Bharatanatyam: “maintaining a competitive edge”! Bharata natyam dancer Harinie Jeevitha and the Natya Shastra’s karana’s. Is Bharatnatyam a classical Indian dance or folk? Bharathanatyam in Chennai

Bharatanatyam styles: winning the war for the spectators’ attention? The competition in the Bharata natyam field reaching its heights.

Bharatanatyam
bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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.

Review from Narthaki.com:

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.

Bharatanatyam

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?

Bharatanatyam

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.


vrscikarecitam

vrscikarecitam

vrscikarecitam

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?

karana

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.

Bharatanatyam

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.

bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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.”

Quoting another, earlier review (seen in a few places already):

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.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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.

Bharatanatyam

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.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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.

Bharatanatyam

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.

Bharatanatyam

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.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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?

Bharatanatyam

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.

New avenues?

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.

Bharatanatyam

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.

The orchestra

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.

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Bharat Kalachar’s titles. Anita Sivaraman. Anitha. Bharatanatyam. Bharata natyam.Bharatnatyam. Bharathanatyam . Classical Indian dance and dancers in Chennai. Bharatanrityam

Bharat Kalachar

(this is related to our post on Anita Sivaraman)
Remark: I don’t know why dancers post on YouTube the worst or most boring fragments from their recitals!

If you attended Anita Sivaraman’s recital at Bharat Kalachar, you would understand that she is a “perfected” and refined form of Swathy Ashok, if we can say so. This time her abhinaya was indeed more profound, and evoked the vivid images of the stories. I think that this vividness comes from the colourful and lively techniques of Kuchipudi and Srikanth’s style of Bharatanatyam that she learnt. Which is one of the main reasons Savithri Jagannatha Rao and Radha did not like it (as well as the presence of karanas) at the Cleveland competition.

Anita Sivaraman

Anita Sivaraman

It is not just a matter of style but a matter of how expressive your face is. Anita’s face can produce thousands of nuances of fast-changing expressions and as many degrees of intensity and saturation. If your palette is not rich…. Set your monitor to 256 colour palette and open your own photo. Will you like it? No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o…

If you know another dancer of Anita’s age who has personally choreographed all of her items, let me know: I will be surprised. In her choreographic genius, Anita manages to squeeze up to 5 times more detail in the same passage than an average Bharatanatyam dancer in Chennai.Drink the 100% orange juice, and then drink a 20% (diluted) orange juice that is available in most shops in Chennai.Or Delhi. Priya Venkatraman’s recital (a very good one, by the way) felt quite insipid – after watching Anita’s.

The elaborate richness of Anitha Sivaraman’s abhinaya nuances is intimately connected with her state of mind and her imagination. “Internalization” is a dancers’ term for it, and here, to be frank, there is quite a scope of improvement in Anita’s case. This is what makes the clear and lively images appear in the rasikas’ minds. Actually, not only minds. The Tantrics of Andhra are notorious for materializing things by power of their imagination. Know Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, eh?

On top of that, the sheer variety of rhythms, jathis, mudras and even karanas (there could be more of these, though, and a couple of them could be done more fully – like this) keeps our attention glued to the dancer (very important in case of the easily distracted American audience). Interestingly, I asked 2 well-known Bharatanatyam gurus about their analysis of certain small and distinct passages from Anita’s items. The gurus passed some general comments (Nice, Great, Beautiful, etc), which showed that their minds were clearly not in an analytical mode: they were just lost in Anit’s joyous dancing. Anita’s enthusiasm was so infectious!

In the beginning of the varnam, she depicted the dances of Shiva and Parvathy with finesse, although the quick transitions from tandava to lasya need to be perfected and made sharper and clearer. The choreography was simply superb. However, the dancers have to understand that watercolours are not quite suitable for Bharatanatyam: after Anita finished portraying Ravana, in a couple of instances she could not change her expression to Shiva’s as fast as she planned, so there was some leftover expression on her face. I suspect Anita is planning to become the fastest dancer in abhinaya. Curiously, I noticed that the faster you speak, the faster you can move your face. Want to try? 🙂 It is related to the proportion of tamas in your system.

Combining two themes (Ravana’s lifting the Kailasa and Nanadar’s path to the realizatin of the Shiva) in one varnam is questionable. Why not split these into 2 separate items? Yes, both are about Shiva, but…

Anyway, whether Anita realized it or not, she – along with the orchestra – did manage to bring the presence of Shiva much closer to the rasikas. One of the best realizations of Shiva’s nature that I have ever seen! Nobody was chewing chips or talking on the mobile. Everybody, even the gate keepers standing with open mouths, was engrossed in the highly spiritual experience. I think Anita is the most popular dancer in the US temples.

