Mysore - Bangalore Diary
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
September 5, 2011
When Dr. Mulk Raj Anand had invited me to edit the volume on Bharatanatyam in the early seventies, I had visited Mysore to gather more information on Mysore School of Bharatanatyam. Kathak exponent Maya Rao had worked on this tradition and written about it. She had requested Nirmala Joshi, the secretary of Sangeet Natak Akademi to arrange for documentation of this rare tradition and few exponents. Govind Vidyarthi, the documentation officer of the Akademi, visited the Mysore palace with Maya Rao and photographed palace dancers - among them the most renowned one was K Venkatalakshamma.
When many years later after that documentation, I went to see her, she was appointed as a Professor at the Dance department of Mysore University. She and her granddaughter Shakuntala demonstrated for me the salient features of Mysore school which I have documented in my Bharatanatyam book published by Marg (1979). Later on in the eighties, I was able to see Venkatalakshamma's performances at Nitya Nritya conferences and festivals organized by Lalitha Srinivasan, one of her prominent disciples. Venkatalakshamma was in the league of dancers like legendary Balasaraswati. She excelled in abhinaya. Her command over Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu languages was amazing. Shlokas from Amarushataka, Gita Govinda and several Javalis were a treat. Her spontaneous improvisation was astounding. She was a palace dancer and not a devadasi. She belonged to Banjara community. Another palace dancer Jatti Thayamma was a daughter of a wrestler. But their training under palace vidwans was thorough and their knowledge praiseworthy.
Karnataka dance traditions indeed were influenced by the Tanjore quartette, as from among them Chinnayya was for some time in the court of Mysore. However, independent of Tanjore parampara, Karnataka nritya parampara has in recent times received attention from serious scholars and dancers. Since I was attending Karnataka Nritya Parampara, a two-day dance festival and a seminar organized by Karnataka Bharatagama Pratishthana, Bengaluru, and Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, I had planned to visit Mysore to see abhinaya and dance items by Venkatalakshamma's senior disciple Krishnaveni. On 26th July, Badari Divya Bhushan arranged a gathering of local Mysore based dancers at his Bhushan's Academy and invited Krishnaveni and D Keshava, who is settled in Basel, Switzerland, and who had also studied under Venkatalakshamma, to demonstrate the items they had studied under her.
It was indeed a rare treat. Now in her sixties, Krishnaveni dressed in a silk saree, sat on a small 'moda' and started reminiscing about her early childhood in Kannada, which Bhushan translated for me. A Brahmin, Krishnaveni's studying dance was looked down upon, but she was determined to study and study she did. Venkatalakshmma trained her both in nritta and abhinaya. Sanskrit shlokas, Javalis, Kannada songs and various special items like Choornika, Purvaranga and there was no looking back. D Keshava, belonging to Gowda community also started learning under Venkatalakshamma. In those days it was very uncommon for boys to learn dance. But Keshava could not care less and was studying yoga under his father and later on under Yogaraj Desikacharya.
It was interesting to see how Krishnaveni and Keshava studying common items were able to demonstrate clearly the nritta - how hands extended horizontally, were held with tripataka, palm downwards and different from what we see today in Bharatanatyam of various schools. There are 'jar adavus' used in abhinaya of ashtapadis from Gita Govinda, according to the moods of the nayika, whether she is in a happy mood, or dejected, and also avasthanusara, according to her status, mugdha, young maiden, proudha, mature and so on. Krishnaveni sat and showed hastas, movements of limbs; Keshava got up and performed distinctly showing nritta as taught by Venkatalakshamma. The introduction of movements with speed in between the regular execution of dance was quite interesting.
Krishnaveni recalled other dancers like Dhanalakshmi, Nagalakshmi and Lalita Rao who were also proficient in Mysore bani. Later on she enacted first from Krishnakarnamritam, a shloka in which Krishna begs of mother Yashoda to give him butter. The hastabhinaya, hand gestures, with mukhajabhinaya, facial expressions, was performed first on right side and then repeated on left side. Even in Varnams, the same treatment was shown. Krishnaveni performed Varijamukhi javali with finesse and it had old world charm. The interactions were peppered with interesting anecdotes. When offers came for marriage, Krishnaveni's parents wanted her to get married. But Venkatalakshamma did not want to lose her prize pupil and advised her not to marry. Being a Brahmin, there was no question of her not getting married. Krishanveni cried and cried and indeed got married. Her husband Ranga Rao allowed her to perform and also teach. A gentleman, he was also present on this occasion and we all greeted him with appreciation. Those were the days when dance despite its inherent greatness was not considered an art worth pursuing. And being a Brahmin, to defy the social norms was not an easy task.
Keshava is in his early sixties and his young daughter Sumitra, by his Swiss wife Esther Jenny, is a chip off the old block. His elder daughter Anjali was away in Basel. Sumitra performs with clarity and maintains the typical Mysore school bani. Keshava danced a varnam and showed how it differs from other schools. His agility was remarkable. He attributes it to his early training in yoga and passion for dance. Keshava has studied at Mysore University and won the title Natyavisharada and Gold Medal for his degree in Dance.
