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?

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Sivasri & truth about Bharatanatyam guru’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All credit goes to her guru”?????

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

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

Funny story!

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

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