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

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

Bharatanatyam
bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

In the past 10 months as many as 85 (!) visitors to my blog bombarded me with their messages, writings, links and requests to post articles on various upcoming Bharata natyam dancers of the younger generation. As most of these visitors asked about Harinie Jeevitha , we decided to dedicate some space to this famous teenage virtuoso who not only reached the heights of popularity among Chennai rasikas and Bharatnatyam dancers but became ubiquitous on the Internet – even more than Medha Hari. Apart from various blogs mentioning Harinie, such as this one, Narthaki.com recently published another review of her recital (there was one last year) which we will quote and comment upon first. Following Sangeetha’s example who prefers simply to re-post what she finds elsewhere…
Well, tomorrow, we will add more comments and try to find out what makes her so successful.

Review from Narthaki.com:

Why do most dancers performing in early January see nearly empty auditoriums? The 7th of January offered 11 dance programs (apart from quite a few music concerts) taking place at the same time. There were solo Bharatanatyam recitals by Malini Srinivasan, Priya Venkatraman, Suma Mani, Shradha Balu, a ballet by students of Ranganayaki Jayaraman, a group performance by students of Parvathy Mohan, another by the students of Swaralaya, yet another by dancers of Bharata Kalanjali, a Kuchipudi recital by Deepika Reddy and
an Odissi performance by Sujata Mohapatra. The 11th dance program was a Bharatanatyam solo that, surprisingly, attracted over 150 rasikas to Rama Rao Kala Mandapam who came to watch a recital by Harinie Jeevitha, a student of S.U..

Whenever any big Bharatanatyam school’s best dancer is performing, the hall is never half empty. What is surprising about it? Some rasikas who went there told us that there were just a dozen of foreigners.

Bharatanatyam

Harinie’s opening item, Ganesha Kautuvam in ragam natai and adi talam, was full of refined sculpturesque poses, intricate movements and high jumps that her supple body performed with ease, delineating each curve and bend with precision. While many dancers hardly lift their heels or hardly lift their feet while doing fast steps, Harinie’s feet moved fully and sharply, making her salangai produce a variety of sounds.

The next item was Annamacharya’s kirtanam “Vande Vasudevan” in sri ragam and kanda chapu talam, where Harinie’s expressions brought out the depth of bhakti and the devotee’s perceptions of the Lord. Varnam “Aadal Nayagam” composed by Madurai R. Muralidharan in kalyani ragam and adi talam, was full of difficult adavus where Harinie accentuated each beat with sharp movements of her chin and her eyes. Each jathi was choreographed in a distinct manner.

Srinidhi sent in her comments:
If many say that Madurai R. Muralidharan has reached the bottom of his career, it is because of the primitive music and very poor lyrics of pieces like Aadal Nayagam. Incessant repetitions and paucity of substance make it even worse! Why should good musicians and dancers try to salvage his poor compositions?

Bharatanatyam

The varnam had a lot of surprises for the spectators in its complex and
fast nritta passages that contained a large number of the most difficult karanas. “The karanas are here not merely for a spectacular aesthetic effect,” commented S.U., “they are here to evoke the spirit of Nataraja.”

As you could read in our previous posts on the karanas, they also mark the difference between the folkish Bharatanatyam and the classical (Natya Shastra-based) Bharatanatyam. The biggest challenge a choreographer may face is the use of the karanas in a Bharatanatyam piece, therefore most gurus just don’t bother.


vrscikarecitam

vrscikarecitam

vrscikarecitam

After all, even Padma Subrahmaniam made many mistakes, one of which was promoting herself instead of promoting her best students who could perform the karanas far better than Padma. Janaki Rangarajan did appear a few times in Padma’s Karana Prakaranam DVD – to illustrate a few most difficult karanas.

Another, Karana Viniyoga Mallika DVD failed miserably in this regard too, as the late Sundari Santhanam could not perform any karanas fully and gracefully, and did not let her best students do more than 40% of the demonstrations. Shouldn’t the art be treated as something greater than some “senior” dancer’s personal vanity?

karana

99% of the Bharatanatyam students are totally incapable of performing the more demanding karanas, so why torture the poor students?


Padma Subrahmaniam writes, “The Nritta Karanas can be broadly classified as those pertaining to graceful dance, those meant for acrobatic display, and others for buffoons”. Can acrobatic karanas can be performed gracefully? Of course: only if you are in top shape!

Padma Subrahmaniam‘s disgraceful  “demonstration” (which looks more like madcap buffoonery) of Vrscikakuttitam in the 3rd volume of her book is of course the proof of her poor judgement and the miserable state of her body. It is the explanation of why she is not particularly popular among the Bharatanatyam dancers – and the DMK politicians who recently took back from her the land Ms.Jayalalitha (K.J.Sarasa’s student) gave her.

Perhaps Lord Nataraja himself through Mr.Karunanidhi’s action was laughing at Padma Subrahmaniam, showing that dancers do not need to waste their time on useless political and social activities.

Bharatanatyam

These fast changing difficult poses and acrobatic karanas require extraordinary balance and raised a storm of applause every time they were seen. However Harinie should polish some passages before presenting them on the stage, as freezing in a difficult static pose right in the middle of a very fast paced passage is a tremendous challenge to any dancer.

Speaking of karanas, surprisingly, the YouTube video gives the impression that S.U. has succeeded in choreographing and Harinie Jeevitha in handling the karanas in a harmonious and organic fashion indeed. S.U. did not repeat Sundari Santhanam’s mistake: instead of dancing herself, she let Harinie Jeevitha do it! 🙂

The theermanams themselves contained only 3 steps, much fewer than the average, much to the delight of those rasikas who cannot digest the ornamentalism of Shobana’s overstretched 20-step-long theermanams. Actually, Aadal Nayagam’s theermanams themselves did not end in the customary manner but with a brief scuplturesque sequence of nritta.

bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

Papanasam Sivan’s “Ka Va Va” in varali ragam and adi talam was the fourth item. It began – and ended too – with portraying a devotee eagerly waiting for the Lord to appear. It was a pleasant surprise to see such a young dancer convey the spiritual significance of such spiritually significant passages faithfully. Harinie’s abhinaya, with a rich palette of bhavas, was candid and touching. She was the very embodiment of Shiva’s nature in the scene of Shiva burning Manmadan. Her long fingers lent an exquisite artistic touch to each “plain” action.

While Harinie was portraying a devotee pleading with the Lord, each repetition of the same line brought about a visibly different variation in her abhinaya. Some passages were performed with a childlike abandon and innocence, which was particularly handy while portraying delicate coyness. Such uninhibited abhinaya has the power to convince and move the spectators’ hearts and minds. She was masterful at drishya bhedas, her eyelids impeccably following the tune and the rhythm. She moved smoothly and effortlessly between the semi-standing to sitting positions, without any unnecessary moves.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

The concluding item was Dr. M Balamuralikrishna’s thillana in Kathanakuthukalam ragam. It was full of complex nritta and sculpturesque poses. Harinie’s long and
flexible fingers assumed the impeccable nritta hasthas at the right moments. Her mukha abhinaya was in harmony with the movements of her limbs, her face sparkling with myriad harmonious and spontaneous expressions. The thillana ended with a “trademark” pose characteristic of the dancers of SN. One of the rasikas, Bharatanatyam dancer Anita Sivaraman (granddaughter of Papanasam Sivan), concluded, “Harinie is obviously an extremely talented dancer.”

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

A recent Bharatanatyam recital by Harinie Jeevitha was attended by the rasikas filling a third of the Narada Gana Sabha’s Mini Hall in Chennai. The recital, organized by Kartik Fine Arts, who are noted for their efforts in picking up the young Bharatanatyam talents.

The items in this Bharata natyam recital

The invocatory item was in ragam Amrita Varshini and Adi talam. Harinie’s long and flexible fingers assumed the impeccable nritta hasthas at the right moments, lending the jathis the additional charm. Harinie’s mukha abhinaya was attuned to the movements of her limbs, her beautiful face sparkling with a myriad of harmonious and spontaneous expressions of the exuberant danseuse. Harinie’s nritta and nritya were full of refined sculpturesque poses and movements that her supple body assumed with ease, delineating each curve and bend with a high precision.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

One peculiar movement, resembling a chari in Padma Subrahmaniam’s interpretation but with a higher amplitude, was the sideway swing of the outstretched leg in a graceful manner. This peculiar move left some viewers wondering how many dancers would be able to perform it as gracefully, highlighting the visual beauty of Bharatanatyam.
Harinie was fast and neat in executing the pirouettes, lifting high her knee sideways. Sitting in araimandi in a Vinayaka pose, she was able to jump forward and backward effortlessly and keeping good balance, something that few dancers are capable of doing nowadays.

Bharatanatyam

Professional dance photographers, who complain they usually have to discard most of the photos they take as “not quite beautiful”, would quickly notice one unique point about Harinie: it would be very hard to find a bad photo of hers.

Photos are always a problem for 99% of Bharatanatyam dancers!
Dominique Mong-Hune, while explaining why Priyadarsini Govind’s posters wisely use the spectacular photos of other schools’ dancers (actually, not just Priya but many Bharatanatyam schools worldwide),
wrote here:

“No need for her to compare to a young “prodigy” of SN who has still years to mature her already perfect technique”

Perhaps he used “to mature” as a euphonism to “grow old”! If the technique is “perfect” (well, who is perfect?), it’s fine. As for “maturity”, if it means “adequacy” or “accuracy” in the presentation, some children understand the deeper, spiritual things and express them in a far more genuine, spontaneous, pure and natural way than all the thousands of “mature” dancers who can express adequately only the ordinary human experiences and who appear vulgar parodist when they attempt to express the spiritual things.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

The varnam Sakiye by Tanjor Quarted in Ananda Bhairavi ragam followed. It was in Adi talam too, just as the rest of the items. Harinie commenced it with a series of difficult adavus, accentuating each beat with sharp movements of her chin and her eyes. The circular torso movements immediately preceeding the theermanams were performed with a larger amplitude than usual, which underlined the agile danseuse’s skill. However, the theermanams themselves contained only 3 steps, much fewer than the average, much to the delight of those rasikas who cannot digest the ornamentalism of Shobana’s overstretched 20-step-long theermanams.

After the first jathi was over, one regular rasikas noted that, although the vocalist sang a “pidi”, a more complex pattern not normally used for a Bharatanatyam accompaniment, Harinie was nevertheless able to follow the undulating tune effortlessly and faithfully, which also highlighted the responsiveness of her mobile and agile limbs to the music. When asked what helps her in perfecting laya, Harinie said that it was to her vocal classes.

That’s an interesting point about “pidi”. If I understand it right, it denotes a sliding manner of vocal music when the vocalist dwells in the microtones area, the “notes between the notes”, much longer than normal. If it is already a great feat to make one’s body responsive to each note, how much harder is it to make it react to the microtones!

While Harinie was portraying a devotee pleading with the Lord, each repetition of the same line brought about a visibly different variation in her abhinaya. The passages like “please bring it to me immediately” were done with a childlike abandon and innocence, which was particularly handy while portraying delicate coyness. Such uninhibited abhinaya has the power to convince and move the spectators’ hearts and minds.

Bharatanatyam

Harinie was masterful at drishya bhedas, her eyelids impeccably following the tune and the rhythm. She moved smoothly and effortlessly between the semi-standing to sitting positions, without any unnecessary moves.

The second jathis in her Bharatanatyam recital made a friend of mine wonder if it was borrowed – almost in its entirety – from another varnam of S.U.. As it turned out to be, it was indeed taken from varnam Senthil Mevum, which raises the question whether a choreographer can simply recycle entire sets of jathis and re-use them again and again, even if they have proved to be a big hit.

One could not help observing that Harinie’s jathis perhaps needed a larger space than the 10-feet-wide stage of the mini hall. Harinie was elegant and refined in every move, whether she was taking rose water or grinding the sandal paste, her fingers lending an exquisite artistic touch to each “plain” action, although her renderings here were certainly not as elaborately perfect in this regard as Alarmel Valli’s. However, Harinie’s depiction of the mischievous Krishna, for instance, or the mood fluctuations from grief and back to joy were rendered smoothly and masterfully.

