A pilgrimage for dancers  
- Kiran Rajagopalan 
e-mail: kiran.rajagopalan@gmail.com 
 
April 24, 2008 

Pilgrims' journey  
I was quite nervous when I first boarded the bus at Narada Gana Sabha with the twenty or so other dancers and the Natyarangam Committee.  I took immediate note of the outward differences between me and the others I was the only male dancer on the bus, and I was perhaps the only participant from the United States!  But after a few minutes of internal reflection, I reassured myself that I had at least a few things in common with the other participants.  We all shared a deep passion for dance.  More importantly, we were all going to Thennangur to enrich our understanding of Bharatanatyam by interacting with other scholars and fine artists in the Natya Sangraham workshop.   

As we passed through many vestigial villages, scattered settlements, and fledgling farms along the narrow, winding road to Thennangur, a few members of the Committee enlivened the mood with interesting facts on several historical and religious sites en route.  We even stopped in Uttaramerur to see the famous Chathurveda Mandapam.  The walls of this ninth-century Pallava structure are inscribed with archaic Tamil passages detailing Uttaramerur's uniquely democratic system of government.  Sujatha Vijayaraghavan then gave an eloquent lecture on the details of Uttaramerur's constitution.  At that point, I was hungry for more knowledge, and my mind raced in anticipation of what was to come from the other faculty members in Thennangur. 

Divine ambience 
By the time we reached Thennangur, it was already late evening and the tiny village was shrouded in darkness.  What little I could see of the Panduranga Temple complex was accented by moonlight, and I was fascinated by how its aesthetically modern architecture starkly contrasted with the bare simplicity of its surroundings.  These impressions were reinforced the following morning when all of us visited the main temple to pay our respects to the presiding deity.  I entered the temple as a humble devotee, bare-chested and clad in only my practice veshti.   

The blend of modernity, prosperity, and tradition was immediately apparent in the temple as its inner walls were covered with gorgeous fiberglass motifs and classic depictions of Lord Krishna.  The priests were as immaculately dressed as Lord Panduranga, and quite a few of the local residents had congregated in the main hall for their daily worship.  The hall resonated with the sincere words of the head priest extolling the deeds of Lord Panduranga.  The meditating devotees and their fervent shouts of "Radhe Krishna!" heightened the spiritual energy already present in the temple.  It became apparent to me that even with its recent makeover and revival, Thennangur had retained its sacredness as befitting the place where Goddess Meenakshi was said to have first appeared.  The absolute seclusion of the locale also compelled us to concentrate exclusively on dance and its spiritual context without mundane and urbane distractions. 

Devotional practices 
The workshop's holistic approach gave us constant exposure to new ideas and techniques to enhance our own dance practice.  Each session was conducted by eminent artists and specialists and was classified under the four types of abhinaya:  angika, vachika, aharya, and sattvika.  The day started with a rejuvenating "angika session" conducted by yoga master Anil Kumar.  The central focus of these early morning sessions was on unifying the body and mind in preparation for dance.  Anil Kumar described how the proper use of breath links the body's movements directly with the mind.  He also added that when breath and movement are intimately connected, then the dancer is able to use his energy most effectively.   

Another truly enlightening "angika" session was with Dr. Kannan Pughazhendi because he introduced us to a largely overlooked subject among Bharatanatyam dancers:  the prevention of dance-related injuries.  Through a series of simple stretches and exercises, he showed us how to warm-up and cool-down efficiently while giving necessary attention to all the major muscles.  He also stressed that dancers need to be diligent with fitness, diet, and training in order to ensure longevity without chronic injury.  Unfortunately, the session ended too quickly, but I was still inspired by Dr. Pughazhendi's brief overview of dance physiology. 

Later on in the day, Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar conducted his own "angika," "satvika," and "aharya" sessions which gave us the rare opportunity to learn from and ask questions to a guru with an exceptionally long and brilliant career.  Among the novel exercises he had us do, the tisra alarippu with just eye movements was most interesting.  This challenging exercise showed me just how important subtle eye movements were in dance and the extent to which the eyes can convey separately from hand gestures and body movements.   

As an aspiring male dancer, the sessions with Prof. Chandrasekhar were most valuable because he offered insight, peppered with his own experiences, into what it means to be male in Bharatanatyam.  During the first session of the camp, he spoke candidly about the struggles he faced over the years as a performer, and he emphatically called for an end to the unfair gender bias against male dancers.  Later, he stated that a dancer should be able to perform nayaka and nayika bhava with equal skill, and he went on to demonstrate the Kshetrayya padam, "Thamarasaksha," gracefully.  In addition, Prof. Chandrasekhar advised me personally on how to dress appropriately for practice and performance. 

The "vachika" sessions were equally enlightening mainly because they dealt with the allied arts of Bharatanatyam: literature and classical music.  The primary purpose of these sessions was summarized nicely by Prof. Chandrasekhar, who said that "anticipation" of music and lyrical content was necessary for spontaneously bringing forth bhava in dance.  This inherent sense of music and literature, he noted, only develops with experience and with a close study of these allied arts.  Accordingly, Dr. Sudha Seshayyan's lectures focused on careful analysis of figurative language when creating dramatic interpretations of Tamil poems.  She reminded us that there are three basic levels of understanding a poem:  its word-by-word, sentence, and inherent meaning.  For example, she used a poem from Sangam literature in which the physical description of fields at dusk that, if closely read, was actually an extended metaphor for a female dancer performing on stage! 

