Bangalore Bharatanatyam dancers, Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai vs Kalakshetra, lasya, tejas, the dancers age, purity of mind, and the secret of movements, Kalanidhi Narayan and Balasaraswati

(Based on new writings from A.)

Priyanka

” Smt. Revathi Narasimhah is one of Karnataka’s leading dance gurus” is a standard beginning in her students brochures. And I fully endorse this statement. I do not know what kind of students she has in Bangalore, but when she brings someone (usually, quite rich girls… 🙂 ) to  perform in Chennai, you bet these recitals are truly worth watching!

Revathi Narasimhan is among the top 3-4 choreographers that I know of (and I know more than 150). Her choreography and style is quite different from anything we are used to in Chennai. When I first saw Priyanka Chandrasekhar, it was such a pleasure to see such a dignified, beautiful and delicate girl trained so well.

While a trained eye will notice a plenty of momentary ugly expressions on 99% of the professional dancers, there were none on Priyanka’s face. Very polished and dignified mukha abhinaya – at the expense of variety? Every movement was very well-practised and was full of force. The forceful movements, the forceful abhinaya and accurate nritta and decent angasuddhi were the hallmarks of her schoolmate, Krupa Rajul Shah, who gathered in Vani Mahal almost as many rasikas as Alarmel Valli managed to draw to her first recital this year in Bharat Kalachar. People know that Revathi Narasimhah has high standards, and it ensures the attendance.

(Krupa is on the left)

Both Priyanka and Krupa were suspiciously similar in every way, and looked like sisters. Partly, it is because of the makeup (some of the best styles that I have seen). While 60% of all dancers’ makeup make them look worse than they do without it, the other 40% use it to enhance their features.

I do not know why Rupa wrote that in The Hindu, but I saw a lot of vigour in Priyanka’s and especially in Krupa’s recitals. This vigour and forcefullness, matched with the angular movements, made me doubt if it is indeed Vazhuvoor style. “I had to modify the Vazhuvoor style, as the rising popularity and spread of the Kalakshetra style forced me to make it more attractive for more people”, said Revathi. The cost of such modification was huge: most of the charm and delicate softness of Ramaiah Pillai’s heritage vanished. While both Priyanka and Krupa excelled in the passages that required tandava, they both (especially Krupa) failed in doing the passages where lasya was dominant. The intricate patterns and elaborate movements of Ramaiah Pillai’s style were replaced by the simplified, straight lines of Kalakshetra. Such a pity!

Krupa‘s varnam Devar Munivar was full of inspiration, bhakti, nobility and power (the passages with the Narasimhah and the Vamana avataras in particular were full of tejas and the images were so vivid and awe-inspiring that it gave me goosebumps, and my mind bowed down in humble adoration to the feet of this girl)

The next item, padam Indendu Vachidevira, was quite a contrast, as it required a lot of lasya and subtle mukha abhinaya, but Krupa‘s face was quite rigid, the movements were manly, and she obviously did not understand the symbols behind the lyrics. Priyanka was a bit better in this respect.

While Revathi said I cannot expect such young girls to be able to bring out all the nuances of the nayika bhavas, I told her that, in my opinion, some “mature” little uninhibited girls of 11-12 years old (when our soul, chaitya purusha, influences our nature most) such as Sivasri, Medha Hari (she lost it now 😦 ), or, to some extent, Vani Nagarajan and Manaswini Ramachandran (her mom will make her great!), produce richer, more subtle, more refined, pure and more elevating abhinaya in the “adult” padams and varnams. “Such abhinaya is inadequate”? What is “adequate” then, we have a question?

The popular misconception is that some items are “suitable for children” and some are not. The Bhakti movement made use of adult (often crude) human relationships, experiences and feelings, and showed how these can be used as symbols to signify the spiritual relationships, experiences and sentiments. Unfortunately, if we focus more on portraying the details of a token itself instead of what this token stands for, we fail in Natya.

In a Narthaki.com’s article, we read, “The middle class housewife could never be successful in abhinaya because, she was too comfortable and satisfied in her domestic security. The Devadasi on the other hand had to constantly rely on her wit and talent to keep her lover(s) coming back to her. Only a woman who gets up in a morning to find her lover gone knows what viraha is,” maintained housewife Balasaraswati insisting that all poetry and art arise out of this pain of separation rather than from staid fulfillment. Now one of the foremost authorities on abhinaya today is housewife Kalanidhi Narayan. While the general belief is that a dancer’s training is incomplete without learning abhinaya from Kalanidhi, a senior dancer, on condition of anonymity (!!!), expressed her disapproval in the way abhinaya is now being defined as how Kalanidhi Narayan sees it.” The housewife Kalanidhi Narayanan, who released a plenty of her abhinaya lessons on DVDs,made us all believe that, unless a woman has experienced a sexual intercourse with a man, she would not be able to portray the union with the Divine in her Bharatanatyam recital! What a lie! Kalanidhi is only good for training young actresses for vulgar Tamil movies. Kalanidhi will not be able to explain to you why the original devadasis were celibate their entire life!

