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.

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Bharatanatyam competitions: compare these 3 and learn how to win !

Bharatanatyam competition…

Have you read our article on judging Bharatanatyam performances? 🙂

Everybody nowadays seems to be hunting after titles, awards and prizes. While Anita Ratnam describes how politics works on the “senior” level, it is much simpler with the junior dancers. Any dancer from Chennai can get a worthless title of ‘Singar Mani’ whenever she cares to apply for a “competition” in a cultural Sahara Desert (of Mumbai) where 5 hand-picked contestants compete for 3 titles.

What about the capital of Bharatanatyam, Chennai?

Narthaki recently published a very in-depth Review “Bharatanatyam competitions of Natyarangam in Chennai”. It did not cover the 3rd category (professionals in the 18-25 age range), so we added a brief description of it below.

Some of the junior participants came for all competitions, including the crappy TTD competition too (where you cannot win a prize unless the theme is about Vishnu’s avatars or the related like Anjaneya, etc) on 27 July (thanks N. for her report that we have just received!).

It is interesting to compare it with another competition conducted a week ago by the Music Connoiseurs Club (MCC) (another of our contributors, K., was kind enough to send a brief outline of what was happening there).

There were over 150 contestants at the “no limits” Music Connoiseurs Club’s competition. There were less than 50 at the TTD, where a third of the contestants were… between 5 and 8 years old, the age when the kids cannot even walk properly, leave alone understand the lyrics! The other age groups were 9-12 and 13-17. Not for adults. The privilege of performing the first in each category was given to the students of Anita Guha, whose dance school is across the road from the TTD. Mr.Srinivasan, the TTD representative, said to K., “Yes, I give preference to Anita’s, and this is none of your ****** business”.

Does the number of contestants speak about the prestige of a particular competition?

Not just the number: very few schools sent their best dancers for the TTD competition. Among them were Yamini Devi (Gopinath’s student), R.Archana (Vani Gayatri’s), S.Nikita (Divyasena’s), Shafali, Kavya, Rohini and Shivatmika (these 4 as well as a few more are Anita Guha’s) and S.Sahana (Sikkil Vasantha Kumari’s).

Music Connoiseurs Club’s competition had to split the participants into 5 groups, and were holding the competition in 2 groups simultaneously – in 2 different halls. Well, to be precise, one “hall” was a generous 2.5 x 2.5 metres of a corridor in the PSBB school in Mandavelli. While this tiny space was enough for the smallest kids, the 13-15 year olds found it too small to dance there. 😦 The Dakshinamurthy Auditorium, in the same compound of the PSBB school, was empty at the time.

The TTD offered the dancers a similar “generous” 4 x 2 metres of slippery space. The judges were seated not in front of the stage but… at the side. Very innovative! Since TTD is a church whose business depends on how many people attend their functions, they made the parents of the contestants wait for the announcement of the winners from 5 till 8.30 inside the hall (to rescue by their presence the poorly attended “religious” function)

Winners

We do not understand why the TTD representative announced that the chief guests at the competition were… the chief of Chennai police and the chief of the Airports Authority of India. The dancers were neither criminals nor did they want to fly aircraft. It took a record 7 hours for the TTD to announce the winners (obviously, after strong, behind-the-scene, political debates between the chief policeman and the chief Airport authority). TTD’s Mr.Srinivasan said to K., “If Natya Shastra lays down the criteria of who can be a chief guest, I must tell you that I don’t care. TTD does not follow any shastras. TTD is a religious ogranization that is guided in its mission not by the Hindu scriptures but by the latest circulars issued by the atheist business and political community“.

The results of the Natyarangam and the MCC’s competitions were available immediately (within 15 minutes after the end). The reasons were very simple. For example, to keep some visibility of decency , Natyarangam’s Sujatha Vijayaraghavan specifically asked the parents and the gurus not to come and speak to the judges (Natyarangam members were exempt from such an exception, for some reason) while those were tallying their scores (and swearing loudly, we guess!). All the tallying at the MCC was done in the PS school’s corridor, in the open view of a few participants who were still present there.

Ramya Sudarshan (a student of Latha Ravi) got the 1st prize at the MCC competition in the seniormost category, where she was perhaps – at the most – very marginally better (the choice of item was perhaps a bit more interesting) than Suvasani Kannan who got the second prize at the MCC. The agile and expressive Jyoti, the best student of Chitra Subramani, did not get any prizes at the MCC, even though she danced very well. The two boys who came were not able to dance at all, which annoyed the judges, Madurai Muralidharan and the other judge, so much that they took pains (the judges rarely do it) to explain to one of those useless guys his uselessness and teach him a lesson right in front of the other contestants.