Keshava with Venkatalakshamma at Somnathpur temple (1988)
Keshava with Anjali & Sumitra
In 1976, he established at Basel (Switzerland), Kalasri, the first ever school of Indian dance and yoga with Esther Jenny, who too studied Bharatanatyam in Mysore and together the couple has been assiduously working towards creating an interest in classical dances and Indian culture, receiving recognition for their pioneering services from Swiss government. The couple has been training several Swiss and European young dancers in Bharatanatyam and yoga in Basel. For his dedication, Keshava has received Kannada Rajyotsava Award from the Government of Karnataka. He has authored a book in Kannada, Bharatiya Nritya Sampradayagalu, published by the University of Mysore. As a singer, he has brought out two CDs - Classical South Indian Music and Daiva Stuti, Kannada devotional songs.
He regularly visits Mysore and continues to expand his repertoire. When in May 2007, I had visited Zurich and given lectures on dance, he had made a special visit to see me and invited me to Basel to see his work. Unfortunately on account of other commitments I could not. But I was delighted that we could meet at leisure in July at Mysore. He has built a beautiful spacious house with studios to conduct classes whenever they visit Mysore during his extended stay, and rooms for guests including foreign students.
During my two days stay, I once again met Dr. Tulasi Ramachandra, who had during the two-day seminar in Karnataka Nritya Parampara presented Perani. She has received training in Bharatanatyam under Lalita Dorai, Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal, CR Acharyalu, Surajbhan Gaur and late Tirath Ram Azad, the Kathak exponent, and is also a trained musician. She has established her institution Nrityalaya Trust and trains young dancers for the past 30 years and conducts Nartanasambramam, examinations where besides dance, she trains them in art of makeup, singing, and stage craft. She showed me a DVD of her reconstruction of Perani with many other relevant elements which had references from Nritta Ratnavali, the gharghara, sound of hundreds of ankle bells, use of chamar, fly whisks, the evidences in sculpture of Halebid, Jinanathpur temples and so on. I saw young dancers learning under her direct supervision in her flat and was pleased to learn that she has choreographed several dance-dramas. She has evolved her own style terming it as 'Madhurya.' Her husband, an engineer, is retired and is a renowned singer, having cultivated a special type of recitation. Silently they carry on their work which speaks of the horizontal spread of classical dance in Mysore.
After Krishnaveni gave a demonstration and Keshava and his daughter Sumitra danced, Bhushan and Anjana also performed displaying Pandanallur style and Ramaiah Pillai's Vazhuvoor bani, interweaving sequences of marriage of Rama and Sita, using dramatically real garlands. Watching from close quarters, I was impressed by their appropriate abhinaya. The evening was memorable and indeed very educative. The Bhushans are doing commendable work organizing dance workshops, Purusha Festivals, highlighting promising, up and coming male dancers, festivals of dance inviting artists from other parts of India. I found that often he gets up at 4.30am in the morning and goes to nearby place to teach students who have to appear for their regular school studies, so that they do not miss their Bharatanatyam classes. The dedication and commitment on his part is praiseworthy.
Kuchipudi exponent Veena Murthy Vijay invited me to attend a lec-dem at Vidya Vardaka Sangh, first grade college for women, at Basaveshwara Nagar in Bangalore. The erudite Dr TS Satyavati and the principal Dr. Mangala Priyadarshini also watched the lec-dem when the student community was in large number attending the session, similar to SPICMACAY initiative to introduce classical dance and music in a more direct and friendly manner by well known artists.
Veena Murthy Vijay has had her training in Kuchipudi under the late CR Acharyalu, who had specialized in several temple rituals and rare dance numbers. Principal among them are dance items which deal with complicated talas. A canvass is spread on the floor on which a dancer performs these talas and while performing moves in a manner so that after the tala recitation is over and the canvass is lifted, drawings of Lord Ganesha, a peacock or a lion are seen. These kavutvams are special to Kuchipudi. The sahitya describing the qualities of a particular god or a goddess are recited interspersed with the jatis. A dancer while performing draws with one toe and the feet a painting, an outline, a sketch of a mount of god or goddess, an animal like lion as mentioned earlier. The Simhanandini composition is in praise of Kanaka Durga goddess who rides a lion.
In Mayura Kavutvam, at the end a drawing of a peacock is outlined and in Vinayaka Kavutvam that of Lord Ganesha. It requires special skill on the part of the dancer. The recitation of the tala explaining various divisions was flawless and Veena Murthy executed the drawing of a lion skillfully. Her young disciple Sangeetha Phaneesh, barely twelve years old, but well trained by Veena has a star quality. She dances like a seasoned dancer and has a pleasant stage presence. She executed Mayura Kavutvam to enthusiastic applause by the students. Earlier, a few dance numbers were presented like Rangapuja by Suhasini K Shetty and 'Mahadeva Shiva Shambho' by a bright young male dancer Devaraj. For each item, Veena gave explanations in a lucid manner.
