Bharatanatyam competitions of Natyarangam in Chennai  
- Uma Balasubramaniam, Chennai 
June 22, 2008 

Contrary to the announcement published in Kutcheribuzz stating that the number of participants in each category would be limited to 20, in reality there was no limit in the Jatiswaram category. After the number of applications reached 42 in the varnam category, Natyarangam decided to cap the number of applications on a "one student per guru" basis, which reduced the number of the eligible candidates to 25, 4 of whom did not turn up. Perhaps, the democratic and egalistic "one student per guru" basis implied that the "Best guru" type awards are of no consideration.  

June 14: Jatiswaram competition for children of 8 to 12 years 
The judges, Ganga Thampi, Lavanya Ananth and Rupa Srikanth were introduced according to their height: from the taller to the shorter, probably with a compromise that the last one to be introduced will be the first one to announce the winners. The first prize winner, S Nikita is indeed a good dancer. It was not particularly surprising to hear that Rohini, a student of Anitha Guha, got the second prize. According to another contestant, who studies in the same PSBB school in KK Nagar, Rohini was the best one of the 4 dancers. "Rohini is the best dancer in our dance school," was the comment from another dancer, A J Subashree.  

Interestingly, the first and the second prize winners were among the first 4 performers out of 28. I remembered my mother always told me, "At any oral exam, you should try to go in first: normally, you will have some advantage." Rupa Srikanth praised the "surprisingly" high level of mastery of the contestants. Perhaps, the judges were so impressed at the very beginning, that they were marginally more favourable to the first few performers. To avoid such surprises, Rupa Srikanth could ask the Friday Review's publishers to include the reviews of the younger performers more often: the children deserve it, and need it more than the senior dancers.  

The contestants  
"All the participants today deserve the first prize," announced Rupa Srikanth. The little girls' ears drooped as they heard this politically correct but incredible statement. Their eyes turned to their parents, begging for an explanation, probably perplexed how on earth Nikita and Rohini could be overall better than A J Subashree, Mridula, Ratna Ramesh, K V Shivatmika, or Vinisha Karthiravan. When I asked a few of them if they would agree with the judges' decision, these outrageously candid little girls were unanimous: NO. Their eyes were very sad. I felt a bit uneasy and thought that, instead of advertising their workshops, Natyarangam could instead have provided a feedback session where the judges would explain to the contestants their marks and point out the dancers' strengths and weaknesses. That is, if the judges made any notes. Otherwise, when the participants are not convinced by the authoritative judges' verdict, what is the value of such authoritativeness from the contestants' point of view?  

"They are too young to understand the nuances of the technique and assess their performance objectively," said a Natyarangam's committee member. "Well, they are old enough to understand who dances better and who dances worse," objected another spectator. Indeed, while some of the contestants made the crowd turn quiet, other contestants made their spectators turn their heads away from the stage and indulge in light gossip. Why would that adult-looking contestant eagerly take out her Handycam as soon as Mridula came onto the stage? Why didn't she want to shoot B M Akshaya Lakshmi? Why did another girl take out her mobile phone and was recording Subashree's performance and was not particularly interested to watch K Vaishali? 

I was wondering if, next year, the Natyarangam's judges are going to be embarrassed in the same way as at some incidents at Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festivals where 5-6 contestants, who had obtained the video of the previous year's winner's item, had the impudence to perform this same item with the identical choreography. In the absence of Natyarangam's archived videotaped records, it would be impossible for a contestant to prove the copyright of the original choreography.   

The judges indeed had a very hard job selecting the top 2 contestants. While such contestants as A J Subashree, Mridula, Ratna Ramesh, K V Shivatmika, Vinisha Karthiravan, or perhaps even R Abhinaya and E Aishwarya Lakshmi were surely not worse than the first two prize winners, there were others, such as B M Akshaya, Y K Aishwarya or Shwetha Mahalakshmi, who were clearly far behind the other contestants. Rupa Srikanth mentioned the names of Shafali and R Ananditha as the ones who could have won the prizes too. While the petite charismatic Shafali surely deserves it fully, Ananditha, like H Shreya or Akshita, could only marginally be included in the first league. 

Criteria and marking 
Some of the parents said they had an impression that the individual judges' marks are to remain a big secret and would never be disclosed to the contestants. Perhaps, they did not want to embarrass the judges asking to substantiate their marks. Otherwise, the vague general statements do not always sound very convincing. The judges were to divide the "Angasuddhi" criteria into 2 sub-criteria: "General" and "Hands." Well, I had always thought that angasuddhi included the overall co-ordination and synchronization of the hands with the rest of the body. The judgment criteria included a cryptic "Presentation & package" column, which seems to cover the make-up, costume, choice and quality of the recorded music, complexity and originality of choreography, and god knows what else. Another criteria was "Grace." I assume it referred to Rekha. While many of the girls displayed remarkably vivid, graceful, varied and genuine facial expressions at their nrittas, yet it appears that abhinaya was not counted, leave alone such time-proven criteria as Javaha or Drishti.  