The winner of Natyarangam’s senior group (18-25) competition’s 1st prize was Suvasani K. The second went to S.K.Lavanya, a student of Sasirekha Rammohan (who did not send her charming Sheha Ramachandran to the varnam category). Mamta Rao and Anaga Bharath, who used to be very good, this time were below the high expectations and above a normal weight. 😦 V.M.Supriya and Madhurika were even worse, but not as bad as Yashini Shankari, Gayathri Vaidyanathan, Vishambara and Srividya Manikandan (these were total cows!). The overweight and clumsy dancers had to swallow a bitter pill: the 2 slimmest and most agile contestants were at the top of Natyarangam’s competition in the senior category.S.Sairam proved that men are no match for women as far as Bharatanatyam goes. Why didn’t such far better male dancers as S.Krishnan (of Ritanjali School Of Arts) care to participate?

Curiously, some students remain some of the strongest prize-hunters (and are among the most visible on the Internet!):

  • the 1st prize at MCC in the 13-15 y.o. group was given to Varsha Uma Balabharathy;
  • the 1st prize at MCC in the 10-12 y.o. group was given to a previously unknown Sandhya Ramesh;
  • the 2nd prize at MCC in the 8-10 y.o. group went to Mridula Sivakumar

We have just received an angry comment (we quote a moderated piece of it, removing the nonsense and grammatical errors 🙂 and insert it here instead of letting it get attached at the bottom of this lengthy review) from Anusha Gopalakrishnan of Chennai:

“It’s not fair and very demoralizing for the other schools’ students to read this blog’s entry stressing the rising virtual monopoly in the Bharathanatyam competitions field since another big school, Bharathanjali, regrettably lost its stature a couple of years back. I fully support Natyarangam’s policy that the big schools must not be allowed to usurp all dance competitions by sending more than 1 contestant.

How harmful it is? In the past 1.5 months there have been 5 dance competitions in Chennai. In your review you write about 3 competitions, but do not mention that SN’s dancers, Uma Ramachandran and Shravanthi, were the winners at the other 2 Bharatanatyam competitions that took place the day before the Music Connoisseurs Club’s competition. These competitions were
A) Chennai district’s competition of National Bala Bhavan, and
B)
Chennai district’s competition of the BSNL Cultural & Sports Wing

If 2 competitions happen on the same day, how can a smaller school find the number of strong contestants to match the big schools’ dancers?

We strongly protest against such practices and will seek the abolition of such judgment parameters as choreographic quality and music quality. It is not fair if SN dancers win because they demonstrate better choreography and can afford to bring studio-recorded music!”

Hmmm… Arul writes that

a piece and how it is performed are two different things. I mean, you can have a brilliant dancer perform a mediocre piece. And you can have a fairly good dancer perform a piece that is a great composition.

The tiny 16-18 y.o. group at MCC had hardly any contestants at all (they are all busy with their 12th Standards and entrance exams!!!). The most impressive was Madurai Muralidharan’s H.Ranjini, even though she forgot that some steps have to be done with both feet, not just with one! 🙂

3 competitions: different approaches and different results! 🙂

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Competitions are merely an external motivational factor. The dancers want to achieve success with some degree of success in competition with others. The dancers with poor motivation experience relief that they have avoided a failure. They do not enjoy or seek feedback.

The intrinsically motivated dancer will
1. prefer challenging tasks
2. respond with effort and persistence after failure
3. be creative and expressive
4. have a high self-esteem

The achievers, thus, establish very difficult but realistic goals and actively pursue them, even take some risks. They experience intense satisfaction from success, and maybe pride. If they feel they have tried their best, they are not bothered by failure. They prefer tasks that have clear outcome. They prefer to receive a harsh feedback from a competent critic than from someone who is friendlier but less competent. They like to struggle with a problem than seek help.

Women are more interested in goals that relate to social interaction. Women are more likely to feel good about their interpersonal skills than concrete achievements. Men who succeed believe they have done so by virtue of their abilities, while women believe they have been lucky.

********************************************************************
Although, unlike Sangeetha, I do not really like the idea of being a merely re-poster of some stuff found elsewhere, I will nevertheless incorporate this review (“Bharatanatyam competitions of Natyarangam in Chennai”) here – with our (indented and bold) comments, of course!!! 🙂

———————————————————————————————-
Contrary to the announcement published in Kutcheribuzz stating that the number of participants in each category would be limited to 20, in reality there was no limit in the Jatiswaram category. After the number of applications reached 42 in the varnam category, Natyarangam decided to cap the number of applications on a “one student per guru” basis, which reduced the number of the eligible candidates to 25, 4 of whom did not turn up. Perhaps, the democratic and egalistic “one student per guru” basis implied that the “Best guru” type awards are of no consideration.

June 14: Jatiswaram competition for children of 8 to 12 years

The judges, Ganga Thampi, Lavanya Ananth and Rupa Srikanth were introduced according to their height: from the taller to the shorter, probably with a compromise that the last one to be introduced will be the first one to announce the winners. The first prize winner, S Nikita is indeed a good dancer.