I must also praise musician Aruna Sayeeram for her eye-opening discourses on eliciting rasanubhava in music and dance.  She was the perfect choice for discussing music to dancers as she, herself, used to learn dance.  Since choreography for Bharatanatyam is generally music-driven, her advice to actively "visualize" rather than to passively listen to music was very well taken.  A thorough grasp of a song's lyrics and music, she said, enables both the dancer and the musician to suitably render it for performance.  She also asserted that the same "visualization" must occur when setting lyrics to music in that selection of raga and the way it is rendered must be done with utmost care.  The various microtones within a raga, for example, can give it the necessary scope and dramatic quality to compliment a song's mood.  The proper pronunciation and annunciation of individual words is also vital for a dance performance, and she cautioned us that swara phrases can be used creatively to embellish long vowel sounds, but they can butcher words when used with consonant sounds.    

She ended her first lecture with the idea that when this meticulous attention to music is synchronized with the dancer's sensitive choreography, the performance is imbibed with rasanubhava.  Then in the second lecture, Aruna Sayeeram asked us to dance to her singing!  We were challenged to spontaneously compose sancharis to match her niravals for single lines from two compositions in Thodi and Atana.  We had to not only interpret the lines but also anticipate how these ragas were developed so that we could match the subtle shifts in mood.   

In addition to the four "abhinaya sessions," the daily homework sessions provided a platform through which we could demonstrate our own creativity in dance.  All of the participants were given homework assignments to prepare before coming to Thennangur.  Each of us had to compose and perform abhinaya for a variety of songs.  I was relieved to find that everyone present was discerning, yet extremely supportive when they provided feedback for our interpretations.  For example, I had some difficulty composing sancharis for the Kamas varnam, "Saamiyai Azhaithu Vaadi."  I performed the line, and Prof. Chandrasekhar along with another senior dancer immediately commented that showing Lord Shiva's third eye burning Cupid was inappropriate.  Sensing my disappointment, Prof. Chandrasekhar patted me on the back and graciously allowed me to share my thoughts of why I had included that image in my interpretation!   

After the homework sessions, all of the participants gathered at the main temple for a divine evening of music, dance, and worship.  Each day, we were joined by local residents and visiting pilgrims to participate in the special rituals for the Dolotsavam, Garuda Utsavam, and Kalyana Utsavam.  Aruna Sayeeram sang each evening for the deity with such earnestness that guru Chandrasekhar spontaneously started dancing.  Although many of us were hesitant at first, it was hard to resist the urge to dance.  With each passing song, I found it easier to shed my inhibitions and to dance with more fervor.  The experience was sublime because I had never been part of any religious ceremony for which dance and music were an integral part.   

Then, Aruna Sayeeram sang Oothakadu Venkata Subbaier's "Madhura Madhura Venugeetham" during the Kalyana Utsavam, and I lost myself completely in devotion.  I started doing abhinaya involuntarily as if in a trance, and quite a few people came up to me complimenting the sincerity of my dancing.  One elderly woman, in particular, simply remarked that my dancing had "put (her) in higher spirits." 

Changed outlook 
I think it was at that moment and in the days after I left Thennangur that my notions of what dance means to me began to change dramatically.  I was plagued by uncertainties because I was, and still am, caught in a conflict of passions.  I am planning to enroll in a doctorate program in neuroscience while aspiring to be a professional dancer.  Some of the professional dancers reassured me that there was still plenty of time to figure out what exactly I would like to do.  Yet, my experiences in Thennangur have given me the courage to continue my studies in Bharatanatyam with the hope that I may be able to pursue both neuroscience and dance.   

This workshop was also extraordinary because I began to explore the spiritual and dharmic aspects of dance.  As I pondered over my experiences, the words of Odissi dancer Surupa Sen suddenly echoed in my mind.  During a recent lecture-demonstration, she stated that, "viewers are invited to journey (with her) into a world more delicate and perfect than ours."  This statement not only perfectly captures the primary purpose of fine art but also describes the inextricable link between art and spirituality in Indian aesthetics.  Indian classical dance is exceptional because a devotee can selflessly dedicate his entire body, mind, and soul to God through constant practice.  Ideally, a sincere and aesthetic Indian classical dance performance allows spectators to partake in the dancer's uplifting journey towards perfect bliss.  Although performances are transient, the effect they have on the dancer and spectator may be long lasting, and the recollection of these experiences may allow both to engage in the journey once again. 

Thennangur, as an important pilgrimage site, is symbolic of fine art's inherent nature to give and to uplift.  Its aesthetic environment and adherence to tradition, tempered by sincere devotion and compassion, invariably transports visitors into a spiritual world filled with beauty.  Consequently, routine struggles are temporarily forgotten and the body, mind, and soul are all revitalized as visitors meditate upon Panduranga.  At the same time, the village, which was once abandoned because its temple became dilapidated, was given a second life when Swami Haridoss Giri spearheaded the construction of the Panduranga Temple and its associated amenities for the exclusive benefit of others.  I cannot imagine a more appropriate place for the Natya Sangraham workshop, and I strongly encourage all dancers to go on this life-changing pilgrimage to Thennangur at least once. 
 

Natya Sangraham, a three-day dance workshop from Feb.29 to March 2, 2008 was held in Thennangur by Narada Gana Sabha's dance wing, Natyarangam.   
US based Bharatanatyam dancer Kiran Rajagopalan is a disciple of A Lakshman and Sujatha Srinivasan.