Roses and Thorns: the thorny facts in “Bharatanatyam competitions: lessons from Concern India”. Narthaki.com 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 🙂 ) by the politically conscious Narthaki.com 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! 🙂 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! 🙂 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 for… the judges who… like A.Lakshman very much. 🙂 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.

Narthaki.com ‘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 🙂 In other words, if I am to write about a Kalakshetra-style dancer, it will be her.  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.  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! 🙂 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.  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.  Will you trade an opportunity to learn some interesting Bharatanatyam from an unknown but talented guru for an opportunity of winning a useless prize? 😦 Most dancers would not… 😦 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 ‘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?

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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.