The fuzzy video clip that she posted on does not show her best. K. wrote that Nikita (a student of Divyasena) was far more impressive at the TTD competition, her nrittas were crisp, her abhinayas expressive and the footwork neat.

It was not particularly surprising to hear that Rohini, a student of Anitha Guha, got the second prize. According to another contestant, who studies in the same PSBB school in KK Nagar, Rohini was the best one of the 4 dancers. “Rohini is the best dancer in our dance school,” was the comment from another dancer, A J Subashree.

Rohini Rammohan took part both in the MCC and the TTD competitions, where she was not particularly impressive in the nritta part.

Interestingly, the first and the second prize winners were among the first 4 performers out of 28. I remembered my mother always told me, “At any oral exam, you should try to go in first: normally, you will have some advantage.” Rupa Srikanth praised the “surprisingly” high level of mastery of the contestants. Perhaps, the judges were so impressed at the very beginning, that they were marginally more favourable to the first few performers. To avoid such surprises, Rupa Srikanth could ask the Friday Review’s publishers to include the reviews of the younger performers more often: the children deserve it, and need it more than the senior dancers.

The contestants

“All the participants today deserve the first prize,” announced Rupa Srikanth. The little girls’ ears drooped as they heard this politically correct but incredible statement. Their eyes turned to their parents, begging for an explanation, probably perplexed how on earth Nikita and Rohini could be overall better than A J Subashree, Mridula, Ratna Ramesh, K V Shivatmika, or Vinisha Karthiravan.

K V Shivatmika proved to be quite mediocre at the TTD competition.

When I asked a few of them if they would agree with the judges’ decision, these outrageously candid little girls were unanimous: NO. Their eyes were very sad. I felt a bit uneasy and thought that, instead of advertising their workshops, Natyarangam could instead have provided a feedback session where the judges would explain to the contestants their marks and point out the dancers’ strengths and weaknesses. That is, if the judges made any notes. Otherwise, when the participants are not convinced by the authoritative judges’ verdict, what is the value of such authoritativeness from the contestants’ point of view?

“They are too young to understand the nuances of the technique and assess their performance objectively,” said a Natyarangam’s committee member. “Well, they are old enough to understand who dances better and who dances worse,” objected another spectator. Indeed, while some of the contestants made the crowd turn quiet, other contestants made their spectators turn their heads away from the stage and indulge in light gossip. Why would that adult-looking contestant eagerly take out her Handycam as soon as Mridula came onto the stage?

This is Mridula Sivakumar who got the second prize at the MCC competition. The first prize went to Kavya (Anitha Guha’s unusually fat and clumsy student who has reasonably decent abhinaya though :).
This is Mridula 2 years ago, I guess:

Why didn’t she want to shoot B M Akshaya Lakshmi? Why did another girl take out her mobile phone and was recording Subashree’s performance and was not particularly interested to watch K Vaishali?

I was wondering if, next year, the Natyarangam’s judges are going to be embarrassed in the same way as at some incidents at Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festivals where 5-6 contestants, who had obtained the video of the previous year’s winner’s item, had the impudence to perform this same item with the identical choreography.

Comment:
You are going to hear more about scandals at the Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festival’s competitions.

In the absence of Natyarangam’s archived videotaped records, it would be impossible for a contestant to prove the copyright of the original choreography.

The judges indeed had a very hard job selecting the top 2 contestants. While such contestants as A J Subashree, Mridula, Ratna Ramesh, K V Shivatmika, Vinisha Karthiravan, or perhaps even R Abhinaya and E Aishwarya Lakshmi were surely not worse than the first two prize winners, there were others, such as B M Akshaya, Y K Aishwarya or Shwetha Mahalakshmi, who were clearly far behind the other contestants. Rupa Srikanth mentioned the names of Shafali and R Ananditha as the ones who could have won the prizes too. While the petite charismatic Shafali surely deserves it fully, Ananditha, like H Shreya or Akshita, could only marginally be included in the first league.

Shafali did not win any competition’s prizes for one simple reason (her guru’s approach): she has only 1 expression on her face.

Yamini Devi, Gopinath’s student, was nearly as impressive as Subashree.

Criteria and marking

Some of the parents said they had an impression that the individual judges’ marks are to remain a big secret and would never be disclosed to the contestants. Perhaps, they did not want to embarrass the judges asking to substantiate their marks. Otherwise, the vague general statements do not always sound very convincing. The judges were to divide the “Angasuddhi” criteria into 2 sub-criteria: “General” and “Hands.” Well, I had always thought that angasuddhi included the overall co-ordination and synchronization of the hands with the rest of the body. The judgment criteria included a cryptic “Presentation & package” column, which seems to cover the make-up, costume, choice and quality of the recorded music, complexity and originality of choreography, and god knows what else. Another criteria was “Grace.” I assume it referred to Rekha.

Wrong: “Grace” means “Anga-Madhurya” and is related to “Lalita”.