Bharatanatyam

The third item was a padam by Uttukadu Venkata Kavi in ragamalika. Here, the danseuse masterfully, and somewhat playfully, portrayed the contrast between Murugan’s 12 hand versus the devotee’s 2. Harinie’s long and mobile neck moved very gracefully, along with the opening and the closing of her eyelids, in the depiction of the peacock. She was elegant in her detached portrayal of the evil powers in the episode that says, “As long as Muguran is with me, no evil can harm me”. Harinie’s abhinaya in “I have only 2 hands to receive your blessings, while you have 12” was very overwhelmingly candid and touching, almost materialising the images of the scene. In this scene Harinie’s childlike disappointent with the received gifts was charming and brought a smile on the rasikas’ faces, just as in another scene, when she was contrasting Murugan’s greatness with the devotee’s smallness. It was a surprise to see such a young dancer to be so mature as to convey the spiritual significance of such passages faithfully.

The fourth item was a thillana by Dr.M.Balamuralikrishna in Kathanakuthukalam ragam. It was choreographed in a very original way and performed in even more original manner, fully of complex nritta and rare sculpturesque poses. It ended with a “trademark” pose characteristic of the dancers of SN.

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

Scope for further improvement

While Harinie was certainly very impressive in her recital, a trained eye could see that there are of course some areas she should pay more attention to. So, for instance, while her pirouettes maintained a vertical axis in the fast movement, she had some difficulty maintaining the balance in the slow turnarounds. Freezing suddenly in an absolutely static pose in the middle of a very fast-paced thillana is a tremendous challenge to any dancer.

Can we expect the araimandi level to be very steady, and not undulating, even when the dancer gets somewhat tired after dancing for 40-50 minutes continuously? Another question is, can we, or rather should we, expect a 13-year-old tender and delicate girl to be able to realistically portray a demon or a warrior, considering the fact that, typically, a danseuse who has achieved mastery in the tandavas is no longer capable of rendering the delicate lasyas?

Bharatanatyam

The dancers can and should learn by watching other dancers’ performances too. Had Harinie stayed in the hall after finishing her slot and watched the next dancer’s recital, she could have learnt that mastering a wide range of tempos is far easier to achieve than mastering a wide range of accelerations and decelerations, which becomes very prominent particularly in rendering different varieties of lasya.

New avenues?

One of the rasikas observed that the spectators too should be praised for braving Chennai’s traffic during the rush hours. “It takes the same time to go from Tambaram to Alwarpet as it takes from Toronto to Detroit, one rasikas complained. In such a situation, it is no wonder that more and more spectators prefer to watch Bharatanatyam recitals – as well as competitions – on TV.

The Bharatanatyam TV competitions conducted by Jaya TV and Doordarshan are increasingly popular, and it is no wonder the Harinie won the first prizes there too.

YouTube has this one to offer:

Neither live programmes nor television can stand comparison with the emerging medium of the Internet.
We were surprised to hear Harinie’s proud classmates revealing that her Internet videos receive lakhs of views per year.

Bharatanatyam

The 11-year-old child prodigy’s arangetram video became the most-watched Bharata natyam videos on the Web. With 400000 views (twice as many as Malavika Sarukkai’s) on YouTube alone, this Bharatanatyam video became a truly viral one:

The 13-year-old Harinie is probably one of the best-known junior dancers of today, with a large and impressive collection of Bharatanatyam prizes and awards. Apart from the prizes at competitions held in Chennai, she easily wins the first prizes in the all-India level competitions in Mumbai, Hyderabad or Bangalore too.

The orchestra

Nagai Narayanan (mridangam), a wel-known percussive expert, provided, along with S.U.’s nattuvangam, a firm guidance for Harinie’s steps and abhinaya. The other members of the orchestra included the vocalist Rajeshwari Kumar, who had a hard time struggling with a faulty mike provided by Narada Gana Sabha. Ramesh on the flute and Muruganandan on the violin were accurate and professional in their approach.

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Secrets of success of a solo Bharatanatyam recital. Learn how a Bharata natyam dancer can get a lot of fans who had no idea that Bharatnatyam can be fascinating. :)

Warning: this article is not meant for those who are doing Bharatanatyam just as a hobby. Only 1% of Bharatanatyam students have a chance to become real professionals.

While 2000 years ago people had very few options for entertainment, the age of TV, Internet and theme parks brought about the enormous competitive pressure. While they too are already successfully using the new media, the TV and the Internet, the Bharatanatyam dancers are facing a stark reality: their “art” (well, is Bharatanatyam just “art”?) cannot stand the competition as far as the entertaining aspect is concerned.

But Natya has two aspects: entertainment (desi) and enlightenment (margi). As far as enlightenment goes, Natya is beyond competition. The problem is, there is very little left out of margi in the contemporary Bharatanatyam…

Music

50% of your success will depend on your orchestra and music. That’s a lot!

If your vocalist can modulate his voice and produce intense and varied bhavas at least as well as Manasi Prasad or Unnikrishnan…If your mridangist can vary the strength of the beats every 2-3 seconds on a wide range and as fast as K.S.Sudhaman does… If you understand that violin cannot be a replacement for flute, and that veena alone is suitable for making many passages interesting…The reason that Saraswathy holds a veena (not a violin or saxophone) in her hands…

Can you afford additional instruments, such as morsing, kanjeera, tabla, ghatam, etc.?
If you prefer to blur your music in a jazz-like way Udupi Lakshminarayan does, add a keyboard player so that he would completely wash out everything else and destroy your recital. (Keyboard players do not have the same degree of control over their instruments as the non-keyboards, so the timing for each note cannot be as precise as in veena, for example).

The music arrangement is to be done in a professional way that would utilize the strength of each instrument in a suitable manner at the appropriate times. Even the traditional, often performed (stale) items, can be presented in a totally new fashion.

Do your items have only 3 fixed (flat) tempos? It would be boring! “Predictable” means “boring”. The professionals vary the tempos gradually and continuously (with lots of surprises) throughout each item, even introducing pauses here and there. And each item has to end in a distinct way.

If you want your music to be as good as Anita Sivaraman’s, Padma Subrahmaniam’s or Alarmel Valli’s, you may either go bankrupt or invest a lot of time searching for and training a good but affordable orchestra and the composer/music arranger. 😦

Topics & themes

The dancer has to be aware that the selection of the themes (mostly grouped by the rasas) and techniques (classified by the tattvas) for his/her items has to accommodate different types of spectators.

Natya Shastra tells us a lot. Here, we’ll give you some hints. :

The elderly like the tales of virtue and puranic legends.
The reason that 90% of the rasikas are elderly people (who bring their grandchildren along). Bhakti, Vatsalya & Karuna rasas…

Young people are pleased to see the scenes of love.
If your recital does not attract the youth, ask yourself what is the ratio of rati sringara in your items. Want to compete with the young film stars of Kollywood or Bollywood? Look in the mirror first. If your face looks like Meenakshi Chittarajan’s or Priya Murle’s, or if it’s as expressionless as A.Lakshmanan’s, don’t even try to do it. If your figure is Padma Subrahmaniams, people will laugh at your “sringara“. Know your limits. 🙂

The learned want to see a reference to some religious/philosophical teachings
If the dancer does not understand these, there is no way he/she will be able to present these things adequately. In other words, if you are dumb, don’t try to interpret the mystic doctrines!

The seekers of money love the topics of wealth and its acquisition.
If you want to get rich sponsors at a corporate, that’s what you have to start with! There is a wealth of ancient topics that deal with it. Read the Artha Shastra.

The passionless want to watch the topics of liberation.
Shanta rasa…. If you are going to present your recital in an ashram… But if you are not even close to understanding what liberation stands for, don’t make yourself a clown.

Heroic people want to see the scenes in Rudra- and Jugupsa-dominated rasas, with combat scenes.
Not just the army and police folks. Well, hard to compete with the Bruce Lee movies! Why is it that whenever the Dhananjayans produce anything of this kind, it makes me laugh??? 🙂
I have just imagined the 80-year-old Sudharani Raghupathi doing a combat scene…. Would put me to sleep… Snoring…

Common women, children and the uncultured men (murkha) are always delighted with the comic scenes and fascinating costumes and makeup.
Since this category is the most numerous, think of putting more Hasya scenes. Make sure you don’t look too ugly while laughing! Get a nice costume and learn good makeup. If you are a fat, clumsy and ugly dancer, that’s your audience.

Know your audience

Why nobody wants to watch us dance???? We are discriminated against!!!

Why nobody wants to watch us dance????

Do you know that most brahmins today are of the shudra type, but some (2-3%) contemporary SC’s and ST’s have the sattva-dominated nature of the true brahmin? 😦 Although Natya Shastra tells us that, for example, the cheri (inferior human type) spectators will not appreciate the finer art that is appreciated by the superior, uttama, spectators, this limitation can be overcome to some extent by mastering all the necessary techniques.

Techniques

We will classify them according to the main chakras:

Sahasrara
No faith (shraddha), no (spiritual) gain. If you have a divine inspiration and tejas, you may already be a saint. The problem is, saints are usually recognized and get popularity long after they are dead.

Soma
Here is the control over the Hasya.  The dancer has to be cheerful and even playful (the dancers with some Kuchipudi training understand what it is better). 🙂 It has some connection with Medha (it’s not related to Medha Hari! 🙂 ). Open this lotus and learn how to bring joy and humour even to the most depressive of the rasikas.

Ajna
If the rasikas are not paying attention to your dancing, think why one of the 64 vedic arts was “taking control of the crowd by mystic means”. It implies looking into the crowd of the rasikas in a certain way (they have to feel the “eye contact”). It is related to Drishti (something that most dancers are clueless about!). The more focussed you are, the easier you will engage the audience. Take some lessons from Barack Obama 🙂 Don’t complain if you can’t move your eyes at will! 😦 Want to test your mental concentration? Close your eyes, try to dance and see how good your balance is! 🙂 Oh, you still have the ambition to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer, eh??? 😦

Vishudhi
Music and voice (already described in more detail above). Bring good music (and make sure the loudspeakers are good). It is related to Laya, Vacho and Geetam. Train your voice and introduce your items the way Alarmel Valli does, and the success is yours. Before each item she establishes rapport with the audience. Remember, she speaks from the heart or the throat registers, not from the head. You can’t speak? Hire a good compere.

Anahata
Make your bhavas profound and intense. Be sincere, understand your characters’ relations and minds. If the audience are the refined rasikas in a small auditorium, don’t overdo your expressions! 🙂 Remember: those miserable spectators came to seek for a spark of joy, so don’t overburden them with the tragic expressions!

Manipura
Do the brisk nrittas and difficult karanas. It’s about Javaha. 🙂 If you are doing it effortlessly and irradiate the energy, it will draw the attention. Stamina problems? 🙂 Sweating too much? The jaw drops every now and then? 🙂 Look miserable after dancing for 5 minutes? Need to do kapalabhati, eh? 🙂

Swadhisthana
If you are a woman, have you wondered why your recitals don’t attract men? Cannot do Lasya properly? People complain that you look and move like a eunuck? Ok, we have a hint for you. The people who are selected as “sex symbols” have the uncanny ability to attract the opposite sex. Hint: learn the sexy karanas and bhedas. Learn to move gracefully. And a lot more. See how sexy Alarmel Valli moves her shoulders and chest? Oh, look at the flutter of her eyelashes! Now, don’t you want to murder Rukmini Devi for popularizing her unisex bland Kalakshetra version of Bharatanatyam devoid of talukku, kulukku, alakshyam, midukku,or any graceful ottam adavus?

Muladhara
Purely physical things. How good is your angasudhi? Cannot sit in araimandi, eh? Cannot do atami? Cannot lift your leg? Do your fingers bend properly in all the mudras? How many hastas do you use, actually? (It seems there are 548 , but you need to do Alarmel Valli-style introductions for all these mudras, or else nobody will understand!)

You have to be beautiful, wear a beautiful costume, makeup and jewelry! 🙂 Ever wondered why the scriptures have… errrr… certain physical requirements for professional dancers? :)In other words, if you are a woman and excel by your beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, you will not have to compete for attention! 🙂

Commercialism in Bharatnatyam. Bharatanatyam copycats. And copyright in Bharata natyam. True Bharathanatyam gurus vs Bharathanatyam dance instructors.

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a Bharatanatyam guru and a Bharatanatyam dance instructor?

