Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of cunning NRIs

While Kathak dancer Prathiba raises many valid questions and highlights very valid points, there are a few that put a smile on my face. 

What she meant to say is this:

I hardly ever bother to watch any outstanding classical dancers who never make it to the USA as I may start questioning myself where I truly belong and what the hell I have been doing in Texas, and, more importantly, why I learnt the Persian classical dance Kathak instead of the classical American dance of Salsa.  In recent times, I have witnessed several jaw-dropping, pants-wetting modern performances in Dallas and Houston by visiting Indian dancers who, being old enough, still aspire to look like some teenage American ballet dancers. Their academic presentations made me feel like the classical (shastriya) Indian dance has now been made to sound scientific enough to be taught at the Faculty of Statistics and Measurement at the University of North Texas. The problem for Kathak still remains: to call it classical, we are yet to write a shastra (or “discover” some fake antique book) based on which it would be called “shastriya”.

I have left the auditoriums giggling, jumping and throwing pieces of potato chips around like a teenager who smoked pot on a first visit to Disney Land. Today’s PR specialists, even those who promote themselves as dancing under the traditional labels, incorporate interesting, simple and entertaining MTV-style movements  in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of devolution, inborn inability to learn anything from Natya Shastra or to perform even a few stretches a day to accomplish what most American teenage ballet dancers or gymnasts achieve with ease and little pride. At the same time, there also seems to be something, such as use of those pretty useless and meaningless hand gestures, that is stagnant in its practice and even an evolution in the wrong direction, if I may be so bold. I feel I am entitled to be bold and question everything because I have an American passport.

While artistes like Uttara Coorlawala, Anita Ratnam and Michael Jackson seem to have taken evolution to a new level far away from the place they started from, questioning the concept of evolution  itself, why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas and not on their church affiliations or sex preferences? Based on the relationship with the hero, the Natya Shastra classifies women as the one who dresses for union with her hero (my daughter always goes to a date in the same torn jeans she wears in her bedroom), the one distressed by separation (everybody knows that once you become separated you are relieved as the costly divorce litigation is near its completion), the one having her husband in subjection (only perverts put their husbands in handcuffs in Texas), the one separated by quarrel (quarrels are needed to show that we have the right to have different opinions), the one enraged with her lover, the one deceived by her lover (cheating on one’s boyfriend is absolutely the norm here), the one with a sojourning husband (who came back from Iraq), or the one going to meet her lover (on a blind date).

What about the NRI woman who thinks she is an intellectual or equal of Sigmund Freud? What about the woman who brings home the bacon, sushi, electricity bills, sanitary napkins, the Tea Party leaflets, and condoms? What about the woman who decides that she is better off as a single parent, a single woman or a lesbian in a same-sex marriage? May I remind that many women in Texas marry 4, 5 or 6 times and many don’t even remember who are the actual fathers of all their children?

May I remind that although the Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every NRI dancer should avoid reading, it is religiously believed by all Texan rednecks to be written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE? Its views on women and statistics are as outdated as some of our old American texts that classify humans based on their US visa status or propagate the theory of creationism that contradicts the Bible or the beliefs of the Faculty of Physics at the University of North Texas. Why are we, the modern women driving expensive cars and wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie, clinging to it for dear life if some of us are in danger of being classified by the 14th Chapter not as Goddesses, Gandharvas, Humans but as belonging to other types, such as Pigs, Horses, Buffalos, Goats or even Dogs? How can our democratic society classify people as noble, mediocre or lowly?

I wish Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts and conformed to the MTV standards. As an atheist and a member of the Republican party who thinks that everyone, not just Spiderman, must wear one’s underwear over one’s pants, I wish we overcame the limits of beauty and religion in its practice. I wish we overcame the male chauvinistic ideas portrayed in a Bharatanatyam performance, and promoted the same-sex marriages in India. I am writing this as a woman who is tired of seeing nayikas who long, pine, and suffer for someone who resembles one of my ex-husbands. For the Muslim purists who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for the impersonal and vague truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for years of imagination since the Prophet consummated his marriage with the 9-year-old Aisha?

Recently, I heard someone call the ardhanareeswara concept not as a reference to some unscientifically genderless godhead, Ida and Pingala, or to American women who are indistinguishable from the American men, but as the oldest example of gender equality and the only instance where Shiva carelessly wears unmanageable matted locks for hair while Parvati has beautiful flowing hair.

