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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

If you want your music to be as good as Anita Sivaraman’s, Padma Subrahmaniam’s or Alarmel Valli’s, you may either go bankrupt or invest a lot of time searching for and training a good but affordable orchestra and the composer/music arranger. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Topics & themes

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

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

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

Young people are pleased to see the scenes of love.
If your recital does not attract the youth, ask yourself what is the ratio of rati sringara in your items. Want to compete with the young film stars of Kollywood or Bollywood? Look in the mirror first. If your face looks like Meenakshi Chittarajan’s or Priya Murle’s, or if it’s as expressionless as A.Lakshmanan’s, don’t even try to do it. If your figure is Padma Subrahmaniams, people will laugh at your “sringara“. Know your limits. ๐Ÿ™‚

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

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

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

Heroic people want to see the scenes in Rudra- and Jugupsa-dominated rasas, with combat scenes.
Not just the army and police folks. Well, hard to compete with the Bruce Lee movies! Why is it that whenever the Dhananjayans produce anything of this kind, it makes me laugh??? ๐Ÿ™‚
I have just imagined the 80-year-old Sudharani Raghupathi doing a combat scene…. Would put me to sleep… Snoring…

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

Know your audience

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

Why nobody wants to watch us dance????

Do you know that most brahmins today are of the shudra type, but some (2-3%) contemporary SC’s and ST’s have the sattva-dominated nature of the true brahmin? ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Although Natya Shastra tells us that, for example, the cheri (inferior human type) spectators will not appreciate the finer art that is appreciated by the superior, uttama, spectators, this limitation can be overcome to some extent by mastering all the necessary techniques.

Techniques

We will classify them according to the main chakras:

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

Soma
Here is the control over the Hasya.ย  The dancer has to be cheerful and even playful (the dancers with some Kuchipudi training understand what it is better). ๐Ÿ™‚ It has some connection with Medha (it’s not related to Medha Hari! ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Open this lotus and learn how to bring joy and humour even to the most depressive of the rasikas.

Ajna
If the rasikas are not paying attention to your dancing, think why one of the 64 vedic arts was “taking control of the crowd by mystic means”. It implies looking into the crowd of the rasikas in a certain way (they have to feel the “eye contact”). It is related to Drishti (something that most dancers are clueless about!). The more focussed you are, the easier you will engage the audience. Take some lessons from Barack Obama ๐Ÿ™‚ Don’t complain if you can’t move your eyes at will! ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Want to test your mental concentration? Close your eyes, try to dance and see how good your balance is! ๐Ÿ™‚ Oh, you still have the ambition to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer, eh??? ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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

Anahata
Make your bhavas profound and intense. Be sincere, understand your characters’ relations and minds. If the audience are the refined rasikas in a small auditorium, don’t overdo your expressions! ๐Ÿ™‚ Remember: those miserable spectators came to seek for a spark of joy, so don’t overburden them with the tragic expressions!

Manipura
Do the brisk nrittas and difficult karanas. It’s about Javaha. ๐Ÿ™‚ If you are doing it effortlessly and irradiate the energy, it will draw the attention. Stamina problems? ๐Ÿ™‚ Sweating too much? The jaw drops every now and then? ๐Ÿ™‚ Look miserable after dancing for 5 minutes? Need to do kapalabhati, eh? ๐Ÿ™‚

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

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

You have to be beautiful, wear a beautiful costume, makeup and jewelry! ๐Ÿ™‚ Ever wondered why the scriptures have… errrr… certain physical requirements for professional dancers? :)In other words, if you are a woman and excel by your beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, you will not have to compete for attention! ๐Ÿ™‚

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earl Hunsinger explains:

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

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

Arul Francis gives us his opinion:

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

Let us single out each point:

no guru will teach the newcomer an advanced piece

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

These are the questions that most out-of-shape gurus – whose only body part that somehow manages to move is their “dancing face” – hate to answer. ๐Ÿ™‚ But then, if it is only some cheri “mukha abhinaya” that is left to be taught, you’d better run away as soon as you can. After all, since the cat (or rather 8 of them) of Mami’s Magic is out of the bag, everybody can buy those DVDs and see that the king is… naked!