No, Maami, Natya is not like photography, not the Tamil movies, it is like painting the invisible, the spiritual.

While the children may not understand the concrete expressions and the gross adult experiences, they subconsciously understand and feel the spiritual truths behind the symbols much better than the adults.

One of the things that the bharatanatyam dancer must possess for doing a “soft” style is the flexibility and mobility of the joints and muscles, and, most importantly, the movements must originate from the area around the swadhisthana chakra (the centre of physical movement) – something that both the girls somehow did not show (interestingly, some students of Bangalore’s Sundari Santhanam did it very well in their DVD on Karanas )

If a movement does not originate from this natural center, it makes it look forceful, and the dancer soon gets tired. This is one of the first things that you learn in most Asian martial arts.

I noticed that that the girls of 10-12 years old are the best in this respect, and, as we grow older, our bodies become stiffer and lose their responsiveness to music. Some of these 10-12 years olds dance in such a way that every beat, every change of note in the music produces not one, not two, not five but 30-40 well-co-ordinated and spontaneous movements, some of them very small, in every joint, in every muscle. This mobility and responsiveness of the sattva-dominated body helps achieve angasuddhi and laya. A tamasic or rajasic body is unsuitable for Natya.

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Anitha Sivaraman, exceptional NRI Bharatanatyam dancers, and more about lokadharmi, natyadharmi and the American lasya. Anita.

Anitha Sivaraman, the world’s fastest dancer?

This post is related to a new post on Anita Sivaraman


Remark: I don’t know why dancers post on YouTube the worst or most boring fragments from their recitals!

A beautiful dancer, with a perfect figure, and very graceful too. How can this 6-feet tall girl move faster and have a better stamina than 99% of the Chennai dancers who are 5 feet tall??? True, at the highest speed, she had to sacrifice the amplitude of some moves, and was sometimes making shortcuts, especially towards the end of the recital, as she was getting tired and was not sitting low enough in araimandi. And did not accentuate her steps and nritta hasthas.

It is quite common that the US-trained dancers seem to focus primarily on the physical perfection, and many are good at thillanas, although it was a surprise that Anita’s balance, agility, accuracy of movements, her laya was far superior to 99% of Chennai’s dancers.

What was far more surprising is that it was the first NRI dancer whose mukha abhinaya was superior even to 95% of Chennai’s dancers in the normal speed range, and far surpassed the Chennai dancers’ in the fastest abhinaya passages. I think the ability to do fast-changing abhinaya is related to one’s ability to speak (and think) fast.

Anita’s expressions were graceful, the transitions were smooth and natural, despite the often lightning speed of the changes. Something that I had hardly ever seen in an NRI dancer. Well, Surya Ravi is another pleasant exception, much younger to compare. Anita’s nritta abhinaya was miraculous (I had never seen anything like that!): the expressions, powerful and sparkling, were changing each other at an amazing speed and accuracy, and were matching the nritta so well! Something that dancers like Swathi Ariyapadi are yet to learn.

Nandini Ramani attributes Anita’s impressiveness not to Papanasam Sivan’s genes, but to a unique combination of Padma Subramaniam’s stamp in Anita’s training with Srikanth, and his experience in the Bhagavatamela tradition. But Nandini forgot about Anita’s Kuchipudi training with Vempati Chinna Satyam. What a powerful blend of 3 schools! I forgot to ask Anita if both Vempati Vempati Chinna Satyam and Padma Subramaniam interpret the karanas in the same way! 🙂

Rupa in The Hindu justly wrote that Anita is “blessed with a keen sense of timing, an extremely mobile face and a vibrant movement vocabulary”. Not only this vocabulary is vibrant, but is rich too, and the sheer variety of moves and their unexpectedness keeps the rasikas from falling asleep, especially the American audience who instantly get bored when a Bharatanatyam dancer starts doing a slow abhinaya piece, hardly moving at all.

Anita is using a few karanas too (not as difficult as these). Without karanas, any recital is boring.”From the standpoint of providing enough action and excitement, it was good, but from the angle of providing some depth, the recital fell short”. Rupa cannot explain what is “depth” or “width”. I think often the dancers are left clueless as to what a particular criticism was about! “Width” is about variety and entertaining. “Depth” is about magic and enchanting.