Curiously, “Grace” is the term that I don’t remember Rupa Srikanth using in her reviews of the senior dancers’ performances. What about the term Angasuddhi? You will not find it even with a microscope. One may wonder then why the “Bharatanatyam recitals” that totally lack both Angasuddhi and Grace somehow manage to be reviewed in the Friday Reviews. Perhaps, the senior dancers thing, “After all, who reads Abhinayadarpanam or Natya Shastra today? Who cares about what is written there? Who knows that the dancer, according to Abhinayadarpanam, must be youthful, slender, beautiful? How many little dancers’ parents or even gurus know what is “Javaha”, “Rekha”, “Sthirathvam” or “Drishti”?”

It occurred to me that when Rupa Srikanth said the the little girls displayed a surprisingly high mastery, she could mean that none of the elderly dancers who occupy the Friday Review’s pages can dance Jatishwaram so well anymore. Perhaps, as Mukundagiri Sadagopan suggested in his letter published in Kutcheribuzz, Rupa could re-qualify the senior Bharatanatyam dancers as Katha Kalakshepam exponents?

While many of the girls displayed remarkably vivid, graceful, varied and genuine facial expressions at their nrittas, yet it appears that abhinaya was not counted, leave alone such time-proven criteria as Javaha or Drishti.

Promotional value?

Natyarangam gives the winners an opportunity to perform in Narada Gana Sabha’s mini hall – as a talent promotion.

Well, this time the fraudsters from Natyarangam cheated the winners: neither Nikitha nor Rohini were given a slot to perform!

But what is the value of such a promotion? A disappointed parent said, “It is not a problem for 2 dancers to pay the rent of the mini hall for 3 hours and give performances: the orchestra fees are much higher than the rent, anyway. What matters to us is how many people will come and watch these performances”.
The opportunity to perform is still considered as the key element in promoting young dancers. However, if 90% of the (normally scanty) audience who come and watch such performances include the dancer’s relatives, friends, schoolmates, parents’ colleagues and neighbours, what is the promotional value of such an opportunity? “You see, my 8-year-old daughter’s Bharatanatyam video we uploaded on the Internet a year ago has been receiving more than 5000 views a month,” smiled one parent. “How does it compare with 50-strong audience at a Natyarangam’s program?” she asked. One of the top contestants’ father, when asked if they can imagine Natyarangam posting the video of the competition on the Internet, commented, “It would be great! I am sure it would support and re-assert the judges’ authority too, as they were up to the mark today.”

June 15: Varnam competition for children of 13 to 18 years

While the Jatiswaram competition gave the contestants 5 minutes, the Varnam offered 7. And the judges were Priya Murle, Manjari and Sujatha Srinivasan. The contestants in this category too had no idea of what the judgment criteria were here. Just as it was the case with the Jatiswaram competition, in the Varnam category too, the winner was the first dancer who danced far better than the few preceding dancers. It seems that it is not only the level of the dancer’s performance but the order of the contestants that determines the winner. Few were watching Rahij Ramsharan’s dance. Next, you could see much higher standards in V Kripalakshmi’s performance, if it were not for her fixed smile and arms bending to 230 degrees when there should have been 180. R Keertana was marginally less impressive, and V Soundarya demonstrated that a girl doing nritta in a tandava style and making a thousands of shortcuts may not look particularly impressive. The next was R Reshma Krishnan’s slot, where she demonstrated very good nritta and overall danced somewhat better than the previous contestant.

The winners

And next…. was the winner: S.Sahana. While her nritta was abundant, in rather simple, straight lines, I bet she had rehearsed this fragment so well that every move was chiseled and had a professional-looking finish, the moves were absolutely crisp, and everything looked absolutely perfect, including her abhinaya. She was a head above all the previous contestants. No wonder she impressed the judges.

Sahana (a student of Sikkil Vasantha Kumari) has, first of all, 10 times more colors in her palette of abhinaya than most other contestants. Sahana was the only dancer with a “live”, rich, exuberant and bubbly abhinaya at the TTD competition’s seniormost (13-18) group.

Next was the second prize winner, Jai Quaheni. Even though her nritta movements were very limited and quite simple, each of these movements were very well polished.

Jai Quaheni won the 2nd prize at the MCC competition too. As for the the Natyarangam competition…. Well, Jai Quaheni is Chitra Visveswaran’s student, so the Natyarangam competition’s judges did not want to disappoint the VIP… Chitra Visveswaran was the guru under whom Sujatha Srinivasan had her arangetram. Any more questions?

And, thanks to Uma Nambudiripad’s tuition, Jai Quaheni’s abhinaya was powerful, profound, realistic and convincing. Sudharma Vaidyanathan shared the first prize with S Sahana. Sudharma won Natyarangam’s last year’s Jatiswaram, and has grown one year older.

