Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of cunning NRIs

While Kathak dancer Prathiba raises many valid questions and highlights very valid points, there are a few that put a smile on my face. 

What she meant to say is this:

I hardly ever bother to watch any outstanding classical dancers who never make it to the USA as I may start questioning myself where I truly belong and what the hell I have been doing in Texas, and, more importantly, why I learnt the Persian classical dance Kathak instead of the classical American dance of Salsa.  In recent times, I have witnessed several jaw-dropping, pants-wetting modern performances in Dallas and Houston by visiting Indian dancers who, being old enough, still aspire to look like some teenage American ballet dancers. Their academic presentations made me feel like the classical (shastriya) Indian dance has now been made to sound scientific enough to be taught at the Faculty of Statistics and Measurement at the University of North Texas. The problem for Kathak still remains: to call it classical, we are yet to write a shastra (or “discover” some fake antique book) based on which it would be called “shastriya”.

I have left the auditoriums giggling, jumping and throwing pieces of potato chips around like a teenager who smoked pot on a first visit to Disney Land. Today’s PR specialists, even those who promote themselves as dancing under the traditional labels, incorporate interesting, simple and entertaining MTV-style movements  in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of devolution, inborn inability to learn anything from Natya Shastra or to perform even a few stretches a day to accomplish what most American teenage ballet dancers or gymnasts achieve with ease and little pride. At the same time, there also seems to be something, such as use of those pretty useless and meaningless hand gestures, that is stagnant in its practice and even an evolution in the wrong direction, if I may be so bold. I feel I am entitled to be bold and question everything because I have an American passport.

While artistes like Uttara Coorlawala, Anita Ratnam and Michael Jackson seem to have taken evolution to a new level far away from the place they started from, questioning the concept of evolution  itself, why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas and not on their church affiliations or sex preferences? Based on the relationship with the hero, the Natya Shastra classifies women as the one who dresses for union with her hero (my daughter always goes to a date in the same torn jeans she wears in her bedroom), the one distressed by separation (everybody knows that once you become separated you are relieved as the costly divorce litigation is near its completion), the one having her husband in subjection (only perverts put their husbands in handcuffs in Texas), the one separated by quarrel (quarrels are needed to show that we have the right to have different opinions), the one enraged with her lover, the one deceived by her lover (cheating on one’s boyfriend is absolutely the norm here), the one with a sojourning husband (who came back from Iraq), or the one going to meet her lover (on a blind date).

What about the NRI woman who thinks she is an intellectual or equal of Sigmund Freud? What about the woman who brings home the bacon, sushi, electricity bills, sanitary napkins, the Tea Party leaflets, and condoms? What about the woman who decides that she is better off as a single parent, a single woman or a lesbian in a same-sex marriage? May I remind that many women in Texas marry 4, 5 or 6 times and many don’t even remember who are the actual fathers of all their children?

May I remind that although the Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every NRI dancer should avoid reading, it is religiously believed by all Texan rednecks to be written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE? Its views on women and statistics are as outdated as some of our old American texts that classify humans based on their US visa status or propagate the theory of creationism that contradicts the Bible or the beliefs of the Faculty of Physics at the University of North Texas. Why are we, the modern women driving expensive cars and wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie, clinging to it for dear life if some of us are in danger of being classified by the 14th Chapter not as Goddesses, Gandharvas, Humans but as belonging to other types, such as Pigs, Horses, Buffalos, Goats or even Dogs? How can our democratic society classify people as noble, mediocre or lowly?

I wish Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts and conformed to the MTV standards. As an atheist and a member of the Republican party who thinks that everyone, not just Spiderman, must wear one’s underwear over one’s pants, I wish we overcame the limits of beauty and religion in its practice. I wish we overcame the male chauvinistic ideas portrayed in a Bharatanatyam performance, and promoted the same-sex marriages in India. I am writing this as a woman who is tired of seeing nayikas who long, pine, and suffer for someone who resembles one of my ex-husbands. For the Muslim purists who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for the impersonal and vague truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for years of imagination since the Prophet consummated his marriage with the 9-year-old Aisha?

Recently, I heard someone call the ardhanareeswara concept not as a reference to some unscientifically genderless godhead, Ida and Pingala, or to American women who are indistinguishable from the American men, but as the oldest example of gender equality and the only instance where Shiva carelessly wears unmanageable matted locks for hair while Parvati has beautiful flowing hair.

Shiva shows rage while Parvati is demure, which is absolutely unrealistic considering how much every American woman has to yell, scream and shout every day. Shiva can lift his leg over his head but Parvati (may be able to but) should not. Considering that most American women ballet dancers are excited about lifting their legs as high as possible in order to demonstrate the stylishness of their underwear, what about this really shows gender equality?

Showing that the male is all male and the female is all female is outrageous. Showing that the female does not exist without male enhances the wrong and irrational concept that the Universe that manifests in time and space comes from some unscientific Brahman that exists beyond time and space and is independent of the US Government.

Despite all the good values of Indian culture and its cuisine in particular, a major rule of our society that creates a stumbling block is “do not question your mom.” We stop evolving when we stop asking questions, and the more foolish questions come into our heads, the more we evolve in the eyes of the US Government. Perhaps that is why we label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.’

You’d think that living in a western society as NRIs would help people push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam even beyond the limits of salsa. You couldn’t be more wrong! As an NRI, I have no choice but to witness painful arangetrams performed like weddings with splendor and showmanship but lacking in content and standard that we find in the old school of the American ballet. As a dancer who dances at home every week, I am tired of NRI parents badmouthing their children’s gurus’ practices (Question: If you hate them so much, why do you continue sending your kids to their classes instead of sending them to Madras?).

As an economic migrant who came to the US to earn money, I see all NRI and the visiting gurus treat the art simply as the business of teaching (read moneymaking) and graduating more mediocre and substandard students year after year. I do not believe in religion or investing in real estate but I believe in Statistics and Citibank where I have my savings account. Neither am I traditional to the point of being able to appreciate anything other than rock-n-roll. Yet I cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals and iPods in auditoriums that are not built according to Natya Shastra. I am tired of the standing ovation given to every kid finishing his/her arangetram, irrespective of the standard as if we were at a GOP meeting. I am even tired of the almost ritualistic applause I hear at the completion of every plain jathi, theermanam, and swaram that so takes the focus away from the the glaring evidence of absence of any dance described in 4th Chapter of Natya Shastra.

Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons. Once our barriers start feeling free, we stop reading books and begin investigating the crucial issues: which of the current US party does Nataraja belong to, and why he is not depicted as the top American bodybuilders?

Sadly, most NRI parents today seem to be focused on how many quasi-traditional or semi-traditional or newly-traditional items they can get their children to believe they learn, how many costume changes one can manage in a given arangetram, how many costumes and jewelry they can acquire on their next trip to India, etc. Lata Pada, in a recent lecture said beautifully, “Do not expect me to be a cultural babysitter for your children just because I teach them Bharatanatyam. I am here to do business with you, and not to establish some Gurukula.”  It seems that this is exactly what several NRIs are hoping. Instead of encouraging their children to believe they already became dancers in the true sense by sending them to Madras, they want to create replicas of Priyadarsini Govind or Rama Vaidyanathan so they can be happy that their children are, after all, Indian who can do lecture but not demonstration.

Challenging someone intellectually is, after all, easier than doing it physically. PG and RV became expert lecturers not by following status quo or by practising stretches, but by learning Business Administration, Marketing, PR and carving their own niche in the American market. Of course, there are exceptions among NRIs such as Mythili Prakash and Bhavajan Kumar, to name a few who became proficient in their business promotion.

