The rise and fall of the nattuvanar
- A Seshan, Mumbai

September 6, 2008

(This article was first published in Shanmukha - the professional magazine of Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha, Mumbai - April / June 2008)

Nattuvanar: an expert musician who sings and plays the cymbals and conducts the whole dance recital.
- U S Krishna Rao, A Dictionary of Bharata Natyam

The definition above sums up the quintessential qualities of an ideal nattuvanar who is well-versed in all the departments of Bharatanatyam. Singing, keeping the beats and conducting, that would include choreography also, are the three outstanding features characterizing him. Look at 'musician' being mentioned first. Sangeeta Ratnakara defined 'sangeeta' in terms of geetam (song), vadyam (instrument) and nrityam (dance) in that order. The crucial role of music in the profession of nattuvanar is emphasised in all the classics on Bharatanatyam. Till about the middle of the 20th century, the nattuvanar held a pre-eminent place with a break for a few years due to sociological reasons. Some of the traditional nattuvanars could trace back their lineage to the days of the Cholas of Tamil Nadu more than a millennium ago. The profession fell into a decline in the course of the 19th century as the devadasis who were the only ones to nurture the art over centuries and whom they trained came to be looked down upon as samanya nayikas. Hence there was a movement to abolish the system of devadasis. Then the danger emerged of the baby being thrown with the bath water.

The revival of the dance, after the abolition of the devadasi system in the first half of the last century thanks to the efforts of E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi, generated a new type of demand for the services of nattuvanar from respectable families. The proliferation of music sabhas and schools and the patronage of the art by the public replacing the princes and the affluent of the past meant new opportunities for the teaching of the art form. The social stigma attached to dance disappeared as girls belonging to the upper strata of society were willing to train themselves and perform in public. The entertainment industry, particularly the medium of film, meant yet another opening for the dance masters. Thus the nattuvanar graph was on the rise. Think of the times when Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai conducted performances of Anandhi and Radha with M S Subbulakshmi joining in to sing padams. However, in recent years, thanks to new trends in choreography and the very fact that well-educated men and women are taking to the art, reinforced by technological developments, has led to a certain decline in his status on the stage from being the conductor of a dance programme to becoming a member of the orchestra; he has to blame only himself for this deterioration. The plight of the old-time nattuvanar has not attracted much attention from rasikas or scholars with the exception of an in-depth article by Gowri Ramnarayan a decade ago ("Where are the master gurus?", Gowri Ramnarayan, The Hindu Folio - October 27, 1998). Adyar Lakshmanan expressed his concern over the changing profile of the nattuvanar at a Symposium on Choreography at the Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha in Mumbai during November 8-9, 2003 (Dance Symposium on Choreography - A Report - Part II, A. Seshan, in Shanmukha. January-March 2005).

Nattuvanar in modern times
The nattuvanars of yore had rigorous and formal training not only in nattuvangam but in singing and playing on mridangam also. We are fortunate that we still have such professionals like Adyar Lakshmanan, C V Chandrasekhar, the Dhananjayans, Kalyanasundaram, et al., who are bravely holding the flags of the old-time nattuvanar high but they are only a few. The classic Mahabharata Chudamani was discovered and delivered to the world by the late U V Swaminatha Iyer. In her Introduction to the book brought out by the Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. U V Swaminatha Iyer Nool Nilayam, Chennai, Rukmini Devi says, while recommending it for reading by all students of music and dance: "Music is Dance and Dance is Music." Learning the mridangam helps in reciting the drum syllables. Unfortunately, in an age of specialization in which we live, the nattuvanar, instead of being 3-in-1, has allowed his role to be trifurcated. Those who can sing, recite the sollukkattu and keep the tala counts are becoming rare. They are a vanishing tribe and can be included in the list of endangered species!

Singing for a dance recital is different from that in a regular music concert. The nattuvanar should be looking at the dancer and not at his notes in order to be in tune with the stayibhava. Even nritta has a bhava aspect. In the popular programme entitled “Thaka Dhimi Tha” telecast on Jaya TV, this writer saw a talented nattuvanar, Sivalokanathan of Koothambalam of Erode and Karur, reciting jatis in the traditional manner, which he had never heard before. He demonstrated how, if the dancer slackened, the guru could pull her up gently by modulating his voice in reciting jatis! Vallinam and mellinam (hard and soft intonation) in rendering the jatis contributes to aesthetic pleasure. This applies to the playing of mridangam also requiring guidance from the guru at appropriate times.