For those who don’t know the undercurrents, Sudharma is the daughter of Chella who does all videography for… the above-mentioned judges. In addition, A.Lakshman is a close associate of Priya Murle, so she could not… You know!

Despite the fact that she underwent a surgery half a year ago, she was in excellent shape and the way she performed was very similar to S Sahana’s. Sudharma had one big advantage: even though her nrittas and nrityas were not particularly intricate, nevertheless the jathis that she started with, created by A Lakshman, were composed in a very original way, and the audio, obviously recorded at a studio, was very original too: an intricate combination for solo passages for nattuvangam, mridangam, sollukattu – and the pauses that caught the spectators’ (and the judges’) attention.

Most (stupid) dancers do not understand the importance of good music!

The would-be winners

The judges mentioned Swathi Ashok and Medha Hari as the contestants who could potentially have won the prizes. In fact, Jai Quaheni and a few other contestants too thought these two were going to win the prizes. So, why didn’t they? Swathi Ashok had the greatest stage presence and the most accentuated and powerful movements among all the other participants. Swathi Ashok’s guru, Urmila Sathyanarayanan (the other contestants’ gurus did not turn up), was sitting in the last row and perhaps could not see well what the judges noticed very clearly: that young Swathi’s abhinaya was quite superficial, quite artificial and rather unconvincing. The older Medha Hari’s performance displayed this shortcoming too, though it was not as obvious.

For those who do not know the ubiquitous Medha Hari, I suggest to compare 2 sets of her video clips on YouTube: the ones of 2002 and the ones of 2006 (you’d better get her DVDs). See the difference and the effect of the infamous “clone molding” she got at Bharathanjali.

A recent review of Medha Hari’s performance on ChennaiOnline reads “Her araimandi, attami, mudras needs a special mention as she was just too perfect” while the sad comments are like this:
hi medha! my friends were very impressed at your recital, and nritta especially! but also they expected to see beautiful araimandi lik you had few years back…

Medha Hari’s jathis, for some unknown reason, did not include the ultra-fast and complex nritta that helped her win the first prize at this year’s Indian Fine Arts competition. However, Medha’s movements were clean and clearly defined, while Swathi kept her feet too wide apart in araimandi and could not do atami properly. Another possible runner-up was one of the youngest participants, Harinie Jeevitha, who demonstrated a very original style and the most intricate nrittas and nrityas that, perhaps, needed a larger space than the meager 10 square metres of the mini hall. Her nritta movements still need to be polished to gain some more finish and precision. Harinie’s abhinaya was a bit too strained and overdone. The 13-year-old Harinie did not understand that she was dancing literally under the judges’ noses, hardly 2 metres away from them. The closer the spectator is to the dancer, the greater impact the abhinaya will have.

Natya Shastra says that the judges have to sit 6 metres away, in front (not at the side, like the TTD competition was arranged) of the dancers.

I guess the reasons that Medha Hari and Harinie Jeevitha did not win are simpler: none of the 3 judges appreciated the modern masala style of Medha Hari (on her web site they wrote that the style includes elements of Pandanallur, Vazhuvoor and Kalakshetra, but they are using Sudharani Raghupathi’s jathis, and many Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi elements!), nor were the judges familiar with the standards of the rarer, Melattur style of Harinie Jeevitha (who does it with a lively Kuchipudi flavour).
The lowest common denominator, Kalakshetra, rules! 😦

The rest

The competition was quite tough. S Akshaya’s performance level was very marginally lower than the runner-ups’, followed by Nithya Subrahmaniam. Aparna Jayaram demonstrated a yet lower level of proficiency, followed by Poornima Balasubramaniam, Divya Sanpath (who brought the most horrible and noisy audio tape) and Reshma Krishnan. Shravani Joshi, for some reasons, could not demonstrate as high a standard as she did at last year’s TTD competition. Her movements were very constrained and looked quite weak. N Gayatri and S Ananthashree were quite mediocre but not as bad as C.Tara or the last competitor, who made the tired judges eager to end up the event as soon as possible. Their prayers were answered: neither Aishwarya Raghu, nor Divya Malayappam, nor Nithya Ramasubramaniam, nor Sanath Kumar turned up.

Sanath Kumar was the only boy who came for the MCC and for the TTD competition. He is quite tall and extremely lean, like a broomstick. 🙂 His footwork was reasonably good.

Conclusions

The competition revealed a winning recipe for the top contestants: to win a prize, (1) Be one of the first 5-6 contestants and (2) make sure that, out of these 5-6, the others are the dancers who dance much worse than you do. The prize is yours.

Not quite. You need to select the item that would be suitable for the particular space!