Due to the mushrooming of Bharatanatyam schools and exploding number of dancers, the competition has been growing from tough to ultra tough. Who will be the winners of this rat race? This post will explore the issue of copying, copyrights, professionalism and commercialism.

The history of the Indian culture does not know of anything like intellectual property and royalties. Many, if not most, great pieces of art and literature of the past have remained unsigned, their authors anonymous, while the more recent composers make it a point to insert their signature everywhere. This dirty stamp of ahamkar (ego) has marked the advent of Kali Yuga.

Every Indian has an unconscious conviction that knowledge, just like flowers in the Himalayas, cannot belong to an individual. In fact, it is thanks to the enthusiastic copying that the ancient scriptures survived thousands of years. Had they been so popular and successful if their authors insisted on getting royalties from each copy? Indeed, how much did Valmiki charge for each copy of his Ramayana?

The Hindu surprised its readers with the foreboding of the aggressive advance of the western $ culture:

Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (renowned Carnatic musician) of T. Nagar and Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Radha, both of Chennai, filed an application seeking an interim order of injunction restraining the respondents Cleveland Cultural Alliance, Ohio, U.S. and A. Lakshmanan of Annanagar here from staging the dance ballet and infringing their copyrights…

They (Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Radha) owned the entire copyright over the ballet and they staged it in several places in India.

The Indian art, including Bharatanatyam, has long been considered as a religious offering, a gift for the gods, something that belongs to gods only. Other than offering such a gift, the artist had not even thought of making any copyright claims. Such claims would be considered as shameful.

Now, when some works of art are no longer considered by their authors as a sacred offering but rather, as a commercial commodity (or even junk), we can speak of the difference between a true Bharatanatyam guru and a merely Bharatanatyam dance instructor, the difference between an artiste and a craftsman:

Earl Hunsinger explains:

Artists are now respected as gifted, as geniuses, as divinely inspired. Crafts people just make stuff. In an ironic twist, artists are considered professionals, while crafts people may be viewed as amateurs that sell stuff on the weekend at the local fair. Does it matter? Probably not if you’re considered an artist. For someone that has been labeled as a crafts person, maybe so. In addition to the matter of respect, it’s been said, only half jokingly, that the difference between an art object and a craft object is several thousand dollars.

I’ve seen paintings hanging in modern art galleries that look like an child made them for his mother, and not a very talented child. My personal criteria has always been, if it looks like I could have painted it, it’s not art. The aesthetic value of a piece should be determined, not by the label given to it, but by the creativity seen in its design and execution. Ultimately, isn’t that what art is supposed to be, a product of the imagination brought to life for all to see?

Arul Francis gives us his opinion:

A dancer may have put in lots of years and finally have earned an advanced piece in exchange for her ability and seniority. Of course she’s not going to want to give that away to copycats by putting it on video. Others will simply copy the piece and perform it themselves and tweak this or that and ruin the piece. The person who created the piece will not get any credit or mention. It will just be plagiarized. There has to be a way around it though.

Let us single out each point:

no guru will teach the newcomer an advanced piece

Most gurus retain their senior students by creating an expectation that these students will – some day – be taught “advanced and rare items”. What is “advanced”, you may wonder? Do such items exist at all? Have you ever watched such “advanced” pieces performed by your guru’s seniormost students? In what way is it “advanced”? Is this piece something that your guru learnt from their own gurus, or is it what he choreographed himself?

These are the questions that most out-of-shape gurus – whose only body part that somehow manages to move is their “dancing face” – hate to answer. 🙂 But then, if it is only some cheri “mukha abhinaya” that is left to be taught, you’d better run away as soon as you can. After all, since the cat (or rather 8 of them) of Mami’s Magic is out of the bag, everybody can buy those DVDs and see that the king is… naked!

Well, if these “advanced” items are ever performed for an audience, a truly advanced student can just go there and watch, and note down the choreography. That’s, if you don’t have a good cameraphone with video recording capability 🙂

Well, why do they call dance instructors “gurus”? Well, if there are IT, farming and banking gurus, there must be Bharatanatyam gurus too, right? 😦

Minakshi Ajay puts it this way:

The Upanishads have profoundly underlined the role of the guru. Mundak Upanishad says to realize the supreme godhead holding samidha grass in his hands one should surrender himself before the guru who knows the secrets of Vedas.

If your guru knows the secrets of Vedas, you are lucky, as such a guru has attained to the physical immortality as well as all the other siddhas. (We will give you a Rs.10000000 gift voucher if you tell us where to find such a person). Well, why did Minakshi mention all this in her article on Bharatanatyam??? As if she knows any Bharatanatyam gurus who can at least read the Vedas, not to mention understanding them!

One ancient tradition we still keep: the Bharatanatyam gurus will always try to promote their well-paying, high-status but inferior students at the expense of putting down the more talented students. The gurus create all kinds of obstacles for their “less important” students. For example, in case of Bharatanatyam competitions, if the gurus send more than 1 students to contest a prize, sometimes these gurus have to bribe the judges so that they would not give the 1st prize to the most talented dancer but to some other, VIP student. If you are among your guru’s most talented students, don’t be surprised to learn that your guru used the mean and dirty methods to promote other, less capable VIP students, at the expense of your dance career.

Unbelievable? Read what Minakshi tells us:

The most popular legend is that of the amazing young tribal boy Ekalavya on being rejected by the ace trainer Dronacharya, raised his statue and with great dedication practised the art of archery and left behind Arjuna, the master archer, who actually learnt the art under the living guru. And the heartless guru asked for his thumb as gurudakshina or fees, and made him inferior before his royal disciple.

a lot of dancers copy each other’s pieces

“I take my Handycam every time I go to the Natyanjali and other festivals”, confesses one professional Bharatanatyam dancer. “Otherwise I watch Bharatanatyam on TV or YouTube – there is more than I have time for it!”

Some Bharatanatyam gurus give their students the videos of a dancer’s performance and ask them to merely copy it. The question is, how well can they actually copy?

My most advanced students have been trying to copy this piece (performed by an outstanding dancer) for the past 5 years but so far they have not been able to copy more than 80%. They can’t copy the nuances, the smaller details. Well, they can’t even do the mudras properly or the bhedas“, – complained a senior guru.

It takes an exceptional virtuoso to copy a genius successfully. But then, if you are a genius, you will never even think of copying others!

Even if we make a poor replica of a masterpiece, how many people will be able to tell the original from the fake? 2%?
For the ogranizers of the corporate shows, all items will appear identical as long as the title is identical.
Re-packaging, re-labeling, re-mixing and re-branding is now in vogue.

some copycats will “ruin” the “original” choreography by “tweaking this or that”

Other gurus are more cunning: they modify a bit here and a bit there and sell it as “original”.
The question is, isn’t choreography supposed to be evolving?
And, didn’t the traditional Sadir choreography degrade beyond recovery 300 years ago?

there is a person who “created the original piece”

What is “original”????
Can any author really make a claim that he has not used bits and pieces from some other people’s work?

Sirisha believes that:

dance should be an art that should spread with zero inhibitions, and specially to people who cant afford it.

How many students in your Bharatanatyam dance schools are studying for free? If you are learning with a true Bharatanatyam guru who is untarnished by the emerging commercialism, you are lucky.

What makes a Bharatanatyam dancer successful. The dying tradition of Pandanallur style… and the evolution of Bharata natyam. Bharatnatyam career.

This post was provoked by the lonely Arul Francis’s blog , and is related to 3 other posts of ours: Success in Solo Performance, The Future of Bharatanatyam. Through the prism of Bharatnatyam’s great Past ,         The “Hereditary” ones…. And back to karanas!

his post consists of 2 parts: what makes a successful Bharatanatyam career, and then we overview Subbaraya Pillai’s “tradition” (can we call it so?) and the evolution of Bharatanatyam.

While most of Arul’s points are perfectly valid, here we will focus largely on those points that the conservatives (“traditionalists”) tend to misunderstand and misrepresent.

Grounded
Here, Arul touches the topic of “success”.

Indeed, what makes a dancer “successful”? What makes a career successful? And a performance?

From the devadasi’s point of view, the only kind of success she was aiming at was her personal spiritual growth, experiences, realizations. Her secondary goal, just as any shaman’s, was the procuring of the divine blessings and protections for the devadasi’s benefactors.

Anjana Rajan put it in simple terms:

No matter how much we talk of Bharatanatyam today being a devotional art, it is only rarely that the inherent spirituality of the form, the mysticism of the scriptures as conveyed through mudras and music, becomes visible. To relate to the spiritual essence without allowing the dance technique to disintegrate into a mash of feeling is not easy.

Not just the mudras and music, of course, but, much more importantly, about performing the karanas like this. Natya Shastra describes 2 types of “Success” (“siddhi”, or perfection) of the performance by the rajadasi types of dancers: daiviki (divine) and manusi (human). There are the signs of the human and the signs of the divine success. There are two expression of human success: vocal and bodily.

Signs of success expressed vocally:

  • slight smile,
  • smile,
  • laughter,
  • exclamations such as “excellent”,
  • tumultuous applause

Signs of success expressed by body language:

  • Joy expressed in horripilation
  • the rising up from the seat and giving away of clothes and throwing of rings (or other gifts)

The signs of divine success are more interesting:

  • there must be the overwhelming Sattva in the display of Bhavas (i.e. the psychological states are pure / expressed clearly)
  • no noise, no disturbance, no unusual occurrence (during the performance)
  • the auditorium is full of spectators

At one of Narada Gana Sabha’s performances, with fewer than 10 rasikas and a below average dancer (from outside Chennai), the compere proudly announced, “We thank you the sabha for making todays performance a great success”. The dancer was so disappointed that she did not laugh. The rasikas exchanged funny looks. 🙂

Arul writes,
“You meet someone who is very “successful” – they have all the trophies: a fancy degree, a great job, a fancy house, a fancy car – but when you actually try to get to know the person, you realize there is nothing there. A vacuum. A shell. Success seems to destroy some people. I see the equivalent in dance as well. “Success” can be pretty scary and turn someone into a freak.”

A fancy degree can only impress a few old idiots in India, not in the USA, where any idiot can get a fancy degree for a hundred bucks. If the dancer tries to impress the American audience by listing her degree in medicine or banking, the Americans usually either smile or laugh, but are polite enough not to laugh too loudly.

A great job. The “successful” dancers include Srinidhi Chidambaram who spent most of her time on her medical career, got a great and stable job in public health administration, married a rich man, lost the ability to dance. Other great jobs include the Indian Railway administration posts (Ananda Shankar Jayant), insurance agents and bank clerk’s jobs.

Money! 🙂 Indeed, a great measure of success in Kali Yuga. Go, ask how dancers earn money. They will tell you.

Arul forgot to list “titles & awards” because these are looked upon – especially by Americans – as meaningless. After all, we know how much politics and money it takes to get a “prestigious” title !

Arul tells us that

One time a dance-critic wrote mockingly about the awards given out during the December season: “what a clatter of siromanis and … ” and I was laughing along because I agreed with what she was saying. Every time you turn around someone is handing someone else an award, a title, or an honour. It is just ridiculous. All those shawls and shields and plaques. What a waste.

Spending too much time on the political activities will turn the dancer into a fat hypocrite. Arul teaches us some diplomatic tricks:

one of the VIPs accosted me and said: “what did you think of my speech?” and I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t very well answer: “I was outside eating samosas”. So I said: “everyone thought it was a very fitting tribute”. And they continued: “what did you think of my quotes from Shakespeare”. And I didn’t know what to say so I said: “well, you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare”.

You may get in trouble if you lie too much:

Someone came up and whispered something into this VIP’s ear and they turned upon me indignantly and said: “Arul, it seems you weren’t even inside? What’s this? It seems you went outside during the speeches?” and I was caught red-handed!

You have to understand the etiquette and the hierachies:

The last speaker was Karunanidhi – it seems he had released some book or novel – he was a very good speaker. We sat in the back even though Meenakshi’s mother came and pulled Master’s hand and said: “Sir, you must sit in the front row” but Master would not. He sat in the back. Apparently, when the real VIPs arrived everyone who was occupying the front row would be unceremoniously kicked back and that could be embarrassing.