Muralidharan shook off his customary laziness and did a good job of instrumentation of the music so that it brought out the essence of the topics Anita was depicting. He created most of the jathis too.

The musicians were marvelous! What the orchestra did was to vary the tempo (I am not talking about kala ) gradually in most pieces. A typical Bharatanatyam dancer sticks to 3 flat (even) kala, but few manage to achieve a variety of tempos in each kala. In Anita’s thillana in particular, no single tempo was held for more than, errrr, 10 seconds? In other words, the tempo was constantly changing, practically all the time. Towards the end (5-10 seconds before) of each piece there was a significant change in the totality of the music, which emphasised the culmination of each item. Normally, the ending of items are not so clearly defined. I think here we have some western influence, but so well integrated into Anita’s items that it looks natural.

Sometimes I did not know whether to look at Anita or at the musicians. Take K.S.Sudhaman, for instance. I have never heard a mridangist who would manage to achieve a greater dynamic range and fit a greater variety of beats into one talam!

On top of that, he was accompanied by a tabla player. Very interesting combination. Preethi Mahesh was nearly excellent, although her voice’s tonal quality need to be cleaned.The veena player, M.L.Narayanan, was doing a great job, especially in the varnam, which was about Ravana playing the veena (remember made of what?). Priya Venkatraman does not understand that the veena (if played by a master) can be by far more effective instrument than the violin.

One thing I don’t like about many musicians and Muralidharan in paticular is how they fleece the dancers regardless whether these are mediocre dancers who deserve such treatment or the outstanding dancers who should certainly be treated differently. You can of course convert your musical talents into hard currency, but if you become too greedy, and a kind of vampire… I feel that gods will not give Muralidharan in his next birth a musical gift to sell. He may rather become a hungry mosquito…. It is a pity to see how money and greed destroys people. Unfortunately, many great artistes believe that their works of art “belong” to them, that they can “sell” them. Eventually, the slender river of inspiration dries out, and these people end up their life without any musical taste left.

“It is the NRI’s who have promoted Bharat Kalacharam, even more than the resident Indians”, uttered the professional speaker Mrs.YGP after mentioning that she conferred the title of “Yuvakala Bharati” on Anita Sivaraman. At Bharat Kalachar, there are no competitions: Mrs.YGP doesn’t like these: there is a risk a non-PSBB student could win the prizes. So, there are only titles.

Mrs.YGP is known to utter some politically motivated nonsense, such as “If X is a good dancer, it is because she is studying in a Padma Seshadri school”, and then “Even though Z has not studied in a Padma Seshadri school, she dances as if she did study at a Padma Seshadri school. She is always welcome to join a Padma Seshadri school”. Well, Mrs.YGP has a hobby of gathering good dancers and musicians around herself (Bharat Kalachar). Mrs.YGP personally persuaded such a well-known personality as MH to join a PS school too. The PS school teachers do not scold Bharatanatyam dancers for low marks. The Bharatanatyam dancers get extra bonus marks for any subject. Want to skip an exam? Ok…. Parava illai. 🙂

Mrs.YGP is too old not to distinguish between a good artiste and a bad one, and occasionally gets quite annoyed when some dance VIP pushes a useless dancer upon her.Well, why did Madam arrive only towards the end of Anita’s slot then??? She knows that, within 5-10 years, she will cross the border of life and enter a world where there is no politics, and no Bharat Kalachar. What I also know for sure is that her sins will be effaced by her good karma, so she will spend a long vacation (before the next incarnation) in a happy world of gandharvas. She will not reach higher. Maybe next time.

Indian Fine Arts Society’s Bharatanatyam competition. Swathy Ashok vs Dhivya Prabhakar. Divya. Bharatanatyam . Bharata natyam . Bharatnatyam . Bharathanatyam . Classical Indian dance and dancers in Chennai.

Bharatanatyam in Chennai

(this is a curious post 🙂
It is related to our post on Bharatanatyam competitions

In this big post I will deal with the following topics:

  • the role and mode of operation of major Bharatanatyam-supporting organizations in Chennai
  • social pressures, political undercurrents, and establishment of standards in Bharatanatyam
  • dancers’ constitution, and extreme varieties of Bharatanatyam (like this one)

Indian Fine Arts Society (IFAS): lessons from the Bharatanatyam competition

Results:

1st prize: Swathy Ashok (16 years old)

2nd prize: K.Padmaja

3rd place: Dhivya Prabhakar

Other contestants:

Kiran Rajagopalan

K.Sneha

Sri Krupa

Revathy Kumar

Jai Quehaeni (15 years old)

Anagha Bharat

Varna Sampath

This year’s competition was judged by Srekala Bharath, Madurai R. Muralidharan and Padmini Dorairaj (I bet you have not even heard of the last one). It should be said that, at least in the past 10 years, the IFAS judges normally try to appear as objective as they can. They try to do their best not because they value Bharatanatyam so much but because IFAS is THE place where the schools establish their reputation today.

