karanas are here not merely for a spectacular aesthetic effect,” commented S.U., “they are here to evoke the spirit of Nataraja.”
As you could read in our previous posts on the karanas, they also mark the difference between the folkish Bharatanatyam and the classical (Natya Shastra-based) Bharatanatyam. The biggest challenge a choreographer may face is the use of the karanas in a Bharatanatyam piece, therefore most gurus just don’t bother.
After all, even Padma Subrahmaniam made many mistakes, one of which was promoting herself instead of promoting her best students who could perform the karanas far better than Padma. Janaki Rangarajan did appear a few times in Padma’s Karana Prakaranam DVD – to illustrate a few most difficult karanas.
Another, Karana Viniyoga Mallika DVD failed miserably in this regard too, as the late Sundari Santhanam could not perform any karanas fully and gracefully, and did not let her best students do more than 40% of the demonstrations. Shouldn’t the art be treated as something greater than some “senior” dancer’s personal vanity?
99% of the Bharatanatyam students are totally incapable of performing the more demanding karanas, so why torture the poor students?
Padma Subrahmaniam writes, “The Nritta Karanas can be broadly classified as those pertaining to graceful dance, those meant for acrobatic display, and others for buffoons”. Can acrobatic karanas can be performed gracefully? Of course: only if you are in top shape!
Padma Subrahmaniam‘s disgraceful “demonstration” (which looks more like madcap buffoonery) of Vrscikakuttitam in the 3rd volume of her book is of course the proof of her poor judgement and the miserable state of her body. It is the explanation of why she is not particularly popular among the Bharatanatyam dancers – and the DMK politicians who recently took back from her the land Ms.Jayalalitha (K.J.Sarasa’s student) gave her.
Perhaps Lord Nataraja himself through Mr.Karunanidhi’s action was laughing at Padma Subrahmaniam, showing that dancers do not need to waste their time on useless political and social activities.
These fast changing difficult poses and acrobatic karanas require extraordinary balance and raised a storm of applause every time they were seen. However Harinie should polish some passages before presenting them on the stage, as freezing in a difficult static pose right in the middle of a very fast paced passage is a tremendous challenge to any dancer.
Speaking of karanas, surprisingly, the YouTube video gives the impression that S.U. has succeeded in choreographing and Harinie Jeevitha in handling the karanas in a harmonious and organic fashion indeed. S.U. did not repeat Sundari Santhanam’s mistake: instead of dancing herself, she let Harinie Jeevitha do it! 🙂
The theermanams themselves contained only 3 steps, much fewer than the average, much to the delight of those rasikas who cannot digest the ornamentalism of Shobana’s overstretched 20-step-long theermanams. Actually, Aadal Nayagam’s theermanams themselves did not end in the customary manner but with a brief scuplturesque sequence of nritta.
Papanasam Sivan’s “Ka Va Va” in varali ragam and adi talam was the fourth item. It began – and ended too – with portraying a devotee eagerly waiting for the Lord to appear. It was a pleasant surprise to see such a young dancer convey the spiritual significance of such spiritually significant passages faithfully. Harinie’s abhinaya, with a rich palette of bhavas, was candid and touching. She was the very embodiment of Shiva’s nature in the scene of Shiva burning Manmadan. Her long fingers lent an exquisite artistic touch to each “plain” action.
While Harinie was portraying a devotee pleading with the Lord, each repetition of the same line brought about a visibly different variation in her abhinaya. Some passages were performed with a childlike abandon and innocence, which was particularly handy while portraying delicate coyness. Such uninhibited abhinaya has the power to convince and move the spectators’ hearts and minds. She was masterful at drishya bhedas, her eyelids impeccably following the tune and the rhythm. She moved smoothly and effortlessly between the semi-standing to sitting positions, without any unnecessary moves.
The concluding item was Dr. M Balamuralikrishna’s thillana in Kathanakuthukalam ragam. It was full of complex nritta and sculpturesque poses. Harinie’s long and
flexible fingers assumed the impeccable nritta hasthas at the right moments. Her mukha abhinaya was in harmony with the movements of her limbs, her face sparkling with myriad harmonious and spontaneous expressions. The thillana ended with a “trademark” pose characteristic of the dancers of SN. One of the rasikas, Bharatanatyam dancer Anita Sivaraman (granddaughter of Papanasam Sivan), concluded, “Harinie is obviously an extremely talented dancer.”
