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

Bharatanatyam competitions, Concern India and political correctness.

We will analyze and comment upon a curious write-up by Meenakshi Ganapathy that appeared in Roses and Thorns and was evidently irritating some dance VIP’s for 3 weeks. So much so that it was just recently deleted (luckily, Google saved a copy of it ๐Ÿ™‚ ) by the politically conscious editor. We will also refer to the excerpts from the messages several people sent us about this event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group performances hardly had to do anything with Bharatanatyam.

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

We guess they are just dumb! ๐Ÿ™‚ Or just afraid of the political repercussions. The fact that Concern India could invite such a sec0nd-rate dance guru as Rajashree Vasudevan speaks of the profile of the competition.

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

It’s a great idea to have a competition where there are 2 contestants in the finals and 2 prizes! ๐Ÿ™‚ Curiously, Simran and Aishwarya met at another competition with the same outcome.

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

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

More and more people come to know Sudharma as the daughter of Chella who does all videography forโ€ฆ the judges who… like A.Lakshman very much. ๐Ÿ™‚ Leaving the sarcasms aside, Sudharma was a remarkable dancer 2 years ago, and was the only one in A.Lakshman’s school who was dancing with grace. Unfortunately, the health problems and A.Lashman’s Kalakshetra-like schooling left very little of the former – graceful, lively and expressive – Sudharma… How fast life changes us… Not to the better…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are looking for a perfect Kalakshetra-style dancer, see Sahana ๐Ÿ™‚ In other words, if I am to write about a Kalakshetra-style dancer, it will be her.ย  This virtuoso is capable of moving from the super-sharp movements to the ultra-smooth, and in this sense her range of movements is extraordinarily wide.ย  Even if some dancers did not like her hopping manner of walking on the stage, such sharp vertical up-and-down movements actually accentuated each beat of the cymbals, and kept the audience spellbound. Compared with her, the other dancers dance as if they were trapped in a quagmire! ๐Ÿ™‚ Her neck moves very interestingly too.

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

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

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

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

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

As recently as 3 years ago Sruthi was listed among Srekala Bharath’s students. So, what happened, may we ask? A possible reason may be that Srekala’s choreography is relatively plain, maybe too plain for Sruthi’s taste, but would be just fine for the 3 dumb judges who would be just scared of Srekala Bharath’s political authority too.ย  Will you trade an opportunity to learn some interesting Bharatanatyam from an unknown but talented guru for an opportunity of winning a useless prize? ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Most dancers would not… ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Well, it seems even under Madurai.R.Muralidharan she was quite a performer even 5 years ago:

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

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

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


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 ๐Ÿ™‚
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. ๐Ÿ™‚ 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.ย  The richer the judges, the better for the contestants. ๐Ÿ™‚

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? ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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?”ย  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.