Well, if these “advanced” items are ever performed for an audience, a truly advanced student can just go there and watch, and note down the choreography. That’s, if you don’t have a good cameraphone with video recording capability ๐Ÿ™‚

Well, why do they call dance instructors “gurus”? Well, if there are IT, farming and banking gurus, there must be Bharatanatyam gurus too, right? ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Minakshi Ajay puts it this way:

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

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

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

Unbelievable? Read what Minakshi tells us:

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

a lot of dancers copy each other’s pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

there is a person who “created the original piece”

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

Sirisha believes that:

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

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

What makes a Bharatanatyam dancer successful. The dying tradition of Pandanallur style… and the evolution of Bharata natyam. Bharatnatyam career.

This post was provoked by the lonely Arul Francis’s blog , and is related to 3 other posts of ours: Success in Solo Performance, The Future of Bharatanatyam. Through the prism of Bharatnatyamโ€™s great Past , ย  ย  ย  ย  The โ€œHereditaryโ€ onesโ€ฆ. And back to karanas!

his post consists of 2 parts: what makes a successful Bharatanatyam career, and then we overview Subbaraya Pillai’s “tradition” (can we call it so?) and the evolution of Bharatanatyam.

While most of Arul’s points are perfectly valid, here we will focus largely on those points that the conservatives (“traditionalists”) tend to misunderstand and misrepresent.

Grounded
Here, Arul touches the topic of “success”.

Indeed, what makes a dancer “successful”? What makes a career successful? And a performance?

From the devadasi’s point of view, the only kind of success she was aiming at was her personal spiritual growth, experiences, realizations. Her secondary goal, just as any shaman’s, was the procuring of the divine blessings and protections for the devadasi’s benefactors.

Anjana Rajan put it in simple terms:

No matter how much we talk of Bharatanatyam today being a devotional art, it is only rarely that the inherent spirituality of the form, the mysticism of the scriptures as conveyed through mudras and music, becomes visible. To relate to the spiritual essence without allowing the dance technique to disintegrate into a mash of feeling is not easy.

Not just the mudras and music, of course, but, much more importantly, about performing the karanas like this. Natya Shastra describes 2 types of “Success” (“siddhi”, or perfection) of the performance by the rajadasi types of dancers: daiviki (divine) and manusi (human). There are the signs of the human and the signs of the divine success. There are two expression of human success: vocal and bodily.

Signs of success expressed vocally:

  • slight smile,
  • smile,
  • laughter,
  • exclamations such as “excellent”,
  • tumultuous applause

Signs of success expressed by body language:

  • Joy expressed in horripilation
  • the rising up from the seat and giving away of clothes and throwing of rings (or other gifts)

The signs of divine success are more interesting:

  • there must be the overwhelming Sattva in the display of Bhavas (i.e. the psychological states are pure / expressed clearly)
  • no noise, no disturbance, no unusual occurrence (during the performance)
  • the auditorium is full of spectators

At one of Narada Gana Sabha’s performances, with fewer than 10 rasikas and a below average dancer (from outside Chennai), the compere proudly announced, “We thank you the sabha for making todays performance a great success”. The dancer was so disappointed that she did not laugh. The rasikas exchanged funny looks. ๐Ÿ™‚

Arul writes,
“You meet someone who is very “successful” – they have all the trophies: a fancy degree, a great job, a fancy house, a fancy car – but when you actually try to get to know the person, you realize there is nothing there. A vacuum. A shell. Success seems to destroy some people. I see the equivalent in dance as well. “Success” can be pretty scary and turn someone into a freak.”

A fancy degree can only impress a few old idiots in India, not in the USA, where any idiot can get a fancy degree for a hundred bucks. If the dancer tries to impress the American audience by listing her degree in medicine or banking, the Americans usually either smile or laugh, but are polite enough not to laugh too loudly.

A great job. The “successful” dancers include Srinidhi Chidambaram who spent most of her time on her medical career, got a great and stable job in public health administration, married a rich man, lost the ability to dance. Other great jobs include the Indian Railway administration posts (Ananda Shankar Jayant), insurance agents and bank clerk’s jobs.

Money! ๐Ÿ™‚ Indeed, a great measure of success in Kali Yuga. Go, ask how dancers earn money. They will tell you.

Arul forgot to list “titles & awards” because these are looked upon – especially by Americans – as meaningless. After all, we know how much politics and money it takes to get a “prestigious” title !