This writer has been shocked to see some nattuvanars looking at their notes even for reciting jatis! It is like looking at multiplication tables or using a pocket calculator to find out the product of 7 and 16 instead of doing it mentally! The singer-nattuvanar interface with dancer is symbiotic. It is very crucial for the success of a programme as each influences the other, especially in sancharis. The same is true of the interaction between the dancer and the mridangist also. Recently this writer attended an Odissi recital by the Italian artiste Ileana Citaristi at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. He was pleasantly surprised to see the mardala player vocalizing the jatis looking at the dancer even as he was playing on the percussion instrument. He could see how it contributed richly to the total effect of the programme.

The traditional nattuvanar was a choreographer too. There is a wrong idea that choreography means a dance arrangement only for modern themes. Even the margam of a formal dance programme calls for choreographic skills in relation to not only dance movements but aharya, lighting, etc. Unfortunately the nattuvanar is nowhere in the picture nowadays in relation to these matters. It is the dancer who is the choreographer and he is just an accompanist. There are, of course, a few exceptions, as mentioned earlier.

The decline in the status was brought out in an exchange of views at the symposium on choreography at the 21st Natya Kala conference at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai in December 2001. One eminent and highly-respected natyacharya shocked the audience by saying that the traditional nattuvanars did not know anything about choreography! Obviously he thought of it only in its modern or contemporary formats and not the one belonging to margam. As a member of one of the panels on the concluding day, this writer argued that choreography did not mean only arranging dance dramas on themes like Chandalika or 9/11 but classical performances also. He said that it was a continuum and the Tanjore Quartet were the first choreographers in the modern sense of the term. One may call the choreography for the traditional margam as Puradana Natana Amaippu (Traditional or Conventional Choreography) in Tamil and that for modern or contemporary dance as Naveena Natana Amaippu (Modern Choreography) (See for this writer's review of the Chennai conference.)

This view found support among many delegates. Looking back, this writer feels that, in fact, Bharata was the first choreographer in India, if not in the world, as in his Natya Shastra, a classic on dramaturgy, he took a total, comprehensive and integrated view of the discipline. Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai has, in his Tamil book "Deivika Adarkalai" ("Divine Art of Dance"), has dealt with the changing trends in conventional choreography classifying them under ancient, middle-age and modern categories. He has described how he choreographed his own productions. One of his innovations was the Naganrityam, based on a song of a Pampattich Chittar, providing scope for the execution of some difficult karanas. It became popular thanks to Kamala. He had also produced a number of dance dramas. He introduced statuesque poses in tillana a la the sculptures of dancers in temples.

Pratibha Prahlad has taken a correct view of nattuvanar's importance in her short but illuminating book entitled 'Bharatanatyam' in the Dances of India Series brought out by Wisdom Tree. She says: "The nattuvanar traditionally is the dance guru whose choreography is danced by the dancer and under whose direction the musicians perform. He not only plays the cymbals but also recites the jatis, korvais and teermanams." (p. 78) (emphasis added.) But then she follows this up by saying: "Sometimes dancers who choreograph their own pieces, train nattuvanars to conduct the recital." This is a case of the reversal of roles - the shishya teaching the guru!

Qualities of a dance guru
The nattuvanar is a guru. Silappadikaram calls him 'adalasiriyan' (teacher of dance). Sangeeta Ratnakara of Sarangadev has a section describing the qualities of an ideal guru. Rangaramanuja Iyengar's book on this treatise says: "Tamil classics like 'Silappadikaram' and 'Jeevakachintamani' describe in enthralling verse the versatility attained by Madhavi and Gandharva Datta through their training under great teachers. Sarangadeva, doubtless, realized, as well as Illango (sic) and Tirutakatevar (sic), the contribution of a dedicated teacher in unfolding the potentialities of a student".

"The magnetic glow of an awakened personality, absolute mastery of technique integrating the body and soul of the dance art, a live sense of rhythm and tempo in all their subtleties, expertise in conducting the dance ensemble, acquaintance with the individuality of musical instruments, a sound knowledge of tradition acquired from seasoned veterans, capacity to improvise song hits and rhythmic sequences , flair for new creation in style, resourcefulness in handling situations, imparting instruction in dance and music and establishing with students a profound rapport flourishing on perfect identification and devotion to ideals, and lastly, an intuitive perception of the strength and weakness of a student - these made a good teacher." (emphasis added.) ( Sangeeta Ratnakaram - A Study, R Rangaramanuja Iyengar, Wilco Publishing House, 1978, pp 367-368. As he says in the preface, he "attempted, not a translation, but a critical survey of the formidable array of musical data in the classic to assess their contribution to the development of Carnatic Music.") It is generally accepted that Sarangadeva belonged to the 13th century. His treatise on music and dance was the summing up of the state of the art after several centuries during which the fine arts had flourished in the country. The italicized words should disabuse one's mind of the notion that the traditional nattuvanar cannot direct group dances, is not familiar with orchestration and cannot improvise. The only difference between him and the modern natyacharyas is that Nandanar has been replaced by 9/11!