There was indeed a very marginal difference between the top 5-6 contestants in each category. It is the individual judge’s weightage of the various sub-criteria that determined the winners. This weightage is not something that every judge is well aware of. For example, would one dancer’s perfect araimandi and mudras count more than another dancer’s agility and flexibility? What type and tradition of mukha abhinaya would be considered more favourably? Would a wide-range, accurate atami weigh more than the full-range, accurate footwork? Will the adavus performed in one style be given more marks than the adavus performed in another style? Indeed, would a particular judge consider the fully-lifted heels in Kudhitametti’s sixth step as more impressive (and how much more impressive?) than the half-lifted heels? How will it be reflected in numbers? We don’t know.

Had Natyarangam taken pains to print out a few awards for the dancers, such as “Special award for abhinaya,” “Special award for Nritta,” etc., and for the gurus, like “Special award for choreography,” more of the young dancers would receive what they need most: appreciation. It would be conducive to create the atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. The gurus would not complain that the judges’ decision was politically motivated.

It was interesting to observe that some of this year’s 1st prize winners, such as Medha Hari (1st prize at the Indian Fine Arts competition) or Harinie Jeevitha (1st prize at the all-India level competition in Hyderabad) did not win any prizes at Natyarangam’s competition, even though Medha Hari, along with Swathy Ashok, did receive a special mention by the judges. There are many reasons behind it. One of these is that, as we know, every dancer has his /her own favourite item or fragment that he / she performs the best, and it is not necessarily a Jathiswaram or a Varnam. Will Natyarangam hold a Thillana, a Kauthuvam and a Swarajathi competition next year? We don’t know.

The judges highlighted another reason: the children cannot do their best while dancing to the recorded music. While the Indian Fine Arts competition or the Music Academy’s Spirit of Youth provides the dancers ample time, more space and the support of a live orchestra to showcase a few different items that gives the judges a chance to make a comprehensive assessment of a particular contestant’s full range of strengths and weaknesses, a 5-minute fragment from a Jathiswaram or a 7 minute passage from a Varnam in Narada Gana Sabha’s tiny Mini Hall will not give the judges an opportunity to make a well-founded decision. This is why the judges clearly stated, “We are not judging how good a particular dancer is: we are judging today’s performances only.” Will most of the dancers tend to interpret it this way too in the absence of the judges’ specific comments? This is a big question.

Most of the contestants left unconvinced by the judges’ verdict. “I don’t think the judges are willing to explain and substantiate their assessment,” said one participant. Had each of the judges spared 20-30 seconds to comment on every contestant’s performance immediately after it ended, this competition would have not been considered as a waste of time by most of the participants. The absence of such comments and clarifications does not enhance the judges’ authority – on the contrary.

There is one thing that the organizers of almost any Bharatanatyam competition, and even more so the judges, are scared of. They are afraid of exposing the inadequacy of the judgement, and therefore would never even think of recording on video the contestant’s performances, even if these are mere 7-minute fragments from jatishwarams or 12-minute fragments from varnams. Maintaining such video records – even for the internal purposes, locked safely in Natyarangam’s archives – would pose serious risk to the reputation of the judges in case of an appeal, as they do at some Bharatanatyam competitions in Kerala, for instance. Appeal? Not with Natyarangam.

Unlike, for example, some Bharatanatyam competitions at Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festivals, Natyarangam’s competitions envisaged no place for an appeal, as no video records were made and kept in Natyarangam’s archives for internal purposes, allegedly, due to some gurus’ objections. Such objections, though, do not sound particularly valid after a recent slew of TV broadcasts of full programs of full-length Bharatanatyam recitals recorded at various festivals as well as in the TV channel’s own studios.

Thanks to Narada Gana Sabha’s reputation, the competition attracted many young talents from Chennai’s Bharatanatyam schools. It is a pity we saw only 50% of those who applied for the Varnam competition. We don’t know why such potentially strong contestants as Anusha Narendran’s Bhargavi, Shobana’s S Anuroopitha and Shivani Shandiliya, Vijay Madhavan’s S Sri Gayathri, Roja Kannan’s S Sivasri, and many others apparently did not apply at all. Most gurus keep ignoring Natyarangam’s competition. Nevertheless many of the names listed above will determine to a large extent what the Bharatanatyam landscape will be in 10-20 year’s time. Perhaps next year Natyarangam could bring this competition to a higher standard, so that more participants would give it more importance, and fewer of the registered competitors would fail to turn up.

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Sujatha Vijayaraghavan became the Music Academy’s committee member in order to ensure that her own daughter, Swetha Vijayaraghavan, became the winner of the Music Academy’s “Spirit of Youth” festival-competition in 2007. Here is the poll :

Oh, these Bharatanatyam competitions… 🙂

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!

“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”  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! 🙂

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! 🙂 ) 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! 🙂

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 🙂 You would never believe that all these three dancers are of… “Vazhuvoor” style! Which Vazhuvoor, eh???? 🙂

“Madhula is my friend”, said (with admiration and love in his eyes! 🙂 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? 🙂 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! 🙂

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!

Judging Bharatanatyam: good and bad. Contests & competitions. Judges & criteria.