Shiva shows rage while Parvati is demure, which is absolutely unrealistic considering how much every American woman has to yell, scream and shout every day. Shiva can lift his leg over his head but Parvati (may be able to but) should not. Considering that most American women ballet dancers are excited about lifting their legs as high as possible in order to demonstrate the stylishness of their underwear, what about this really shows gender equality?

Showing that the male is all male and the female is all female is outrageous. Showing that the female does not exist without male enhances the wrong and irrational concept that the Universe that manifests in time and space comes from some unscientific Brahman that exists beyond time and space and is independent of the US Government.

Despite all the good values of Indian culture and its cuisine in particular, a major rule of our society that creates a stumbling block is “do not question your mom.” We stop evolving when we stop asking questions, and the more foolish questions come into our heads, the more we evolve in the eyes of the US Government. Perhaps that is why we label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.’

You’d think that living in a western society as NRIs would help people push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam even beyond the limits of salsa. You couldn’t be more wrong! As an NRI, I have no choice but to witness painful arangetrams performed like weddings with splendor and showmanship but lacking in content and standard that we find in the old school of the American ballet. As a dancer who dances at home every week, I am tired of NRI parents badmouthing their children’s gurus’ practices (Question: If you hate them so much, why do you continue sending your kids to their classes instead of sending them to Madras?).

As an economic migrant who came to the US to earn money, I see all NRI and the visiting gurus treat the art simply as the business of teaching (read moneymaking) and graduating more mediocre and substandard students year after year. I do not believe in religion or investing in real estate but I believe in Statistics and Citibank where I have my savings account. Neither am I traditional to the point of being able to appreciate anything other than rock-n-roll. Yet I cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals and iPods in auditoriums that are not built according to Natya Shastra. I am tired of the standing ovation given to every kid finishing his/her arangetram, irrespective of the standard as if we were at a GOP meeting. I am even tired of the almost ritualistic applause I hear at the completion of every plain jathi, theermanam, and swaram that so takes the focus away from the the glaring evidence of absence of any dance described in 4th Chapter of Natya Shastra.

Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons. Once our barriers start feeling free, we stop reading books and begin investigating the crucial issues: which of the current US party does Nataraja belong to, and why he is not depicted as the top American bodybuilders?

Sadly, most NRI parents today seem to be focused on how many quasi-traditional or semi-traditional or newly-traditional items they can get their children to believe they learn, how many costume changes one can manage in a given arangetram, how many costumes and jewelry they can acquire on their next trip to India, etc. Lata Pada, in a recent lecture said beautifully, “Do not expect me to be a cultural babysitter for your children just because I teach them Bharatanatyam. I am here to do business with you, and not to establish some Gurukula.”  It seems that this is exactly what several NRIs are hoping. Instead of encouraging their children to believe they already became dancers in the true sense by sending them to Madras, they want to create replicas of Priyadarsini Govind or Rama Vaidyanathan so they can be happy that their children are, after all, Indian who can do lecture but not demonstration.

Challenging someone intellectually is, after all, easier than doing it physically. PG and RV became expert lecturers not by following status quo or by practising stretches, but by learning Business Administration, Marketing, PR and carving their own niche in the American market. Of course, there are exceptions among NRIs such as Mythili Prakash and Bhavajan Kumar, to name a few who became proficient in their business promotion.

Why am I now taking it out on the NRIs as if they come here just to earn money and invest it in Chennai properties? Three reasons exist. I live abroad and got burnt in the US sub-prime mortgage scam. I cannot comment about the current practices in India for fear of being thrown into an open manhole in T.Nagar in the rainy season. While many of them hate to read books, NRIs have the financial resources to take the risk and push the boundaries beyond the limits of the ancient Indian aesthetics and sensibility. Living in a western society, witnessing art forms such as strip dance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, opera, etc, and receiving constant encouragement to explore and experiment should foster these experiences (or rather experiments?) even more until we start frying our dosas on Shevron engine oil instead of ghee. Sadly, I am yet to see examples of such, although the popularity of McDonalds in Chennai seems promising. And the question, “Will the NRIs who have the money and the cunning to push the boundaries and experiment help Bharatanatyam reach new heights in the eyes of Michael Jackson fans?” remains unanswered to me still.

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Ananda Shankar Jayant: the chief pirate in India and Anita Ratnam’s special friend?

Although I am a contributor to Narthaki’s “Roses and Thorns”, I rarely check it out.  This time everyone was sending me their comments (edited and unedited bits of which I will mark in blue) and asking for my reaction to a recent post by Ananda Shankar Jayant. This is  a hilariously brilliant suicide attempt that deserves praise and encouragement 🙂

There is a heated debate among those who are discussing this article. Some comments are pretty inoffensive: “Many of the videos hosted in the site are at least a decade old. There is no other way that youngsters like me would get to watch these videos, but for dancing india“.  A couple of people complained to me that their comments were censured out.

