Alarmel Valli’s Bharatanatyam… or Odissi? The forgotten heritage of Chokkalingam Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai, the “functions” and the VIP’s.

(this post is based on the report by G.K.)

If you thought that Padams and Javalis are reserved for the elderly, out of shape grandma’s whose only body parts that can still somehow move is their face (well, even this is problematic if there is half a kilo of fat under your face’s skin!), you should watch Alarmel Valli.

The evening of 28th was officially dedicated to the memory of Subbaraya Pillai, and the Shivagami Petachi AUditorium was fully packed despite the fact that the only announcement of this event was a small note in last week’s Friday review. As Mrs. Parthasarathy declared, all the city’s elite gathered that evening to watch Alarmel dance, and no parking space left in the school’s compound. How elite were the VIP’s could be seen by how brutally some rasikas were forced out of their seats in the first row, followed by even more embarrassing evictions of the lesser VIP’s by the more “senior” VIP’s. The fight for the first row seats reminds me of Subbaraya Pillai, who refused to sit in the first rows and was resentful of all these cheri VIP’s. Doesn’t Alarmel Valli gets annoyed while communicating with them? She probably does. On the other hand, just like Subbaraya Pillai, Nandini Ramani was seated in some 20th row on the 28th August.

Alarmel was indeed dancing well, as usual her dance was marked by midukku with liberal use of ottam adavus, light jumps, incredible coverage of stage space, a kulukku in her walk, talukku, an alakshyam as she flicks her wrist in the ullaasa nadai. Every slightest move was fully controlled and chiseled, lending it the artistic, and sometimes artsy, finish. Why Alarmel keeps doing mostly the same padams and javalis every time she does a performance in Chennai is bewildering. Anyway, she has changed her vocalist this time, and Savita Narasimhan was indeed singing with a delicate and powerful voice. Valli can afford to hire the best musicians, that’s for sure.

Alarmel Valli’s “style”, if we can call it so, involves the elements that few other dancers can emulate. The soft and delicate movements are alternated with the sharp, accentuated moves that are probably aimed at not letting the rasikas fall asleep. Every hand movements are supported by the foot movements. And every step is done to the talam. (Something that I very rarely see!). Every “simple” movement is meticulously elaborated into a super-complex set. I noticed that the number of bhedas (and the range of their speeds and amplitudes) that she uses is considerable greater than any other dancer’s. Priyadarshini Govind or Urmila Sathyanarayanan are nobodies compared with Alarmel.

Alarmel’s background in Odissi could be seen in very rich and complex torso movements (some borrowed from Mohiniattam!) that “normal” Bharatanatyam dancers forgot about thanks to the founder of Kalakshetra’s efforts. (Is this why so many professional Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai take Odissi or Mohiniattam classes , I wonder?) Another thing they could learn is how to control their eye lashes. Alarmel has mastered these to a great extent. Usually, people are not even aware of how they open and close their eyes. But it does produce a very powerful effect.

Mrs. Parthasarathy rightly observed that Alarmel Valli’s expressions do not cross that border after which they would turn into grimaces. I wonder how most of our other “senior” bharatanatyam exponents manage to produce so many ugly faces!

In the Yugame padam Alarmel Valli was portraying a miserable woman who was left by her lover. It was an attempt to depict a devotee’s anguish at the separation from the Lord. It appeared that Valli has had no actual spiritual experience that alone would lend this padam more depth.

In another padam Valli was attempting to depicting a mother who was coaxing her child to come and eat something. The child was supposed to symbolize the devotee’s soul who is turned away from the lures of the world. For anybody who has had this spiritual experience (if you had it, you can very easily recognize the other people who had the same experiences), it was obvious that Alarmel Valli has never had this direct spiritual experience, which rendered her padam rather weak.

Another padam that Alarmel did was about a woman who had an intimate encounter with her lover the previous night. This man embarrasses her in public by behaving in a rather rude manner. The spiritual symbolism here is quite obvious for anybody whose social life has been deranged by the direct spiritual experiences (if you watched Jim Carrey’s “The Liar”, you would realize how much a “successful” bharatanatyam dancer has to lie to reach the “top”). In fact, tears filled in my eyes, as the theme of this padam brought out the memories of certain realizations. The tears came before Valli started dancing.