Politically speaking, the judges learnt that, next year, the gurus from other schools may be judging this year’s judges’ students, so they try to be fair. “Fairness” is a flexible notion. A few years ago, the top two scorers were given a “fair offer”: “Since both of you performed more or less on the same level, the one who pays a bribe (rs.60000) will be selected as the winner of the 1st prize”.

Auctioning the 1st prize among the top 2-3 contestants is nothing new, and is very safe: the judges can maintain their “clean” reputation as they are not required to disclose and substantiate their marks, nor how the scores for each parameter are weighted against each other. The IFAS does not maintain any video records, so there are no traces, and no ground for an appeal. No chance to embarrass the judges. No investigation.

Some basic visibility of honesty, propriety and fairness is what, I guess, one of IFAS’s heavy-weights, Chitra Visweswaran, tried to import from Britain along with the ballet. This, in turn, is supposed to be the engine of progress, the slow progress of the unification of the standards of Bharatanatyam and their establishment. It is also an encouragement for the contestants: if you want to win the 1st prize, maintain at least a 25% quality margin (when the difference is obvious, the judges will not risk their reputation). If you are only 15% better, the second best may pay the bribe and get the 1st place. Got it? Don’t you know how George Bush won his first election? “If we add more than 10% of plain rice to the Basmati rice, it will be much more noticeable”, said an unidentified rice dealer.

This year Padmaja was slightly less impressive than Swathy, and Dhivya did not even know (as of Jan 6) that she was the third. 🙂 2 of the judges are quite wealthy too, and probably not interested in anything less than Rs.20 lakhs, which is what nobody would be willing to pay.  The richer the judges, the better for the contestants. 🙂

Anyway, the judges came up with 4 criteria (equally weighted):

  1. costume & music
  2. choreography
  3. nritta
  4. abhinaya

The criteria are nothing unusual, but, as you see, only 50% of the total marks depended on the dancer himself/herself. “We are judging the team, not the dancer alone”. Had the contestants been told by which criteria they would be judged? No, they did not know anything.

It is a Top Secret how the 10 contestants are selected (hand-picked rather) for the IFAS competition.The schools, or rather the clans, decide it between themselves according to these clans’ political weight. In other words, if you are an outsider, there is no chance you are going to be selected as a contestant.

IFAS has a policy of expanding its influence geographically – in the way a political party does. Thus, they sometimes invite outstanding dancers from outside of Chennai too. Apart from this year’s Bangalore’s Varna Sampath, the participants included 2 other “geographical” dancers: one is from Coimbatore (the green-eyed K.Sneha) and another from the USA (Kiran Rajagopalan). I suspect IFAS, just like the Music Adademy’s “Spirit of Youth”, does not have a policy of allowing too strong outsiders into its competition, which is purely a “family event”.

While Kiran was obviously thrusted upon IFAS by A.Lakshman (this Malaysian-born guru is a No.1 choice for dancers who need a promoter/manager rather than a guru). Had A.Lakshman not realized that Jyotsna Jagannathan would have been a much stronger candidate? He probably had, but, as a head of a Bharatanatyam “family”, A.Lakshman had to distribute the “opportunities” among his students in a more or less egalitarian way – not according to their talent or skills alone.

The modern gurus face a lot of pressures that they tend to succumb to. The gurus of the past, such as Subbaraya Pillai, were much more steadfast and firm in their ways: art for them was above political or business considerations. This is exactly the reason that the managers of many (or most?) sabhas have a big grudge against the gurus: “These fellows cannot be trusted: they will always have a reason not to send their best student to a competition”.

Amudha Dandayudahpani brought a somewhat inferior dancer, K.Sneha. Amudha’s daughter, K.M.D.Madhula, narrowly missed winning the 1st prize in a controversial judgement in 2006. Roja Kannan, one of the judges, stated, “As far as the IFAS competition is concerned I was not the only judge and so it is not right for me to disclose the parameters on which we based our judgement.. It was a team judgement where all of us had detailed discussions about each competitor and then arrived at the results based on the marks each one had scored on the different parameters, and so I have no right to disclose certain facts in this particular column without the consent of the other judges…Also why a certain candidate did not win and why a certain other candidate won is not for rasikas like you in the audience to ask me. “.Had the judges discussed it publicly, wouldn’t they be red-faced? Suvarchala, the 1st prize winner in 2006, was slightly better at nritta, but that was all.

Instead of R.S.Keerthana (a student of Radhika Surajit), this “slot” was suddenly replaced by Radhika’s guru’s student Sri Krupa, who is, incidentally, prof.Raghuraman’s daughter, totally out of shape. This replacement suggests the existence of the quota allocation system by which each clan is allocated a slot which it fills according to its own (not IFAS’s) considerations.