According to a message of  one commentator (Mahesh), his response to Ranjana Dave’s comment (“the misconception that if they [dancers] post videos of their work online, no one will watch them live“) was apparently cut out.

So, what was there that Anita Ratnam could not bear? (Was it her frustration that her most popular video on  Abhinayastore.com priced at $2.99 was bought as many as…. 3 times since… 1 April 2008 ??? 🙂

The main points of what Mahesh sent me deserve to be expanded.

All dancers, despite their paranoid apprehensions of “what if some students record me on their VHS and learn the full item without paying me???”  or, perhaps more frequent “what if people laugh at my crappy dancing?”,  historically strived to be featured on DD because it was some kind of a “status symbol” and marked their entrance into the “elite” of the classical dancers regardless of the quality of their dancing.

The slots for broadcasting classical dance were few and are still sold out like hot cakes. But no commercial TV channels have been interested in total crap like this DD video of Anjana Banerjee even if Anita Ratnam on her site writes that Anjana Banerjee’s “dance forms entirely a part and parcel of India’s cultural heritage“.

And suddenly, all this crap (along with some good stuff) is uploaded onto DancingIndia to be sold to dance junkies, and appears alongside homemade Bharatanatyam videos on Youtube. The “senior” dancers are outraged and scared.

Of what?

Of not being asked a permission for posting their videos online?
Or rather of seeing how few people are watching their videos online while many younger classical dancers receive literally millions of views? The “senior dancers” feel their ill-gotten “status” is threatened. The decade-long artificial hierarchy is challenged and is on its last legs.

One of the comments posted on Narthaki’s Facebook page deserves a special attention.

 Some visitors may have suspected that Ananda is promoting her own videos on Dancingindia. But the posting stirred something in my memory and put a smile on my face.

It was around 2004 when I was searching for Bharatanatyam videos that had not flooded the Web back then. Specifically I was looking for a few Doordarshan broadcasts, and to my immense pleasure the tapes were being sold on ranidevi.com. At steep prices of $25-$75 for a VHS tape or a DVD. Now I can no longer find them there on Rani Devi’s official site, but the “unofficial page” at http://www.geocities.ws/ranidevi/index.html is still active and seems to be doing brisk business! Rani Devi, though, presents her selling these Doordarshan tapes as her social mission of popularizing classical dance in the US and worldwide, almost in a non-profit spirit.

Ananda Shankar Jayant’s suggestion is that “These videos are being made available to DancingIndia unofficially from Doordarshan itself from every Kendra, by a group of people“.  And if she wanted to know who these people are, why didn’t she ask Rani Devi herself?

It was long time before a DVD of Volume 2 (no one knew when or where Volume 1 was released) of Bharatanatyam broadcasts from Doordarshan Archives was officially released. And it was long before the publication of Padma Subrahmanyam’s interview where she said she was urging Prasar Bharti to release the classical dance archives. With announcements like on http://www.friendsofprasarbharati.org/Recent%20newsYA85.htm, some dancers were elated. Dance students were trying to get the Bharatiya Natyashastra DVD and were frustrated. What do they do now? All the full episodes of Bharatiya Natyashastra are offered on Dancingindia for quick download, and for a dollar or two they can download almost anything. Since the times of Rani Devi’s selling the Doordarshan VHS tapes for $75, the prices have gone down so much, and now people don’t even buy DVDs as much as before.

But this is not the point. The point Ananda Shankar Jayant makes is about “piracy”. But when you hear one of her closest friends telling you that Ananda has more pirated software on her computer than most dancers, you start thinking. Thinking if she is planning to start a Pirate Party in India, to join the worldwide movement that is gaining strength. We all know that the intellectual property rights is a concept alien to our culture.

This comment, however, was not posted on Narthaki.com for obvious reasons: Anita Ratnam’s friend is loath to admit that she herself is one of the biggest software pirates in India. She is too shy: “Some of you have also responded with uncalled for belligerence, and personal comments, irrelevant to the topic under discussion. I would love to respond to them too, and will do so if you mail me“.

Piracy it too private to be discussed publicly. Even if some railway clerks have a Dr. title before their name, they risk being prosecuted. 🙂

Did Shiva dance American rock-n-roll? (a response to “Shivaya: An ode to the dancing Lord”)

This article is a response to Shivaya: An ode to the dancing Lord

Priya Raman tells us that Malathi Iyengar’s ‘Shivaya’ an ode to the NRI American Dream, was somehow “so special that it would have in all its true essence reached the Lord at the earliest”. Quite an ambitious statement, isn’t it?