Why am I now taking it out on the NRIs as if they come here just to earn money and invest it in Chennai properties? Three reasons exist. I live abroad and got burnt in the US sub-prime mortgage scam. I cannot comment about the current practices in India for fear of being thrown into an open manhole in T.Nagar in the rainy season. While many of them hate to read books, NRIs have the financial resources to take the risk and push the boundaries beyond the limits of the ancient Indian aesthetics and sensibility. Living in a western society, witnessing art forms such as strip dance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, opera, etc, and receiving constant encouragement to explore and experiment should foster these experiences (or rather experiments?) even more until we start frying our dosas on Shevron engine oil instead of ghee. Sadly, I am yet to see examples of such, although the popularity of McDonalds in Chennai seems promising. And the question, “Will the NRIs who have the money and the cunning to push the boundaries and experiment help Bharatanatyam reach new heights in the eyes of Michael Jackson fans?” remains unanswered to me still.

Advertisements

Ananda Shankar Jayant: the chief pirate in India and Anita Ratnam’s special friend?

Although I am a contributor to Narthaki’s “Roses and Thorns”, I rarely check it out.  This time everyone was sending me their comments (edited and unedited bits of which I will mark in blue) and asking for my reaction to a recent post by Ananda Shankar Jayant. This is  a hilariously brilliant suicide attempt that deserves praise and encouragement 🙂

There is a heated debate among those who are discussing this article. Some comments are pretty inoffensive: “Many of the videos hosted in the site are at least a decade old. There is no other way that youngsters like me would get to watch these videos, but for dancing india“.  A couple of people complained to me that their comments were censured out.

According to a message of  one commentator (Mahesh), his response to Ranjana Dave’s comment (“the misconception that if they [dancers] post videos of their work online, no one will watch them live“) was apparently cut out.

So, what was there that Anita Ratnam could not bear? (Was it her frustration that her most popular video on  Abhinayastore.com priced at $2.99 was bought as many as…. 3 times since… 1 April 2008 ??? 🙂

The main points of what Mahesh sent me deserve to be expanded.

All dancers, despite their paranoid apprehensions of “what if some students record me on their VHS and learn the full item without paying me???”  or, perhaps more frequent “what if people laugh at my crappy dancing?”,  historically strived to be featured on DD because it was some kind of a “status symbol” and marked their entrance into the “elite” of the classical dancers regardless of the quality of their dancing.

The slots for broadcasting classical dance were few and are still sold out like hot cakes. But no commercial TV channels have been interested in total crap like this DD video of Anjana Banerjee even if Anita Ratnam on her site writes that Anjana Banerjee’s “dance forms entirely a part and parcel of India’s cultural heritage“.

And suddenly, all this crap (along with some good stuff) is uploaded onto DancingIndia to be sold to dance junkies, and appears alongside homemade Bharatanatyam videos on Youtube. The “senior” dancers are outraged and scared.

Of what?

Of not being asked a permission for posting their videos online?
Or rather of seeing how few people are watching their videos online while many younger classical dancers receive literally millions of views? The “senior dancers” feel their ill-gotten “status” is threatened. The decade-long artificial hierarchy is challenged and is on its last legs.

One of the comments posted on Narthaki’s Facebook page deserves a special attention.

 Some visitors may have suspected that Ananda is promoting her own videos on Dancingindia. But the posting stirred something in my memory and put a smile on my face.

It was around 2004 when I was searching for Bharatanatyam videos that had not flooded the Web back then. Specifically I was looking for a few Doordarshan broadcasts, and to my immense pleasure the tapes were being sold on ranidevi.com. At steep prices of $25-$75 for a VHS tape or a DVD. Now I can no longer find them there on Rani Devi’s official site, but the “unofficial page” at http://www.geocities.ws/ranidevi/index.html is still active and seems to be doing brisk business! Rani Devi, though, presents her selling these Doordarshan tapes as her social mission of popularizing classical dance in the US and worldwide, almost in a non-profit spirit.

Ananda Shankar Jayant’s suggestion is that “These videos are being made available to DancingIndia unofficially from Doordarshan itself from every Kendra, by a group of people“.  And if she wanted to know who these people are, why didn’t she ask Rani Devi herself?

It was long time before a DVD of Volume 2 (no one knew when or where Volume 1 was released) of Bharatanatyam broadcasts from Doordarshan Archives was officially released. And it was long before the publication of Padma Subrahmanyam’s interview where she said she was urging Prasar Bharti to release the classical dance archives. With announcements like on http://www.friendsofprasarbharati.org/Recent%20newsYA85.htm, some dancers were elated. Dance students were trying to get the Bharatiya Natyashastra DVD and were frustrated. What do they do now? All the full episodes of Bharatiya Natyashastra are offered on Dancingindia for quick download, and for a dollar or two they can download almost anything. Since the times of Rani Devi’s selling the Doordarshan VHS tapes for $75, the prices have gone down so much, and now people don’t even buy DVDs as much as before.

But this is not the point. The point Ananda Shankar Jayant makes is about “piracy”. But when you hear one of her closest friends telling you that Ananda has more pirated software on her computer than most dancers, you start thinking. Thinking if she is planning to start a Pirate Party in India, to join the worldwide movement that is gaining strength. We all know that the intellectual property rights is a concept alien to our culture.

This comment, however, was not posted on Narthaki.com for obvious reasons: Anita Ratnam’s friend is loath to admit that she herself is one of the biggest software pirates in India. She is too shy: “Some of you have also responded with uncalled for belligerence, and personal comments, irrelevant to the topic under discussion. I would love to respond to them too, and will do so if you mail me“.

Piracy it too private to be discussed publicly. Even if some railway clerks have a Dr. title before their name, they risk being prosecuted. 🙂

Differences between classical Indian dance styles in terms of Natya Shastra, Tantra, calligraphy, mechanical engineering and psychiatry. Bharatanatyam styles & Bharatnatyam schools & Bharathanatyam dancers

Can you tell if these flowers are live or… latex?

This is the uncensored draft (still being updated) of the article posted on Narthaki.com.

The topics touched in this article will be:

  • Padma Subrahmanyam’s elucidation of Natya Shastra’s Recakas
  • Role of Recakas in producing Rasas
  • What makes the dance attractive, beautiful and interesting
  • Kaisikivs. robotic movements in terms of mechanical engineering
  • Why classical Indian dance proper is a solo dance
  • Laya and 22 Sruthis
  • Why Bharata Muni didn’t allow men to sing (and the proof that most dancers and rasikas are actually deaf)
  • Lines of power, and why Anita Ratnam is fond of her Tai Chi classes
  • Anga Suddham, modes of movements and calligraphy
  • The Tantric explanations of everything in terms of 3 gunas, 5 elements, the vrittis and more
  • Difference between true art, factory-produced merchandize, and garbage

In her book on the Karanas, Padma Subrahmanyam boldly attempted to pinpoint what is dance and what is not. She builds much of her explanation around the term Recaka. To give you an idea of what the mind-boggling variety of, for example, the Pada (feet) Recakas alone include, these “may utilize the space on the sides, move forward, slip or glide, waver, quiver, shake, proceed, turn away, swerve, sway, get pushed, jerk, slide, raise, lower, draw, release or whirl“.

Padma Subrahmanyam says, though, that Recakas “cannot be enlisted or enumerated“. She also uses the terms Prthagbhava (clearly/sharply outlined) and Valana (smooth/blurred) components of movement saying that a performance that makes use of both masterfully “can never be boring even for the uninitiated“. All this makes sense, while I am yet to understand her identification of Anga Suddham with Prthagbhava alone.

Alathur Vijayakumar, the founder of Kalavardhanis, thought he discovered America when he said that he arrived at a formula that detects the “presence of grace” (or rather, the presence of life) in a particular dance sequence. Any robotic movement (which the break dance or army soldiers marching seeks to emulate) can very accurately be described in terms of velocity (V)  and acceleration (V²) and jerk (V³).

Padma Subrahmanyam says, “…if the intensity [of movement] is constant, the actions suffer a lack of variety.The lines may be defined, lucid and distinct in every action with clarity even in the divergence of the movements. In such a convoy of actions, every movement follows disconnectedly, without getting dissolved into one another. Hence there is a danger of killing grace” . She says that the word Valana signifies that “each movement glides into another in a graceful manner“.