A recent Bharatanatyam recital by Harinie Jeevitha was attended by the rasikas filling a third of the Narada Gana Sabha’s Mini Hall in Chennai. The recital, organized by Kartik Fine Arts, who are noted for their efforts in picking up the young Bharatanatyam talents.
The items in this Bharata natyam recital
The invocatory item was in ragam Amrita Varshini and Adi talam. Harinie’s long and flexible fingers assumed the impeccable nritta hasthas at the right moments, lending the jathis the additional charm. Harinie’s mukha abhinaya was attuned to the movements of her limbs, her beautiful face sparkling with a myriad of harmonious and spontaneous expressions of the exuberant danseuse. Harinie’s nritta and nritya were full of refined sculpturesque poses and movements that her supple body assumed with ease, delineating each curve and bend with a high precision.
One peculiar movement, resembling a chari in Padma Subrahmaniam’s interpretation but with a higher amplitude, was the sideway swing of the outstretched leg in a graceful manner. This peculiar move left some viewers wondering how many dancers would be able to perform it as gracefully, highlighting the visual beauty of Bharatanatyam.
Harinie was fast and neat in executing the pirouettes, lifting high her knee sideways. Sitting in araimandi in a Vinayaka pose, she was able to jump forward and backward effortlessly and keeping good balance, something that few dancers are capable of doing nowadays.
Professional dance photographers, who complain they usually have to discard most of the photos they take as “not quite beautiful”, would quickly notice one unique point about Harinie: it would be very hard to find a bad photo of hers.
Photos are always a problem for 99% of Bharatanatyam dancers!
Dominique Mong-Hune, while explaining why Priyadarsini Govind’s posters wisely use the spectacular photos of other schools’ dancers (actually, not just Priya but many Bharatanatyam schools worldwide), wrote here:
“No need for her to compare to a young “prodigy” of SN who has still years to mature her already perfect technique”
Perhaps he used “to mature” as a euphonism to “grow old”! If the technique is “perfect” (well, who is perfect?), it’s fine. As for “maturity”, if it means “adequacy” or “accuracy” in the presentation, some children understand the deeper, spiritual things and express them in a far more genuine, spontaneous, pure and natural way than all the thousands of “mature” dancers who can express adequately only the ordinary human experiences and who appear vulgar parodist when they attempt to express the spiritual things.
The varnam Sakiye by Tanjor Quarted in Ananda Bhairavi ragam followed. It was in Adi talam too, just as the rest of the items. Harinie commenced it with a series of difficult adavus, accentuating each beat with sharp movements of her chin and her eyes. The circular torso movements immediately preceeding the theermanams were performed with a larger amplitude than usual, which underlined the agile danseuse’s skill. However, the theermanams themselves contained only 3 steps, much fewer than the average, much to the delight of those rasikas who cannot digest the ornamentalism of Shobana’s overstretched 20-step-long theermanams.
After the first jathi was over, one regular rasikas noted that, although the vocalist sang a “pidi”, a more complex pattern not normally used for a Bharatanatyam accompaniment, Harinie was nevertheless able to follow the undulating tune effortlessly and faithfully, which also highlighted the responsiveness of her mobile and agile limbs to the music. When asked what helps her in perfecting laya, Harinie said that it was to her vocal classes.
That’s an interesting point about “pidi”. If I understand it right, it denotes a sliding manner of vocal music when the vocalist dwells in the microtones area, the “notes between the notes”, much longer than normal. If it is already a great feat to make one’s body responsive to each note, how much harder is it to make it react to the microtones!
While Harinie was portraying a devotee pleading with the Lord, each repetition of the same line brought about a visibly different variation in her abhinaya. The passages like “please bring it to me immediately” were done with a childlike abandon and innocence, which was particularly handy while portraying delicate coyness. Such uninhibited abhinaya has the power to convince and move the spectators’ hearts and minds.
Harinie was masterful at drishya bhedas, her eyelids impeccably following the tune and the rhythm. She moved smoothly and effortlessly between the semi-standing to sitting positions, without any unnecessary moves.
The second jathis in her Bharatanatyam recital made a friend of mine wonder if it was borrowed – almost in its entirety – from another varnam of S.U.. As it turned out to be, it was indeed taken from varnam Senthil Mevum, which raises the question whether a choreographer can simply recycle entire sets of jathis and re-use them again and again, even if they have proved to be a big hit.