Every now and then I stumble across some imbecile salsa or classical Persian dancer of Kathak either prentending of “offering their dance to Lord Shiva” or, worse still, trying to make us believe that Shiva himself was somehow doing those crappy dance moves while wearing a garb of the medieval Persian shopkeeper that Murali Mohan tries to sell us. In the first case, Shiva, even in his infinite compassion only accepts what is offered with absolute sincerity. Since it is the quality that is almost unheard-of among the “professional” dancers, Shiva simply ignores their “offering”. In the second case, the dancers get cheeky and try to push their imported subhuman vulgarity upon the Divine. They automatically get cursed for millions of years and will surely be reborn as frogs or worms, thus reducing the human over-population on the earth.

So, what kind of dancing does Shiva do, and why?

This is the question that bothered, for instance, two sages, Vyagrapada and Patanjali, who decided to meditate on a hilltop near Chidambaram and were really sincere (and, thus, successful) in their endevour. Priya Raman from Hyderabad took a different approach. As she “did not find an immediate answer”, she came up with a clever and abstract philosophical nonsense that made her “feel Shiva danced so that he could commission blessed messengers like us to dance in life”. Just like a drunk cheri priest in a dirty temple, she wants us to believe that every strip dancer is somehow Shiva’s messenger who wants to “make an eminent living” (which, according to her, includes “yummy breakfast and foreign chocolates”).

Shiva, the lazy Lord who only responds to the devotee’s absolute sincerity and determination, along with Parvati performed free of charge for the sages (certainly not for the intellectual Priya Raman), and they enjoyed watching it with their third eye (which Priya Raman does not have, so she decided to substitute it with some rational speculation). Natya Shastra tells us that these two sages were not the only ones who saw how Shiva actually dances. Shiva was “reminded” of his dance moves for example by his assistant Tandu whom we see in Mahabalipuram. Patanjali went on and installed the 108 karana statues in the Chidambaram temple. Vyagrapada, who became the founder of the South Indian martial arts, made use of certain karanas in a different way.

While a Cuban salsa or Persian Kathak dancer would argue that their moves, like any other moves, fall within the 84 lakhs of the body positions shown by Shiva, they can’t answer why only 108 of these positions are seen in the Chidambaram temple. The reason is very simple: even though Brahman is everywhere, even in a piece of dog poo, there is a difference between dog poo and an avatar. This is the difference that the hierarchy-averse brain-dead western dancers can’t get. They experiment with their bland “abstract choreography” potpourri of meaninglessness, while the dance of Shiva was as concrete as it can be and created the 8 Rasas.

Priya tells us that “The team travelled all the way from Los Angeles to collaborate with dancers from Chennai and Bangalore to pay tribute to the Panchakshara Mantra and to the five elements, to stillness and to movement”. If the Panchakshara Mantra has nothing to do with the five elements it doesn’t matter as long as you can sell it to the dumb American audience who understand what is water or fire but don’t understand what is rajas or tamas. Since akash (ether) was too impalpable, Malathi decided that it should be presented to the American audience as “Sky” (something that every American butcher can see). After all, American butchers don’t read books, do they?

The tamasic Priya informs us “of how group work can be re-defined, of what technical brilliance is all about and what it takes to have intricate, nerve wracking choreography”. Their nerve-wracking choreography, I assume, is partly responsible for the fact that California’s rate of schizophrenia and other mental disorders is the highest in the world, so everybody goes for counselling after a nerve-wracking dose of cocaine that every American artiste sniffs before attempting some “new artistic production”. Their group work fell far below the Pindi formations mentioned in Natya Shastra. Their “technical brilliance” was supposedly demonstrated by Renjith Babu Choorakkad who, according to the photo, was struggling to keep his foot up. For some reasons, the proud “professional” dancers thought they were better than the dancer in the video below (see the passage at 1 minute 11 seconds):

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJczIpsICFg&t=1m11s]

“Attention to detail was something to watch out for” although we are yet to see where that “desired ‘wow factor'” was supposed to be. Malathi Iyengar “brought in a strange discipline adopted from the west to make things as simple as they can get”. In this simplification process, the artistic sophistication and excellence were discarded as unnecessary. The Recakas, which formed an intrinsic part of Shiva’s dance, were discarded by the westernized “dancers” too. While it took our ancestors years of practice before they performed a piece, it took Malathi Iyengar’s team “a whole two days to get into the groove”. McDonalds would be proud of this record achievement.

