Commercialism in Bharatnatyam. Bharatanatyam copycats. And copyright in Bharata natyam. True Bharathanatyam gurus vs Bharathanatyam dance instructors.

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a Bharatanatyam guru and a Bharatanatyam dance instructor?

Due to the mushrooming of Bharatanatyam schools and exploding number of dancers, the competition has been growing from tough to ultra tough. Who will be the winners of this rat race? This post will explore the issue of copying, copyrights, professionalism and commercialism.

The history of the Indian culture does not know of anything like intellectual property and royalties. Many, if not most, great pieces of art and literature of the past have remained unsigned, their authors anonymous, while the more recent composers make it a point to insert their signature everywhere. This dirty stamp of ahamkar (ego) has marked the advent of Kali Yuga.

Every Indian has an unconscious conviction that knowledge, just like flowers in the Himalayas, cannot belong to an individual. In fact, it is thanks to the enthusiastic copying that the ancient scriptures survived thousands of years. Had they been so popular and successful if their authors insisted on getting royalties from each copy? Indeed, how much did Valmiki charge for each copy of his Ramayana?

The Hindu surprised its readers with the foreboding of the aggressive advance of the western $ culture:

Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (renowned Carnatic musician) of T. Nagar and Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Radha, both of Chennai, filed an application seeking an interim order of injunction restraining the respondents Cleveland Cultural Alliance, Ohio, U.S. and A. Lakshmanan of Annanagar here from staging the dance ballet and infringing their copyrights…

They (Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Radha) owned the entire copyright over the ballet and they staged it in several places in India.

The Indian art, including Bharatanatyam, has long been considered as a religious offering, a gift for the gods, something that belongs to gods only. Other than offering such a gift, the artist had not even thought of making any copyright claims. Such claims would be considered as shameful.

Now, when some works of art are no longer considered by their authors as a sacred offering but rather, as a commercial commodity (or even junk), we can speak of the difference between a true Bharatanatyam guru and a merely Bharatanatyam dance instructor, the difference between an artiste and a craftsman:

Earl Hunsinger explains:

Artists are now respected as gifted, as geniuses, as divinely inspired. Crafts people just make stuff. In an ironic twist, artists are considered professionals, while crafts people may be viewed as amateurs that sell stuff on the weekend at the local fair. Does it matter? Probably not if you’re considered an artist. For someone that has been labeled as a crafts person, maybe so. In addition to the matter of respect, it’s been said, only half jokingly, that the difference between an art object and a craft object is several thousand dollars.

I’ve seen paintings hanging in modern art galleries that look like an child made them for his mother, and not a very talented child. My personal criteria has always been, if it looks like I could have painted it, it’s not art. The aesthetic value of a piece should be determined, not by the label given to it, but by the creativity seen in its design and execution. Ultimately, isn’t that what art is supposed to be, a product of the imagination brought to life for all to see?

Arul Francis gives us his opinion:

A dancer may have put in lots of years and finally have earned an advanced piece in exchange for her ability and seniority. Of course she’s not going to want to give that away to copycats by putting it on video. Others will simply copy the piece and perform it themselves and tweak this or that and ruin the piece. The person who created the piece will not get any credit or mention. It will just be plagiarized. There has to be a way around it though.

Let us single out each point:

no guru will teach the newcomer an advanced piece

Most gurus retain their senior students by creating an expectation that these students will – some day – be taught “advanced and rare items”. What is “advanced”, you may wonder? Do such items exist at all? Have you ever watched such “advanced” pieces performed by your guru’s seniormost students? In what way is it “advanced”? Is this piece something that your guru learnt from their own gurus, or is it what he choreographed himself?

These are the questions that most out-of-shape gurus – whose only body part that somehow manages to move is their “dancing face” – hate to answer. 🙂 But then, if it is only some cheri “mukha abhinaya” that is left to be taught, you’d better run away as soon as you can. After all, since the cat (or rather 8 of them) of Mami’s Magic is out of the bag, everybody can buy those DVDs and see that the king is… naked!

Well, if these “advanced” items are ever performed for an audience, a truly advanced student can just go there and watch, and note down the choreography. That’s, if you don’t have a good cameraphone with video recording capability 🙂

Well, why do they call dance instructors “gurus”? Well, if there are IT, farming and banking gurus, there must be Bharatanatyam gurus too, right? 😦

Minakshi Ajay puts it this way:

The Upanishads have profoundly underlined the role of the guru. Mundak Upanishad says to realize the supreme godhead holding samidha grass in his hands one should surrender himself before the guru who knows the secrets of Vedas.

If your guru knows the secrets of Vedas, you are lucky, as such a guru has attained to the physical immortality as well as all the other siddhas. (We will give you a Rs.10000000 gift voucher if you tell us where to find such a person). Well, why did Minakshi mention all this in her article on Bharatanatyam??? As if she knows any Bharatanatyam gurus who can at least read the Vedas, not to mention understanding them!

One ancient tradition we still keep: the Bharatanatyam gurus will always try to promote their well-paying, high-status but inferior students at the expense of putting down the more talented students. The gurus create all kinds of obstacles for their “less important” students. For example, in case of Bharatanatyam competitions, if the gurus send more than 1 students to contest a prize, sometimes these gurus have to bribe the judges so that they would not give the 1st prize to the most talented dancer but to some other, VIP student. If you are among your guru’s most talented students, don’t be surprised to learn that your guru used the mean and dirty methods to promote other, less capable VIP students, at the expense of your dance career.

Unbelievable? Read what Minakshi tells us:

The most popular legend is that of the amazing young tribal boy Ekalavya on being rejected by the ace trainer Dronacharya, raised his statue and with great dedication practised the art of archery and left behind Arjuna, the master archer, who actually learnt the art under the living guru. And the heartless guru asked for his thumb as gurudakshina or fees, and made him inferior before his royal disciple.

a lot of dancers copy each other’s pieces

“I take my Handycam every time I go to the Natyanjali and other festivals”, confesses one professional Bharatanatyam dancer. “Otherwise I watch Bharatanatyam on TV or YouTube – there is more than I have time for it!”

Some Bharatanatyam gurus give their students the videos of a dancer’s performance and ask them to merely copy it. The question is, how well can they actually copy?

My most advanced students have been trying to copy this piece (performed by an outstanding dancer) for the past 5 years but so far they have not been able to copy more than 80%. They can’t copy the nuances, the smaller details. Well, they can’t even do the mudras properly or the bhedas“, – complained a senior guru.

It takes an exceptional virtuoso to copy a genius successfully. But then, if you are a genius, you will never even think of copying others!

Even if we make a poor replica of a masterpiece, how many people will be able to tell the original from the fake? 2%?
For the ogranizers of the corporate shows, all items will appear identical as long as the title is identical.
Re-packaging, re-labeling, re-mixing and re-branding is now in vogue.

some copycats will “ruin” the “original” choreography by “tweaking this or that”

Other gurus are more cunning: they modify a bit here and a bit there and sell it as “original”.
The question is, isn’t choreography supposed to be evolving?
And, didn’t the traditional Sadir choreography degrade beyond recovery 300 years ago?

there is a person who “created the original piece”

What is “original”????
Can any author really make a claim that he has not used bits and pieces from some other people’s work?

Sirisha believes that:

dance should be an art that should spread with zero inhibitions, and specially to people who cant afford it.

How many students in your Bharatanatyam dance schools are studying for free? If you are learning with a true Bharatanatyam guru who is untarnished by the emerging commercialism, you are lucky.


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!