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.
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,
- 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. 🙂
“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.
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.
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.
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.