“Malathi Iyengar had the best people in the business (yes, it is merely business, not art) work together – Rajkumar Bharathi, Embar Kannan, Praveen Rao, Gurumurthy G, Srihari Rangaswamy and other traditional composers”. How traditional these composers are if they can’t compose in the 22 srutis to which Shiva actually dances, and didn’t even read what music can be used with which angahara?

Rukmini Devi in Sudharani Raghupathi’s TV series in 1981 tells us that some songs “were composed by Divine inspiration”, while Malathi’s team decided that it’s better to have “brain storming sessions of ideas” that mutilated Adi Shankaracharya’s Nagendra Haraya beyond recognition. The fact that music used to be (according to Natya Shastra) composed for a particular piece of dance (after it was choreographed!) and not the other way around is something that the debilitated dancers didn’t get. Rukmini Devi says that true composers (not Malathi’s businessmen) “had actually the Pratyaksha, a vision” of the Divine and they “saw everything in a divine form“. Whether a composer really had a true vision or not is debatable, although we can safely say that Adi Shankaracharya did have it. The enlightened and even the not-so-enlightened composers keep confirming that Shiva’s favourite music is Sama Gana, while what the composers offer is of much inferior value (just as Malathi’s dancing is inferior to the dance fully based on the 108 karanas and choreographed in accordance to Natya Shastra). Unfortunately, to render even such inferior songs properly, the music arranger and the musicians too must tune in to this divine vision.

Differences between classical Indian dance styles in terms of Natya Shastra, Tantra, calligraphy, mechanical engineering and psychiatry. Bharatanatyam styles & Bharatnatyam schools & Bharathanatyam dancers

Can you tell if these flowers are live or… latex?

This is the uncensored draft (still being updated) of the article posted on Narthaki.com.

The topics touched in this article will be:

  • Padma Subrahmanyam’s elucidation of Natya Shastra’s Recakas
  • Role of Recakas in producing Rasas
  • What makes the dance attractive, beautiful and interesting
  • Kaisikivs. robotic movements in terms of mechanical engineering
  • Why classical Indian dance proper is a solo dance
  • Laya and 22 Sruthis
  • Why Bharata Muni didn’t allow men to sing (and the proof that most dancers and rasikas are actually deaf)
  • Lines of power, and why Anita Ratnam is fond of her Tai Chi classes
  • Anga Suddham, modes of movements and calligraphy
  • The Tantric explanations of everything in terms of 3 gunas, 5 elements, the vrittis and more
  • Difference between true art, factory-produced merchandize, and garbage

In her book on the Karanas, Padma Subrahmanyam boldly attempted to pinpoint what is dance and what is not. She builds much of her explanation around the term Recaka. To give you an idea of what the mind-boggling variety of, for example, the Pada (feet) Recakas alone include, these “may utilize the space on the sides, move forward, slip or glide, waver, quiver, shake, proceed, turn away, swerve, sway, get pushed, jerk, slide, raise, lower, draw, release or whirl“.

Padma Subrahmanyam says, though, that Recakas “cannot be enlisted or enumerated“. She also uses the terms Prthagbhava (clearly/sharply outlined) and Valana (smooth/blurred) components of movement saying that a performance that makes use of both masterfully “can never be boring even for the uninitiated“. All this makes sense, while I am yet to understand her identification of Anga Suddham with Prthagbhava alone.

Alathur Vijayakumar, the founder of Kalavardhanis, thought he discovered America when he said that he arrived at a formula that detects the “presence of grace” (or rather, the presence of life) in a particular dance sequence. Any robotic movement (which the break dance or army soldiers marching seeks to emulate) can very accurately be described in terms of velocity (V)  and acceleration (V²) and jerk (V³).

Padma Subrahmanyam says, “…if the intensity [of movement] is constant, the actions suffer a lack of variety.The lines may be defined, lucid and distinct in every action with clarity even in the divergence of the movements. In such a convoy of actions, every movement follows disconnectedly, without getting dissolved into one another. Hence there is a danger of killing grace” . She says that the word Valana signifies that “each movement glides into another in a graceful manner“.

The famous guru Muthukumaran Pillai had “no patience for stiff, angular, sharp-edged or what he called “violent” movement: he wanted the movements to be firm, yet appear to be effortless. Then, in nritta sequences he insisted that the termination of one adavu pattern and beginning of the next should be marked, not by a blunt break, but by a gentle overlapping which should accentuate the continuity of the rendering”. Ironically, Rukmini Devi Arundale was one of his students.