Well, what was somewhat missing was “magic”, or was this impression created because Anita does not seem to like very slow passages? While Anita Sivaraman’s was nearly “perfect” outside, what she could learn from dancers like Alarmel Valli is how to concentrate within. The deeper this concentration, the better the dancer is dissolved in the dance (laya…), and the more powerful the recital. Depending on how well we are focussed within, we are able to visualize the vivid images and project them onto the audience. The approach is different: we are not trying to impress the audience, we are not trying to prove that we are good dancers, we are not at a dancing competition. We are becoming one with the audience, one in the meditation. Perhaps Nandini was luckier than me when she saw that recital where Anita’s “approach to her technique was one of deep concentration”. Maybe Anita’s mind was indeed more focussed then.

But, should we really blame the NRI dancers for the “lack of depth” if even the Chennai dancers, while portraying nayikas-nayakas, think not of the symbols beyond them, but of copying some vulgar Tamil serial’s actresses? How low! It is harder for the NRI’s to understand the difference between a photograph and a painting. There is no art in photograph. Everyone can take a photo. The painting can go beyond the physical, change it, and bring in the invisible. So much the difference between lokadharmi and natyadharmi. Have I seen much real natyadharmi? Errrrrr…. 1% ? Is there at least 0.0001% of natyadharmi in the “British South Asian dance“?

Life in the USA

Let us see what other American girls write:

I’ll admit I was somewhat diffident about performing the piece at all. This was because I wondered whether there was even a possibility to capture such an emotion: the shyness exhibited by a young bride when her to-be husband touches her hand for the first time.

I made several attempts at this expression as my mother repeatedly told me that my expression was far too bold and needed to look more coy. It made me wonder, however, if girls growing up in America are even capable of expressing the emotion at all. Are we perhaps too open-minded and brazen that we cannot portray the timidity expressed by a young bride on the day of her wedding?

“Can the ratisringara themes in Bharatanatyam actually apply to contemporary Los Angeles ? Does not longing, disappointment, anticipation of passionate union and various aspects of love apply to contemporary teenage life in America?”

But as the mother of one of the young Californian dancers notes, “My daughter, at 15, will not reconcile to the fact that this woman is pining for her man. She finds it too ‘cheesy’ because she has been raised in America. The culture is different here, girls are much more verbal and direct here.”

Thus it is the pining, the waiting game with which young girls today can no longer relate. Because they utilize a direct approach in their own love-lives, shyness in the company of the opposite sex is a concept that’s hard to grasp.

So, isn’t it a proof that, for Americans, the nayika bhavas are no longer accessible, and they don’t even understand why or how a soul would pine for a union with the Divine. After all, there is no need to search for God if you have a Social Security Number, a sports car and a fat bank account! America is better than HEAVEN itself! Well, maybe not every NRI feels so.

A typical shortcoming of a US- or UK-based dancer is a poor lasya, but, surprisingly, Anita Sivaraman was good (not perfect, but good) in this respect. Pleasant exception. The Americans’ subconscious mind just does not understand what is lasya, and it is often reflected in the tone of their voice and intonations too. As a result of the feminist movement in the USA, the absolute majority of the women who grew up there are less capable of displaying Lasya. They want to be men, haughty, aggressive, direct. The subconscious attitude is the ready-to-fight-back attitude. These women are ready to assert themselves, to hit back, always on the alert, always competitive, always tense like a fist.

Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana: Bharatanatyam competition

Ranjani Murthy, the winner of Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana’s Bharatanatyam competition in 2007Ranjani Murthy , is a good illustration for the above, would be fit to act in “Dance like a man”. Does sheever relax her face??? Can she be sweet? Can she enjoy what she is doing??? She thinks that Bharatanatyam is a hard workout at the gym (but, as you see from the picture, she cannot lift her leg even half-way to its proper position), and so her face reflects it.