The famous guru Muthukumaran Pillai had “no patience for stiff, angular, sharp-edged or what he called “violent” movement: he wanted the movements to be firm, yet appear to be effortless. Then, in nritta sequences he insisted that the termination of one adavu pattern and beginning of the next should be marked, not by a blunt break, but by a gentle overlapping which should accentuate the continuity of the rendering”. Ironically, Rukmini Devi Arundale was one of his students.

 

Any psychiatrist or graphologist will tell you that if the letters in your handwriting are not connected, it means you think incoherently, and you have a good chance of becoming a schizophrenic in the future. Exposure to the schizophrenic dance performances is tantamount to eating food full of chemical pesticides.

Super-compex task for advanced dancers:

match each of these 3 words with a video below



The organic movements full of life, especially the kaisiki (graceful feminine) type movements (dominant in Odissi, Mohiniattam and  Kuchipudi), are extremely complex and each is unique (just like every live flower is unique) as the expression of the dancer’s manodharma. Their presence in dance can only be approximately described in terms of infinite number of components: V, V², V³,…, V∞ , and the speed graph will be way too complex.

The slight deviations from the impeccably “perfect” computer-generated standard are inherent in classical Indian dance. The deviations that create beauty are predominantly Sattvic, though, depending on the character, they may contain a good dose of Rajas. The ugly deviations are the results of the dancer’s laziness or inability to follow the proper trajectory (Anga Suddham). These are the Tamasic deviations (look at the 3 words “Dance” again).

Now, there are some politically incorrect and undemocratic conclusions that the senior dancers who hate Bharata Muni will abhor. Even if you are born with the Sattva as the dominant component of your (“Brahmin”) nature, your body, emotions and mind will be more Rajasic in the teenage years, and will be gradually more and more Tamasic as you grow older. (Yoga is the only method of changing this tendency). Our ability to understand, to remember, and to learn something new depends on the amount of Sattva in us.

I find it very amusing when the “senior” dancers dare to say that they somehow “explore the Sringara rasa” even though their recitals are devoid of many of the 10 kinds grace of the Sahaja type and of most of the 7 of A-yantaja type, all of which are part of the Valana-rich Kaisiki and all of which, according to Bharata Muni, can be found in the movements of the young women only. A very interesting element of beauty is among the 10 Sahaja graces: Vicchitti (dishabille) is “the great beauty that results from the slightly careless placing of garlands, clothes, ornaments and unguents“.

Why is the classical Indian dance proper a solo dance? Factory-produced latex flowers can be compared with the dance styles that are suitable for group performances where the dancers perform identical movements at the same time. To achieve the perfect “synchronization”, the movements have to be as plain (“perfect-shaped”) as the latex orchids (or one of the 3 words “Dance” on the right). Live flowers are never perfect-shaped and never have “geometric” appearance. If you are half-blind, the easiest method of detecting latex flowers is to smell them. No fragrance, no rasa. (Make sure the smell is not coming from your own hair where you had poured half a bottle of expensive perfume). “Recakas impearl the Nritta, make it shine and cause a complete aesthetic satisfaction”, says Padma Subrahmanyam. Recakas are like spices in food. Well, the food has to be bland enough to please the western palate.

In Tantra, the square represents the angular, robust and firm element of earth and Muladhara chakra. The rounded silver Moon crescent represents the element of water: cohesion, smoothness and life and… sexual energies of the Swadhisthana chakra. Swadhisthana is associated with emotion, which means that the dance without Valana is devoid of emotion. And because one of the 6 vritti petals of Swadhisthana represents affection, it means that the dancer who does not develop the Swadhisthana will have a big problem attracting the rasikas, especially the young rasikas of the opposite sex. As Swadhisthana is positioned higher than Muladhara, it means that the movements, before being expressed in the physical body, have to follow the movements of the subtle body (this is why Anita Ratnam is fond of her Tai Chi classes and will explain to us how body movements are supposed to spring from Tan Tien). Essentially, the Tai Chi movements are based on the principle of the least resistance, as the prana (Chi) “flows” throw various nadis like water flows around the stones in the river. The western (earthly) materialistic culture considers only the physical (sharply defined) body (sthula sharira), so their reliance on the muladhara techniques is obvious. Performing the Kalakshetra-style adavus will make you tired, while performing the adavus (at the same amplitude and speed) in the styles that follow the “lines of power” will energize you.

Padma Subrahmanyam compares the Recakas with Gamakas of

Karnatic music, and says that the “Gamakas are the very life of the Raga”. Referring to Bharata Muni’s 22 Sruthi (microtone) system, she says that the “Gamakas are caused through a webbed state of the microtones, built on the semi-tones and tones of the musical notes”. Have you seen many dancers whose laya is so good that their Recakas follow the microtones too?

If body movement can be described by a speed graph, the music is represented by its sound wave graph. Before you read on, you should define the distinction between music and noise, and between singing and shouting. (hint: analyse the sound wave graph).  The graph for the violin will be much more plain than the graph for veena, the instrument essential for learning gamakas in the vocal music . If Saraswathi holds a veena (not a violin, electric guitar or sax) in her hands, it’s because it is the veena that is most suitable for accompanying the Recakas. The arrival of the budget electric amplification greatly reduced the popularity of the veena, as the sound coming from even the best loudspeakers in the Chennai sabhas blurred the music beyond recognition. After the age of 40, normal people become so Tamasic that they can’t hear anything above 14 kHz. The aging rasikas (except the ones who daily try to exercise their ears!) grew hard of hearing and came to prefer the Italian violin.

While there is software that can impeccably mimic any male voice, there is no software that can analyze and generate a female voice. If the male voices relate to the consonants, and the drums, the women’s relate to the vowels, are far more complex, loaded with far more subtle nuances and shades of feelings. After all, isn’t the world of emotion the woman’s world? Bharata Muni explains that “Though men know the rules of singing in their traditional characteristics, their songs being devoid of sweetness, do not create beauty.  (XXXV, 35-36). “Generally, songs are suited to women, and recitatives are suited for men… The good quality in women’s recitation and sweetness in men’s songs should be considered as an acquired skill, and not part of their in-born nature. If men lead [in songs] and the songs possess good characteristics, but have no sweetness, then these impart no beauty… There may be [allowed] a loss of proper note in women’s songs and playing of musical instruments. But this will not be sweet to the ear in case of men” (XXXII, 503-511). Sounds quite discriminatory, doesn’t it? Note, Bharata Muni keeps saying that “The singer should be of a young age“.

Malavika Sarukkai: her disastrous lecture-demonstration that revealed a lot of what Bharatanatyam and classical dances of India are not to become.

Malavika Sarukkai

***********************************************************

Based on a report emailed to us by Latha Sundaravalli – and expanded with further research that proves Latha’s initial perceptions. If you want, you can compare the below report with the Narthaki.com and The Hindu versions

***********************************************************

Her DVD

I would like to share my observations on the first day (12th September) of the National Seminar in Classical Dances organized by Saila Sudha’s “Academy of Excellence in Bharathanatyam & Kuchipudi” (where only mediocre dance students are learning – from a mediocre teacher who has to advertise her dance classes on Kutcheribuzz classifieds). Kucheribuzz reporters don’t even consider Kuchipudi as a classical dance: “Sailaja began this series last year with the focus on Kuchipudi dance. This year, the focus was on classical dances.” Moreover, as you will read below, Leela Venkatraman was convincing us that Odissi is not a classical dance at all.

Not particularly interested in the speeches, I – like many others – arrived at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at 10.45 as the brochure marked this as the starting time for Malavika Sarukkai’s lecture-demonstration on “Tradition- Transition-Transformation“. As was to be expected, Sri M.A.Babu, a Minister for Education and Culture of Kerala, was speaking till 11.10, enormously taxing the audience’s patience who were drinking coffee outside and wondering if this was the “token of gratitude” which Sailaja had to pay for having her group dance at the dumb Babu’s Nishagandhi Dance and Music festival in Kerala earlier this year.