You will not have the time for practising Bharatanatyam. You will have to lie, lie and have to be mean, very mean. You will have to forge political alliances with some Bharatanatyam clans, and fight against the “enemies” (competing clans). You will become very bitter, and the corners of your mouth will move down, wriggling in wry smiles. How else can you smile if you feel like murdering that fat sabha’s committee member who expects a big bribe/donation? 😦 You will feel like your life is wasted. And wasted it is!

Anita Ratnam wrote:
“There is too much political correctness going around and far too much sycophancy to really help dance…. That dance scene in India has become corrupt and bloated is something nobody disagrees with”.

What the dancers really value and like to list in their resumes is the opportunities to perform a solo at an “established” (old) sabha’s festival or at least at Natyanjali in Chidambaram. Without these performances, you will not get your title or award. To do that, you will have to get various “recommendations” from the “established” dancers & gurus. To get these, you will have to go and kiss their feet (and other parts of their body), become their obsequious student for a year or two, exhibit the utmost sycophancy to the people you abhor and disdain, and tell them a lot of false compliments that you don’t feel like saying. The more you praise them, the faster you will lose the ability to distinguish the truth from the illusions. Welcome to Maya!

Sirisha reveals the undercurrents of the present day dance career and exploitation:

I always wondered that its difficult to perform for big sabhas specially some in chennai, its so tough to get through anyone to avail a chance to perform,i have written letter, mails.I dont get any reply! Is it the fact that only famous dancers are given opportunity there and only known faces get to perform.

its the question again should we keep quiet and just watch the rat race or be a part to win them, i see so many ordinary dancers doing so many big shows,not to say or put my dance on high platform, but i sure dance with better standards than some of them. Wel how much does recognition come:(. I am no more with any guru presently, but did n number of shows for my gurus at their corporate shows and their umpteen lecture demos.I thank them whole heartedly for making me a dancer of really competetive level, it was that gratitude which held me for long all this while. But now am out of the institution for good, cant blame anyone for anything.but thought should voice the exploitation only once and walk out.I have being teaching with them for eight years, and was among their cream of senior ensembles. But how long should i keep quiet?????? No answer,
I think dance should be an art that should spread with zero inhibitions,and specially to people who cant afford it.

Do u suggest any gurus whom i can go to continue my advanced training.just asking out of blue.

i live in bangalore, and i had begun my style of dance with vazhavur style, then continued with gurus for my advanced training, and they dint folow particularly any style, but taught every thing that was special in all styles.

The strategy of an exploitative (selfish) guru is very simple:

  • don’t give your best students a chance to perform solo programmes,
  • don’t teach them too much of advanced solo items,
  • don’t give them credits at a group performance or in a DVD release,
  • don’t let them get in direct contact with the customer (the person who pays for the performance, tour, TV show, lec-dem, film role, etc).

Without performances, nobody will publish the reviews of your dance no matter how much you pay the journalists/critics and fawn over them. Without the good publicity, you will not become famous. To get into the Hindu’s Friday Review used to be the pinnacle of the dancers’ dreams. The problem now is that every small newspaper or web site are publishing tons of worthless reviews whose only aim is to promote (clumsily or not very) the reviewed dancers! 🙂

Without titles and reviews, it is harder to get recognition. Everybody knows how much it takes to get empaneled at the ICCR. Unless some VIP from the ruling political party calls the Doordarshan panel of judges and gives them instructions, you will not get the A Grade. How can one get, for example, the recognition from the Texas Commission on the Arts? Or from Young Audiences of Houston? What is the value of Certificate of Appreciation from the Governor of California? Or from the Association of Toilet Cleaners of New Delhi?

We could add popularity as another measurement of success. Hmmm…. What kind of popularity? Among whom? I am wondering why some Bharatanatyam videos performed by an 11-year-old on YouTube get 10 times more views than Vyjayanthimala’s videos there! As for Michael Jackson’s kind of popularity… Oh, yea! Yea! It seems that the popularity among the cheri rasikas, the undiscriminating and bored audience who need just some excitement and entertainment. Many dancers dream of becoming another Vyjayanthimala, Kamala, Padma, Shobana… A cheri dancer who dances vulgar dances on TV. Becoming a film actress is an “achievement”: you will forget what is Bharatanatyam. This was the reason how Subbaraya Pillai treated

anyone from the world of “cinema” he automatically refused, as did his father

your life will disconnect from your soul, you will be treated like a prostitute by the film directors (and many others), but you will have a lot of money. When I met Shobana, I felt that this woman is very miserable. Many top actresses commit suicide, but she has not yet! 🙂

The new developments

As you probably know, before dancing, the dancer propitiates Nataraja or Vinayaka and asks to grant success for the recital.

Arul writes:
There was a time I went to Vani Mahal and saw a lovely performance. The dancer sprang to one corner of the stage in a beautiful graceful jump and sat down and began offering flowers and raising her eyes above – and directly above on the wall was a large picture of a package of Chips – the brand which was sponsoring the show. It was funny!

Many dancers feel they need to worship the green American dollar. 🙂

There is something Arul does not understand when he writes:
“Someone has to patronize and come up with the money – they always have – in ‘Danike’ there is a line acknowledging the Maratha king Sivaji – in ‘Yemaguva’ there is a similar line about the Mysore king.”

Arul is not aware of the fact that the Maratha king Sivaji is long DEAD. The Thanjavur Quartet’s varnams which Arul describes as the precious gems have never had a great spiritual potential in them, and have grown irrelevant. The ancient Kali or Vishnu kavutuvams have survived many more centuries because of the greater purity of the music, the lyrics and the choreography. You bet that an item that praises Coca-Cola will not survive a few years.

Arul warns us about the dangers of “fusions”:

It’s weird how these “rebel” dancers and choreographers who want to shake up their staid old audience and drag them to the cutting edge don’t get the very basic point that people already watch dance from other genres which are already popular and cutting edge and are outside of the classical dance category. People who compose and perform popular hip music already have their own dance to go with it and it’s very good and fun to watch. And that music doesn’t need any condescending gestures from classical dancers. This whole pose of “i want to shake up the old people” and at the same time “i want to expose and pull in the younger crowd by doing something new and hip” is just so condescending to both sides, I don’t see the need for it.

Subbaraya Pillai… and the living fossils

If you think you know what is “Pandanallur” style (errrrr….. it is less than 100 years old, isn’t it?), can you tell me why there is such a great deal of difference between the “Pandanallur” styles taught by Parvati Ravi Ghantasala, Ranganayaki Jayaraman, Pandanallur Pandian, Alarmel Valli, Meenakshi Chitharanjan , and Dr.Saraswathy (of Vipanchee)? Or at least, tell me what is common in these guru’s styles? 🙂 Baffling, isn’t it? 🙂 It is as baffling as why Vaiko joined Jayalalitha. 🙂

In Gossip, Arul wonders,

What does he think of each of them and where does he stand on all their rivalries? I am dying to know.

Business competition is business. Or politics, like the rift inside the DMK.

Arul rightly states that not all contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers are ready to perform Bharatanatyam in a strip bar, a cabaret or at a lingerie exhibition:

Along with the dance they also know its context: how to perform and where to leave it. Without ever articulating it verbally or spelling it out – we got from him this sense of boundaries and identity. What it is, and what it is not.

The explanation why Arul is an avid reader of our blog and Narthaki’s is this:

Sometimes I ask the other students, have you read such-and-such or did you see that TV show or that movie – and generally the answer is “no”. Master’s students don’t need any outside input and they’re not looking to critics or other dance styles for direction. They have that already.

Yep! They are already perfect (at least they think they are more perfect than apsara Urvasi). Or maybe, they are just no longer able to learn? To improve? Eh… Why?

Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittarajan were among those students who wanted to learn more and enhance their technique. So they left Subbaraya Pillai a long time ago. Have they achieved what they wanted to? Or rather, have they achieved more success than those students who have not left Subbaraya Pillai?

The dancers have to develop a critical, analytical mind to be able to digest adequately all the comments and reviews. But Subbaraya Pillai’s students don’t have it: they have always been discouraged to ask questions, as Arul confesses. If you have no questions, you are either a genius or are asleep. The number of questions a student asks determine how eager he is to learn and how well he understands the topic.

The students were only allowed to obey their guru’s instructions. Did they understand much? They didn’t. As a result, most of them became brain-dead by the age of 30.

This is how great traditions and great knowledge are lost:

For these crucial hands in the first half, he’s just forgotten. I was so upset. There is no one he’s taught this to – not in a very long time – and back then they weren’t even recording anything. so it’s just gone, gone, gone with the wind.

Subbaraya Pillai explains his lacklustre “creative” genius:

“I still follow whatever Thatha has taught me. Can I ever create something that he has not left for generations of dancers to come? Today choreographing according to one’s own Manodharma (freedom to compose) means different things to different persons. Each has his/her own concepts, values and approaches. “

However, Nandini Ramani interpreted this as “creative” (within the narrow framework of what Thatha taught him?):

“Even now I don’t know what I know” he says referring to his creative approach to Bharatanatyam.

Arul is more honest:

There were no “new items”. He taught what he had learnt and just stopped with that.

Well, the dancers who cannot take the outside input can consider themselves as living fossils. The ability to learn new things (which is determined by the amount of Sattva in your system) decreases from the age of 10 dramatically. Rajas dominates in our youth. After 40, Tamas dominates. In medical terms, so many brain cells die (because of lack of use) that the adults, including dancers, cannot accept anything new. This is why most poets and composers created their masterpieces at a young age.

Among the good things Subbaraya Pillai did (as we see in this VCD) was that he “would teach his students one on one”, which saved them from becoming clones. However, there are some paradoxes. First, Arul tells us about clone dancers:

I had already figured that out for myself in 94, just from attending performances, and watching how the nattuvanars’, certain big nattuvanars’ students always danced differently from their class mates whereas dance schools and dancers-turned-teachers produced people who did the same thing.

Oh, these big nattuvanars who never read the Natya Shastra! 🙂 Be warned:

I would ask: “marupadiyum atha kamingale” (show me again) but of course there was no dancer there, and without a dancer he couldn’t show anything.

The big, great Arul then continues:

The dancers did not learn abinaya from each other. There’s nothing “intrinsically feminine” about it.

Arul’s fundamental problem is that he does not have a mirror, and is half-blind: he does not see that an average woman’s face is capable of rendering 100 times more expressions than an average man’s.

Arul confesses:

this was one skill that I was simply not going to be able to pick up from him…I can catch what the dancers are doing on tape and repeat that tape a 1000 times, but I did not have his expressions while he was teaching it

Even such exceptional abhinaya masters as Bangalore’s Kiran Subramanyam are nobodies compared to many 10-year-old girls from Chennai. Some of these 10-year-olds are so uninhibited and so sincere in their abhinaya that watching them alone will teach you more than spending 100 years learning Bharatanatyam expressions from a big nattuvanar. After all, Natya Shastra states that 25% of what a dancer can learn can be learnt only from observing other dancers.

Master taught it to each dancer, one dancer at a time, and I saw him teach it with my own eyes. To see that transformation, when he shows how an expression is to be done, and repeats it, and repeats, and repeats, and to see the dancer pick that up – it is one of the most amazing and magical things in dance that I have ever seen.

Oh! Subbaraya Pillai did, indeed, ask his students to merely copy his own expressions that he considered as “correct”. It was Subbaraya Pillai who repeated the same expression. A true nattuvanar may give just a hint – once or twice! – and it would be sufficient. Learn by rote is the devise of the current Indian educational system! What is so magical in it?

The magical it would be if the dancer first would understand the lyrics, the characters’ moods, their relationship. Of course you don’t need it if the theme of your recital is about Pringles or condoms, do you? How would a condom speak to a pack of Pringles? Well, I need to watch some American cartoons. Don’t blame me if my abhinaya resembles Mickey Mouse’s!

Only Americans religiously believe that an emotion can be realized by moving facial muscles alone.

 

The serious bharatanatyam dancer should sit and meditate, have some personal (not borrowed) spiritual experiences that would naturally produce genuine expressions. Without the inner realizations and direct experiences, the dancer’s expressions will look a bit too put-on to fool a sharp-eyed rasika. The dancer’s abhinaya will never be powerful, convincing, and will lack Sattva.

The ability to perceive the 3 gunas and their combinations depends entirely on the clarity of your vision. This is something that no nattuvanar will teach you. If you eat the rajasic food, you will be half-blind. Arul likes spicy fish curry, it seems.