Arul tells us that

One time a dance-critic wrote mockingly about the awards given out during the December season: “what a clatter of siromanis and … ” and I was laughing along because I agreed with what she was saying. Every time you turn around someone is handing someone else an award, a title, or an honour. It is just ridiculous. All those shawls and shields and plaques. What a waste.

Spending too much time on the political activities will turn the dancer into a fat hypocrite. Arul teaches us some diplomatic tricks:

one of the VIPs accosted me and said: “what did you think of my speech?” and I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t very well answer: “I was outside eating samosas”. So I said: “everyone thought it was a very fitting tribute”. And they continued: “what did you think of my quotes from Shakespeare”. And I didn’t know what to say so I said: “well, you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare”.

You may get in trouble if you lie too much:

Someone came up and whispered something into this VIP’s ear and they turned upon me indignantly and said: “Arul, it seems you weren’t even inside? What’s this? It seems you went outside during the speeches?” and I was caught red-handed!

You have to understand the etiquette and the hierachies:

The last speaker was Karunanidhi – it seems he had released some book or novel – he was a very good speaker. We sat in the back even though Meenakshi’s mother came and pulled Master’s hand and said: “Sir, you must sit in the front row” but Master would not. He sat in the back. Apparently, when the real VIPs arrived everyone who was occupying the front row would be unceremoniously kicked back and that could be embarrassing.

You will not have the time for practising Bharatanatyam. You will have to lie, lie and have to be mean, very mean. You will have to forge political alliances with some Bharatanatyam clans, and fight against the “enemies” (competing clans). You will become very bitter, and the corners of your mouth will move down, wriggling in wry smiles. How else can you smile if you feel like murdering that fat sabha’s committee member who expects a big bribe/donation? ๐Ÿ˜ฆ You will feel like your life is wasted. And wasted it is!

Anita Ratnam wrote:
“There is too much political correctness going around and far too much sycophancy to really help dance…. That dance scene in India has become corrupt and bloated is something nobody disagrees with”.

What the dancers really value and like to list in their resumes is the opportunities to perform a solo at an “established” (old) sabha’s festival or at least at Natyanjali in Chidambaram. Without these performances, you will not get your title or award. To do that, you will have to get various “recommendations” from the “established” dancers & gurus. To get these, you will have to go and kiss their feet (and other parts of their body), become their obsequious student for a year or two, exhibit the utmost sycophancy to the people you abhor and disdain, and tell them a lot of false compliments that you don’t feel like saying. The more you praise them, the faster you will lose the ability to distinguish the truth from the illusions. Welcome to Maya!

Sirisha reveals the undercurrents of the present day dance career and exploitation:

I always wondered that its difficult to perform for big sabhas specially some in chennai, its so tough to get through anyone to avail a chance to perform,i have written letter, mails.I dont get any reply! Is it the fact that only famous dancers are given opportunity there and only known faces get to perform.

its the question again should we keep quiet and just watch the rat race or be a part to win them, i see so many ordinary dancers doing so many big shows,not to say or put my dance on high platform, but i sure dance with better standards than some of them. Wel how much does recognition come:(. I am no more with any guru presently, but did n number of shows for my gurus at their corporate shows and their umpteen lecture demos.I thank them whole heartedly for making me a dancer of really competetive level, it was that gratitude which held me for long all this while. But now am out of the institution for good, cant blame anyone for anything.but thought should voice the exploitation only once and walk out.I have being teaching with them for eight years, and was among their cream of senior ensembles. But how long should i keep quiet?????? No answer,
I think dance should be an art that should spread with zero inhibitions,and specially to people who cant afford it.

Do u suggest any gurus whom i can go to continue my advanced training.just asking out of blue.

i live in bangalore, and i had begun my style of dance with vazhavur style, then continued with gurus for my advanced training, and they dint folow particularly any style, but taught every thing that was special in all styles.

The strategy of an exploitative (selfish) guru is very simple:

  • don’t give your best students a chance to perform solo programmes,
  • don’t teach them too much of advanced solo items,
  • don’t give them credits at a group performance or in a DVD release,
  • don’t let them get in direct contact with the customer (the person who pays for the performance, tour, TV show, lec-dem, film role, etc).