Having watched Malavika Sarukkai for the past two decades, I was hoping to see some kind of explanation of how classical dancers can so innocently drift into the waters of Kathak, folk dance, modern western dance and computer-animated “dance”. My expectation from a lecture-demonstration was a normal one: the points outlined in the lecture have to be demonstrated in the demonstration. As the topic of the Seminar suggested, I expected to hear some concrete points outlining the tradition, the transition, hoping to pinpoint the transformation. Malavika Sarukkai started by urging everyone to switch off their cell phones and refrain from taking videos of her. She then delivered some abstract cliches, and then proceeded to dancing a nritta piece that left me wondering. Wondering what was that “sheer geometry of lines and precise structural “beauty“”! I was wondering not so much if araimandi is indeed “optional” when danced by “professional dancers”,

but rather why some dancers like Malavika cannot do recakas, even though both Bharata Muni and Abhinavagupta said that there is no dance without recakas. So, why would dancers want to learn karate (is this what she learnt in Europe or America?) or the stiff dances like the one from this video. “Try telling her that her dance has problems, and you are dead”, was a remark of an old rasika who was vainly trying to perceive any traces of talukku and kulukku in her dance.

Is the minimalism of Kalakshetra the latest fad? Malavika is not alone in being “a minimalist; she likes to say as little as possible while using the Bharatanatyam vocabulary in a frugal mannerI don’t subscribe to the theory that the a geometrically regular black triangle on the white canvas can in some way be considered as a great piece of art. How would we have known about our dance forms today, had not the Devadasis preserved them for us?” , says Malavika blissfully unaware that the devadasis danced the margi, karana-based, dance because it is only this kind of dance – unlike jazz or folksy Bharatanatyam – that is entitled to be called “spiritual”. Malavika stressed the importance of imparting beauty to each movement. However hard I tried to see any traces of Lakshmi’s imprint, I could not. In my mind, there appeared images of some dancers, the young and the senior ones, such as Alarmel Valli.  I realised that a movement can be filled with beauty if the dancer is truly relaxed, enjoys herself, as if admiring her body, while delicately elaborating the finer nuances of every single movement, turning it into an elegant, effortless and sophisticated expression that is, most importantly, filled with love and joy of offering it to a deity. Essentially, it is a matter of attitude. The attitude that Malavika lost after doing too many performances for foreign audiences and ugly politicians.

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2711481&dest=-1]

Some Hindu illiterate critics, like Malini White, display their ignorance of the Natya terms (e.g. what is sattva) when they write nonsense like this: the angle of elbow, stance of the foot, the slight inclination from the waist — that made concrete the satvic dimension Sarukkai so values in classical dance Malavika Sarukkai stressed the essential difference between performing mudras mechanically and performing them with a mental “intent” to lend them some “spiritual” power. Either this intent was not there or I did not notice it for some reason.

In this connection, I recollected a story of a man and a brahmin priest. The man paid the brahmin to perform a puja for a newly purchased car. The next day the car got into a terrible traffic accident and the owner was killed on the spot. His wife filed an FIR against the brahmin for “fraud and deficiency in service” and demanded a compensation, which was of course much more pragmatic than Adi Sankara fighting against empty ritualism. Coming back to Malavika’s idea that as long as one imagines something it will surely happen, our personal imagination is, quite on the contrary, most often confined to the realm of our own mind and has no effect whatsoever outside it. Many people with strong imaginations end up – for some reasons – in mental asylums. I remember one person asking Malavika if performing a Jnana mudra would indeed give her any kind of knowledge she wants. You can imagine what embarrassment it caused. While the spiritual effects of the mudras are very clearly described by many scriptures, I am yet to see if any dancer at all can in fact produce any such effects.

Malavika Sarukkai spoke about the importance of placing the Art above the artiste. Yet the nritta fragment, that lacked both the slow and the fast speeds, was filled with tons of stiff ostentatious theatricality and tawdry showiness. Finally, the dancer struck a flashy pose obviously imported from the western dance. “Hello! I am here, look at ME and admire ME. Aren’t you impressed with ME?“, the pose and the expression could not shout louder. Following another dose of generic cliches, Malavika said that everything boils down to one thing: rasa. As a demonstration, a piece portraying Yudhisthira hunting the deers was presented. Remarkably, both Yudhisthira and the deer were moving in much the same manner. If Seetharama Sarma’s sollukattus alone were intended to bring out the Veera rasa, they failed to do it too.

Next, Malavika Sarukkai presented a demo, based on Swathi Thirunal’s composition, that was supposed to bring out the Sringara rasa (see our previous post) and Bhakti. While the singing of the Sanscrit slokas as a prelude did perhaps create some basic atmosphere of sanctity, the karate-like “movements of great beauty” in Malavika’s dance didn’t create any beauty there. If any rasika indeed tasted any Sringara rasa in her demo, I would like to know who it was, and how exactly it happened. Malavika showed her instinctive (or rather, post-traumatic) avoidance of the Sringara in this: “In terms of colour, my costume has changed — from the bright colours with contrasting borders to muted shades” , which is perfectly normal: our pranic body grows more and more dull as we are aging. This is not the first time a dancer, totally unaware of what Sringara is and how it should be expressed, tries to present it on the stage. Not everybody is fooled easily: “A young dancer was dismissive, “Malavika’s abhinaya has no heart.””

Malavika apologized for lack of time to do the demonstration of an item dedicated to… trees and Thimakka. Instead, she took her time to speak that since that woman was barren, she planted hundreds of trees and called them her own children. Even though she confessed, “I simply loved Hrithik in Jodhaa Akbar”, Malavika says she liked the Thimmakka tree item because it was not “man-centric” and did not require any Sringara. I was surprised that nayaki – at least in this ultra-feminist interpretation – did not require any nayaka, defeating the very purpose of the spiritual symbolism where nayaka was actually to signify the Paramatma. I had an odd impression as if she was speaking of her own personal life, godless, miserable, bitter and forlorn (you see in our next post how it made Swarnamukhi convert to Christianity and “settle down”).a trigger is required to set the soul on its quest and, in Varasthri’s case, it is the death of a little girl she has known and loved. This was suggested by a personal loss in Malavika’s life”. Perhaps, this explains why her voice sounds as if she had been sobbing and weeping for weeks. “the courtesan finds release from a male dominated world when she reaches the ‘genderless’ space of spirituality. In the action however, what triggers the courtesan’s search for spiritual comfort is the grief of losing a child she loves dearly“.

I looked around and saw billions of materialistic Jivatmas, obsessed with their personal tragedies, dreaming of a happy, socially correct life without a masculist, oppressive and immoral Paramatma in the picture. How can a chronically depressed dancer, like Michael Jackson, transmit any joy and bliss to the rasikas? In the same way as a cripple can take part in the rescue operations in the flooded Andhra, or a schizophrenic politician governing India. Well, that’s Kali Yuga. Trees are not the only substitute objects for atheist Malavika whose defective materialistic brain doesn’t even understand that the Ganga which flows from the Nataraja’s head has nothing to do with the well-known big stream of dirty water in north India: Some of the crowning moments of the recital comprised Ganga’s lamentation “Punar pavitra karega kaun” at the impurities that weighed her waters, constricting her flow.” What hastha did she use for a lonely sanitary napkin agonisingly floating there? “her (Malavika’s) deep affinity with the river whose never-ending manifestations can rival the eternally unpredictable nayika of classical dance”, wrote the modernized Leela Venkatraman, reviewing the ‘Pakistani Pig” in the next paragraph. Well-tuitored piglets from The Hindu can say any nonsense to fill their purses.

A brief questions-and-answer session followed, when Malavika Sarukkai was answering a few simple questions. I didn’t want to embarrass her by asking to demonstrate, for example, the difference between the Satvika and the Angika abhinaya in the context of “Tradition-Transition-Transformation”. One student asked her how she managed to “steer clear of the celluloid“. (Perhaps she referred to the fact that no film maker was inspired to create a wonderful movie with Malavika in a dancing role!) Malavika replied that the flashiness of the movies – with their stress on seductiveness – desensitize our perceptions. While there was some truth in what she said, I tried to imagine how Malavika would portray apsara Menaka seducing Vishvamitra, and I couldn’t. It was as beyond my imagination as imagining the current Queen of England seducing 1000000 eunuchs in India.