 

Any psychiatrist or graphologist will tell you that if the letters in your handwriting are not connected, it means you think incoherently, and you have a good chance of becoming a schizophrenic in the future. Exposure to the schizophrenic dance performances is tantamount to eating food full of chemical pesticides.

Super-compex task for advanced dancers:

match each of these 3 words with a video below



The organic movements full of life, especially the kaisiki (graceful feminine) type movements (dominant in Odissi, Mohiniattam and  Kuchipudi), are extremely complex and each is unique (just like every live flower is unique) as the expression of the dancer’s manodharma. Their presence in dance can only be approximately described in terms of infinite number of components: V, V², V³,…, V∞ , and the speed graph will be way too complex.

The slight deviations from the impeccably “perfect” computer-generated standard are inherent in classical Indian dance. The deviations that create beauty are predominantly Sattvic, though, depending on the character, they may contain a good dose of Rajas. The ugly deviations are the results of the dancer’s laziness or inability to follow the proper trajectory (Anga Suddham). These are the Tamasic deviations (look at the 3 words “Dance” again).

Now, there are some politically incorrect and undemocratic conclusions that the senior dancers who hate Bharata Muni will abhor. Even if you are born with the Sattva as the dominant component of your (“Brahmin”) nature, your body, emotions and mind will be more Rajasic in the teenage years, and will be gradually more and more Tamasic as you grow older. (Yoga is the only method of changing this tendency). Our ability to understand, to remember, and to learn something new depends on the amount of Sattva in us.

I find it very amusing when the “senior” dancers dare to say that they somehow “explore the Sringara rasa” even though their recitals are devoid of many of the 10 kinds grace of the Sahaja type and of most of the 7 of A-yantaja type, all of which are part of the Valana-rich Kaisiki and all of which, according to Bharata Muni, can be found in the movements of the young women only. A very interesting element of beauty is among the 10 Sahaja graces: Vicchitti (dishabille) is “the great beauty that results from the slightly careless placing of garlands, clothes, ornaments and unguents“.

Why is the classical Indian dance proper a solo dance? Factory-produced latex flowers can be compared with the dance styles that are suitable for group performances where the dancers perform identical movements at the same time. To achieve the perfect “synchronization”, the movements have to be as plain (“perfect-shaped”) as the latex orchids (or one of the 3 words “Dance” on the right). Live flowers are never perfect-shaped and never have “geometric” appearance. If you are half-blind, the easiest method of detecting latex flowers is to smell them. No fragrance, no rasa. (Make sure the smell is not coming from your own hair where you had poured half a bottle of expensive perfume). “Recakas impearl the Nritta, make it shine and cause a complete aesthetic satisfaction”, says Padma Subrahmanyam. Recakas are like spices in food. Well, the food has to be bland enough to please the western palate.

In Tantra, the square represents the angular, robust and firm element of earth and Muladhara chakra. The rounded silver Moon crescent represents the element of water: cohesion, smoothness and life and… sexual energies of the Swadhisthana chakra. Swadhisthana is associated with emotion, which means that the dance without Valana is devoid of emotion. And because one of the 6 vritti petals of Swadhisthana represents affection, it means that the dancer who does not develop the Swadhisthana will have a big problem attracting the rasikas, especially the young rasikas of the opposite sex. As Swadhisthana is positioned higher than Muladhara, it means that the movements, before being expressed in the physical body, have to follow the movements of the subtle body (this is why Anita Ratnam is fond of her Tai Chi classes and will explain to us how body movements are supposed to spring from Tan Tien). Essentially, the Tai Chi movements are based on the principle of the least resistance, as the prana (Chi) “flows” throw various nadis like water flows around the stones in the river. The western (earthly) materialistic culture considers only the physical (sharply defined) body (sthula sharira), so their reliance on the muladhara techniques is obvious. Performing the Kalakshetra-style adavus will make you tired, while performing the adavus (at the same amplitude and speed) in the styles that follow the “lines of power” will energize you.

Padma Subrahmanyam compares the Recakas with Gamakas of

Karnatic music, and says that the “Gamakas are the very life of the Raga”. Referring to Bharata Muni’s 22 Sruthi (microtone) system, she says that the “Gamakas are caused through a webbed state of the microtones, built on the semi-tones and tones of the musical notes”. Have you seen many dancers whose laya is so good that their Recakas follow the microtones too?

