“Vazhuvoor” styles of Bharatanatyam and the magic of abhinaya

Madhula…

I was surprised to see among the 50-strong audience many Bharatanatyam VIP’s, “senior” gurus, critics and young top-notch dancers (and hardly any “ordinary” rasikas!) assembled in the ahe previous performance that K.M.D.Madhula did at the “Spirit of Youth” in the Music Academy, she had to dance even though she had a fever and had had only a few days for rehearsal, as the Academy sent her the “happy news”ย  only a few days before! The funniest thing is that Madhula did not even know that this festival was actually a competition. (It was part of a brilliant political manoeuvre by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, the Music Academy’s committee member (!), who realized her plan of making her protege, Swetha Vijayaraghavan, the winner of the “Spirit of Youth” competition-festival. Long live Madras politicians! ๐Ÿ™‚

This time K.M.D.Madhula was in excellent shape, and every move was well-rehearsed (she complained after the programme that she had to put so much of hard work into this success! ๐Ÿ™‚ ) This is the girl who looks absolutely beautiful with or without makeup, and every woman on earth envies her. Have I seen anyone else like her? Hmmmm…. Smitha Madhav’s beauty is more mature and her expressions and movements are not so refined (got worse after her tour in the US, though), while Madhula looks like a 12-year-old girl and her expressions are as pure and delicate as of a little child’s! So elevating, and so inspiring!

Good genes? She moves so gracefully and completes every move. Supple! She has amazing stamina (she announced every item herself, and was never short of breath immediately – even after the varnam!), can be very fast, and she can do the slow passages too. Any shortcomings? Well….. When she got a bit tired, her feet in jatis were spread a bit too far apart, and sometimes she did not sit low enough.

There is one unique thing about Madhula, and this is her eyebrow movements in her abhinaya. Her eyebrow not only move totally independently, but every little section of each eyebrow seems to respond individually every moment to every change of music. Madhula can move her eyebrows in all imaginable and unimaginable ways, and she does it so well that one can only exclaim, “It is natural! You cannot learn it!”. Yes, you can. Without a full control over the eyebrows, the dancer will lose a major part of that captivating magic that most of us can only dream of doing.

I think Madhula’s mother and guru, Amudha Dandayudahpani of Coimbatore’s largest (thanks to Madhula too?) Bharatanatyam school, was determined that she would give birth to a girl who would excel in Bharatanatyam. Perhaps some other women, like Revathy Ramachandran, had this determination too – it has nothing to do with the “hereditary” genes. How little do men’s wishes matter when it comes to choosing what soul is going to be embodied in a particular body! ๐Ÿ™‚

Amudha ‘s choreography, although not too rich in terms of variety of elements, is very interesting too (one of the seniormost disciples of Ramaiah Pillai was not happy about a couple of things, though). Madhula dances so well that every moment her body does 1000 extremely complex and elaborate movements (she is very flexible in every joint) that enabled Madhula to have a perfect laya and compensated for any perceived simplicity of choreography. Amudha’s nattuvangam was not flawless, according to the Music College nattuvangam teacher who stood up after the first item and rushed to watch Jyotsna Jagannathan in Sivagami Petachi Auditorium. Well, did many other people care to notice it if Madhula danced so well???

I hope the charismatic Jyotsna does not curse me for not attending another of her recitals, but it was a Vazhuvoor day in Mypalore that Sunday. At the same time (why do they do it???): Madhula’s, Jyotsna’s and Srithika Kasturirangan‘s performances! A very difficult choice for most rasikas! The three stars competing with each other ๐Ÿ™‚ You would never believe that all these three dancers are of… “Vazhuvoor” style! Which Vazhuvoor, eh???? ๐Ÿ™‚

“Madhula is my friend”, said (with admiration and love in his eyes! ๐Ÿ™‚ Shanmuga Sundaram, a seniormost assistant of K.J.Sarasa of Vazhuvoor style. “Madhula is my friend”, said Devi Ghanshyam Das. Devi became the number one among Lakshmi Ramaswamy’s (seniormost student of Chitra Visweswaran, one of the well-known Vazhuvoor style gurus) students after Roshini Rajamohan regrettably lost her shape a year ago. Devi Ghanshyam Das recently released her DVD video (you can see a piece of it on YouTube), which is one of the best one I have watched!

While Chitra Visweswaran’s girls (except, perhaps, for Vijay Madhavan’s Sri Gayathri) dance only in skirts that severely restrict the leg movements so that the “dance” is more like walking or running around the stage, Madhula in her elegant pyjama costume was moving her legs effortlessly, powerfully and effectively in all directions, making a great impression! I think it impressed even V.P.Dhananjayan, a Kalakshetra-style guru, who came and was waiting to do the second slot’s recital. Did V.P.Dhananjayan appreciate the graceful charm and fluidity of the Vazhuvoor school? ๐Ÿ™‚ No, he likes the simpler lines of the Italian ballet more. And the grotesque Kathakali abhinaya that is suitable for watching only from 1 km away.

But then, Madhula was fantastic even she did a piece portraying the fierce nature of goddess Kali: everything, her amazingly expressive face (she even put out her tongue), the sharp moves full of power, her acute sense of rhythm, brought out Kali so vividly that I could not take my eyes off her! While one of the typical errors that plagues the professional dancers is what we can call the “mechanical mudras“, when they do it automatically, Madhula was doing each mudra and hastha accurately and put her consciousness into every finger’s move. A mudra cannot be powerful unless we do it consciously! This consciousness was one of the hallmarks of Madhula’s recital. Without it, every American robot can dance “Bharatanatyam”.

Madhula got a Master’s degree in Bharatanatyam in Chennai. I do not know why she needed that useless degree! She is much better at Bharata natyam than her university phoney “Bharatanatyam” “professors” who do not have any degree! (I will ask Chitra Visweswaran if Ramaiah Pillai had any “degree” in Bharatanatyam!). Madhula’s mom was not entirely happy with the side effects of this “academics”: the Kalakshetra stamp. A few months ago Amudha said, “I promise that by winter I will make her unlearn all the stupid Kalakshetra trash that she learnt in Chennai”. And she did keep her promise. Fortunately! ๐Ÿ™‚

Girija Ramaswamy was again at her best, singing with powerful yet not hysterical emotions (why does Alarmel Valli keep her hysterical vocalist?) that flow from the depth of her heart, filled with profound bhavas. Girija is one of my favourite masters. Her delicate voice brings out the subtle nuances of the lyrics, and it is full of Bhakti!

Advertisements

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… ๐Ÿ™‚ ) toย  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 ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ), 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, โ€œThe 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,โ€ 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 dancerโ€™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.