The panel discussion was started by Leela Venkataraman, who wrote, “guru objected to her ‘Revealed by Fire’ being a personal trauma put on stage. Watching shows evolved out of personal experiences, some comment that it amounts to self indulgence and they did not come to see a highlighting of someone’s personal tragedy.While some identify many elements from a work as reflected in their own lives, others feel the artiste is trying to project herself as a tragedy queen.

Leela Venkataraman delivered no abstract cliches. Seeing a notorious scandalist V A K Ranga Rao towering in the first row and rubbing his fists readying to start a fight, she did not wish to create any controversies among the mostly Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi aficionados present in the auditorium. In Ranga Rao’s own first lec-dem about Dance in Cinema” he “demolishes the shibboleths erected by educated charlatans and doctored ignoramuses with logic irrefutable“. Seeing formidable blockhead VIPs, Leela wisely chose Odissi as the subject, saying that she could not define what Bharatanatyam is or was, rolling her eyes, staring into the ceiling and blinking much more frequently than she usually does. Strange, as most rasikas would not find it so problematic.

Within about 15 minutes, she pinpointed with amazing deftness the concrete historic facts and elements that created the contemporary Odissi half a century ago. Leela stressed that the nucleus of the Odissi is something inherent to Orissa itself, the local spirit and the local idiom, something intangible and not definable. Strange, as I thought that Odissi’s essence was the Kaisiki vritti as stated in the Natya Shastra.

Leela masterfully outlined the initial routes the development of the contemporary Odissi took, described how particular elements (from Kathak, folk dance, the Gotipuyas’, and what not) were added at what stage and under what circumstances. She reminded us that it is only when Odissi started appearing in the context of the theatre that it acquired the social acceptance, recognition and eventually, popularity. Has something like that happened to Bharatanatyam, or has Bharatanatyam already missed the train? Leela approved the efforts of Nrityagram to incorporate Chhau leg movements into their “Odissi”. She concluded by trying to persuade us that, despite the initial rejection, Ramli Ibrahim’s creations eventually managed to be “accepted” by the Odissi dancers in Orissa.

Aruna Bikshu tried to make a point that “With change in content (like social issues), body kinetics have changed and so have the aesthetics” of Kuchipudi. What she meant to say is that since the dancers no longer were dealing with mythological personalities called “gods” (we know, all the Vedas and everything else are just myths, and Krishna is a figment of imagination of some crazy medieval writers), the moment they started portraying tractors or condoms or plastic bottles they began moving like Malavika Sarukkai does. And when Vempatti Chinna Sathyam removed the Vachika abhinaya from Kuchipudi, he did not realize that automatically he was removing the most powerful medium for the dancers to learn Satvika abhinaya. Now the dancers’ overall abhinaya is as convincing as some 5-year-old’s political speech in defence of Taliban. Another Odissi “innovation” was pinpointed by Madhavi Mudgal: “The dancer also had to be in chowka position throughout, but that’s not in vogue anymore because it’s difficult“.It seems that simplifying everything has been the slogan of the past 50 years: now everyone in a wheelchair can consider herself a classical dancer: it’s no difficult anymore!

It is amusing that a few individuals, who prefer to be called senior dancers and senior critics, imagine that their “elite” opinions alone somehow determine how Bharatanatyam or Odissi is “accepted”, while their names are either unknown or vaguely recollected by 95% of the contemporary Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancers who don’t ever read the Friday Reviews or attend “National” seminars (with 50 local attendees) or ever get mentioned by the press or featured on TV. While the top of an iceberg may imagine it determines its course, in reality it is the bulk of the iceberg, hidden under the water, that is driven by the ocean currents – regardless of what does Malavika Sarukkai .


Roses and Thorns: the thorny facts in “Bharatanatyam competitions: lessons from Concern India”. Narthaki.com and political correctness in the Bharata natyam world.

Bharatanatyam competitions, Concern India and political correctness.

We will analyze and comment upon a curious write-up by Meenakshi Ganapathy that appeared in Roses and Thorns and was evidently irritating some dance VIP’s for 3 weeks. So much so that it was just recently deleted (luckily, Google saved a copy of it 🙂 ) by the politically conscious Narthaki.com editor. We will also refer to the excerpts from the messages several people sent us about this event.

This topic is related to some of our blog’s previous posts: this one, this one , this one and this one.

The competition started a bit late, with probably 30 spectators most of whom later appeared on the stage: the functionaries, the judges, the musicians, the parents, fellow dancers, and a few stray individuals in Narada Gana Sabha’s main hall.

The competition was not announced in the press. A private event?

A representative of Concern India made a brief introduction, dwelling on the NGO’s work and urging (the 30 spectators?) to contribute to its charitable activities and sponsor Bharatanatyam performances.

Each participant in the preliminary round had to pay Concern India Rs.3000, making it one of the most profitable Islamic charitable activities in India. Of course, Concern India themselves do not sponsor any Bharatanatyam-related performances. Why? Well, why would the Muslim man who was in charge of organizing Concern India’s Bharatanatyam competition in Chennai be seriously interested in promoting Bharatanatyam instead of trying to make even more money (“raise funds”) from dwelling on the necessity to addresss the material needs of the poor Indians. Forget about the Vedic culture and the Hindu spirituality. Allah akbar! Next time if some senior Bharatanatyam dancers organize a psalms recital contest, don’t be surprised.

The dancers, 95% of whom arrived on motorbikes, many of which had 3 riders, have had a hard time trying to sponsor themselves, as Concern India‘s Bharatanatyam competition required them to be able to afford to bring a live orchestra for the solo recitals. Remarkably, the group performances were miraculously exempted from this highly charitable requirement.

The group performances hardly had to do anything with Bharatanatyam.

Before the competition started, a representative of Concern India announced to the dancers that after each solo performance “the judges would speak, give their comments and ask the dancer questions.” The judges in the final were the same (!) as in the preliminary round: Madhumati Prakash, Rajashree Vasudevan and Dakshayani Ramachandran. Why they could not produce any comments on the solo recitals is up to you to guess.

We guess they are just dumb! 🙂 Or just afraid of the political repercussions. The fact that Concern India could invite such a sec0nd-rate dance guru as Rajashree Vasudevan speaks of the profile of the competition.

The preliminary 3-day elimination round held in November promoted, according to Chitra Visweswaran, “quite a few dancers” (she probably meant the number of the dancers in the groups) to the final competition held on 23 January. At the preliminary itself, out of the astonishing 10 applicants in the sub-junior (below 10) division, only 2 were deemed worthy of dancing in the final: Simran and Aishwarya Raman (of guru Divyasena). It was Simran who danced the first on 23 January, and it was Simran who got the 1st prize. As you could have already figured out, the second prize went to Aishwarya, who was so significantly less impressive that led to the humorous speculations that the first prize winner could have been decided upon in the preliminary round itself.

It’s a great idea to have a competition where there are 2 contestants in the finals and 2 prizes! 🙂 Curiously, Simran and Aishwarya met at another competition with the same outcome.

The two solos of the youngest contestants were followed by a most baffling mix of solos and group performances in no special order. Was it indeed on a “first-ready first dance” basis? Shuffled like a stock of cards, the order of these performances was presumably to confuse the judges so that they would not be able to remember (for any meaningful comparison) the performances of the contestants in the same age division. Of course, the order did not matter if the prize winners were determined in the preliminary round itself.

The third was Poornima (of Anusham group) who was quite proficient in her rendering of “Padma Ananda Dayinee,” especially in the passage describing how the snake’s poison was coming down in ashes. Sudharma Vaidyanathan (of guru A Lakshman) was dancing leisurely and error-free, mostly due to the fact that the choreography itself was not at all intricate or demanding. The more plain, the better? Nevertheless, she was somehow allocated the second prize in the junior (11-14) division, which had another 3 contestants beside her. A very “big” competition indeed.