And he loves our blog: 🙂

I became interested in dance I would read everything that was written in the papers and in the books. I was stupid enough to believe what they were saying because all those writers write with so much authority.

The Future of Bharatanatyam. Through the prism of Bharatnatyam’s great Past.

This post is related to The “Hereditary” ones…. And back to karanas! (also see this recent one – about the karanas and more)

This post was provoked by Aneal Krishnamurthy‘s “The future of Bharatanatyam: A rasika’s view” published in Sruti and re-posted on Narthaki. Aneal, an amateur rasika, has made us sit down and analyze the things in depth. We will comment on his and another angry NRI’s, Mukundagiri Sadagopan‘s letter too, as well as Alarmel Valli’s opinions.

We will compare the past of Bharatanatyam with its present, and make a guess of what is it going to be like in the future. There can be no way to predict the future without understanding the past and the present. To understand the developments, you should have a basic understanding of the 4 Yuga’s. Remember: Kali Yuga officially ended just 50 years ago. Most people have lost the sense of the sacred. Spirituality and religion are no longer relevant to people’s life.

Since the sacred music and the dance offerings prescribed by the Shastras, such as Agama Shastra, were recently conveniently replaced by the rice and sweets offerings, we can pretend to ignore that another prescribed offering, asana, started to be conveniently interpreted as “seating of the idol”. Curiously, the degraded Hindu pseudo priests, grown fat and ugly beyond all reasonable dimensions, managed to convince hundreds of millions of idiots that the changes in the Sodasa Upachara rituals were…. holy. As holy as the holy McDonnalds.

We could also refer to The Hindu’s article on this score :

To keep in tune with the changing times and to make Bharatanatyam more relevant to the contemporary audience, Natyarangam (the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha) organises a dance festival every year on various social issues such as male chauvinism, eve teasing, dowry, corruption and politics.

It is not just agricultural themes that became spiritual. The poor Ramaa writes that immigration is, in fact, a deeply spiritual theme too, and the Statue of Liberty is the true American god that every Bharatanatyam dancer in Chennai has to offer a puja to – before taking a flight to New York in hopes to earn some not-so-spiritual hard currency:

My choreography Jwala-Flame about the struggles and discoveries of the immigrant experience and dedicated to the Statue of Liberty elicits that kind of deeply spiritual response from the audience every time we have performed it.

“Spiritual response”? What is it, darling? Ramaa explains:

It is not enough to simply present your work. You must also represent it both artistically and politically.

Politically??? Can’t find it in Natya Shastra!

The current situation is aggravated by the fact that 95% of the present-day “humans” are in the human bodies for the 1st time in their soul’s evolution. Which means that the real people (who can appreciate the finer Bharatanatyam) are a minority. If one was a pig in his past life, he will prefer to watch Bollywood hip-shaking.

You may know there was no Bharatanatyam 500 years ago. Sadir looked very, very different. While you can find traces of Natya Shastra’s styles in the classical Indian dance, these are just traces. Well, the Kaisiki style can be seen in Mohiniattam (where Lasya reaches its pinnacle, and the Bhavas are rendered in the fine and deep manner) and Odissi. But there is very little left of it in the contemporary Bharatanatyam. So… What is Bharatanatyam, to begin with???? A tree without roots will dry up and die quickly.

  1. Kalakshetra style is not Bharatanatyam“, once said Udupi Laxminarayanan.
  2. Udupi Laxminarayanan’s “Kanchipuram style” has nothing to do with Bharatanatyam“, said Sudharahi Raghupathi.
  3. My style is called Bharathnrithyam“, said you know who.
  4. “Not many people believe I dance Bharatanatyam. Actually, I don’t believe it either“, complains Shobana.
  5. I don’t know if it is traditional Bharatanatyam. I think I took it from Kuchipudi“, another Bharatanatyam dancer confesses.
  6. So what if I borrowed this and that from the English ballet?“, replies Chitra Vesveswaran.
  7. Yes, this is Martha Graham’s technique that I use“, confesses Sudharani Raghupathi.
  8. How many people know that there is a lot of Kathakali and modern dance in my…. errrr… Bharatanatyam?“, asks VP Dhananjayan.

Manvantara wrote :
I attended a recital by Alarmel Valli at Memphis…. To me, her steps seemed more like Odissi with some influence of ballet! Her accompanying musicians were very good, though!
Then there was the “Ekantha Seetha” – which I think was specifically for the non-Indian. The choreography (by the Dhananjayans) was good, but predictable and in the end, left me wondering what it was all about. Sujatha Srinivasan seemed to “dance” without moving her body much! Dhananjayan himself was no good – he tried some Kathakali style eye movements, but only the intent was there – the eye balls did not move!

Excuse me, where today can we find… Bharatanatyam???

The glorious past vs. the present :

evolution or… degradation?

There are 4 different historical reference points on which we will base our vision of the great Past and the comparisons with the present practices and trends:.

  1. The episode with apsara Urvasi, described in the Natya Shastra.
  2. The incident on Thillai that resulted in the construction of the Chidambaram temple.
  3. The original devadasi practices in the example of incident with Kallivelli Siddhar..
  4. Abhinaya Darpanam

Although some idiots corrupted by the western pseudo-culture dare to expose their lack of brain by stating that “The body of a dancer of today considerably differs from that of an 11th or 14th century dancer, especially one known only from temple sculptures.” , it is an archaeological fact that the human bodies in South India were no different 50000 years ago from what these bodies look now. It is the styles of sculpture that came and vanished. The bodies remain the same. (Oh! Well, not quite: the ancient dancers didn’t look so old, ugly, useless and worn-out when they were 80 years, and they did not attempt to make a laughing stock out of themselves by exposing their clumsiness and lost figures!) The proliferation of imbecile, half-baked modern authorities on Bharatanatyam is amazing, especially in the rajasic West, where every idiot is encouraged to produce a “different” view as long as he is paid for his/her “research” and “innovation”.

“New” is better than “True”, is the slogan of the superficial Western rajasic mind.

“There are no authorities” is another slogan.

The Hindu’s article on this score:

“There are over 25 Ph.D programmes on Indian dance in American universities alone,” says art critic Sadanand Menon. “This is when there is hardly any such attempt here.”

“Every American idiot is equal to Bharata Muni since Bharata Muni did not have a Ph.D. in Dance from a reputed US-based university” is another democratic belief.
There is an interesting trend that VP Dnahanjayans described very aptly, when a Kerala university imposed its own “selection” of the Bharatanatyam…. errrr… “professors” at the Dhananjayan’s “college”. “The staff they proposed are the worst possible teachers”, commented the disappointed Dhananjayan. “The university wanted the Bharatanatyam professors to have, primarily, a university degree in Bharatanatyam. The problem is, there are no people with a university degree in Bharatanatyam!” Because nobody needed such a piece of paper before.

Although Mother Kali can be heard producing very lound laughter above our heads, let us get serious and find the parameters by which we will compare the present and the past.

-The episode with apsara Urvasi makes us realize that:

  • the origin of Natya is in the Heaven, not in a disco bar (leave us a comment if you believe you are an incarnation of Rambha 🙂
    Now, Bharatanatyam dancers learn new things by copying western ballet, Indian movies and folk dance. The rest they imagine. They don’t read the Natya Shastra or Abhinavabharathi. Too sophisticated for parrot-brained maami’s! Have you ever heard a dancer saying, “This item was revealed to me by such-and-such Apsara in my meditation?” What is meditation, Madam, errrrr?
  • it takes a king Pururavas, a great soul and a purified mind, to compose a superb piece of Natya
    Few ancient items (incl. poetry and music) have been preserved. “Pay Rs.60000 and I will compose a heavenly item for you” is the tariff language of the contemporary (pop-Bharatanatyam) composer. While some medieval composers were declared saints, where are the modern saints? They are fighting for the Padmashree awards. “How much is this divine set of Jathis, Sir?”, “Rs.23000, Madam”. There is not a single item composed in the past 200 years that could stand comparison with the ancient Kali or Vishnu Kautuvams.
  • it takes an embodied apsara’s skills (arrived at by constant, full-time practice) and a perfect body (you bet she looked far better than Aishwarya Rai!) to truly mesmerize the refined audience (not a bunch of ignorant village bumpkins who believe that “buffalos also dance”… Bharatanatyam? )
    The contemporary Bharatanatyam students have no desire nor time to practice. For what???? With 1000 relatives around, every day there is an important function: someone either dies or is born. The yokels watch the vulgar Indian movies.
  • there are no contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers whose death would result in the immediate death of 1000 of their fans
    When the modern reviews publish “mesmerizing” and “enchanting” and “fascinating” epithets, take it with a pinch of salt. If you see an old fat ugly grandma monopolizing the stage, and junior dancers licking her a** and shoes, remember, this simulated psychophancy does not last long. The same tongue that licked the Bharatanatyam VIP’s feet at a function will blast her to pieces while its owner chats to her friends. Contemporary dancers are the biggest liars and politicians. The fattest dancer is Ms.Jayalalitha, who still gets compliments for her superb nritta.

-The incident on Thillai that resulted in the construction of the Chidambaram temple.

  • the real dancing happens in the invisible worlds, where it is much more fun
    The present Bharatanatyam’s themes include HIV, agricultural irrigation, industrialization of India, sweetness of Coca-Cola, greatness of the State Bank of India, and the most divine condom items that are used with Lingam.
  • it takes a great rishi’s tapasya to get a ticket for such a show
    If you are a Bharatanatyam dancer who “has”(really?) to dance at a car exhibition or a new shampoo inauguration, ask yourself, “How many people came here to watch my great Bharatanatyam?” If you are a Bharatanatyam dancer doing a programme at a Sabha, ask yourself, “Can I see anybody besides my relatives, fellow dancers, neighbors, my parents’ colleagues? Huh! Nobody else came again!”
  • the human shape is used by Shiva in his mystic dance to explain his relationship with Shakti
    “We don’t need anything mystic: there are important meterial (financial, career) problems that we have to solve right now!” . Have you ever met a contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer who has at least 1 spiritual experience??? (not just a dream of buying a new car!) “Maami, let’s get practical: I don’t need any such revelations: I have to prepare for tomorrow’s exams!” What, Bharata Muni was a rishi in the first place????

-The original devadasi practices.

  • The devadasis used to live a very simple life with very basic material needs provided for by the temples.
    Now, every dancer wants to be as rich as Jayalalitha, or Srinidhi Chidambaram or at least Alarmel Valli.
  • Tuition was… free of cost.Now, only the students who pay well (lakhs!) get the attention of the guru. Arul describes the contemporary exceptions:
    There was a dancer who lived down the street of very modest circumstances and she would pay something like a hundred and fifty rupees a month. He (Subbaraya Pillai) didnt’ care. There was no set fee. Everyone paid what they could, it was voluntary and he would never ask. Over eight years she became a good student and he would spent 3 or 4 hours each day, six days a week, teaching her the danyasi varnam. It was such a paltry sum! For all those hours and hours of teaching.
  • Devadasis learnt 64 subjects, so some of them made very good living. Most of these subjects were complimentary to dance (right-brain hemisphere activities), and automatically enhanced the dancer’s dancing standards.
    One of these 64 subjects is… Divination!
    Can’t remember this subject in the Annamalai University’s syllabus! “Spells & charms“? Not a useful subject either. Our ancestors were idiots or what?Now, some professional Bharatanatyam dancers complain that…. they cannot make a luxurious living out of Bharatanatyam alone! Most contemporary idiots believe that computer engineering or surgery (left-brain hemisphere activities) will enhance their Bharatanatyam performances. A typical performance in Chennai starts with, “She has an MBBS”. Or an MBA. When on earth did this cow have the time to rehearse her Bharatanatyam items?????? Stupid: she didn’t! 😦 Then she will complain that nobody likes Bharatanatyam today.
  • A devadasi danced in the mandapams. No human audience were allowed to watch her dance. She danced for the deity. Her dance was the expression of her soul.
    A contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer dances to entertain the audience that consists mostly of a bunch of bored pigs chewing chips and chatting on their mobiles.
  • There was Tejas emanating from devadasi Valli when she was dancing in front of Kallivelli Siddhar
    The contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer’s brain is too busy focussing on how to impress the sponsors and chief guests who do not understand anything about Bharatanatyam.Tejas??? What is Tejas? 😦 Is it the name of a new Tamil actor?
  • The devadasis used to do all the 108 karanas. There was a lot of variety in their performances.
    Nowadays the Bharatanatyam dancers (except for very few ones) use just 10% of the technical elements described in Natya Shastra. Most rasikas cannot find the difference between Bharatanatyam and folk dance.