Without performances, nobody will publish the reviews of your dance no matter how much you pay the journalists/critics and fawn over them. Without the good publicity, you will not become famous. To get into the Hindu’s Friday Review used to be the pinnacle of the dancers’ dreams. The problem now is that every small newspaper or web site are publishing tons of worthless reviews whose only aim is to promote (clumsily or not very) the reviewed dancers! ๐Ÿ™‚

Without titles and reviews, it is harder to get recognition. Everybody knows how much it takes to get empaneled at the ICCR. Unless some VIP from the ruling political party calls the Doordarshan panel of judges and gives them instructions, you will not get the A Grade. How can one get, for example, the recognition from the Texas Commission on the Arts? Or from Young Audiences of Houston? What is the value of Certificate of Appreciation from the Governor of California? Or from the Association of Toilet Cleaners of New Delhi?

We could add popularity as another measurement of success. Hmmm…. What kind of popularity? Among whom? I am wondering why some Bharatanatyam videos performed by an 11-year-old on YouTube get 10 times more views than Vyjayanthimala’s videos there! As for Michael Jackson’s kind of popularity… Oh, yea! Yea! It seems that the popularity among the cheri rasikas, the undiscriminating and bored audience who need just some excitement and entertainment. Many dancers dream of becoming another Vyjayanthimala, Kamala, Padma, Shobana… A cheri dancer who dances vulgar dances on TV. Becoming a film actress is an “achievement”: you will forget what is Bharatanatyam. This was the reason how Subbaraya Pillai treated

anyone from the world of “cinema” he automatically refused, as did his father

your life will disconnect from your soul, you will be treated like a prostitute by the film directors (and many others), but you will have a lot of money. When I met Shobana, I felt that this woman is very miserable. Many top actresses commit suicide, but she has not yet! ๐Ÿ™‚

The new developments

As you probably know, before dancing, the dancer propitiates Nataraja or Vinayaka and asks to grant success for the recital.

Arul writes:
There was a time I went to Vani Mahal and saw a lovely performance. The dancer sprang to one corner of the stage in a beautiful graceful jump and sat down and began offering flowers and raising her eyes above – and directly above on the wall was a large picture of a package of Chips – the brand which was sponsoring the show. It was funny!

Many dancers feel they need to worship the green American dollar. ๐Ÿ™‚

There is something Arul does not understand when he writes:
“Someone has to patronize and come up with the money – they always have – in ‘Danike’ there is a line acknowledging the Maratha king Sivaji – in ‘Yemaguva’ there is a similar line about the Mysore king.”

Arul is not aware of the fact that the Maratha king Sivaji is long DEAD. The Thanjavur Quartet’s varnams which Arul describes as the precious gems have never had a great spiritual potential in them, and have grown irrelevant. The ancient Kali or Vishnu kavutuvams have survived many more centuries because of the greater purity of the music, the lyrics and the choreography. You bet that an item that praises Coca-Cola will not survive a few years.

Arul warns us about the dangers of “fusions”:

It’s weird how these “rebel” dancers and choreographers who want to shake up their staid old audience and drag them to the cutting edge don’t get the very basic point that people already watch dance from other genres which are already popular and cutting edge and are outside of the classical dance category. People who compose and perform popular hip music already have their own dance to go with it and it’s very good and fun to watch. And that music doesn’t need any condescending gestures from classical dancers. This whole pose of “i want to shake up the old people” and at the same time “i want to expose and pull in the younger crowd by doing something new and hip” is just so condescending to both sides, I don’t see the need for it.

Subbaraya Pillai… and the living fossils

If you think you know what is “Pandanallur” style (errrrr….. it is less than 100 years old, isn’t it?), can you tell me why there is such a great deal of difference between the “Pandanallur” styles taught by Parvati Ravi Ghantasala, Ranganayaki Jayaraman, Pandanallur Pandian, Alarmel Valli, Meenakshi Chitharanjan , and Dr.Saraswathy (of Vipanchee)? Or at least, tell me what is common in these guru’s styles? ๐Ÿ™‚ Baffling, isn’t it? ๐Ÿ™‚ It is as baffling as why Vaiko joined Jayalalitha. ๐Ÿ™‚

In Gossip, Arul wonders,

What does he think of each of them and where does he stand on all their rivalries? I am dying to know.