There were no tears while I was watching Valli dance. The impression I had was like… While visiting some friends, I saw some nice fruits on the table, thinking that these fruits are so nice. On coming closer, I realized that the attractive looks were misleading: the fruits were made of plastic. Alarmel Valli’s padams and javalis are sometimes like the perfectly-shaped and perfectly-colored apples, grapes and bananas which, nevertheless, are of little value since you cannot eat them. These will not provide the sustenance for your soul’s spiritual hunger…. The artsy Bharatanatyam items have no real flavour, no taste, and are hollow inside.

If Amarmel Valli was a bit more open-minded and less proud of her achievements, should take abhinaya lessons from some 9-year girls. After all, Lalitha Sahasra Namam describes Devi as “Dhurga who is a nine year old girl” (not an old grandma). At this age, our abhinaya is not yet disconnected from our soul.

I always wonder why the “functions” are held before the end – not after – the performance. Had it been after the performance, the VIP speakers would surely face a very embarrassing situation with 99% of the spectators leaving before the speeches start. Mrs. Parthasarathy was again trying to promote her PSBB, stressing that many PSBB students are learning at Alarmel Valli’s Dipasikha. She did not want to embarrass Alarmel Valli by asking why in the past 4 years there have been just one or two solo performances in Chennai by Dipasikha’s students. Alarmel Valli brought one to dance in Chennai from… the USA, where Alarmel spends a lot of her time. Does she follow Subbaraya Pillai’s tradition and teach very talented students there regardless of how much they pay? She teaches only one-to-one, right? Business skills are not the only thing that Alarmel Valli learnt in America: about 5% of her movements (aimed at impressing the average American cowboy) clearly appear to be borrowed from artsy ballet and modern dance. That’s the application of lokadharmi, isn’t it???

Another speaker who was boring the rasikas was Dr.R.Nagaswamy. In his senile imbecility he referred to Chokkalingam Pillai’s relation with the 108 karanas. (There is no way Alarmel can do the more difficult karanas – unlike this young dancer). Why neither Chokkalingam Pillai nor Alarmel Valli wanted to talk about karanas is very simple: neither of them has ever known how to perform these. And the aging Alarmel is a bit too lazy to spend much time on getting fitter. Another idiocy that Dr.R.Nagaswamy was dwelling on was his idea of making a memorial in Vazhuvoor. Why this village has long forgotten anything related to Bharatanatyam is up to Chokkalingam Pillai to answer. Indeed, why did most of these village dance teachers left their villages and settled in Indian cities? Or American cities?

In a Sruti magazine’s article of February 2002, we find many revelations.

To the question, “I read somewhere that, according to a treatise on abhinaya, one of the chief qualities of a dancer is that she be beautiful…”, Alarmel replies, “I would like to think that for a dancer it is her inner beauty that counts. Take the example of the late T. Balasaraswati, one of India’s greatest exponents of abhinaya. I have been transported, watching her perform at 60.She could make you see her exactly as she wanted you to see her. If you looked at her, you would see a beautiful, young, charming girl of 16″.

The inner beauty…. well, even the ugliest K.J.Sarasa are very beautiful inside if they are famous, rich or powerful. Alarmel is quick to dismiss the ancient scriptures as nonsense, and believes that both Bharata Muni and Nandikeshwara are idiots as they believed that natya in its material expression is to be the expression of the physical body too. But when Alarmel has to choose between a politically correct answer (“when we describe beauty, it is inner beauty and aesthetics we are talking about”) and an honest answer.

Alarmel Valli still is quite sober: “Let me tell you something. Never take too seriously what dancers write! Even scholars are prone to make mistakes – not only factual mistakes but ones relating to interpretation as well.”

Secrets of success of a solo Bharatanatyam recital. Learn how a Bharata natyam dancer can get a lot of fans who had no idea that Bharatnatyam can be fascinating. :)

Warning: this article is not meant for those who are doing Bharatanatyam just as a hobby. Only 1% of Bharatanatyam students have a chance to become real professionals.