-Anhinayadarpanam

There is a rumour that ABHAI wants to prohibit this book on the grounds that it offends the senior dancers by stating that a Patra (bharatanatyam dancer) has to be youthful, agile, beautiful, with sweet voice, and so on. After all, the modern trend is to let the disabled dancers perform on the stage, isn’t it??? Their parents pay so much, so why not…? Abhinayadarpanam is an outragous text that, for some apolitical reasons, lists the criteria that disqualify the dancer from giving a public performance. “99% of the contemporary dancers would lose their jobs if we followed the scriptures”, said Sudharani Raghipathi at the release function of her recent Bharatanatyam DVDs (She does not allow her best student, Sridevi, to release any DVDs now, when Sridevi can still dance. Otherwise, who would buy Sudharani’s DVDs?) where the old maami looked dangerously pregnant and was moving as if on crutches. What, Abhinayadarpanam reads that such a dancer would be a parody? “Dare call me a clown and your dance career is dead”, said the angry Padma Subrahmaniam.“So what if I look vulgar? What, Chitra Visveswaran is better?”

Recent developments

The recent developments have included such main factors as

Alarmel Valli gives us some insights:

Ever wondered why Alarmel Valli’s technique includes and increasingly larger number of purely western embellishments and artsy ornamentation aimed at telling the spectator, “Hey, look at me, am I not great?”

Perceptions are changing with the cultural onslaught from the West. American pop culture, with its discos, its MTV and its soap operas has made strong inroads. These have contributed to the distancing of our young from our culture.

A true liberal is one who can move across all forms of cultural space with equal impartiality. He does not go around saying: “This is not fashionable, so I will not go to it;” or “It is not contemporary, so I will not watch it;” and so on.

As she spends most of her time in the USA and hardly watches any Bharatanatyam performances at all, here is what she thinks:

There are a few people who tout the idea that Bharatanatyam, or any classical dance for that matter, no longer has any relevance; that it is dead, it is a fossil, it is a museum piece, it is too decorative

Is the dance of Alarmel Valli is purely decorative, and a useless westernized fossil since it has no revelance to most of what is described in Natya Shastra?

the subtle imposition of a Western modern aesthetic, modified by a sprinkling of Indian ‘ingredients’ is not the answer to the development of modern Indian dance. And, we do not need anybody to tell us exactly how our dance should evolve.

Let’s forget the Natya Shastra and listen to the arrogant Alarmel Valli, comfortably settled in her American house:

Although I am a classical dancer, I enjoy good Modern dance enormously and am inspired by it. The ultimate test is whether the dance touches you, moves you, makes you think.

Natya Shastra, though tells us that desi is can only serve as entertainment, while margi is a means of spiritual upliftment. Is Alarmel Valli greater than Bharata Muni??? No, she is just a stupid arrogant woman, a lowly woman who thinks:

The Natya Sastra itself gives you total freedom to be a poet. Can one dictate or curb poetic expression?

Alarmel Valli tells us:

a few questions posed by some Western ‘modernists’: Why is there so little floor movement in Indian dance? Why is Indian classical dance so ‘happy’ all the time? How can an ancient traditional form like Bharatanatyam be contemporary? These questions are as pointless

There are no entirely pointless questions. The answers could be:
1. Bharatanatyam is not meant for horses running in a football stadium
2. Classical dance is to express ananda, and all the miserable ballet dancers in America or Europe don’t understand it
3. An “ancient” form like Bharatanatyam did not exist 150 years ago: 95% of what we see today was created out of scratch very recently, so it is very contemporary, and very boring too.

Why do you think why Alarmel Valli writes:

I love Modern dance and I have seen many of the best Modern dancers from around the world. My experience of their dance is transmuted within me and finds appropriate expression in my own idiom, which is Bharatanatyam… Other dance-forms have their influence on me… For instance, I am a great admirer of Pina Bausch… I am inspired by her and as such, somewhere in my inner consciousness I am influenced and this comes out in my dance

Oh! She borrowed all that crap from the great guru Pina, Pina! You didn’t know, huh?

So, is there a future for Bharatanatyam?

The fate of Bharatanatyam is similar to Carnatic music’s veena. As Madurai T.N.Seshagopalan said in Sruti, “An element of drama and contrived modulation pass for Bhava. What was once considered cheap tactics has become the order of the day…If there is a great artist today on the veena the situation would change”. We will be patiently waiting for a real apsara’s incarnation to restore the glory of Natya.

Our comments (in bold) on Aneal’s article’s statements

In my view, Bharatanatyam does indeed have a strong future but is currently undergoing certain changes that could have a profound impact on the art form. This article aims to discuss certain trends that I have observed over the past few years (the analysis that is based on a few year’s observation is not worth a dime) and attempts to raise some important questions for dancers and scholars in this field.

Trends in Bharatanatyam technique:

Bharatanatyam is slowly but surely moving towards more athleticism. (maybe in America; in India, more and more cows believe that, if Chitra Visveswaran can dance in a skirt, so everybody else can!) Although no one can doubt the strength and endurance required for dancers to competently perform a whole margam, there seems to be a marked emphasis on athleticism by some dancers on stage. The athleticism almost borders on acrobatics and gymnastics (oh, where, where did you watch it???? Show me 1 dancer who can do 108 karanas, and I will believe you). This type of dancing seems to have a certain appeal to audiences and I wonder if more dancers will follow in this path. (no way, they are getting too lazy in India)

Another related point is the growing emphasis by some dancers on nrtta to the detriment of abhinaya (Aneal has never watched a Chennai-based Bharatanatyam dancer). It is commonplace for jathis to last for several minutes tiring both the dancer and the audience. (The US-made jathis are as boring as their synthetic McDonnalds hamburgers). The pace is often fast and furious. (Aneal has not seen a really fast nritta). Sometimes (often!) this pace sacrifices the crisp completion of each adavu. Is this desire for speed being driven by the (American!) audience? (no, Aneal, it’s just the audience cannot see their abhinaya from 200 meters away – in a large auditorium) Are dancers worried that without some spectacular footwork fireworks, the audience will not stay interested? (The audience is bored anyway, but want to appear as “cultured Indians”) With regard to padams and other abhinaya-oriented pieces, are dancers worried that they will not be able to sustain the audience’s attention with a slow-paced piece solely focused on mime? (The dancer’s mime is usually so horrible, artificial, superficial or boring that they don’t want to scare the audience)

Another issue is the apparent loss of importance of the Araimandi stance. (in America???) It is very rare (not so rare in Chennai: go and watch the youngsters) to see dancers with proper Araimandi. If it is acceptable today for a dancer to have just a slight outward turning of the knees (they use the western toilets nowadays, hence the new habit) and sitting a few inches lower than his or her height (their legs are too weak after driving the car to every shop instead of walking 50 meters), why even call it a half-sitting position? Review after review will note in a sentence (usually towards the end of the review) that the dancer’s Araimandi stance is missing or not consistent. (Who paid the journalist for the review? Too little an amount will result in bad review!) What is surprising to me is the minimal impact that the lack of Araimandi has on the overall critique of the dancer. I have observed that dancers are routinely praised for their technique even though there is no Araimandi. Perhaps lack of Araimandi is a result of dancers increasing the speed of their nrtta. (no, they just have 1 hour of practice per week!) Is this only one isolated component of Bharatanatyam that is slowly being lost or are there other components that are suffering a similar fate? (Yes, Aneal, the same is happening to mudras, hasthas, bhedas. Have you seen a dancer who can move her eyes in all the ways described in the Natya Shastra???? It’s just too hard! ).

Trends in Bharatanatyam performance content:

A highly visible development over the past few years is the move towards more thematic programs. (If your sponsor is McDonalds, your item must be about hamburgers. What, ancient dancers depicted devas??? Where are these devas now? Why they are not sponsoring the contemporary, dirty-minded Bharatanatyam dancers?) Within thematic shows, particularly abroad, there is a movement to make Bharatanatyam relevant to non-Indian audiences. ( the dancers love the non-Indian dollars, and the opportunity to write in their resume, “Have done 4 tours in the USA”) Modern social issues are often the themes chosen. Is the traditional margam no longer enough to sustain the attention of the modern audience? (No, modern brahmin desis don’t know what is Bhagavad-Geetha). Are dancers making efforts to educate rasikas on the complexities of a margam? (Who cares?)

What do dancers think about the future of the margam format? (The margam format is only 200 years old. Let it vanish like a bad dream. After all, devadasis danced 18 items for 6 hours non-stop! But then, there was no important local cricket matches to catch on TV) . Although this has been the traditional performance structure for several centuries, (Aneal does not know what he is talking about) do dancers find the traditional items limiting in scope? (The dancers do not know the traditional items). Do dancers feel that, through a margam, they cannot fully express their thoughts? Already, the Shabdham has more or less made its exit from the margam. What is next? Javalis? (I hate the boring Javalis!!! Let them vanish like a bad dream! Aneal does not know that hardly anybody in Chennai dances the boring Javalis) As many Bharatanatyam performers are young (especially at the amateur level), how can they be expected to exhibit the maturity (not so long ago they were supposed to reach maturity in Natya by the age of 16 and have an arangetram) required for performing these more intense items? It is interesting to see the relatively recent (no, not really so recent) incorporation of the Pushpanjali into many margams. It is quite possible that other items from a margam will be added or deleted as the years go by. (Yes, now they do the Bhajans to the Hindustani music to please the north Indians).

Another trend is the broadening of the music used for Bharatanatyam. (The composers just don’t know what is Carnatic music). Traditional Carnatic music is being supplemented with compositions in other Indian languages. Just as the language of Bharatanatyam music shifted from being predominantly Telugu to encompass Tamil and Kannada compositions over time, it is not beyond the realm of imagination to think of a day where compositions in a non-Indian language like English could become acceptable. Western classical and contemporary music is also being experimented with by some dancers. (Yes, the hard rock fans demand it.) Obviously, over time and with enough dancers moving in this direction, the music of Bharatanatyam will not stay static. (It will sink below the bottom)

Fusion of dance styles and music is all the rage in some circles. (If you had a 1 week’s of Bharatanatyam classes in your entire life, and 2 weeks of Odissi, what else can you do to impress the public???) Can a Bharatanatyam dancer performing choreography interwoven with different dance styles remain uninfluenced by the other styles? (There are over 500 hasthas in Mohiniattam. How many does Aneal know there are in Bharatanatyam?)