Business competition is business. Or politics, like the rift inside the DMK.

Arul rightly states that not all contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers are ready to perform Bharatanatyam in a strip bar, a cabaret or at a lingerie exhibition:

Along with the dance they also know its context: how to perform and where to leave it. Without ever articulating it verbally or spelling it out – we got from him this sense of boundaries and identity. What it is, and what it is not.

The explanation why Arul is an avid reader of our blog and Narthaki’s is this:

Sometimes I ask the other students, have you read such-and-such or did you see that TV show or that movie – and generally the answer is “no”. Master’s students don’t need any outside input and they’re not looking to critics or other dance styles for direction. They have that already.

Yep! They are already perfect (at least they think they are more perfect than apsara Urvasi). Or maybe, they are just no longer able to learn? To improve? Eh… Why?

Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittarajan were among those students who wanted to learn more and enhance their technique. So they left Subbaraya Pillai a long time ago. Have they achieved what they wanted to? Or rather, have they achieved more success than those students who have not left Subbaraya Pillai?

The dancers have to develop a critical, analytical mind to be able to digest adequately all the comments and reviews. But Subbaraya Pillai’s students don’t have it: they have always been discouraged to ask questions, as Arul confesses. If you have no questions, you are either a genius or are asleep. The number of questions a student asks determine how eager he is to learn and how well he understands the topic.

The students were only allowed to obey their guru’s instructions. Did they understand much? They didn’t. As a result, most of them became brain-dead by the age of 30.

This is how great traditions and great knowledge are lost:

For these crucial hands in the first half, he’s just forgotten. I was so upset. There is no one he’s taught this to – not in a very long time – and back then they weren’t even recording anything. so it’s just gone, gone, gone with the wind.

Subbaraya Pillai explains his lacklustre “creative” genius:

“I still follow whatever Thatha has taught me. Can I ever create something that he has not left for generations of dancers to come? Today choreographing according to one’s own Manodharma (freedom to compose) means different things to different persons. Each has his/her own concepts, values and approaches. “

However, Nandini Ramani interpreted this as “creative” (within the narrow framework of what Thatha taught him?):

“Even now I don’t know what I know” he says referring to his creative approach to Bharatanatyam.

Arul is more honest:

There were no “new items”. He taught what he had learnt and just stopped with that.

Well, the dancers who cannot take the outside input can consider themselves as living fossils. The ability to learn new things (which is determined by the amount of Sattva in your system) decreases from the age of 10 dramatically. Rajas dominates in our youth. After 40, Tamas dominates. In medical terms, so many brain cells die (because of lack of use) that the adults, including dancers, cannot accept anything new. This is why most poets and composers created their masterpieces at a young age.

Among the good things Subbaraya Pillai did (as we see in this VCD) was that he “would teach his students one on one”, which saved them from becoming clones. However, there are some paradoxes. First, Arul tells us about clone dancers:

I had already figured that out for myself in 94, just from attending performances, and watching how the nattuvanars’, certain big nattuvanars’ students always danced differently from their class mates whereas dance schools and dancers-turned-teachers produced people who did the same thing.

Oh, these big nattuvanars who never read the Natya Shastra! ๐Ÿ™‚ Be warned:

I would ask: “marupadiyum atha kamingale” (show me again) but of course there was no dancer there, and without a dancer he couldn’t show anything.

The big, great Arul then continues:

The dancers did not learn abinaya from each other. There’s nothing “intrinsically feminine” about it.

Arul’s fundamental problem is that he does not have a mirror, and is half-blind: he does not see that an average woman’s face is capable of rendering 100 times more expressions than an average man’s.

Arul confesses:

this was one skill that I was simply not going to be able to pick up from him…I can catch what the dancers are doing on tape and repeat that tape a 1000 times, but I did not have his expressions while he was teaching it

Even such exceptional abhinaya masters as Bangalore’s Kiran Subramanyam are nobodies compared to many 10-year-old girls from Chennai. Some of these 10-year-olds are so uninhibited and so sincere in their abhinaya that watching them alone will teach you more than spending 100 years learning Bharatanatyam expressions from a big nattuvanar. After all, Natya Shastra states that 25% of what a dancer can learn can be learnt only from observing other dancers.

