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

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

Bharatanatyam
bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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

Review from Narthaki.com:

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

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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


vrscikarecitam

vrscikarecitam

vrscikarecitam

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

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

karana

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


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

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

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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

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

bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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

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

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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

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

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

The items in this Bharata natyam recital

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

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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

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

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

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

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

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

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

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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

Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam

Scope for further improvement

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

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

Bharatanatyam

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

New avenues?

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

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

YouTube has this one to offer:

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

Bharatanatyam

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

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

The orchestra

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

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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.

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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… 🙂