Although group performances are not a new concept (in India, there are usually 5 passengers seated on 1 motorbike, and I saw 12 people in 1 autorickshaw), there seems to be a feeling among some that the more Bharatanatyam dancers there are on stage, the better the show. (the dancers hope that nobody will notice their mistakes) Perhaps it is an economic issue as well. The more dancers you have on stage, the more friends and family that may attend which will result in increased ticket sales. As there are more and more group performances, will there be any negative impact on the scope for a solo artist? (Yes, the ambitious solo artist will have to be content even with 20 rasikas)

Trends in Bharatanatyam teaching and learning:

Bharatanatyam seems to be developing in two parallel tracks – the professional and the amateur. The vast majority of dancers treat the art form as one of their extra curricular activities, not as a profession. The dancer’s arangetram is seen by many as the culmination of training rather than the traditional ascension of the stage and the start of the dance career. (Right. In 10 years’ time, there will be no really professional Bharatanatyam dancers at all)

Particularly among Indians settled abroad, Bharatanatyam is viewed as an important tool in teaching Indian culture and values to children being raised away from the cultural influences that shaped their parents. (See the attached letter below Aneal’s article and have a laugh)

There appears to be a noticeable trend away from the mastery of the fundamentals. (American-born kids have dyslexia, no?) Children who are often not ready for the stage are decked out in beautiful costumes and jewelry for the visual consumption of their families and friends. (They are used to prop their parent’s social status) Praise is lavished a little too freely and the epidemic of standing ovations for mediocrity is spreading. (People do it at any stupid political gathering, so what?) Is it any wonder that audience sizes are dwindling? (Nobody will watch your boring and amateurish pseudo Bharatanatyam in 10 years’ time)

It is also very interesting to observe the generational shift among Bharatanatyam dance teachers. The great gurus of the 20th century were themselves taught by great nattuvanars who were keepers of the Devadasi tradition. (The nattuvanars had little to do with the devadasis) The gurus of the 21st century will be composed of dancers a generation or two removed from the great gurus. (Thank God!) In the modern age, the strict gurukula pattern of learning dance is almost extinct. (They advertise the gurukula style learning DVDs – no need for the guru) As the decades pass by, it is not unreasonable to expect that what is being taught is going to change. (There will be no need to have a greedy and incompetent guru) As an extreme anecdotal example, a teacher, herself trained rigorously by a great guru, teaches only a set of Thattadavus and Nattadavus as the foundation before moving on to teaching items. I fear that this type of teaching is not just an isolated event but is something that is spreading. (Come on, who needs your Adavus?) It is alarming to think that a student receiving this kind of training may someday go on to become a Bharatanatyam teacher. (Nattuvanars could not dance at all, anyway)

Trends in societal acceptance:

It seems to me that some of the primary obstacles for choosing Bharatanatyam (or any art form generally) as a profession are societal and the monetary costs associated with being a performer. (True) It is quite rare to see Bharatanatyam dancers who do not have another profession to rely on it for their livelihood. It is even more rare to see dancers with parents who encourage their children to pursue Bharatanatyam over academics. (I don’t watch such dancers’ programmes, and don’t recommend it to anyone else) Bharatanatyam is encouraged by many families so long as it does not ultimately interfere with other more “professional” ambitions. Even if a dancer is encouraged by her parents, when she gets married, she has to hope that her husband and in-laws are supportive of her choice. (Errrrr… If Bharatanatyam is not the most important thing in your life, you’d better not think of yourself as a “professional Bharatanatyam dancer”. Padma Subrahmaniam had to divorce…)

Perhaps, her new family will only be accepting of her teaching dance and discourage a professional dance career. The path becomes even more difficult if a dancer becomes a mother. As with any profession, juggling motherhood and professional aspirations is no easy task. (Don’t exaggerate: Alarmel Valli, Rajeshwari Sainath, Urmila Sathyanarayanan are good examples) A serious pursuit of Bharatanatyam requires a lot of time practicing (come on, who practises now more than 6 hours a week???), rehearsing, choreographing, performing and traveling. For a young mother, time away from her child can be very difficult emotionally and cause feelings of guilt. As she gets older, can she maintain her beauty and graceful figure? (Yes) If she succumbs to the aging process, can she develop a thick skin (yes, this is what the majority of the senior dancers do very easily: a sponsor can even sh*t on them and these dancers will smile) to not get affected by comments that she is too old or too fat?

Young men equally have difficult challenges ahead of them if they choose to pursue Bharatanatyam as a profession. Men are generally not encouraged to follow careers in dance and face many uphill battles with society to gain the recognition that they seek. The very small number of men pursuing Bharatanatyam either as amateurs or professionals is testament to the difficulty of getting more male involvement in the art form.

Trend in expenses:

Even if societal obstacles can be overcome, another development is the exponential increase in the cost of performing. Factoring in the cost of a live orchestra, costumes, jewelry, traveling etc., Bharatanatyam is a pricy profession. It is also very likely a self-financed profession. With so many dancers vying for attention, most sabhas feel no pressure to compensate the artists. (True….) It really is a business and those dancers that can draw ticket-paying audiences can reap some reward. (Why don’t these dancers learn how to dance first????) The lucky few who perform abroad on tours on a regular basis have the chance to supplement their income. The rest have to rely on income earned from other professions or their families to fund their Bharatanatyam careers.

Another trend is a vast increase in the number of performances and a corresponding dwindling of the audiences. With the exception of certain of the established veterans, do most Bharatanatyam dancers have an established fan base? Not just family and friends who attend a program but rasikas who are excited to see the dancer perform? Are most dancers prepared for the years of toil that it may take to gain the support of rasikas? (No! )

With so many competing societal influences, I wonder if enough is being done to educate (HOW???) the young of today to grow into the rasikas of tomorrow. After all, it is the young who will financially sustain the art in the future.

Parting thoughts:

I hope that by laying out some of my own personal observations of trends that I see in Bharatanatyam and raising many questions, this article will get people talking about the future of Bharatanatyam. At this point in time, Bharatanatyam at the amateur level is exploding in popularity. Bharatanatyam at the professional level, however, is a big question mark. With so many obstacles to overcome, will talented dancers have the perseverance and resources to achieve their goals? (No, they are too lazy) Finally, upon achieving these goals, will they be greeted by an auditorium full of adoring fans or by a vast sea of empty seats?

As a rasika, I believe that if Bharatanatyam (either at the amateur or professional level) is to continue to flourish, dancers must present the best. There are far too many mediocre programs these days (Why don’t you dare to name a few? According to the reviews, everything is “fantastic”, and the rivers in Madras are clean – according to the press), and when we in the audience see performers whose technique hasn’t been perfected and whose expressions are lifeless, our desire to support this beautiful art form will surely fade. (Idiot, go and watch some good performances!)

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Another write-up we want to comment on:

Are USA-touring Indian dance groups really of top quality?

Author: Mukundagiri Sadagopan of Illinois, USA, discusses this issue in this article he e-mailed to KutcheriBuzz.com

As the 2008 music and dance season starts in North America (USA and Canada) I have a personal peeve regarding the visiting classical dance troupes coming from India. I suspect that a large percent of lay-audiences in North America share this complaint.(Yes, soon they will stop attending such crappy performances)

In recent years India-Based Dance Troupes- with a few notable exceptions – leave much to be desired. To state briefly, every troupe is anchored by a main dancer who is past his / her prime (a chief clown represented by a buffalo) and is physically unable to move rapidly on the stage. Because of this the programs they offer are slow and boring.

These India-based troupes are mostly anchored by a senior artist who exceptional in her Abhinaya (hand gestures) (These senior dancers have no graceful or subtle expressions left on their fat faces) and Nrityha (expressional or narrative dance) – but is lacking in Nrutta which is pure dance. “Pure dance” – the rapid-fire stepping and dynamic footwork is what differentiates a dance from a “Katha Kalakshepam” – a musical, often a tear-jerker.

There is intense competition among highly talented troupes to win trips to America. Out of these only those with the most economic power and political clout get the contracts.(Business is business, as well as foul politics) However, it takes decades to build the required combination of talent, money and influence. By that time the Anchor Dancer, who by now is also the owner of her own dance school and its artistic director, has almost completely lost the physical strength to prance and leap forcefully as Nrutta – true dancing requires.(Such a dancer thinks that nobody knows what is real Bharatanatyam in America anyway!)

Invariably, there are fabulously athletic dancers touring with each of the teams, but they are junior members under the control of the Anchor. When the curtain opens, like most normal humans would do, the Anchor hogs the stage, not giving scarcely a chance to the stronger dancers. (So why didn’t you throw some rotten tomatos?)

So what should the buyers – Classical Program Organizers in North America do?

First they must inform the “export agents” in India that the audiences here are tired of watching over-the-hill dancers from India. That sends home a message for the 2009 summer season.

Second, they should soon place advance contracts for 2009 season dance programs from dance companies right here in North America. (Yep. Nobody needs those Indians from Chennai!) There are dozens of outstanding dance schools in every US / Candian metro area. (Where???? Where???? Where???) Many have been here for over 30 years. (And completely forgot what is Bharatanatyam) Their audience appeal and talent matches the imports. (Yea…Both are rubbish!) In addition, this would further enhance the talent pool in North America – which is a great goal in itself.

Third, Classical Program Organizations and Dance Schools in North America should set up a North American Dance Agency. The NADA should investigate, inform, and screen India based troupes that plan to tour North America. They should verify that the visiting dancers are physically able to do comprehensive classical dances that including brisk Jathis and Nritta.(How much are the bribes?) It will be in the interest of the Dance companies in India to cooperate, because verification from NADA would ensure favorable terms and bigger audiences. (Really????)

Sabha business & sri Sumukhi Rajasekharan Foundation: how our fellow Indians dupe us and make $$ from promoting the “traditional Indian” culture

There is one thing about Sumukhi Rajasekharan Foundation (SRF) that makes people wonder why their award functions gather fully packed auditoriums (300-400 people at least), but there are hardly 20-30 rasikas attending their “regular” Bharatanatyam programmes – even when these programmes present excellent dancers (such as the little virtuoso Sri Gayathri, who got the VDS Arts Academy’s Best Dancer award, and whose guru, Vijay Madhavan, featured her in his Sanmatham Bharathiyil DVD) .

Isn’t it because no serious rasikas, critics and dancers take SRF seriously? SRF recently jumped on the bandwagon of the profitable sabha business in Chennai. SRF launched its Exclusive NRIs’ “Kala Poshakam”, while other sabhas are now quietly making $$ from non-exclusive festivals where the rich (but visibly inferior) NRI dancers and foreigners pay 50 times more than a poor but exceptionally talented Chennai dancer can afford. Although Hamsadhwani was the pioneer in cashing in on bringing the NRI dancers to Chennai, SRF’s recent II Year International Art Festival of Dance & Music included hardly any Bharatanatyam dancers from Madras, so as to avoid embarrassing the less-capable NRI dancers and make them feel good. As S. Surendranath explained it, “You see, at Marghazhi Bala Utsavam we were planning to give titles even to the winners in such traditional categories as Junk Art but, surprisingly, we received no NRI bids”.

Well, SRF so far have tried to follow the simple method that other sabhas adopted: to enhance the “prestiigeousness” of a newly introduced title, the sabha gives such a new title to a well-known dancer of (obviously?) high caliber. Then, in a few year’s time, these well-known dancers discover that the same title has been given to the dancers who are not in their league. Naturally, they rave and rant, post their protests (like the Dhananjayans), curse the sabha, threaten to throw away the title/award into the garbage bin, and so on. The rasikas enjoy the social comedy.

The SRF followed this scenario and gave the first (or was it one of the first?) “Natya Bala Brahmam” to the dancers who were outstanding ( Medha Hari), then it tricked down to very good dancers and so on. Some utterly useless dancers too such as Shraddha Nagaraj got the title of “Nrithya Bala Sri”. Yet we received no response regarding the criteria on which SRF founds its allocation of these titles. In any case, SRF, like other sabhas, allocates these annually, which usually means that sooner or later all the deserving dancers as well as undeserving ones will be awarded this title. As one Bharatanatyam dancer awarded the SRF’s title told us “I was not sure whether to accept it or not because SRF is mainly known for its folk dance, junk art, fancy dress, and kolam competitions, and the ancient Indian “Master Mylapore” contest“.

Here is a quote from the Hindu on how awards are given:

One of them was once approached by a sabha, which offered to honour her with an award. Happiness at such a recognition soon turned to dismay and indignation when she found out that she was expected to sponsor her award. Needless to add that she called it off.

SRF is currently largest junk organization if you judge by the sheer number of the children who get a chance to be seen on the stage and who get certificates, memo’s, and titles, whether it is Junk Art or Fancy Dress. The latter was particularly interesting as SRF present’s itself as a supporter of “traditional” Indian culture. Some smarter NRI’s are still perplexed to hear that SRF considers as traditional such musical instruments as violin , electronic keyboard, and saxophone. “We are considering including traditional Jazz in our folk dance programmes”, a SRF representative told us.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

There is one element that distinguishes Sri Sumukhi Rajasekharan Memorial Foundation from other cultural organizations in South India: the strict dress code. While Mr. S Surendranath sports a traditional Persian kurtha, the outfit that arrived in North India along with the Arab invaders not so long ago (this is something that Mr. S. Amarnath with his Doctorate in History, tries not to mention), SRF’s lower-ranking functionaries are dressed in traditional French shirts, English trousers and Italian-style shoes. The top two men from the Mylapore Trio confess, “We do not want to wear Dhoti because we are hoping to get the sponsorships from the Muslim community too”.