The funny thing, proving the debilitating influence of the American “culture” is that, unlike in any Bharatanatyam competitions in India in the 19–23 age group “each of the items must be either a Padam or Javali”. These items are usually reserved for the 60-70 age group in Chennai. How Ranjani Murthy got the 1st prize in that all-US Cleveland competition (while Anita Sivaraman, though among the “finalists”, did not even get into the top 3) is a miracle. Although, looking back at the US presidential elections in 2000, we cannot deny the fact that miracles can be the result of the political shrewdness of the NRI community who judicially invited only 2 judges (if you know of any other annual competition where the judges remain the same every year , please tell me): Smt. Savitri Jagannatha Rao and Smt. Radha, one of whom privately admitted that they could not follow and did not quite appreciate Anitha Sivaraman’s dance for several reasons:

  • it was too fast (the judges are elderly women who take 5 times longer to realize anything than a college student),
  • too intricate, unlike the Kalakshetra-style straight lines and plain moves
  • karanas are not yet part of the mainstream Bharatanatyam, nor the lively and expressive Kuchipudi flavour is palatable

Smt.Radha said, “I do remember there was one Anitha Sivaraman. I looked at her several (!) times. She was dancing when I was busy chatting with Savithri”. Radha remembers she did a lot of shopping and bought some expensive things after the competition was over.When asked what marks which dancers received and how, she gave a scared look, said she cannot remember, and ran away.

Pooja Kumar, who did win the 1st prize in 2008 after learning more plain Bharatanatyam under… Savithri Jagannatha Rao (!!!), explained the strategy, “If you don’t have the cash to bribe the judges at a competition, try becoming a student of the judge”. Well, after eeveryone saw how the competition was judged in 2007, no strong contestants cared to apply in 2008, so Pooja was beyond competition anyway. 🙂

George Bush said he is proud of the NRI community. 😦

Want to talk to the two shrewd judges? Here they are:

“Pradakshina”, Savithri Jagannatha Rao, 13, 2nd Crescent Road Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, Chennai 600020 Ph: (044) – 24412624

“Pushpanjali”, Rhadha R, 8A, Lambeth Avenue, Off Bawa Road, Alwarpet Chennai 600018 Ph: (044) – 24997715

“Ranjani Murthy dance”

ranjani murthy dance” is what a lot of people (to my surprise) enter in the google search box before they discover this post. Ranjani Murthy is probably quite annoyed, but will have to bear with my blog until she publicly renounces her ill-gained first prize and until her parents disclose the circumstances under which she got it.

I really don’t understand why the American NRIs blame India as one of the most corrupt countries in the world while themselves are as honest as an average politician in Tamil Nadu.

Until then, let Ranjani Murthy dance!

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.

The Tanjore Quartet, the “hereditary” folks…. And back to karanas!

A born dancer – non-hereditary???

One would assume that there would be a hall packed with rasikas to watch a programme by a grandson of Balasawaswathy. When hardly 30 people were initially watching Aniruddha Knight‘s performance, this number was quickly further reduced as many rasikas were unable to digest it at all, and probably were in a bit hurry running to the toilet. Aniruddha came onto the stage in a Kathak costume (thankfully, not in jeans), and was trying to dance a new style that combined new, advanced (genetically engineered) American abhinaya with a hybrid of jazz and flamenco natyam.

Not everybody living in a human body is a real human being. Indeed, where in India can you find anyone with these expressions:

American abhinaya

My daughter commented on Ani, “Poor man, they forced him to learn the dance. Not everybody is a born dancer.”

Arul confirms (with Ani in mind?):

Lots of Indians who live here are full of nostalgia and longing. In their memories, the India they knew lives on, time stamped with their year of departure. And they take it out on their children, forcing them into this life of hypocrisy.

Aniruddha kept biting the left side of his lip while doing jathi’s, trying to dance like a eunuck, with Very miserable expressions. “Is he drunk?”, my daughter asked! Will Shobana’s new film be titled as “Dance like a eunuck” or “Dance like a drunkard”?, I wondered.

“Hereditary” was the most frequent word in S.Niveda’s programme’s flier. Chitti convinced me to go and to watch her a few months ago. “Tapasya Kala Sapradaya is happy to present Niveda from the family of the Tanjore Quartet”, ran the proud intro. Tapasya was lauding its efforts “against commercial exploitation of the arts and meaningless distortion in the name of innovation”. It appears that Tapasya’s only achievement in that effort was the heavily funded documentary Marayunduvarum Marabugal that was made out of 50 hours of tape. It is wonderful that all the knowledge of the hereditary folks fit into one short documentary that not many people had the privilege to watch (why didn’t they release those 50 hours on DVDs?) . While the frontpage of the flier was displaying the Thanjore Quartet, next to them was Niveda with her hands in a lame Anjali: her palms did not touch each other. Oversight? The poor 10-year-old started dancing but could not move at all. Hardly any movement was completed fully, even though the tempo was superslow. Any eye control? Forget about it! The poor thing was too stressed, and kept forgetting the simple, hereditary steps. After watching this bharatanatyam performance we decided to limit our visits to the “hereditary” dancers’ programmes to a minimum.