While 2000 years ago people had very few options for entertainment, the age of TV, Internet and theme parks brought about the enormous competitive pressure. While they too are already successfully using the new media, the TV and the Internet, the Bharatanatyam dancers are facing a stark reality: their “art” (well, is Bharatanatyam just “art”?) cannot stand the competition as far as the entertaining aspect is concerned.

But Natya has two aspects: entertainment (desi) and enlightenment (margi). As far as enlightenment goes, Natya is beyond competition. The problem is, there is very little left out of margi in the contemporary Bharatanatyam…

Music

50% of your success will depend on your orchestra and music. That’s a lot!

If your vocalist can modulate his voice and produce intense and varied bhavas at least as well as Manasi Prasad or Unnikrishnan…If your mridangist can vary the strength of the beats every 2-3 seconds on a wide range and as fast as K.S.Sudhaman does… If you understand that violin cannot be a replacement for flute, and that veena alone is suitable for making many passages interesting…The reason that Saraswathy holds a veena (not a violin or saxophone) in her hands…

Can you afford additional instruments, such as morsing, kanjeera, tabla, ghatam, etc.?
If you prefer to blur your music in a jazz-like way Udupi Lakshminarayan does, add a keyboard player so that he would completely wash out everything else and destroy your recital. (Keyboard players do not have the same degree of control over their instruments as the non-keyboards, so the timing for each note cannot be as precise as in veena, for example).

The music arrangement is to be done in a professional way that would utilize the strength of each instrument in a suitable manner at the appropriate times. Even the traditional, often performed (stale) items, can be presented in a totally new fashion.

Do your items have only 3 fixed (flat) tempos? It would be boring! “Predictable” means “boring”. The professionals vary the tempos gradually and continuously (with lots of surprises) throughout each item, even introducing pauses here and there. And each item has to end in a distinct way.

If you want your music to be as good as Anita Sivaraman’s, Padma Subrahmaniam’s or Alarmel Valli’s, you may either go bankrupt or invest a lot of time searching for and training a good but affordable orchestra and the composer/music arranger. 😦

Topics & themes

The dancer has to be aware that the selection of the themes (mostly grouped by the rasas) and techniques (classified by the tattvas) for his/her items has to accommodate different types of spectators.

Natya Shastra tells us a lot. Here, we’ll give you some hints. :

The elderly like the tales of virtue and puranic legends.
The reason that 90% of the rasikas are elderly people (who bring their grandchildren along). Bhakti, Vatsalya & Karuna rasas…

Young people are pleased to see the scenes of love.
If your recital does not attract the youth, ask yourself what is the ratio of rati sringara in your items. Want to compete with the young film stars of Kollywood or Bollywood? Look in the mirror first. If your face looks like Meenakshi Chittarajan’s or Priya Murle’s, or if it’s as expressionless as A.Lakshmanan’s, don’t even try to do it. If your figure is Padma Subrahmaniams, people will laugh at your “sringara“. Know your limits. πŸ™‚

The learned want to see a reference to some religious/philosophical teachings
If the dancer does not understand these, there is no way he/she will be able to present these things adequately. In other words, if you are dumb, don’t try to interpret the mystic doctrines!

The seekers of money love the topics of wealth and its acquisition.
If you want to get rich sponsors at a corporate, that’s what you have to start with! There is a wealth of ancient topics that deal with it. Read the Artha Shastra.

The passionless want to watch the topics of liberation.
Shanta rasa…. If you are going to present your recital in an ashram… But if you are not even close to understanding what liberation stands for, don’t make yourself a clown.

Heroic people want to see the scenes in Rudra- and Jugupsa-dominated rasas, with combat scenes.
Not just the army and police folks. Well, hard to compete with the Bruce Lee movies! Why is it that whenever the Dhananjayans produce anything of this kind, it makes me laugh??? πŸ™‚
I have just imagined the 80-year-old Sudharani Raghupathi doing a combat scene…. Would put me to sleep… Snoring…

Common women, children and the uncultured men (murkha) are always delighted with the comic scenes and fascinating costumes and makeup.
Since this category is the most numerous, think of putting more Hasya scenes. Make sure you don’t look too ugly while laughing! Get a nice costume and learn good makeup. If you are a fat, clumsy and ugly dancer, that’s your audience.