More and more people come to know Sudharma as the daughter of Chella who does all videography for… the judges who… like A.Lakshman very much. 🙂 Leaving the sarcasms aside, Sudharma was a remarkable dancer 2 years ago, and was the only one in A.Lakshman’s school who was dancing with grace. Unfortunately, the health problems and A.Lashman’s Kalakshetra-like schooling left very little of the former – graceful, lively and expressive – Sudharma… How fast life changes us… Not to the better…

The stiff-bodied and frozen-faced girls who want to dance like a man, or rather like a soldier (with the marching soldier’s expressions attached, of course) will like A.Lakshman as a guru. What happened to K.J.Sarasa’s “Vazhuvoor style”? Well, just as she did not want Urmila Sathyanarayanan to unlearn the Kalakshetra style, she just let A.Lakshman to do his version of Kalakshetra too.

Curiously, the solos in the junior and the senior (15+) divisions were supposed to last for 10 minutes each, but some dancers were – for an unknown reason – allowed to dance for over 15 minutes, while other dancers’ performances were cut immediately after 10 minutes had elapsed, by completely switching off the stage lighting. Sudharma’s was followed by Divyasena’s group performance of some kind of fusion or modern dance. The group’s 11 dancers found it a bit hard to move (leave alone dance) when lined across the stage in one row. The smallest, Aishwarya Raman, was given the central role, although Nikita would have certainly been a better choice.

Next there was Subbalakshmi of Anusham. She surely did deserve her second prize in the senior division for her impeccable rendering of Shakti Kautuvam and a thillana, leaving some contestants wondering why they had not been told that they too could include 2 fragments rather than one continuous passage from one item. The 7th slot was Revathi Ramachandran’s ballet full of folk dance, Dayinee. Out of the 5 dancers, the only one worth mentioning was Darshana.

The status of Concern India’s competition is illustrated by the fact that Revathi Ramachandran’s own daughter did not even bother to apply!

It was followed by Sai Swapna’s (of Anusham group) recital. It was already 7.30pm, and the auditorium was filled by at least 200 people by that time.

Next there was S Sahana’s (who recently joined Roja Kannan’s school) impeccable performance of the varnam “Nee Inda Maye.” Sahana had a mobile face and smooth expressions that changed each other seamlessly and naturally. Her style of nritta was very crisp. Every simple nritta step involved a visible and sharp movement up and down, which was well coordinated with the movements of her chin, her eyes and eyelids. Sahana was given the first prize (just as in the 2008 Natyarangam’s competition) in the junior division.

Narthaki.com ‘s editor attached Saatvika’s comment:

“Oddly enough, in the Concern India competition the first was again Sahana and the second was Sudharma”.

If you are looking for a perfect Kalakshetra-style dancer, see Sahana 🙂 In other words, if I am to write about a Kalakshetra-style dancer, it will be her.  This virtuoso is capable of moving from the super-sharp movements to the ultra-smooth, and in this sense her range of movements is extraordinarily wide.  Even if some dancers did not like her hopping manner of walking on the stage, such sharp vertical up-and-down movements actually accentuated each beat of the cymbals, and kept the audience spellbound. Compared with her, the other dancers dance as if they were trapped in a quagmire! 🙂 Her neck moves very interestingly too.

Perhaps she deserved it. Or perhaps it should have been given to the 10th contestant, Harinie Jeevitha, who attempted a much harder job to do as she was performing very demanding nrittas, peppered with the most complex moves and karanas that one hardly ever gets to see in Chennai. Well, Harinie’s performance was not as error-free as her videos on YouTube would suggest: the sheer complexity of this highly demanding choreography requires more practice.

It should have been clear that any inclusion of karanas in the choreography will be considered as an error! This is the reason very few Bharathnrithyam dancers ever participate in the Bharatanatyam competitions. The 3 judges have never even read the Natya Shastra, leave alone attempt to do some difficult karana!

Funny enough, if a CCRT scholarship examinee recites the viniyogas in the Natya Shastra-prescribed way, it will be counted as a mistake, because the folkish “Bharatanatyam is supposed to be” performed according to Abhinayadarpanam, not according to Natya Shastra.  This is how our “classical” dancers betray our ancient heritage – and they have the cheek to praise the Natya Shastra in public at the same time! What a hypocrisy!

Sridharini in the senior division (of guru Revathi Ramachandran) was the 11th participant, and she proved that even the worst contestant can still get the first prize. Her performance was followed by Anusham group’s fusion dance dedicated to Shiva and Shakthi, where one dancer, Sulochana, deserves a special praise. The masala fused together modern dance, Bharatanatyam, Odissi and god knows what else. The 13th was a very decent recital by Shivani (of guru Revathi Ramachandran) who was placed the 3rd in the senior division. The 14th was Padmaja (of guru Divyasena) in the junior division who presented keertanam “Om Kara Karini” in a graceful manner, although the skirt costume limited the scope of her nritta. It was the same K.Padmaja who was awarded the 2nd prize at the Indian Fine Arts Society’s competition 2 weeks ago. The competition’s last solo was a very interestingly choreographed Sadaksharam kautuvam performed by the 16-year-old Sruthi Kalyana Sundaram (of guru Manimekalai Sharma), ably assisted by excellent beats of the mridangam. The choreography was very sophisticated and involved frequent use of fast, full-range attamis that blended harmoniously with everything else. Sruthi was masterful in her presentation, and stood above all other contestants in the senior division. Unfortunately, guru Manimekalai Sharma is hardly known even in Chennai.

Last year I wrote about Sruthi in this post. Despite some minor imperfections in her mukha abhinaya, she is surely one of the top dancers in her age range, and the originality of Manimekai Sharma’s choreography could certainly not be appreciated by the 3 dumb judges who are considered as some of the worst choreographers in Chennai.

As recently as 3 years ago Sruthi was listed among Srekala Bharath’s students. So, what happened, may we ask? A possible reason may be that Srekala’s choreography is relatively plain, maybe too plain for Sruthi’s taste, but would be just fine for the 3 dumb judges who would be just scared of Srekala Bharath’s political authority too.  Will you trade an opportunity to learn some interesting Bharatanatyam from an unknown but talented guru for an opportunity of winning a useless prize? 😦 Most dancers would not… 😦 Well, it seems even under Madurai.R.Muralidharan she was quite a performer even 5 years ago:

SN’s was the last group performance that had a larger share of elaborate Bharatanatyam proper than the previous groups’ items. Most of the dancers, among whom was Harinie Jeevitha again, were admirable, the costumes and accessories were very impressive. Not surprisingly, SN got the 1st prize for its ballet. It was also not surprising to hear one of Concern India’s representatives explain that, “ethically speaking,” it would be wrong to give more than 2 (out of the 4) first prizes to the same school.

The award function started at 9.30. There was a speech by Chitra Visweswaran who was praising the efforts of Concern India and was urging everyone to support its activities. It was quite different from a “speech” by a differently abled gentleman from Concern India when the audience could not understand a word.

“Helping people help themselves” ran the slogan through a huge backdrop just under ‘Concern India.’ How helpful was this competition for the dancers? And how seriously was Concern India taking the dancers’ concerns? If fewer and fewer Bharatanatyam schools care to come and showcase their best students at Concern India’s competition, does it reflect how much importance the dancers attach to this event? Well, if the Blue Cross, Coca-Cola, the Communist Party of India, or the ICICI bank were to hold their own Bharatanatyam competitions, how many dancers would apply?

Sabha business & sri Sumukhi Rajasekharan Foundation: how our fellow Indians dupe us and make $$ from promoting the “traditional Indian” culture

There is one thing about Sumukhi Rajasekharan Foundation (SRF) that makes people wonder why their award functions gather fully packed auditoriums (300-400 people at least), but there are hardly 20-30 rasikas attending their “regular” Bharatanatyam programmes – even when these programmes present excellent dancers (such as the little virtuoso Sri Gayathri, who got the VDS Arts Academy’s Best Dancer award, and whose guru, Vijay Madhavan, featured her in his Sanmatham Bharathiyil DVD) .