One could not help observing that Harinie’s jathis perhaps needed a larger space than the 10-feet-wide stage of the mini hall. Harinie was elegant and refined in every move, whether she was taking rose water or grinding the sandal paste, her fingers lending an exquisite artistic touch to each “plain” action, although her renderings here were certainly not as elaborately perfect in this regard as Alarmel Valli’s. However, Harinie’s depiction of the mischievous Krishna, for instance, or the mood fluctuations from grief and back to joy were rendered smoothly and masterfully.
The third item was a padam by Uttukadu Venkata Kavi in ragamalika. Here, the danseuse masterfully, and somewhat playfully, portrayed the contrast between Murugan’s 12 hand versus the devotee’s 2. Harinie’s long and mobile neck moved very gracefully, along with the opening and the closing of her eyelids, in the depiction of the peacock. She was elegant in her detached portrayal of the evil powers in the episode that says, “As long as Muguran is with me, no evil can harm me”. Harinie’s abhinaya in “I have only 2 hands to receive your blessings, while you have 12” was very overwhelmingly candid and touching, almost materialising the images of the scene. In this scene Harinie’s childlike disappointent with the received gifts was charming and brought a smile on the rasikas’ faces, just as in another scene, when she was contrasting Murugan’s greatness with the devotee’s smallness. It was a surprise to see such a young dancer to be so mature as to convey the spiritual significance of such passages faithfully.
The fourth item was a thillana by Dr.M.Balamuralikrishna in Kathanakuthukalam ragam. It was choreographed in a very original way and performed in even more original manner, fully of complex nritta and rare sculpturesque poses. It ended with a “trademark” pose characteristic of the dancers of SN.
Scope for further improvement
While Harinie was certainly very impressive in her recital, a trained eye could see that there are of course some areas she should pay more attention to. So, for instance, while her pirouettes maintained a vertical axis in the fast movement, she had some difficulty maintaining the balance in the slow turnarounds. Freezing suddenly in an absolutely static pose in the middle of a very fast-paced thillana is a tremendous challenge to any dancer.
Can we expect the araimandi level to be very steady, and not undulating, even when the dancer gets somewhat tired after dancing for 40-50 minutes continuously? Another question is, can we, or rather should we, expect a 13-year-old tender and delicate girl to be able to realistically portray a demon or a warrior, considering the fact that, typically, a danseuse who has achieved mastery in the tandavas is no longer capable of rendering the delicate lasyas?
The dancers can and should learn by watching other dancers’ performances too. Had Harinie stayed in the hall after finishing her slot and watched the next dancer’s recital, she could have learnt that mastering a wide range of tempos is far easier to achieve than mastering a wide range of accelerations and decelerations, which becomes very prominent particularly in rendering different varieties of lasya.
One of the rasikas observed that the spectators too should be praised for braving Chennai’s traffic during the rush hours. “It takes the same time to go from Tambaram to Alwarpet as it takes from Toronto to Detroit, one rasikas complained. In such a situation, it is no wonder that more and more spectators prefer to watch Bharatanatyam recitals – as well as competitions – on TV.
The Bharatanatyam TV competitions conducted by Jaya TV and Doordarshan are increasingly popular, and it is no wonder the Harinie won the first prizes there too.
YouTube has this one to offer:
Neither live programmes nor television can stand comparison with the emerging medium of the Internet.
We were surprised to hear Harinie’s proud classmates revealing that her Internet videos receive lakhs of views per year.
The 11-year-old child prodigy’s arangetram video became the most-watched Bharata natyam videos on the Web. With 400000 views (twice as many as Malavika Sarukkai’s) on YouTube alone, this Bharatanatyam video became a truly viral one:
The 13-year-old Harinie is probably one of the best-known junior dancers of today, with a large and impressive collection of Bharatanatyam prizes and awards. Apart from the prizes at competitions held in Chennai, she easily wins the first prizes in the all-India level competitions in Mumbai, Hyderabad or Bangalore too.
Nagai Narayanan (mridangam), a wel-known percussive expert, provided, along with S.U.’s nattuvangam, a firm guidance for Harinie’s steps and abhinaya. The other members of the orchestra included the vocalist Rajeshwari Kumar, who had a hard time struggling with a faulty mike provided by Narada Gana Sabha. Ramesh on the flute and Muruganandan on the violin were accurate and professional in their approach.