Mahabharata Chudamani has a section entitled "Nattuvan Lakshanam" (characteristics of a nattuvanar) (op.cit.). There are nine verses enumerating them. They are so lofty that no nattuvanar can ever aspire to reach that standard!

Recent Trends
There are, however, certain recent trends that are welcome. One is that more and more well-educated men and women are taking to Bharatanatyam. It is common to see graduates and post-graduates in subjects like electronics, micro-biology, etc., learning and practising dance as a profession. As a result, they are open to experimentation in such areas as fusion, something which traditional nattuvanars of a conservative bent of mind may not approve. The old-time guru never danced. So he could concentrate on nattuvangam. But now the modern-day guru dances either solo or in a group. So, of necessity, he or she has to engage others to sing and recite jatis.

Another welcome development is women learning and teaching nattuvangam. In fact the field was all along restricted to males so much so there is no equivalent word in Tamil to refer to the female nattuvanar. K J Sarasa of the Vazhuvur school became the first woman-nattuvanar in the 20th century. She has trained literally hundreds of students and seen the arangetram of many of them. Many of her students win prizes at the dance competitions held in Chennai during the December festival. But she does not dance. Although she wanted to learn dancing she was dissuaded from doing so by Vazhuvurar who advised her to learn and concentrate on nattuvangam instead. Kamala Rani taught nattuvangam in Kalakshetra. She wrote a book on the subject. There are dancers who have started their own schools of dancing. The syllabuses and approaches of their classes may differ and but rarely do they cover the entire gamut of the art form in all its departments as it was in the past. Such dancer-teachers cannot teach music themselves and they do not take the help of musicians either for supplementing the training. It is, of course, possible that there are exceptions.

Institutional vs individual trainers
Total integrated training in music and dance is perhaps more easily attained in modern times in institutions than in the homes of individual gurus. No doubt, in the past, an individual nattuvanar could successfully do it because often he had other members of the family specializing in singing, playing on the mridangam, etc. They could supplement his teaching. In general, this is not the situation now. Kalakshetra is a good example for successful institutional training. According to a website, the intent of the institute is to create a consummate performer, one who is an adept dancer, and has a thorough understanding of the theoretical, literary and musical basis of the traditional margam. Therefore, language, music and theory are subjects that support the main subject of study. Each dance student must study vocal music or an instrument as a subsidiary subject. Dance students are encouraged to also study mridangam in order to strengthen their understanding of tala or rhythm. Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit, the languages most commonly found in the poetry of Carnatic music are part of the syllabus.

In the distant past, performances were few and mostly in temples and durbars of kings. It was possible for the guru to be present to conduct the programme. Now it is physically impossible because of the number of disciples each guru has and their programmes are widely distributed geographically. The jet-setting modern dancer thinks of minimizing costs even for performances within the country. Tape or cassette recorder comes in handy. It takes the place of the nattuvanar! Even where there is live orchestra, the dancer prefers to have a singer and a jati reciter in the place of guru besides a couple of instrumentalists to save costs. A further development is the use of CDs and Internet for teaching the art form. The nattuvanar of the 21st century is in the process of becoming a nettuvanar! How far this is good and desirable is a subject for discussion by all those interested in the healthy development of Bharatanatyam, or, for that matter, any art. This has already happened on a substantial scale in the field of Carnatic music with NRI students reportedly being taught over the telephone from India by vidwans! While certainly students should take advantage of technological devices they should constantly ask themselves as to whether they will be fully baked or half baked at the end of training!

Music, the anchor for nattuvanar
When people asked the by-then blind and notoriously picky Veena Dhanammal why she attended the dance shows conducted by the Pandanallur doyen Meenakshisundaram Pillai, she would say, "To hear Meenakshisundaram sing, of course, what else?" (Gowri Ramnarayan, op cit.) When are we going to see again the likes of a Kittappa Pillai singing a jatiswaram or a Vazhuvurar conducting a performance with the recital of jatis in his leonine voice?

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.