SRF’s web site states its “dress code”: “Girls: uption 13 years – Paavaadai, Chokka”. No sleeveless for Girls & Women

Mr. S. Amarnath explains, “We try to have our programmes in the traditional, air-conditioned auditoriums, so as to create the ambience similar to what my ancestors had in Iran’s winter 500 years ago. If any South Indian women dare tell us that it is too hot for South India to wear long sleeves, we warn them that they would catch a cold if they come to our programmes. We are considering making the traditional burka mandatory too”

One woman remarks, “These folks invited us for their fancy dress competition, but their dress code states, “No Fancy Bindhis”! An SRF guard was clearly embarassed when asked to explain where is his ruler to help him measure the size of Pottu – only in Red colour / Min. Size: 8mm Round or Thilakam.

One of the “traditional” elements in SRF’s events are the demand for children to be separated from their parents so that they would happily chat to other kids, play and fight with each other in the front rows, and run towards their mommies every time they want some water or a few biscuits.

“One of our aims is to create a traditional Indian noisy atmosphere that would make the performers on the stage realize that life is no funny matter”, explained SRF’s president. We do not know why SRF functionaries encourage them to clap their hands in an untraditional, un-Indian matter: applause came from the uncultured West, didn’t it? And the rasikas sit in the untraditional, un-Indian armchairs. SRF’s T-shirt-clad cameramen would traditionally point their cameras with the traditional mounted 1KVA floodlights right into your eyes, 2 meters away from your face. The rasikas would traditionally curse these idiotic cameramen in their minds, and swear that they would never come again to SRF’s programmes.

SRF’s Ms. S. Aparna, sporting a traditional Swiss watch, comments, “Of course, the musicians and vocalists who sing at our programmes are using the traditional Indian mikes, antique amplifiers and loudspeakers of the M.Gandhi era. With the proper NRI funding, we are going to eradicate all mention of Sangeetha Ratnakara: this text does not mention the necessity for a vocalist to use a traditional electronic shruti box. Instead, it describes too many harmful practices that can help a vocalist develop a strong voice that would undermine the business of our traditional microphone manufacturers.”

Secrets of Lasya and Abhinaya. Divyatha Arun: a lonely bright star among the mediocre K.J.Sarasa’s Bharatanatyam students? Bharata natyam careers.

After watching 20 or so of her mostly mediocre or outright bad students in the past few years, the only thing that urged me to go and see her programme was the picture of her dancing with Shanmugha, K.J.Sarasa’s senior assistant, that my daughter discovered in The Hindu last year. “If he was dancing with her, she should be really good”, she exclaimed. And she was right!

Shanmugha understands very well who is good and who is not so. His schoolmate’s – Jayalalitha’s – government awarded him with a title in 2000 🙂 K.J.Sarasa has a lot of political connections in both parties, so if you need a government or other title, go and join her school, pay your fees, show a bit of sychophancy and the title is yours. 🙂

It was not a surprise that the mediocre dancer, Subanjali Sadgurudas, who danced (very primitive choreography) before Divyatha, had the mini hall of NGS fully packed with the social circles of her gurus, the Narasimhacharis. The senile voice of the Narasimhachari was probably not too inspiring. Vasantha looked at him as if he was a senile idiot. He did look so. How can Vasantha Narasimhachari look like as if she were his daughter??? What is the secret of her youthfulness? 🙂

Less than 50 people watched Divyatha. The better the dancer, the fewer the rasikas? 🙂

As soon as Divyatha started, I realized, “Aha, now we are watching some serious choreography!” Usually Sarasa’s students dance some simple (boring!) pieces, but this time it looked really complex. In most, if not in all, schools, some items are for beginners, some for the middle level, and some are for the advanced, so you can very easily tell if the dancer is “advanced” or not. Divyatha is very advanced, and has already opened her own Bharatanatyam school in Coimbatore.

Divyatha will impress you at once with her elegance, her perfect araimandi and excellent angasuddhi. I noticed that some dancers do not have this ability to capture instantly their rasika’s minds. Divyatha has a pretty face, perfect figure and is extremely agile, and fully performed every pose, very sculpturesque! Although as far as flexibility goes she could not fully bend (for example, while lifting her leg) in a couple of instances, but even then it was not as bad as Ranjani Murthy‘s awkward stiffness. (Unfortunately, lately, Divyatha’s dance looked more and more like a male Kalakshetra dancer… 😦 )

I think that from her guru’s point of view, Divyatha’s technique was very good. This girl had an excellent control over her body, and her steps are very crisp and her laya is superb. Her poses were so excellent because she carved them in her mind and only then let her body assume them. This mental “pre-shaping” is a sign of mastery. She bent her torso effortlessly, swiftly and fully in every direction!

She also displayed a mastery over the dancing space too: even though NGS’s mini hall provides the dancer with hardly 9 sq metres of floor, she used this limited space remarkably well. I think it shows her experience. Very few dancers can do it.

She stooped a few times in a Nataraja-like pose, arching her back – have you ever seen such a pose? Curious… Sleeping Nataraja? Still I was a bit surprised that she lifted her arms stiffly upwards (in Kuttadavu), in a clumsy way, and occasionally she did not complete the left turn fully, unlike the right turn (again in Kuttadavu). Is it Kalakshetra, or what??? 😦

My friend V.R.D. told me that K.J.Sarasa’s students, even the girls, are notoriously bad at mukha abhinaya. Primarily, they lack the expressiveness, the richness, the depth and the subtle details. For example, although both the girls’ schools are formally “Vazhuvoor”, Krupa Rajul Shah in her depiction of the Vamana avatara’s episode was far more subtle, deep, delicate and detailed, and her expressions changed each other much more seamlessly (seen very well in the portrayal of Bali).

It is interesting that both the girls’ interpretation of the Vamana story was so different from the classics. In the original story, we are told that Vamana put his third leg on Bali himself and crushed Bali to the nether or the Patala loka(underground world), thus helping the Gods out. In Divyatha’s and Krupa’s depiction, we see Bali taking off his crown in amazement and adoration of Vamana, and then Vamana blesses him with his foot gently! Wow! Bali is transformed and his life saved! 🙂

Portraying asuras are an interesting area where most dancers fail miserably. While it is easy to show a rakshasa, it is hard to depict an asura. Asuras, in their outward appearance, manners, and behaviour are often indistinguishable from the avatars. The difference is very subtle, and frankly speaking, I have not seen a single dancer who has succeeded perfectly in this kind of depiction. Dancers are so shallow nowadays! Cheap!

Divyatha should read the dice game story, meditate, and understand that Sakuni’s expressions and reactions did not look like a cherri boy’s from Chennai! And Yudhishtira was perhaps more noble, self-contained and refined than what Divyatha showed us. As we do not see any living (real) high-ranking kshatriya’s in the cherri-dominated Madras of Kali Yuga, the dancers’ imagination (and the purity of mind) is the only source for their depictions. But why then portray Bali as if he was a saint???

Ok, Dussasana did treat Draupadi in a rough way, but I am not sure Draupadi felt and behaved in that way. Draupadi was a highly noble woman, she did not behave in a hysterical manner perhaps… Well…

There were 2 typical errors that took away from the perfection of Divyatha ‘s mukha abhinaya. One was the screwing of eyes, and the other error was the smile’s sudden fluctuations (jitters) when the corners of the mouth move unexpectedly down and then suddenly up again and then down and then up. As if the dancer was unsure of whether to smile or not to smile! Divyatha was not as bad here as Urmila Sathyanarayanan and her students. When Urmila is dancing, she demonstrates, “Hey, am I not funny: now I can smile, you see? Now I don’t. You see?” Very coquettish. It is as if the dancer shows that she is not serious at all. The rasikas get the impression, “Huh! This girl is not for real: she is just pretending!”

Divyatha should understand that a smile is when your mouth’s corners are up, not down! Don’t you get a funny impression when you see someone’s lower lip move over the upper teeth? 🙂 Or when the lower jaw moves slightly back? 🙂 Occasionally, this is what this girl did.

Both Divyatha and Krupa were brilliant at conveying the supreme power of the Vamana; Divyatha was superb too in the prayer pose when the song dwelled on invoking Krishna… Krishna… Krishna… Divyatha’s soul is stern, and its power is quite concentrated. She actually understands tapasya more than self-surrender. Unlike most women. Divyatha’s voice is very powerful and vibrant like Arjuna’s voice on Kurukshetra, but I would prefer that it should be more tender, sweet, mellow and warm.

Krupa could learn from Divyatha the lasya ways in angika abhinaya and nrittas. Lasya is much more demanding. From a purely physical point of view, it implies moving not only with a wide range of speeds but, most importantly, a wide range of accelerations (Chitra Visveswaran’s students try to do it to some extent). It is a wide range of accelerations and decelerations that brings out the depth of the angika abhinaya and makes your ntritta intricate and graceful and captivating and professional. Without a wide range of accelerations, you will look like a primitive American robot dancing or doing aerobics. These accelerations lend life and emotional hues to every body movement. And this is what made Divyadha’s angika abhinaya and nrittas so vibrant and graceful.

Perhaps Divyadha can learn some abhinaya from Vani Nagarajan? 🙂 After all, Vani’s mind is not focussed on medical studies. 🙂 And Vani is much less inhibited. Sarasa, like a bad tailor, thinks that everyone’s clothes have to be stitched like a one-size-fit-all uniform: without measuring the poor client’s body.

Sarasa has not had the time yet to pull the ready-made clothes of the wrong size onto the little Vani. Vani does not understand that, in the future, she will be expected to lie a lot and wriggle her face while uttering heaps of flattery for the cherri VIP’s in order to get “opportunities to perform”, titles, and to “succeed in the Bharatanatyam career”. Our life’s experiences leave a deep imprint on our faces. Our disappointments, sufferings, tragedies… This creates a crust, or a shell, through which an adult dancer’s soul’s light cannot penetrate. When I first saw this shell, I was shocked. Very unpleasant.

Divyadha appeared to be preoccupied with one thought, “What impression am I making on the rasikas?” If you look at the dancer after the performance, it is very common to see the dancer’s face displaying 1000 more expressions than they do on the stage. Why do the dancers restrict their expressiveness so much? Because the guru tells them, “You have to do only like this”, “This expression is a mistake”, “That expression is wrong”. This over-correcting suppresses the dancer’s spontaneity and creativity. The Hindu says about Anita Sivaraman, “Srikanth has imparted the aesthetics of the dance style to Anita without curbing her innate enthusiasm.” Anita is lucky that her gurus do not “curb” her individual ways of expressing herself! Unfortunately, most of the gurus are too restrictive (some even introduce it as qualitative abhinayam!), and some gurus (pisacha type) even take delight in killing their student’s expressiveness. They feed on their students’ vital energy. Don’t allow them access to any children or students, and they will die in a week’s time. These people only look human. Two legs, two arms…

“Bharatanatyam careers”!

While she has visibly improved from the last year, I wonder how she manages her medical career. Jyotsna Jagannathan was very happy when she was able to finally – after her marriage – renounce her doctor’s job (still keeping the “Dr.” in her invitations). Jyotsna Jagannathan‘s soul’s urge prevailed over her rational mind’s choices. What about Divyatha?

She proudly announces her MBBS. But…. If you break your leg, would you choose to be treated by a surgeon who tries to impress you by telling you that she is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer who works full time as a software engineer who got a Master’s degree in psychology, and that she dedicates all of her free time to playing cricket on a professional level????

Would you like your house to be constructed by an architect who tries to impress you by saying that he has a PhD. in zoology, M.A. in Greek philosophy, Diploma in acupuncture, and has authored many books on Carnatic music??? It is an unpleasant surprise that most highly talented Bharatanatyam dancers think that Bharatanatyam is merely a “timepass”, or an expensive hobby – like golf! Divyatha is of course quite stupid and very young. Let us hope she grows wiser, like Jyotsna did. 🙂

As Natya Shastra states the qualities required of a female dancer narthaki, “Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four (!!!) arts and crafts (kala)… are known as female dancers (narthaki)” . 64!!!

How can anybody nowadays dare call herself “a classical danseuse”? We are sure medicine, business administration or computer science or sewage management are not among these 64 subjects. These 64 subjects (such as the vocal and instrumental music, etc) are related to natya, and enhance the dancer’s performance. We are pretty sure that, had anyone learnt these 64 arts and crafts, she would be making much more money today than a doctor, business manager or a software engineer!