Master taught it to each dancer, one dancer at a time, and I saw him teach it with my own eyes. To see that transformation, when he shows how an expression is to be done, and repeats it, and repeats, and repeats, and to see the dancer pick that up – it is one of the most amazing and magical things in dance that I have ever seen.

Oh! Subbaraya Pillai did, indeed, ask his students to merely copy his own expressions that he considered as “correct”. It was Subbaraya Pillai who repeated the same expression. A true nattuvanar may give just a hint – once or twice! – and it would be sufficient. Learn by rote is the devise of the current Indian educational system! What is so magical in it?

The magical it would be if the dancer first would understand the lyrics, the characters’ moods, their relationship. Of course you don’t need it if the theme of your recital is about Pringles or condoms, do you? How would a condom speak to a pack of Pringles? Well, I need to watch some American cartoons. Don’t blame me if my abhinaya resembles Mickey Mouse’s!

Only Americans religiously believe that an emotion can be realized by moving facial muscles alone.

 

The serious bharatanatyam dancer should sit and meditate, have some personal (not borrowed) spiritual experiences that would naturally produce genuine expressions. Without the inner realizations and direct experiences, the dancer’s expressions will look a bit too put-on to fool a sharp-eyed rasika. The dancer’s abhinaya will never be powerful, convincing, and will lack Sattva.

The ability to perceive the 3 gunas and their combinations depends entirely on the clarity of your vision. This is something that no nattuvanar will teach you. If you eat the rajasic food, you will be half-blind. Arul likes spicy fish curry, it seems.

And he loves our blog: ๐Ÿ™‚

I became interested in dance I would read everything that was written in the papers and in the books. I was stupid enough to believe what they were saying because all those writers write with so much authority.

The Tanjore Quartet, the “hereditary” folks…. And back to karanas!

A born dancer – non-hereditary???

One would assume that there would be a hall packed with rasikas to watch a programme by a grandson of Balasawaswathy. When hardly 30 people were initially watching Aniruddha Knight‘s performance, this number was quickly further reduced as many rasikas were unable to digest it at all, and probably were in a bit hurry running to the toilet. Aniruddha came onto the stage in a Kathak costume (thankfully, not in jeans), and was trying to dance a new style that combined new, advanced (genetically engineered) American abhinaya with a hybrid of jazz and flamenco natyam.

Not everybody living in a human body is a real human being. Indeed, where in India can you find anyone with these expressions:

American abhinaya

My daughter commented on Ani, “Poor man, they forced him to learn the dance. Not everybody is a born dancer.”

Arul confirms (with Ani in mind?):

Lots of Indians who live here are full of nostalgia and longing. In their memories, the India they knew lives on, time stamped with their year of departure. And they take it out on their children, forcing them into this life of hypocrisy.

Aniruddha kept biting the left side of his lip while doing jathi’s, trying to dance like a eunuck, with Very miserable expressions. “Is he drunk?”, my daughter asked! Will Shobana’s new film be titled as “Dance like a eunuck” or “Dance like a drunkard”?, I wondered.

“Hereditary” was the most frequent word in S.Niveda’s programme’s flier. Chitti convinced me to go and to watch her a few months ago. “Tapasya Kala Sapradaya is happy to present Niveda from the family of the Tanjore Quartet”, ran the proud intro. Tapasya was lauding its efforts “against commercial exploitation of the arts and meaningless distortion in the name of innovation”. It appears that Tapasya’s only achievement in that effort was the heavily funded documentary Marayunduvarum Marabugal that was made out of 50 hours of tape. It is wonderful that all the knowledge of the hereditary folks fit into one short documentary that not many people had the privilege to watch (why didn’t they release those 50 hours on DVDs?) . While the frontpage of the flier was displaying the Thanjore Quartet, next to them was Niveda with her hands in a lame Anjali: her palms did not touch each other. Oversight? The poor 10-year-old started dancing but could not move at all. Hardly any movement was completed fully, even though the tempo was superslow. Any eye control? Forget about it! The poor thing was too stressed, and kept forgetting the simple, hereditary steps. After watching this bharatanatyam performance we decided to limit our visits to the “hereditary” dancers’ programmes to a minimum.

TQ or nothing is the extreme radical heading of another post of Arul’s.