Know your audience

Why nobody wants to watch us dance???? We are discriminated against!!!

Why nobody wants to watch us dance????

Do you know that most brahmins today are of the shudra type, but some (2-3%) contemporary SC’s and ST’s have the sattva-dominated nature of the true brahmin? 😦 Although Natya Shastra tells us that, for example, the cheri (inferior human type) spectators will not appreciate the finer art that is appreciated by the superior, uttama, spectators, this limitation can be overcome to some extent by mastering all the necessary techniques.

Techniques

We will classify them according to the main chakras:

Sahasrara
No faith (shraddha), no (spiritual) gain. If you have a divine inspiration and tejas, you may already be a saint. The problem is, saints are usually recognized and get popularity long after they are dead.

Soma
Here is the control over the Hasya.Β  The dancer has to be cheerful and even playful (the dancers with some Kuchipudi training understand what it is better). πŸ™‚ It has some connection with Medha (it’s not related to Medha Hari! πŸ™‚ ). Open this lotus and learn how to bring joy and humour even to the most depressive of the rasikas.

Ajna
If the rasikas are not paying attention to your dancing, think why one of the 64 vedic arts was “taking control of the crowd by mystic means”. It implies looking into the crowd of the rasikas in a certain way (they have to feel the “eye contact”). It is related to Drishti (something that most dancers are clueless about!). The more focussed you are, the easier you will engage the audience. Take some lessons from Barack Obama πŸ™‚ Don’t complain if you can’t move your eyes at will! 😦 Want to test your mental concentration? Close your eyes, try to dance and see how good your balance is! πŸ™‚ Oh, you still have the ambition to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer, eh??? 😦

Vishudhi
Music and voice (already described in more detail above). Bring good music (and make sure the loudspeakers are good). It is related to Laya, Vacho and Geetam. Train your voice and introduce your items the way Alarmel Valli does, and the success is yours. Before each item she establishes rapport with the audience. Remember, she speaks from the heart or the throat registers, not from the head. You can’t speak? Hire a good compere.

Anahata
Make your bhavas profound and intense. Be sincere, understand your characters’ relations and minds. If the audience are the refined rasikas in a small auditorium, don’t overdo your expressions! πŸ™‚ Remember: those miserable spectators came to seek for a spark of joy, so don’t overburden them with the tragic expressions!

Manipura
Do the brisk nrittas and difficult karanas. It’s about Javaha. πŸ™‚ If you are doing it effortlessly and irradiate the energy, it will draw the attention. Stamina problems? πŸ™‚ Sweating too much? The jaw drops every now and then? πŸ™‚ Look miserable after dancing for 5 minutes? Need to do kapalabhati, eh? πŸ™‚

Swadhisthana
If you are a woman, have you wondered why your recitals don’t attract men? Cannot do Lasya properly? People complain that you look and move like a eunuck? Ok, we have a hint for you. The people who are selected as “sex symbols” have the uncanny ability to attract the opposite sex. Hint: learn the sexy karanas and bhedas. Learn to move gracefully. And a lot more. See how sexy Alarmel Valli moves her shoulders and chest? Oh, look at the flutter of her eyelashes! Now, don’t you want to murder Rukmini Devi for popularizing her unisex bland Kalakshetra version of Bharatanatyam devoid of talukku, kulukku, alakshyam, midukku,or any graceful ottam adavus?

Muladhara
Purely physical things. How good is your angasudhi? Cannot sit in araimandi, eh? Cannot do atami? Cannot lift your leg? Do your fingers bend properly in all the mudras? How many hastas do you use, actually? (It seems there are 548 , but you need to do Alarmel Valli-style introductions for all these mudras, or else nobody will understand!)

You have to be beautiful, wear a beautiful costume, makeup and jewelry! πŸ™‚ Ever wondered why the scriptures have… errrr… certain physical requirements for professional dancers? :)In other words, if you are a woman and excel by your beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, you will not have to compete for attention! πŸ™‚

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

Bharatanatyam competition…

Have you read our article on judging Bharatanatyam performances? πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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! πŸ™‚

3 competitions: different approaches and different results! πŸ™‚

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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!!! πŸ™‚

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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. πŸ™‚ 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… πŸ™‚