Isn’t it because no serious rasikas, critics and dancers take SRF seriously? SRF recently jumped on the bandwagon of the profitable sabha business in Chennai. SRF launched its Exclusive NRIs’ “Kala Poshakam”, while other sabhas are now quietly making $$ from non-exclusive festivals where the rich (but visibly inferior) NRI dancers and foreigners pay 50 times more than a poor but exceptionally talented Chennai dancer can afford. Although Hamsadhwani was the pioneer in cashing in on bringing the NRI dancers to Chennai, SRF’s recent II Year International Art Festival of Dance & Music included hardly any Bharatanatyam dancers from Madras, so as to avoid embarrassing the less-capable NRI dancers and make them feel good. As S. Surendranath explained it, “You see, at Marghazhi Bala Utsavam we were planning to give titles even to the winners in such traditional categories as Junk Art but, surprisingly, we received no NRI bids”.

Well, SRF so far have tried to follow the simple method that other sabhas adopted: to enhance the “prestiigeousness” of a newly introduced title, the sabha gives such a new title to a well-known dancer of (obviously?) high caliber. Then, in a few year’s time, these well-known dancers discover that the same title has been given to the dancers who are not in their league. Naturally, they rave and rant, post their protests (like the Dhananjayans), curse the sabha, threaten to throw away the title/award into the garbage bin, and so on. The rasikas enjoy the social comedy.

The SRF followed this scenario and gave the first (or was it one of the first?) “Natya Bala Brahmam” to the dancers who were outstanding ( Medha Hari), then it tricked down to very good dancers and so on. Some utterly useless dancers too such as Shraddha Nagaraj got the title of “Nrithya Bala Sri”. Yet we received no response regarding the criteria on which SRF founds its allocation of these titles. In any case, SRF, like other sabhas, allocates these annually, which usually means that sooner or later all the deserving dancers as well as undeserving ones will be awarded this title. As one Bharatanatyam dancer awarded the SRF’s title told us “I was not sure whether to accept it or not because SRF is mainly known for its folk dance, junk art, fancy dress, and kolam competitions, and the ancient Indian “Master Mylapore” contest“.

Here is a quote from the Hindu on how awards are given:

One of them was once approached by a sabha, which offered to honour her with an award. Happiness at such a recognition soon turned to dismay and indignation when she found out that she was expected to sponsor her award. Needless to add that she called it off.

SRF is currently largest junk organization if you judge by the sheer number of the children who get a chance to be seen on the stage and who get certificates, memo’s, and titles, whether it is Junk Art or Fancy Dress. The latter was particularly interesting as SRF present’s itself as a supporter of “traditional” Indian culture. Some smarter NRI’s are still perplexed to hear that SRF considers as traditional such musical instruments as violin , electronic keyboard, and saxophone. “We are considering including traditional Jazz in our folk dance programmes”, a SRF representative told us.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

There is one element that distinguishes Sri Sumukhi Rajasekharan Memorial Foundation from other cultural organizations in South India: the strict dress code. While Mr. S Surendranath sports a traditional Persian kurtha, the outfit that arrived in North India along with the Arab invaders not so long ago (this is something that Mr. S. Amarnath with his Doctorate in History, tries not to mention), SRF’s lower-ranking functionaries are dressed in traditional French shirts, English trousers and Italian-style shoes. The top two men from the Mylapore Trio confess, “We do not want to wear Dhoti because we are hoping to get the sponsorships from the Muslim community too”.

SRF’s web site states its “dress code”: “Girls: uption 13 years – Paavaadai, Chokka”. No sleeveless for Girls & Women

Mr. S. Amarnath explains, “We try to have our programmes in the traditional, air-conditioned auditoriums, so as to create the ambience similar to what my ancestors had in Iran’s winter 500 years ago. If any South Indian women dare tell us that it is too hot for South India to wear long sleeves, we warn them that they would catch a cold if they come to our programmes. We are considering making the traditional burka mandatory too”

One woman remarks, “These folks invited us for their fancy dress competition, but their dress code states, “No Fancy Bindhis”! An SRF guard was clearly embarassed when asked to explain where is his ruler to help him measure the size of Pottu – only in Red colour / Min. Size: 8mm Round or Thilakam.

One of the “traditional” elements in SRF’s events are the demand for children to be separated from their parents so that they would happily chat to other kids, play and fight with each other in the front rows, and run towards their mommies every time they want some water or a few biscuits.

“One of our aims is to create a traditional Indian noisy atmosphere that would make the performers on the stage realize that life is no funny matter”, explained SRF’s president. We do not know why SRF functionaries encourage them to clap their hands in an untraditional, un-Indian matter: applause came from the uncultured West, didn’t it? And the rasikas sit in the untraditional, un-Indian armchairs. SRF’s T-shirt-clad cameramen would traditionally point their cameras with the traditional mounted 1KVA floodlights right into your eyes, 2 meters away from your face. The rasikas would traditionally curse these idiotic cameramen in their minds, and swear that they would never come again to SRF’s programmes.

SRF’s Ms. S. Aparna, sporting a traditional Swiss watch, comments, “Of course, the musicians and vocalists who sing at our programmes are using the traditional Indian mikes, antique amplifiers and loudspeakers of the M.Gandhi era. With the proper NRI funding, we are going to eradicate all mention of Sangeetha Ratnakara: this text does not mention the necessity for a vocalist to use a traditional electronic shruti box. Instead, it describes too many harmful practices that can help a vocalist develop a strong voice that would undermine the business of our traditional microphone manufacturers.”

Secrets of Lasya and Abhinaya. Divyatha Arun: a lonely bright star among the mediocre K.J.Sarasa’s Bharatanatyam students? Bharata natyam careers.

After watching 20 or so of her mostly mediocre or outright bad students in the past few years, the only thing that urged me to go and see her programme was the picture of her dancing with Shanmugha, K.J.Sarasa’s senior assistant, that my daughter discovered in The Hindu last year. “If he was dancing with her, she should be really good”, she exclaimed. And she was right!

Shanmugha understands very well who is good and who is not so. His schoolmate’s – Jayalalitha’s – government awarded him with a title in 2000 🙂 K.J.Sarasa has a lot of political connections in both parties, so if you need a government or other title, go and join her school, pay your fees, show a bit of sychophancy and the title is yours. 🙂

It was not a surprise that the mediocre dancer, Subanjali Sadgurudas, who danced (very primitive choreography) before Divyatha, had the mini hall of NGS fully packed with the social circles of her gurus, the Narasimhacharis. The senile voice of the Narasimhachari was probably not too inspiring. Vasantha looked at him as if he was a senile idiot. He did look so. How can Vasantha Narasimhachari look like as if she were his daughter??? What is the secret of her youthfulness? 🙂

Less than 50 people watched Divyatha. The better the dancer, the fewer the rasikas? 🙂

As soon as Divyatha started, I realized, “Aha, now we are watching some serious choreography!” Usually Sarasa’s students dance some simple (boring!) pieces, but this time it looked really complex. In most, if not in all, schools, some items are for beginners, some for the middle level, and some are for the advanced, so you can very easily tell if the dancer is “advanced” or not. Divyatha is very advanced, and has already opened her own Bharatanatyam school in Coimbatore.

Divyatha will impress you at once with her elegance, her perfect araimandi and excellent angasuddhi. I noticed that some dancers do not have this ability to capture instantly their rasika’s minds. Divyatha has a pretty face, perfect figure and is extremely agile, and fully performed every pose, very sculpturesque! Although as far as flexibility goes she could not fully bend (for example, while lifting her leg) in a couple of instances, but even then it was not as bad as Ranjani Murthy‘s awkward stiffness. (Unfortunately, lately, Divyatha’s dance looked more and more like a male Kalakshetra dancer… 😦 )

I think that from her guru’s point of view, Divyatha’s technique was very good. This girl had an excellent control over her body, and her steps are very crisp and her laya is superb. Her poses were so excellent because she carved them in her mind and only then let her body assume them. This mental “pre-shaping” is a sign of mastery. She bent her torso effortlessly, swiftly and fully in every direction!