TQ or nothing is the extreme radical heading of another post of Arul’s.

Sounds like Arul’s Christian sect. The spirit of confinement.

Imagine meeting somebody whose motto is “Mangos or nothing”. Or “Pringles or nothing”. Hey! Weren’t the Thanjore Quartet guys anything more than royal court musicians???? (not dancers!) If Muthuswami Dikshitar, their music teacher, somehow managed to get the recognition as a little saint (or at least a prominent religious scholar), there is no mention of TQ’s spiritual achievements. Because there were none.

One of the TQ’s (Vadivelu’s) “achievement” was the introduction of violin in the Natya recitals. As a result, the ancient veena is on the brink of extinction. The instrument that has the largest range of harmonics (no other instrument can compare with veena!) is giving way just like the natural seeds cannot compete with the aggressive GM crops that are quietly destroying our planet.

Arul writes:

These seven glittering kohinoor diamonds – master gave them to me: sakiye, yemaguva, mogamana, adimogam, yemanthayanara, danike, sami ninne.

Real diamonds are millions of years old. Perhaps, Arul calls the 200-year-old creations of the Tanjore Quartet so in regards to the tuition fees he charges for teaching them. 🙂

… Other gurus reserve the best for family.

The non-hereditary….

Arul continues:

I think also that the fact that Master comes from an ancestral family of teachers has a lot to do with it. They are the ones who know the art of teaching as it existed historically. They know how to give of themselves and when and to whom and under what circumstances.

Now you understand why Alarmel Valli, who left the Master, wrote about her vocal guru:

To find a good guru is a result of one’s past karma. Smt. Mukta never held back. She was generous to the core.

The hereditary gurus were never generous: holding back as much as possible was a matter of economic survival in the tough business competition with few opportunities.

Cursing Chennai’s traffic jams, our driver managed to get us to RK Swamy’s Hall just in time for Surya Ravi’s programme that was recommended by Anusha K. Surya Ravi’s nattuvangam turned out to be Sujatha Mohan. After we started watching Surya, we again realized that there are still wonderful dancers and talented, non-hereditary gurus. Surya was fantastic in her crisp adavus, beautiful and expressive abhinaya (well, there were a few gaps when she froze for a couple of seconds like an ice-man, but it was not her fault: the choreography has to be improved). Sujatha, admitted that she substantially modified “Bharathnrithyam”. The karanas, which Padma Subrahmaniam, who lost the remnants of her sense of beauty as soon as she got a “Dr.” title, never succeeded to combine in a graceful and organic manner. How well did her seniormost disciple Sundari Santhanam do it you can see from her recent DVD on Karanas.

Non-hereditary Sujatha, learning all the best from the non-hereditary, theoretician Padma, managed to produce a superior choreography, which can be illustrated by the passages from the varnam where Surya Ravi portrayed Kalinga Krishna (really beautiful, and such a superb balance when she was jumping thrice and turning 360* on one leg – hardly any professional dancers can do it!), and the snake itself! Such grace! And how subtle was the portrayal of Kuchella’s story, how refined, how charming was the mukha abhinaya, how perfect the angashudhi!!!

When I watched the Varsha Shankar at her brilliant arangetram (it was the first time when I was convinced that karanas CAN be performed gracefully!), I did not even expect that Sujatha Mohan would show us more of the outstanding dancers like Surya Ravi! Even Sujatha’s little kids, like Shreya Balakrishna, are so amazing! Their guru really inspires them. They are so lucky!

It is Surya Ravi whose recital should follow (if not included within it) after the recitals of the IFAS talent promotion (where Nandini Ramani was one of the judges), not the clumsy Balasaraswathy’s grandson. Well, if it were not for Nandini’s insistance (oh, these stupid political obligations!), who would ever have invited him to Chennai???

Everyone who considers being trained by a hereditary guru should watch Pandanallur Subarraya Pillai VCD and hear how he explains that the hereditary gurus teach properly only their own children. The hereditary ones are unable to explain to a genetic engineer where are those Bharatanatyam genes that can transmit true natya skills. He is unable to explain why the hell the hereditary gurus teach the non-hereditary students like Indu Varma! I think this is the reason that the “hereditary dancers” are no longer taken seriously by anyone, except by the hereditary toilet cleaners and hereditary garbage collectors.