Sounds like Arul’s Christian sect. The spirit of confinement.

Imagine meeting somebody whose motto is “Mangos or nothing”. Or “Pringles or nothing”. Hey! Weren’t the Thanjore Quartet guys anything more than royal court musicians???? (not dancers!) If Muthuswami Dikshitar, their music teacher, somehow managed to get the recognition as a little saint (or at least a prominent religious scholar), there is no mention of TQ’s spiritual achievements. Because there were none.

One of the TQ’s (Vadivelu’s) “achievement” was the introduction of violin in the Natya recitals. As a result, the ancient veena is on the brink of extinction. The instrument that has the largest range of harmonics (no other instrument can compare with veena!) is giving way just like the natural seeds cannot compete with the aggressive GM crops that are quietly destroying our planet.

Arul writes:

These seven glittering kohinoor diamonds – master gave them to me: sakiye, yemaguva, mogamana, adimogam, yemanthayanara, danike, sami ninne.

Real diamonds are millions of years old. Perhaps, Arul calls the 200-year-old creations of the Tanjore Quartet so in regards to the tuition fees he charges for teaching them. ๐Ÿ™‚

… Other gurus reserve the best for family.

The non-hereditary….

Arul continues:

I think also that the fact that Master comes from an ancestral family of teachers has a lot to do with it. They are the ones who know the art of teaching as it existed historically. They know how to give of themselves and when and to whom and under what circumstances.

Now you understand why Alarmel Valli, who left the Master, wrote about her vocal guru:

To find a good guru is a result of one’s past karma. Smt. Mukta never held back. She was generous to the core.

The hereditary gurus were never generous: holding back as much as possible was a matter of economic survival in the tough business competition with few opportunities.

Cursing Chennai’s traffic jams, our driver managed to get us to RK Swamy’s Hall just in time for Surya Ravi’s programme that was recommended by Anusha K. Surya Ravi’s nattuvangam turned out to be Sujatha Mohan. After we started watching Surya, we again realized that there are still wonderful dancers and talented, non-hereditary gurus. Surya was fantastic in her crisp adavus, beautiful and expressive abhinaya (well, there were a few gaps when she froze for a couple of seconds like an ice-man, but it was not her fault: the choreography has to be improved). Sujatha, admitted that she substantially modified “Bharathnrithyam”. The karanas, which Padma Subrahmaniam, who lost the remnants of her sense of beauty as soon as she got a “Dr.” title, never succeeded to combine in a graceful and organic manner. How well did her seniormost disciple Sundari Santhanam do it you can see from her recent DVD on Karanas.

Non-hereditary Sujatha, learning all the best from the non-hereditary, theoretician Padma, managed to produce a superior choreography, which can be illustrated by the passages from the varnam where Surya Ravi portrayed Kalinga Krishna (really beautiful, and such a superb balance when she was jumping thrice and turning 360* on one leg – hardly any professional dancers can do it!), and the snake itself! Such grace! And how subtle was the portrayal of Kuchella’s story, how refined, how charming was the mukha abhinaya, how perfect the angashudhi!!!

When I watched the Varsha Shankar at her brilliant arangetram (it was the first time when I was convinced that karanas CAN be performed gracefully!), I did not even expect that Sujatha Mohan would show us more of the outstanding dancers like Surya Ravi! Even Sujatha’s little kids, like Shreya Balakrishna, are so amazing! Their guru really inspires them. They are so lucky!

It is Surya Ravi whose recital should follow (if not included within it) after the recitals of the IFAS talent promotion (where Nandini Ramani was one of the judges), not the clumsy Balasaraswathy’s grandson. Well, if it were not for Nandini’s insistance (oh, these stupid political obligations!), who would ever have invited him to Chennai???

Everyone who considers being trained by a hereditary guru should watch Pandanallur Subarraya Pillai VCD and hear how he explains that the hereditary gurus teach properly only their own children. The hereditary ones are unable to explain to a genetic engineer where are those Bharatanatyam genes that can transmit true natya skills. He is unable to explain why the hell the hereditary gurus teach the non-hereditary students like Indu Varma! I think this is the reason that the “hereditary dancers” are no longer taken seriously by anyone, except by the hereditary toilet cleaners and hereditary garbage collectors.