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


1st prize: Swathy Ashok (16 years old)

2nd prize: K.Padmaja

3rd place: Dhivya Prabhakar

Other contestants:

Kiran Rajagopalan


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.