Technically speaking, since “good” and “bad” are relative (“relative” does not mean “subjective”), how well you judge is partly determined by how many performances/styles/dancers you have watched. Or learnt. The most basic (primitive)  style is Kalakshetra as it is shaped after the European ballet’s angular, simplified lines. Several of the London Tamil dance teachers interviewed presented Rukmini Devi’s famous dance school of Kalakshetra as the epitome of authenticity, using Kalakshetra style as criteria to judge standards of Bharatanatyam performance. The Kalakshetra style has the fewest number of elements. Will you find there any talukku, kulukku, alakshyam, midukku,or any decent ottam adavus?

Some weird people, like Vyagrapada and Patanjali, were not at all interested in watching the relative stuff : they wanted to see the absolute and they saw it. Not an easy task, is it?

Ok, back to the relative things.

If you have you read about this Bharatanatyam competition report ,you have probably learnt a lot.

After watching the first 10 performances, your mind will not be able to tell what is Bharatanatyam and what is Kuchipudi.

After watching 20-30 performances, your mind may start to understand vaguely where is the better dancer and where is the worse.

After watching 100 performances, you may come to notice the difference between different Bharatanatyam styles.

After watching 300 performances, you may be able to predict how the dancer is going to perform a particular movement the next moment.

After watching 700 performances, your mind will start appreciating the nuances. Even in an utterly poor and boring recital, you should be able to single out some good points.

After watching 1000 performances, there is a high probability that your judgment will be detailed and quite professional.

After watching 2000, you may consider yourself as a serious judge. 🙂 Someone like Roja Kannan.

After 4000, you may consider yourself an expert. 🙂 Someone like Nandini Ramani.

You may want to read how dance competition between apsaras Urvasi and Rambha was judged. Clearly, it is the control over one’s mind and body that was deemed as paramount in that case.

There is a scientific method of determining how well a judge judges Bharatanatyam, since there are defined criteria. Usually, these include the broad categories, such as nritta, abhinaya. More detailed parameters may be easy to determine, such as Bhramari (balance) or Javaha, or more difficult to define, such as Rekha (one cannot provide a rational definition of what is grace as beauty is above the realm of the rational mind).

The most important question is, what are the different parameters’ weightage in the total score? This is usually a big secret that the judges fear to disclose. Will your laya count more than your abhinaya? Will your charisma or your make-up matter more than your angasuddhi? Will your caste, social status, political connections or your skin colour matter more than your nritta?

In any case, if you want you can make a more or less scientific experiment and see how objectively you judge 1 criteria, for example angasuddhi, do this:

1. Ask someone to prepare for you 30 short (5-10 min) clear videos of the dancers who you have not seen before. Watch them and rate them.

To judge angasuddhi, you have to choose the appropriate pieces where there is a wide range of body movements is involved – obviously you cannot do with just mukha abhinaya passages!) . So your videos should cover both nrittas and angikabhinaya.

Since you are judging angasuddhi, the dancer’s face should not be clear (otherwise, your mind would favour the more beautiful faces, or the types of faces that are associated in your mind with something that you like). Your mind will try to mix in other factors, such as lighting, camerawork, angle of view, costume (your mind prefers certain colours), quality of music, etc. You need to identify all these unrelated factors and make your mind disregard them. Sorry, it involves quite a bit of yoga, doesn’t it?

2. Put the rating paper away for a month or two (the more, the better), and then re-do the procedure. The discrepancy between the old and the new ratings will give you a rough idea of how good your judgment is. If you want to improve the test, let your assistant select the videos where the dancers perform identical pieces.

“Everything is subjective, and your judgment is subjective”, a banana vendor tried to convince me that I should buy his “good” rotten bananas.

Subjectivity arises when people, as it happens in 99.99% cases, do not observe the workings of their mind, and are unaware of their ego (ahamkar), that is the core of all subjectivity and distorts our judgment. By doing yoga, you can detach yourself from your mind, learn how it works, take control of it. It is much more difficult to get rid of ahamkar in our mind. You have to get rid of your likings and dislikings (for example, try to read an utterly boring book from the first page till last, and you will see how much control you have over your mind). There are numerous objective (scientific) methods of determining how well you control your mind.

The Hindu, Rajeswari Sainath… and Uma Namboodripad

The Hindu’s reviews… Nobody knows how the editor decides which performance is to be covered. Yes, the reviews are mostly about Padma Subramaniam, Chitra Visweswaran… Mostly about those who are out of shape and too old to dance, but even some young ones are no better if you look at Rajeswari Sainath’s daughter Vaishnavi who is mostly famous for having her mommy award her the  “Most promising Bharatanatyam talent” title from Times of India, after which her mom sponsored Vaishnavi’s DVD.

Most “non-senior” dancers have no clue about what mesh of political intrigues is involved in the infamous reviews…. and how much it costs to get one. After Nandini Ramani left the newspaper, the reviews’ standards plummeted. The rich co-owner of Giri Trading produces lame Bharatanatyam DVDs (why??) and does not need to work any longer.