If body movement can be described by a speed graph, the music is represented by its sound wave graph. Before you read on, you should define the distinction between music and noise, and between singing and shouting. (hint: analyse the sound wave graph).  The graph for the violin will be much more plain than the graph for veena, the instrument essential for learning gamakas in the vocal music . If Saraswathi holds a veena (not a violin, electric guitar or sax) in her hands, it’s because it is the veena that is most suitable for accompanying the Recakas. The arrival of the budget electric amplification greatly reduced the popularity of the veena, as the sound coming from even the best loudspeakers in the Chennai sabhas blurred the music beyond recognition. After the age of 40, normal people become so Tamasic that they can’t hear anything above 14 kHz. The aging rasikas (except the ones who daily try to exercise their ears!) grew hard of hearing and came to prefer the Italian violin.

While there is software that can impeccably mimic any male voice, there is no software that can analyze and generate a female voice. If the male voices relate to the consonants, and the drums, the women’s relate to the vowels, are far more complex, loaded with far more subtle nuances and shades of feelings. After all, isn’t the world of emotion the woman’s world? Bharata Muni explains that “Though men know the rules of singing in their traditional characteristics, their songs being devoid of sweetness, do not create beauty.  (XXXV, 35-36). “Generally, songs are suited to women, and recitatives are suited for men… The good quality in women’s recitation and sweetness in men’s songs should be considered as an acquired skill, and not part of their in-born nature. If men lead [in songs] and the songs possess good characteristics, but have no sweetness, then these impart no beauty… There may be [allowed] a loss of proper note in women’s songs and playing of musical instruments. But this will not be sweet to the ear in case of men” (XXXII, 503-511). Sounds quite discriminatory, doesn’t it? Note, Bharata Muni keeps saying that “The singer should be of a young age“.

Pseudo Bharatanatyam “dancer” Prasanna Kasthuri moving from St.Louis to Afganistan to teach Bharatnatyam classes there.

Prasanna Kasthuri,

Prasanna Kasthuri
promoting classical Indian music

an Americanised Kathak dancer, was stupid enough to write a lot of nonsense in his article on Narthaki. I sent a response to him and to Lalitha Venkat who – to my immense surprise – eventually published it, along with Prasanna’s reply.

Below is the improved and richly illustrated version, and more of our conversations! Enjoy! 🙂

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Prasanna Kasthuri’s article raises some important questions.

1. If indeed his “main goal (of moving to the USA) was to spread the traditional art” why didn’t he open a Bharatanatyam school in Lahore or in Kinshasa – instead of in St.Louis where “most of the dance teachers still continue living on meager income” funded by grants from Regional Arts Commission of Greater St. Louis and Missouri Arts Council? Were most medieval devadasis looking to become millionaires?

2. Considering that 15.8 million Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga-related activities,  how successful economically was his “workshop dealing with hatha yoga, breathing and meditation combined with dance movements“?


His Holiness guru Prasanna teaching a rich American vanara how to offer a puja to Lord Nataraja

3. If the NRI doctors, business analysts and engineers are required to have a proof of their professional qualifications before they move to the USA, are the Hindu priests and Bharatanatyam dancers too? Are the Bharatanatyam dancers required to be qualified for dancing just as the former devadasis were required a pass in 64 subjects? Does getting a rank in Vidwath exam imply one can handle the 22 sruti system?

4. Has Prasanna Kasthuri tried to convince any Iranian person that the traditional dance of Kathak is traditional Indian dance?  If Japanese could be proud of Kabuki and Chinese can be proud of their classical music, why are the Indians not having the same enthusiasm exploring the ashtottara sata talam system?

5. How exactly are the traditional saxophone and the Italian violin concerts related to a goal to spread the traditional (Persian?) art? Why should the Indians be so enthusiastic promoting the Iranian or Italian culture?
6. How essential was “a meeting of Kathak and Tap”  for “upholding the spiritual values of great Indian traditions“?

7. Is any art sacred, and any artiste a saint? What is the difference between religious values and spiritual values?

8. If “our” (whose??) “dance forms” failed to “get more limelight than what it had previously“, why do some Bharatanatyam videos on YouTube get 1000 views a day, while others only 1 view a day? Are the times of Swarnamukhi’s popularity over as the classical dancers can’t sit in aramandi, control their eye-lashes or perform  Gangaavatarana?

9. As for the “onslaught of heavy media works such as television and movies“, don’t you think the film directors would be bankrupt if their actors were as unprofessional (e.g. in satvika and vachika abhinaya) and had as captivating figures and as fascinating faces as the majority of “professional” Bharatanatyam dancers most of whom can’t even apply make-up properly?

