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

Bharatanatyam competitions, Concern India and political correctness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group performances hardly had to do anything with Bharatanatyam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narthaki.com ‘s editor attached Saatvika’s comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Vazhuvoor” styles of Bharatanatyam and the magic of abhinaya

Madhula…

I was surprised to see among the 50-strong audience many Bharatanatyam VIP’s, “senior” gurus, critics and young top-notch dancers (and hardly any “ordinary” rasikas!) assembled in the ahe previous performance that K.M.D.Madhula did at the “Spirit of Youth” in the Music Academy, she had to dance even though she had a fever and had had only a few days for rehearsal, as the Academy sent her the “happy news”Β  only a few days before! The funniest thing is that Madhula did not even know that this festival was actually a competition. (It was part of a brilliant political manoeuvre by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, the Music Academy’s committee member (!), who realized her plan of making her protege, Swetha Vijayaraghavan, the winner of the “Spirit of Youth” competition-festival. Long live Madras politicians! πŸ™‚

This time K.M.D.Madhula was in excellent shape, and every move was well-rehearsed (she complained after the programme that she had to put so much of hard work into this success! πŸ™‚ ) This is the girl who looks absolutely beautiful with or without makeup, and every woman on earth envies her. Have I seen anyone else like her? Hmmmm…. Smitha Madhav’s beauty is more mature and her expressions and movements are not so refined (got worse after her tour in the US, though), while Madhula looks like a 12-year-old girl and her expressions are as pure and delicate as of a little child’s! So elevating, and so inspiring!

Good genes? She moves so gracefully and completes every move. Supple! She has amazing stamina (she announced every item herself, and was never short of breath immediately – even after the varnam!), can be very fast, and she can do the slow passages too. Any shortcomings? Well….. When she got a bit tired, her feet in jatis were spread a bit too far apart, and sometimes she did not sit low enough.

There is one unique thing about Madhula, and this is her eyebrow movements in her abhinaya. Her eyebrow not only move totally independently, but every little section of each eyebrow seems to respond individually every moment to every change of music. Madhula can move her eyebrows in all imaginable and unimaginable ways, and she does it so well that one can only exclaim, “It is natural! You cannot learn it!”. Yes, you can. Without a full control over the eyebrows, the dancer will lose a major part of that captivating magic that most of us can only dream of doing.

I think Madhula’s mother and guru, Amudha Dandayudahpani of Coimbatore’s largest (thanks to Madhula too?) Bharatanatyam school, was determined that she would give birth to a girl who would excel in Bharatanatyam. Perhaps some other women, like Revathy Ramachandran, had this determination too – it has nothing to do with the “hereditary” genes. How little do men’s wishes matter when it comes to choosing what soul is going to be embodied in a particular body! πŸ™‚

Amudha ‘s choreography, although not too rich in terms of variety of elements, is very interesting too (one of the seniormost disciples of Ramaiah Pillai was not happy about a couple of things, though). Madhula dances so well that every moment her body does 1000 extremely complex and elaborate movements (she is very flexible in every joint) that enabled Madhula to have a perfect laya and compensated for any perceived simplicity of choreography. Amudha’s nattuvangam was not flawless, according to the Music College nattuvangam teacher who stood up after the first item and rushed to watch Jyotsna Jagannathan in Sivagami Petachi Auditorium. Well, did many other people care to notice it if Madhula danced so well???

I hope the charismatic Jyotsna does not curse me for not attending another of her recitals, but it was a Vazhuvoor day in Mypalore that Sunday. At the same time (why do they do it???): Madhula’s, Jyotsna’s and Srithika Kasturirangan‘s performances! A very difficult choice for most rasikas! The three stars competing with each other πŸ™‚ You would never believe that all these three dancers are of… “Vazhuvoor” style! Which Vazhuvoor, eh???? πŸ™‚

“Madhula is my friend”, said (with admiration and love in his eyes! πŸ™‚ Shanmuga Sundaram, a seniormost assistant of K.J.Sarasa of Vazhuvoor style. “Madhula is my friend”, said Devi Ghanshyam Das. Devi became the number one among Lakshmi Ramaswamy’s (seniormost student of Chitra Visweswaran, one of the well-known Vazhuvoor style gurus) students after Roshini Rajamohan regrettably lost her shape a year ago. Devi Ghanshyam Das recently released her DVD video (you can see a piece of it on YouTube), which is one of the best one I have watched!

While Chitra Visweswaran’s girls (except, perhaps, for Vijay Madhavan’s Sri Gayathri) dance only in skirts that severely restrict the leg movements so that the “dance” is more like walking or running around the stage, Madhula in her elegant pyjama costume was moving her legs effortlessly, powerfully and effectively in all directions, making a great impression! I think it impressed even V.P.Dhananjayan, a Kalakshetra-style guru, who came and was waiting to do the second slot’s recital. Did V.P.Dhananjayan appreciate the graceful charm and fluidity of the Vazhuvoor school? πŸ™‚ No, he likes the simpler lines of the Italian ballet more. And the grotesque Kathakali abhinaya that is suitable for watching only from 1 km away.

But then, Madhula was fantastic even she did a piece portraying the fierce nature of goddess Kali: everything, her amazingly expressive face (she even put out her tongue), the sharp moves full of power, her acute sense of rhythm, brought out Kali so vividly that I could not take my eyes off her! While one of the typical errors that plagues the professional dancers is what we can call the “mechanical mudras“, when they do it automatically, Madhula was doing each mudra and hastha accurately and put her consciousness into every finger’s move. A mudra cannot be powerful unless we do it consciously! This consciousness was one of the hallmarks of Madhula’s recital. Without it, every American robot can dance “Bharatanatyam”.

Madhula got a Master’s degree in Bharatanatyam in Chennai. I do not know why she needed that useless degree! She is much better at Bharata natyam than her university phoney “Bharatanatyam” “professors” who do not have any degree! (I will ask Chitra Visweswaran if Ramaiah Pillai had any “degree” in Bharatanatyam!). Madhula’s mom was not entirely happy with the side effects of this “academics”: the Kalakshetra stamp. A few months ago Amudha said, “I promise that by winter I will make her unlearn all the stupid Kalakshetra trash that she learnt in Chennai”. And she did keep her promise. Fortunately! πŸ™‚

Girija Ramaswamy was again at her best, singing with powerful yet not hysterical emotions (why does Alarmel Valli keep her hysterical vocalist?) that flow from the depth of her heart, filled with profound bhavas. Girija is one of my favourite masters. Her delicate voice brings out the subtle nuances of the lyrics, and it is full of Bhakti!