The proof that these considerations are often purely political can be seen from the fact that the winner of the 2009 IFAS competition, Swathy Ashok, is – even according to Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s own words – quite inferior to another of Urmila’s students: Amrita Varshini Murali (I cannot recollect Amrita taking part in the IFAS competition before). Why was it Swathy Ashok then who was sent to win the 1st prize? That these are the thoughts crossing Amrita Varshini’s mind is beyond all doubt. And that she will not ask this question of her guru is also beyond all doubt. But the grudge will remain hidden deep in her mind. No doubt.

Shobana came with Revathy Kumar. Why did she bring a stiff and quite clumsy student with horrible expressions that looked particularly horrible with the vertical-only light of the Balamadir German Hall? I cannot believe Shobana does not have far better students, or maybe Shivani Shandiliya and Anuroopitha are too young? To bring Revathy was tantamount to a suicide, and Shobana probably was well aware of it. Hmmmm… Or maybe Shobana wanted to shock the judges? She does not care about the mores, after all. You didn’t know that, eh? 🙂

Why did Jayanthi Subramaniam send Anagha Bharat this year (when she is grown out of shape) but not 2 years ago, when Anagha had a real chance of winning? This year Jayanthi Subramaniam’s other students, such as Deepta Jayakar or Ashwini Viswanathan, would surely have stood better chances.

It is difficult to believe that Varna Sampath represented Padmini Ramachandran’s best students. How can Varna compare with Kirti Ramgopal or Navya Natarajan or Shilpa Uthappa? Varna’s abhinaya, in particular, was totally inadequate and disjointed. Even during the song in Kannada. It is because – while dancing – she does not vividly imagine the story, or at least there is no continuation in her imagining. It is easier to imagine with one’s eyes closed, but harder with one’s eyes open. If you imagine well, the images will be clear and colourful (not gray). The stronger your imagination, the more powerful effect it will have on the spectators. This is how hypnosis works.

The IFAS system seems to grant a guru/clan a slot only in a particular year, not more than once in 3 years’ time. So if this guru does not strong students (in the age range of 14 to 20) in a particular year… Interestingly, the expansion of the lower age limit from 18 to 14 lead to the 14-year-old Archana Raja’s winning the second prize. Would the expansion of the upper age limit to 25 bring in stronger contestants too?

Padmaja may be Divyasena’s best student indeed (but Shyamala is not worse).It was clear that Parvathy Ravi Ghantasala did send her best student, Dhivya Prabhakar (who was not given her due prominence in Parvathy’s DVD videos ), – perhaps Parvathy thinks that the fatter and clumsier the dancer, the better. Dhivya is probably the world’s most delicate and tender Bharatanatyam dancer, full of extreme lasya, who sometimes does not understand the difference between Bharatanatyam and Odissi or Mohiniattam.

The reason that it was Swathy Ashok rather than Dhivya Prabhakar who got the 1st prize is quite obvious too. Swathy is far more rajasic than Dhivya, who is a purely sattvic type fit to be a devadasi dancing in a mandappam in some temple. Dhivya is far more elaborate in her intricate movements, and does not understand that the salangai have to produce a sharper sound. She dances like a fairy on flower petals. Very relaxing. You may fall into a meditation or asleep 🙂

Swathy’s dance is scintillating, sparkling with torrents of energy thrown onto the rasikas. I asked Sneha, “How can you hope to win if Swathy does 2 steps where you do 1?”  Clearly, Amudha has to enhance her choreography and music.

There are remarkable differences in the constitution of the dancers (remember Natya Shastra’s classification?). Dhivya’s body is an ethereal combination of air and water, while Swathy is made of fire and earth, and she can do the tandava very well. Dhivya’s “sword strikes” appear to be more like the gentle breeze moving cobweb. Dhivya’s light, low-contrast costume was a good reflection of her nature.

Taking into accound the judges’ minds, the outcome of the competition is not a surprise. In any case, these two girls’ talents are a clear indication that their souls are at least partially made up of the apsaras’ emanations. I was wondering why Brahma took pains to create 26 apsaras and not 1 or 2. Obviously, these 26 are different combinations of the 5 elements and 3 gunas. But then, why Urvasi is considered to be the best one? Probably it is a question of the best ratio of the constituents.

The history of IFAS competition has seen its ups and downs. While some dancers probably felt badly after their hopes of winning the 1st prize were shattered and they were left with the idea of how unjust the world is, the other dancers’ resolve appears to have been strengthened by their “failures” which were blessings in disguise. Had they won the 1st prize, I suspect they would have imagined they had already reached the pinnacle of perfection, and might prefer to rest on their laurels.