Narthaki.com … The politics and the truth in the Bharata natyam world: Anita Ratnam

A big problem in true reporting is, no one wants to write about controversies. The most popular excuse is, “I want to write, but I can’t.” Either you write about such things rudely and be ostracized, or you make compromises, hold back on your evaluation and stay on. The writer may not like to do it, but is forced to. This is one of the main difficulties faced by a critic.
Lalitha Venkat, Editor, Narthaki.com

I sometimes visit the website narthaki.com run by Anitha Ratnam, a dancer herself just to keep myself updated on the current dance scene. Anita Ratnam is (was?) no doubt a very outspoken person, honest and straightforward. Something that she learnt in the USA? Some people like S. write, “I admired Anita Ratnam’s bold article (in Roses & Thorns?) about a year ago, where she criticized the sychophancy & farce going around titles & awards, and the rotten ceremonies, corrupt practices & organizations. Anita said she was warned by some sabha leaders of “serious consequences”.

Unlike Anita, hardly any other dancers can afford to be honest. Being honest will cost you much. Some dancers commented and said that only Anita can afford to be independent. Her TVS company makes her rich, but it seems not as rich as to maintain narthaki.com without asking for the contribution from the “members”. But then, are these contributions not enough to pay a small programmer’s fee to get rid of the obnoxious viagra spam posts – by introducing user registrations prior to posting?

But now, it turns out that even the seemingly independent Anita has been forced to remove parts of her original article and retract her statements about sychophancy & farce. What happened to the staunch hero? She writes, “…after that article i lost some friends and made some fresh enemies”.

Seeking influential friends since then has become Anita’s priority, and the fee-paying Narthaki.com members, such as Ratikant Mohapatra, were suddenly given, apart from their usual (shameless) self-promotional activities on Narthaki.com, a license to publish in Narthaki’s reviews praises about their own students and the derogatory remarks about their rivals. It raised numerous objections on Narthaki’s forum. Did these counter-statements and responses become part of “Roses & Thorns”? No, Anita Ratnam simply… deleted all the statements that dare to challenge Ratikant Mohapatra’s infamous “review“. As a result of the indiscriminate censorship and discouraging deletions on the forum, fewer and fewer users actually use it. Soon, narthaki.com forum will end up like the bharatanatyam dancers’ discussion group on yahoo, that is half-dead for 2 years.

Anita is becoming more and more politically minded, and her US-grown love for free speech has been replaced by the political considerations. Now Anita is very careful about what to say and what not to say, and tries to please the influential individuals. Soon we will see Anita infected with the virus of sychophancy too. The American vaccine did not work out. 😦

As one blogger put it, ” Now that it’s only Bharathanatyam, my performing art. Why am I loosing interest? No, it’s not the interest as such. When you find politics interfering everywhere, you loose your passionateness. What do I mean by politics here? It’s not about the ruling party or the non-ruling party, I mean the relationship with the students and their teacher and the bond with their co-learners. It’s hard to tolerate, when you see people who learn art only for the sake of earning fame and not for the love towards it. These incidents really disturb me a lot. Would the world change?”

Yes, my dear! The ruthless Kali is here to bust all fame-seekers, all Bharatanatyam politicians, and cleanse some gurus and dancers of all their filth! 🙂 They are not going to like it, are they? 🙂 Let them burn with shame when we expose them to the entire world (check the stats for this blog 🙂 !

Ok, back to Narthaki’s articles and reviews. Recently I had witnessed a Bharatanatyam performance by a local artiste and her students here and was quite appalled by the lack of any standard in that show. None of them including the guru exhibited even the basic qualities of a Bharatanatyam dancer (posture, tiredlessness, expressions, eye movements) or the basic grammar of Bharatanatyam such as the half-sitting (aramandi), raised elbows, or even proper postures. Hell, many of them were slouching when they were dancing. They weren’t even standing erect!

Someone, most probably a parent of one of the students or someone close to the dancer, must have written a review and posted it on Narthaki. He raved and raved about the quality of the dance and called for people to rename the phrase ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) as American Born “Cultured” Desis because the standard of dancing of these children was so good, it could give the Indian-born dancers a run for their money. Now, as much as I am for parents being proud of their children, I do have to say that this review was over the top. Just because NRIs can afford and stay close to some dancer, they send their girls (usually girls) to this guru and accept whatever this guru teaches as classical dance. They are so proud that they declare that whatever their daughter dances is pure classical dance. I don’t know if this is a defense mechanism against anyone who might say that ABCD children are not Indian enough (or are too American), but it is not an accurate depiction of reality(not even close) . Yes, I do find that many ABCD children are very Indian in their upbringing and have some American qualities (which is not at all wrong – why not take the best of everything that you can and be proud of it? Sometimes they are more Indian than some Indian kids in India who are so overcome with their blind love for the west).