I had seen Veena Murthy Vijay last year at Bangalore performing these numbers at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in a morning session when senior artistes from different dance styles had performed. I was impressed by her versatility and in spite of heavy build she performs with lightness belying the weight. These sessions in the morning at the women's college helped students to learn about our classical dance traditions. When spending some time with Dr. TS Satyavathi and the Principal, I learnt a lot about activities they conduct to enrich the cultural life of the students.
Deepti Mukund and Shruthi Mukund, two disciples of Lalitha Srinivasan, have settled in Washington DC. Deepti runs Natyabhoomi School of Dance since 1994 offering training in Bharatanatyam of Mysore bani. Shruthi teaches as a faculty member. Natyabhoomi shall be celebrating their 17th anniversary in October this year. During my visit to Washington DC for Maximum India Festival at Kennedy Centre in March, I happened to meet Deepti and Shruthi. I had met Deepti in Bangalore two years ago during Nitya Nritya dance festival and conference. So when I received a call from her I was delighted to connect with her in DC. They arranged a get together for me to meet local Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancers based in Washington. It was a pleasure to connect with so many of them, some of them I had known earlier and we renewed our contacts. I also watched Bharatanatyam class conducted by Deepti. Among her students was her daughter Shreya whose Rangapravesh was planned in July in Bangalore.
I was to give an illustrated talk on Impact of Bollywood and Indian dances on Chinese dancers at Maryland University. My host veteran Kuchipudi exponent Nilimma Devi had arranged it. But my DVDs of supporting material for my talk were not with me and I had to organize to get it from Beijing. Deepti's husband Uday Navile assured me that the material can be 'downloaded' if sent from Beijing. My Chinese friend and dance scholar Professor Ou Jiang Ping and Bengali journalist Subhash Chakravarty sent the DVDs, which to my complete surprise, Uday managed to download and I could give my talk at the University. I was grateful to them for their timely help. When Deepti invited me to attend her daughter's rangapravesh, I was very happy to.
For her age 13, Shreya looks almost 16. She has an attractive stage presence and performs with confidence revealing the beauty of the Bharatanatyam form. Trained also under Lalitha Srinivasan, she exudes certain traditional qualities which belie her long stay in Washington DC. I happened to see also a small clipping of hers which was strategically screened at Ravindra Kalakshetra in the foyer that showed barely three year old Shreya taking tentative Bharatanatyam steps. Dance and music have been 'in the air' in her house and Shreya also has the advantage of having her mother and aunt Shruthi to guide her.
Of the dance compositions she presented, I enjoyed Pushpanjali, followed by Godai kavutvam, dwelling upon the story of Godai wearing the garland. Shreya indeed looked endearing as Godai who in her innocence places garland on herself and then on the idol! Jatiswaram was performed with Gita Govinda ashtapadi "Lalita lavanga lata parishilan." Rendered melodiously in raga Vasanta, tala adi by the musicians, enhancing the appeal of ashtapadi, Shreya performed it with restrained abhinaya. Swarajati "Sarojakshi" in Yadukula Kambodhi and tala Rupaka, from Tanjore quartette, as I understand from Lalitha Srinivasan, was very popular amongst Mysore school performers. Shreya had worked hard to master it under watchful gaze of Lalitha Srinvasan and though taxing and tough, she performed with ease. "Kele Gopi," Devernama of Purandardasa gave Shreya scope to depict Krishna's pranks. Deepti included Kannada Geete "Solisade Shivana" from DV Gundappa's Anthapura Geethegalu, in which even Lord Shiva is shown being enticed by the beauty of Mohini when Vishnu disguises as Mohini to distribute nectar to Devas! The choreography for solo dance was interesting bringing out the intrinsic lyrical quality. It was set to Brindavana Saranga raga and tala rupaka. Shreya looked a captivating Mohini.
Tulasidasa's "Sri Ramachandra kripaulu bhaja mana" bhajan in Panthuvarali raga and mishrachapu tala evoked sentiment of bhakti, devotion. Tillana, a composition by Balasubramanya Sharma in praise of Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati set to raga Jog and tala khandatriputa was rendered with flair by Shreya. The finale Mangalam in Sanskrit, a prayer for tranquility of earth, wind, sky, fire, water, sun, moon, stars, planets and all living human beings, their mind, body and soul was a fitting finale. Supported by that renowned vocalist DS Srivatsa, on mridangam by Lingraju S, flute by Mehesha Swamy and veena by Geetha Navile, the program had customary finesse of nattuvangam by Deepti and Shruthi. I generally do not get an opportunity to witness dances by the young generation of Indian Diaspora. It was therefore a great joy for me to see a young gifted dancer like Shreya. She has everything going good for her and if she continues, she is bound to make a name for herself as a brilliant Bharatanatyam exponent.
Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.
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