She also displayed a mastery over the dancing space too: even though NGS’s mini hall provides the dancer with hardly 9 sq metres of floor, she used this limited space remarkably well. I think it shows her experience. Very few dancers can do it.

She stooped a few times in a Nataraja-like pose, arching her back – have you ever seen such a pose? Curious… Sleeping Nataraja? Still I was a bit surprised that she lifted her arms stiffly upwards (in Kuttadavu), in a clumsy way, and occasionally she did not complete the left turn fully, unlike the right turn (again in Kuttadavu). Is it Kalakshetra, or what??? 😦

My friend V.R.D. told me that K.J.Sarasa’s students, even the girls, are notoriously bad at mukha abhinaya. Primarily, they lack the expressiveness, the richness, the depth and the subtle details. For example, although both the girls’ schools are formally “Vazhuvoor”, Krupa Rajul Shah in her depiction of the Vamana avatara’s episode was far more subtle, deep, delicate and detailed, and her expressions changed each other much more seamlessly (seen very well in the portrayal of Bali).

It is interesting that both the girls’ interpretation of the Vamana story was so different from the classics. In the original story, we are told that Vamana put his third leg on Bali himself and crushed Bali to the nether or the Patala loka(underground world), thus helping the Gods out. In Divyatha’s and Krupa’s depiction, we see Bali taking off his crown in amazement and adoration of Vamana, and then Vamana blesses him with his foot gently! Wow! Bali is transformed and his life saved! 🙂

Portraying asuras are an interesting area where most dancers fail miserably. While it is easy to show a rakshasa, it is hard to depict an asura. Asuras, in their outward appearance, manners, and behaviour are often indistinguishable from the avatars. The difference is very subtle, and frankly speaking, I have not seen a single dancer who has succeeded perfectly in this kind of depiction. Dancers are so shallow nowadays! Cheap!

Divyatha should read the dice game story, meditate, and understand that Sakuni’s expressions and reactions did not look like a cherri boy’s from Chennai! And Yudhishtira was perhaps more noble, self-contained and refined than what Divyatha showed us. As we do not see any living (real) high-ranking kshatriya’s in the cherri-dominated Madras of Kali Yuga, the dancers’ imagination (and the purity of mind) is the only source for their depictions. But why then portray Bali as if he was a saint???

Ok, Dussasana did treat Draupadi in a rough way, but I am not sure Draupadi felt and behaved in that way. Draupadi was a highly noble woman, she did not behave in a hysterical manner perhaps… Well…

There were 2 typical errors that took away from the perfection of Divyatha ‘s mukha abhinaya. One was the screwing of eyes, and the other error was the smile’s sudden fluctuations (jitters) when the corners of the mouth move unexpectedly down and then suddenly up again and then down and then up. As if the dancer was unsure of whether to smile or not to smile! Divyatha was not as bad here as Urmila Sathyanarayanan and her students. When Urmila is dancing, she demonstrates, “Hey, am I not funny: now I can smile, you see? Now I don’t. You see?” Very coquettish. It is as if the dancer shows that she is not serious at all. The rasikas get the impression, “Huh! This girl is not for real: she is just pretending!”

Divyatha should understand that a smile is when your mouth’s corners are up, not down! Don’t you get a funny impression when you see someone’s lower lip move over the upper teeth? 🙂 Or when the lower jaw moves slightly back? 🙂 Occasionally, this is what this girl did.

Both Divyatha and Krupa were brilliant at conveying the supreme power of the Vamana; Divyatha was superb too in the prayer pose when the song dwelled on invoking Krishna… Krishna… Krishna… Divyatha’s soul is stern, and its power is quite concentrated. She actually understands tapasya more than self-surrender. Unlike most women. Divyatha’s voice is very powerful and vibrant like Arjuna’s voice on Kurukshetra, but I would prefer that it should be more tender, sweet, mellow and warm.

Krupa could learn from Divyatha the lasya ways in angika abhinaya and nrittas. Lasya is much more demanding. From a purely physical point of view, it implies moving not only with a wide range of speeds but, most importantly, a wide range of accelerations (Chitra Visveswaran’s students try to do it to some extent). It is a wide range of accelerations and decelerations that brings out the depth of the angika abhinaya and makes your ntritta intricate and graceful and captivating and professional. Without a wide range of accelerations, you will look like a primitive American robot dancing or doing aerobics. These accelerations lend life and emotional hues to every body movement. And this is what made Divyadha’s angika abhinaya and nrittas so vibrant and graceful.

Perhaps Divyadha can learn some abhinaya from Vani Nagarajan? 🙂 After all, Vani’s mind is not focussed on medical studies. 🙂 And Vani is much less inhibited. Sarasa, like a bad tailor, thinks that everyone’s clothes have to be stitched like a one-size-fit-all uniform: without measuring the poor client’s body.

Sarasa has not had the time yet to pull the ready-made clothes of the wrong size onto the little Vani. Vani does not understand that, in the future, she will be expected to lie a lot and wriggle her face while uttering heaps of flattery for the cherri VIP’s in order to get “opportunities to perform”, titles, and to “succeed in the Bharatanatyam career”. Our life’s experiences leave a deep imprint on our faces. Our disappointments, sufferings, tragedies… This creates a crust, or a shell, through which an adult dancer’s soul’s light cannot penetrate. When I first saw this shell, I was shocked. Very unpleasant.

Divyadha appeared to be preoccupied with one thought, “What impression am I making on the rasikas?” If you look at the dancer after the performance, it is very common to see the dancer’s face displaying 1000 more expressions than they do on the stage. Why do the dancers restrict their expressiveness so much? Because the guru tells them, “You have to do only like this”, “This expression is a mistake”, “That expression is wrong”. This over-correcting suppresses the dancer’s spontaneity and creativity. The Hindu says about Anita Sivaraman, “Srikanth has imparted the aesthetics of the dance style to Anita without curbing her innate enthusiasm.” Anita is lucky that her gurus do not “curb” her individual ways of expressing herself! Unfortunately, most of the gurus are too restrictive (some even introduce it as qualitative abhinayam!), and some gurus (pisacha type) even take delight in killing their student’s expressiveness. They feed on their students’ vital energy. Don’t allow them access to any children or students, and they will die in a week’s time. These people only look human. Two legs, two arms…

“Bharatanatyam careers”!

While she has visibly improved from the last year, I wonder how she manages her medical career. Jyotsna Jagannathan was very happy when she was able to finally – after her marriage – renounce her doctor’s job (still keeping the “Dr.” in her invitations). Jyotsna Jagannathan‘s soul’s urge prevailed over her rational mind’s choices. What about Divyatha?

She proudly announces her MBBS. But…. If you break your leg, would you choose to be treated by a surgeon who tries to impress you by telling you that she is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer who works full time as a software engineer who got a Master’s degree in psychology, and that she dedicates all of her free time to playing cricket on a professional level????

Would you like your house to be constructed by an architect who tries to impress you by saying that he has a PhD. in zoology, M.A. in Greek philosophy, Diploma in acupuncture, and has authored many books on Carnatic music??? It is an unpleasant surprise that most highly talented Bharatanatyam dancers think that Bharatanatyam is merely a “timepass”, or an expensive hobby – like golf! Divyatha is of course quite stupid and very young. Let us hope she grows wiser, like Jyotsna did. 🙂

As Natya Shastra states the qualities required of a female dancer narthaki, “Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four (!!!) arts and crafts (kala)… are known as female dancers (narthaki)” . 64!!!

How can anybody nowadays dare call herself “a classical danseuse”? We are sure medicine, business administration or computer science or sewage management are not among these 64 subjects. These 64 subjects (such as the vocal and instrumental music, etc) are related to natya, and enhance the dancer’s performance. We are pretty sure that, had anyone learnt these 64 arts and crafts, she would be making much more money today than a doctor, business manager or a software engineer!