The main point of this blog is my curiosity, “Are we celebrating mediocrity because we think that is good enough or because we blindly believe that our children are better than others or because we simply are too ignorant to appreciate quality even when the lack of it stares us in the eye”. I have often witnessed little girls dancing or singing Indian classical dance or music (sometimes parents exhibiting them like a show piece in a museum) and someone remarking, “Can you believe an ABCD is so good at this?”. In such situations, I have wondered, “Should we encourage this because this is a child or should I tell the parents that what their child is learning is absolute crap?” Why are Indian parents forced to send their children to these classes and get them sub-standard training? The same goes for Indian organizations that invite artistes over to perform dance. Anyone with a brain that functions would have figured out that the NRI audience are easily overcome with gimmicks. Once you have someone famous score the music for what you are performing or add some jazzy backdrops or give a resume that looks good, they pre-determine that the show will be good. They don’t understand that the awards you get in India are a dime-a-dozen. Any noun that follows the words “Nrithya” or “Natya” will make a new title and can be awarded even by the Indian Overseas Bank!

Speaking of which, on a personal note, I was once performing as part of an American theater group. There was a solo Bharatanatyam piece in the play and, needless to say, it received rave reviews. But then, who decides if it is good? Sure, the costume and the jewellery would have dazzled everybody, and my dance resume looked good. The audience knew that I had won some championships and had already decided that my dance would be good. I received great reviews in the newspapers and from anyone who had seen the play. But then, in my heart, I knew that my dance in that show was quite sub-standard. I had had very little practice. It was in the middle of my graduate school work and I was exhausted after my school and job everyday even before I got to the show. Yes, I wish I had practised more, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. So, do the reviews make me a good dancer? For a layman, probably, yes. But my dance made me a bad dancer during the entire stretch of that show. It was definitely a learning experience for me and I enjoyed working with the people on that show, but the fact remains that my performance was quite abysmal and no amount of good review can change that.

Back to the topic under discussion, if most children are learning crap, is every teacher in the U.S. a bad guru? Do they not care about their students performing badly? Absolutely not. Although there are good schools of music and dance in the U.S., they are a handful and even if the gurus have been wonderful artistes, they often take up 50-200 students to train. When you have such a big class, how can you afford to correct the mistakes of everyone? How can you be sure that every student is keeping their elbows in the unsagging position or that every student is bending to their fullest extent?

Of course, you cannot always blame the teachers. I have also witnessed parents who would join their daughter in a Bharatanatyam class . Once their daughter joins a dance class, they will remain silent for a month. The next month the parent would creep up silently and ask the teacher to teach their daughter to dance for a song so that she can perform in the local temple or a local show. (It usually takes anywhere between 6-12 years to become a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, and yet not reach a professional level. It takes immense practice and dedication to be a Bharatanatyam dancer and no one learns how to dance to a full song before they are well trained in the basic steps which takes about 2.5-3 years. You usually perform before an audience only after this point)

What can a teacher do except say “no”? And how many times can you say no when they keep pressing you to do otherwise? Teachers often get frustrated by such requests. When teachers do not teach such “entertaining numbers”, their students often leave. In India, it would be impossible to lay such requests on a teacher. The teacher is the GURU and she is the foremost in the life of the student. What she utters is the ultimate word. Unless, a teacher declares that the student is ready for such a project, no one would dare bring up such an idea in India. But all an NRI parent wants to declare to the world is, “My daughter is more Indian than yours”.

So, parents, if you are reading this, understand that selecting a proper guru is the foremost in training your daughter in any art form, but before that please make sure that it is your child that wants to learn the art and not you that wants it for your child. Art comes from passion and unless you are passionate about it, you cannot be forced to learn it. If you have a good guru, learn to respect what they do for your child. It is better to wait than to display mediocrity. You don’t ask your child’s math teacher to teach your child calculus in first grade (unless your child is Ramanujam). So why not give the same respect for art? And finally do not be proud of mediocrity. If you want people to stop saying, “This is good enough for an ABCD” then display excellence. Until then, only “this” will remain good enough for ABCDs!

Sivasri & truth about Bharatanatyam guru’s

Yesterday I drove my acquaintances, dancers, to Sivasri’s Bharatanatyam recital in Sivagami Petachi auditorium. This girl is from the category of “fast-matured” Bharatanatyam dancers. Sometimes, like the green mangos’ ripening process is artificially accelerated by all kinds of chemicals, some children are over-tutored in their abhinaya too. Luckily, Sivasri’s abhinaya- this time at least! – looked perfectly natural and spontaneous. It had the power and connected to her inner self. While my daughter commented that her abhinaya is “perfect for her age”, I wished even the professional dancers could have such a rich range of soulful expressions, pure, powerful, single-minded, full of joy, natural. I love these 11-year-olds because they are 100% engaged in what they do. Whenever I see Shobana on the stage, it reminds me of a circus clown’s artsy gimmicks.