10. What is the purpose of dancing Bharatanatyam 24 or even 60 hours non-stop? Would you trade one good banana for 50 rotten apples?

Prasanna Kasthuri
Padre Prasanna at a mess asking for State funding

11. Are “the classical dances fading slowly” because currently 2 out of 5 NRI girls in the USA undergo some training in classical Indian dance? How can we stop them from attempting to learn Bharatanatyam?

12. Are some NRI dancers’ careers “fading slowly” because their “traditional” dance themes focus on praising the maharajas and merchants of the 18th century?

13. If Prasanna Kasthuri has less knowledge of philosophical and spiritual interpretations of the dance themes, is he planning to expand his knowledge by studying the Vedas in the original and achieving some spiritual qualification and siddhis?

14. If “most working class youngsters are seen spending time in front of television channels, rather than going out and enjoying a live classical performance“, is it partly for the reasons outlined by Mukundagiri Sadagopan ? Or is it because – according to the Kollywood film directors as well as Bharata Muni – the youngsters are attracted to Sringara which was eliminated in Bharatanatyam by Rukmini Devi? Or do Lakshmi Vishwanathan’s reasons apply?

15. If there is “less exposure of classical dance forms in these mass media in India and USA“, isn’t it a sign that now it is high time the dancers should stop promoting themselves (or their associates) and start promoting the dance?

16. If they “avoid any classical performances” because “it is not a crowd puller“, isn’t a proof that Bharatanatyam is meant for small audiences when the rasikas can see the dancers mukhaja abhinaya?
17. How do the “local dance teachers work very hard to bring in the professionalism in the community” ? What kind of “professionalism“? Why don’t they learn a bit of Bharatanatyam themselves first?

18. If “most teachers struggle to create awareness of their relationship with a performing art such Bharatanatyam“, doesn’t it mean that people find it hard to understand which “traditional” Bharatanatyam style these teachers teach after learning the Mysore style from Dr. K. Venkatalakshamma and Smt. Lalita Srinivasan,  the Pandanallur style from guru Narmada, and after the Gurukula workshops of Chitra Vishweswaran, T. Mahalingam Pillai, Adyar K. Lakshmanan and Pandanallur Gopala Krishna?

19. Is “teaching dance to an NRI kid is very hard” partly because the classes are an hour a week?

20. If “the coverage for performing arts either in an American newspaper or on any television or in a National dance festival such as American Dance Festival is too less”, does it mean it is time to bring to the USA some really talented dancers from India?

Hindu temples must fund garba and salsa festivals

21. If “the barrier of culture and race still hogs these areas“, doesn’t it mean that the desi forms are limited, and the dancers should finally think of exploring the margi?

22. If “there are no international art critics in major newspapers across American cities“, isn’t it a proof that Bharatanatyam is not an international dance form but an Indian art?

23. If “the entertainment section of newspapers such as Times of India filled with American icons“, is it because there are too few professional photographers in India?

24. Is it indeed Gurukula when you just visit your teacher’s house for a class twice a week?

25. Do “most of the dance teachers still continue living on meager income, just because of the “bhakti”” or because they are unwilling or incapable to go and get a proper full time job at a factory or on a farm?

26. If there are “so many artists in our area, who can do marvelous productions“, who else – apart from these artists – thinks so too?

27. If “our music and dance, whether it is north or south, are driven by bhakti “, why has Lord Almighty been so unwilling to notice the marvelous productions in the USA and support the dancers financially?

28. If “one cannot see a… Kathak performance without a Hindu deity being prayed to“, is it the proof that the Hindu deities came to like the Persian folk dances and Arab music, as well as Michael Jackson’s performances?

29. Why would the Hindu temples in the USA arrange for Kathak dance festivals and works of famous poets such as William Shakespeare, W B Yeats, Maya Angelou, William Wordsworth and John Keats” if it contradicts the Hindu tradition, according to which only margi dance should be performed in the temple premises?

Finally…

Performing Bharathanatyam with Cymbols … the new trend which Guru Prasanna used in this Kuchipudi-Bharathanatyam fusion dancing“.

with CDs and beautiful pre-recorded music, we can perform really well with very low cost. So, if we can setup a network of performances… If you are coming to St. Louis, MO , please send me your details. Meanwhile, remember, I will be seeking the same help from you. This way we can build a network” With the value of Prasanna’s currency dropping to a near-zero level, nobody wants to arrange for his performances by joining his network. Such a pity: his group has only 10 messages, the last one posted half a year ago has an intriguing heading: “I want to meet you. Give me a chance!” What desperate people are there in the USA!

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?