“Clear footwork, energy and pleasing rhythmic patterns were the hallmarks of Rajeswari Sainath’s performance”, says Rupa Srikanth in her review, shallow, biassed and amateurish, as usual. Can Rupa see the details at all? Nandini Ramani, dancer and guru herself, should probably train a new generation of journalists with some background in Bharatanatyam.

Rajeswari Sainath

There is a positive improvement in Rajeswari Sainath’s dancing (she released her recent Rangasayee DVD). It is to do not so much with the ratio between mathematics and mime but with the quality of her abhinaya. The dancer usually focusses on her brisk footwork and this preoccupation usually dominates her recitals. But this time there was more balance, although still her mime is not as polished as her sense of rhythm (thanks to her uncle and to Indira Rajan). Although many of her expressions look as artificial as any NRI dancer’s, her main problems are… transitions between one expression and the following one. Rajeshwari, who has already so many titles, would be too proud to take classes from a dancer who is a master of anhinaya at her relatively young age. I am talking about Uma Namboodripad, Chitra Visveswaran’s senior assistant. Uma is the undisputed champion if you look for two things:

  1. depth, variety, spontaneity and power of bhavas
  2. transitions between expressions

The only problem is… Rajeshwari is much older than Uma… 😦 But Rajeshwari (she is 45, isn’t she?) should teach Uma Namboodripad how to maintain the figure and get some strength and stamina and speed. Rajeshwari’s daughter is far behind her mom in every respect. And, Uma, Uma… Even Anita Ratnam got back into a very decent shape with her kalari exercises! Why are our best dancers – for rare exceptions – so lazy??????

Clear footwork, good energy, pleasing rhythmic patterns and a good range of adavus are the hallmarks of Rajeshwari’s performances. The precision of the ending of her theermanams is amazing.

Her uncle, Karaikudi Mani, is one of the hidden reasons for her success. His hobby is to create new , unique and very complex jatis that no other dancer has performed. While Shobana too tries to do some simple maths, Shobana’s arithmetics tastes as artificial as her abhinaya looks, while Karaikudi Mani quite often manages to produce the rhythms that have much more depth and are vibrant.

On the musical side, Murali Parthasarthy (vocal) was perhaps not always on track, although I like his style and usual accuracy in rendering even the most difficult passages. As a vocalist, he cannot compare with… our dear Uma Namboodripad, who is 1000 times more impressive. I wonder how Uma manages to put so much depth and power into her voice as well as into her abhinaya! She becomes one with the song.

Back to Rajeswari, her husky voice is… far from perfect, and I am sure if she starts taking vocal classes (from Uma? 🙂 , it will automatically improve her abhinaya. Dancers used to take mandatory vocal classes before, and in Rajeswari’s case we can clearly see why one of the most important qualities for a dancer is geetam. Somehow, how well you sing has such a tremendous impact on your abhinaya!!!!!!

Rajeswari ‘s recital commenced with a beautiful ‘Laya Kavidhai- Anbe Sivam’ (Priyadarshini ragam, misram) conceived by veteran mridangist Karaikudi Mani, penned by Su Ravi and composed by Balasai. Whether it lived up to its claim of ‘poetry in rhythm’ or not is a big question if you consider what is poetry and what is not. In poetry itself, there are different standards.

The verse and mnemonic syllables (Adit Narayanan has a mighty voice but is often not so good at keeping the talam!) resonated in perfect harmony. While the vilamba and madhayama kaalam sollus were straightforward counts of seven, the dhurita kaalam was manipulated to include a third speed tisram sequence and a fourth speed misram section. In reverse order, the sequence turned a full circle and came back to a slow vilamba kaalam count-this descent was one of the most beautiful moments that evening. The Siva Tandava was both an aural and a visual treat. I wish Rajeswari managed to show us some Lasya as well! Ever seen Indira Rajan’s student who is good at Lasya????

The same technique of symbolism in nritta that worked in the opening composition was not as effective to espouse the theory of the three deities being one in ‘Trimurthi Tatvam’ (ragamalika, panchatalam, written by Kavi Kannan, tuned by Balasai). This was despite the liberal (how well it fit in the overall composision is a big question!) injection of “spirituality” provided by vedic chants compiled by Seshadri Ganapadigal and recited by G.K.Srinivasan.

The only composition that presented abhinaya without a framework of tala was the varnam, ‘Adiyarthanai’ (ragamalika, Adi, written by Rajkumar Bharathi and Kavi Kannan) on Vittala of Pandarpur. Rajeswari portrayed the stories of Vittala’s devotees- Namadeva, Janabai and Chokkamela- with warmth and involvement, although sometimes she overdoes it. As usual, she was focused in the nritta portions; her fast paced ‘tha tai thams’ that featured in the second half of the 45-minute varnam said it all.