Sivasri’s father made a lame attempt to make her a few web pages, still very much under construction. He perceives the extraordinary talent hidden in his little daughter, and tries – sometimes in a clumsy manner (like he did on rasikas.org) – to make the others perceive it too. He does not understand that, as soon as ordinary people watch Sivasri dance, they will immediately admire her and acknowledge her extraordinary gift. No need for comments. I bet even a half-blind rasika would perceive it. Sivasri is brilliant.

Sivasri’s father, Scanda, is very intelligent in many respects. He understands that she needs to improve certain things. The hardest thing for any dancer is what I call “dynamic equilibrium”. I do not know how the top professional dancers manage to instantly freeze – after moving rapidly – in difficult postures without losing their balance.

I think that Sivasri is one of those rare exceptions who have the strong will and determination to reach their goal fast.

Guru’s and shishya’s – the paradoxes and hidden truths

It is a year ago that Sivasri changed her guru, although Roja Kannan is far from perfect. Until today, I believed that the Kalakshetra style is better be avoided, but after watching Sivasri again I realized that she was changing the style and making it much softer, graceful and natural. Looked a bit like Vazhuvoor, but Roja did not mind. I think Roja herself admires how Sivasri dances. Let Roja learn something from this little genius. 🙂 Two days ago I watched another couple of Roja’s students, and the best one, Abhinaya, was visibly inferior to Sivasri.

It was funny to hear Scanda trying to utter the over-used phrase “All credit goes to her guru”. He did not mention “to which guru“! I thought, if “All credit goes to her guru”, how come Roja Kannan has not trained any other students who would be at least 70% as good as Sivasri????

Sivasri reminds us of the little Medha Hari, the only outstanding student of A.G. in the entire 300-strong Bharatanjali. How come the “Best Natyacharya” A.G. herself admitted that she has not been able to produce any more dancers of MH’s caliber???? If a student becomes a great dancer despite her guru, why should all the credit go to the guru????

I could not believe it when Hemamalini told me 6 years ago that R. was a fake guru (he hardly ever appeared at Kitappa Pillai’s classes!) whose tactics is to find talented kids, train them a little, and make them showcase their achievements as a proof of his own greatness as a guru! After that, the kids are discarded like a used napkin. Well, many people often use others for their own selfish ends.

The funniest truth is that often gurus learn from their own students much more than the students learn from the gurus!

“All credit goes to her guru”?????

I am glad Sivasri left her guru Krishnakumari Narendran to whom all credit “goes”. Krishnakumari is a real pisacha . Krishnakumari consumes young talent (and money) like fire consumes fuel. Krishnakumari is already nearly voiceless, and can no longer speak – she can only shout in her utterly hoarse throat.

I did not know that she was Nivedita Gopinath’s guru when I went two days ago to R.A.M. . They recital was ok, and Nivedita danced fairly well. Nivedita is a bit clumsy, weak and slow, but has good abhinaya, is beautiful, and has a nice figure. The main problem for her, like for all taller dancers, is the fast torso moves. You have to develop very strong muscles to move your torso sideways, back and down very quickly. The shorter dancers (below 160 cm) are luckier. I hope Krishnakumari does not corrupt Nivedita entirely.

Funny story!

A year ago in Krishna Gana Sabha Krishnakumari did the arangetram of one Australian MBA (you can imagine how well that Australian girl performed – after sweating for her MBA). At the entrance, the rasikas were asked to wash their feet. No problem. The arangetram grand ceremony started, and Krishnakumari asked everyone to stand up and sing some song along with her (horrible voice). I remained seated, which soon convinced a few other rasikas around me to sit down and relax too. After Krishnakumari finished singing, she asked everyone to sit down. One man remained standing and continued to sing with his mighty voice. Neither Krishnakumari, the master of the ceremony, nor the rasikas knew what to do with that old man. Eventually, they had to wait until the guy stopped by himself. It was the most awkward “ceremony” that I have ever seen. Krishnakumari’s attempt to become a super-priestess and confer additional sanctity on the lame arangetram did not work out. The Australian MBA’s parents invested a significant amount into that fiasco, though.

Conclusion: when Bharatanatyam teachers try to promote themselves as spiritual gurus, they fail.