Promotional value? 
Natyarangam gives the winners an opportunity to perform in Narada Gana Sabha's mini hall - as a talent promotion. But what is the value of such a promotion? A disappointed parent said, "It is not a problem for 2 dancers to pay the rent of the mini hall for 3 hours and give performances: the orchestra fees are much higher than the rent, anyway. What matters to us is how many people will come and watch these performances".  
The opportunity to perform is still considered as the key element in promoting young dancers. However, if 90% of the (normally scanty) audience who come and watch such performances include the dancer's relatives, friends, schoolmates, parents' colleagues and neighbours, what is the promotional value of such an opportunity? "You see, my 8-year-old daughter's Bharatanatyam video we uploaded on the Internet a year ago has been receiving more than 5000 views a month," smiled one parent. "How does it compare with 50-strong audience at a Natyarangam's program?" she asked. One of the top contestants' father, when asked if they can imagine Natyarangam posting the video of the competition on the Internet, commented, "It would be great! I am sure it would support and re-assert the judges' authority too, as they were up to the mark today."  

June 15: Varnam competition for children of 13 to 18 years 
While the Jatiswaram competition gave the contestants 5 minutes, the Varnam offered 7. And the judges were Priya Murle, Manjari and Sujatha Srinivasan. The contestants in this category too had no idea of what the judgment criteria were here. Just as it was the case with the Jatiswaram competition, in the Varnam category too, the winner was the first dancer who danced far better than the few preceding dancers. It seems that it is not only the level of the dancer's performance but the order of the contestants that determines the winner. Few were watching Rahij Ramsharan's dance. Next, you could see much higher standards in V Kripalakshmi's performance, if it were not for her fixed smile and arms bending to 230 degrees when there should have been 180. R Keertana was marginally less impressive, and V Soundarya demonstrated that a girl doing nritta in a tandava style and making a thousands of shortcuts may not look particularly impressive. The next was R Reshma Krishnan's slot, where she demonstrated very good nritta and overall danced somewhat better than the previous contestant.  

The winners 
And next.... was the winner: S Sahana. While her nritta was abundant, in rather simple, straight lines, I bet she had rehearsed this fragment so well that every move was chiseled and had a professional-looking finish, the moves were absolutely crisp, and everything looked absolutely perfect, including her abhinaya. She was a head above all the previous contestants. No wonder she impressed the judges. Next was the second prize winner, Jai Quaheni. Even though her nritta movements were very limited and quite simple, each of these movements were very well polished. And, thanks to Uma Nambudiripad's tuition, Jai Quaheni's abhinaya was powerful, profound, realistic and convincing. Sudharma Vaidyanathan shared the first prize with S Sahana. Sudharma won Natyarangam's last year's Jatiswaram, and has grown one year older. Despite the fact that she underwent a surgery half a year ago, she was in excellent shape and the way she performed was very similar to S Sahana's. Sudharma had one big advantage: even though her nrittas and nrityas were not particularly intricate, nevertheless the jathis that she started with, created by A Lakshman, were composed in a very original way, and the audio, obviously recorded at a studio, was very original too: an intricate combination for solo passages for nattuvangam, mridangam, sollukattu - and the pauses that caught the spectators' (and the judges') attention.  

The would-be winners  
The judges mentioned Swathi Ashok and Medha Hari as the contestants who could potentially have won the prizes. In fact, Jai Quaheni and a few other contestants too thought these two were going to win the prizes. So, why didn't they? Swathi Ashok had the greatest stage presence and the most accentuated and powerful movements among all the other participants. Swathi Ashok's guru, Urmila Sathyanarayanan (the other contestants' gurus did not turn up), was sitting in the last row and perhaps could not see well what the judges noticed very clearly: that young Swathi's abhinaya was quite superficial, quite artificial and rather unconvincing. The older Medha Hari's performance displayed this shortcoming too, though it was not as obvious. Medha Hari's jathis, for some unknown reason, did not include the ultra-fast and complex nritta that helped her win the first prize at this year's Indian Fine Arts competition. However, Medha's movements were clean and clearly defined, while Swathi kept her feet too wide apart in araimandi and could not do atami properly. Another possible runner-up was one of the youngest participants, Harinie Jeevitha, who demonstrated a very original style and the most intricate nrittas and nrityas that, perhaps, needed a larger space than the meager 10 square metres of the mini hall. Her nritta movements still need to be polished to gain some more finish and precision. Harinie's abhinaya was a bit too strained and overdone. The 13-year-old Harinie did not understand that she was dancing literally under the judges' noses, hardly 2 metres away from them. The closer the spectator is to the dancer, the greater impact the abhinaya will have.   

The rest 
The competition was quite tough. S Akshaya's performance level was very marginally lower than the runner-ups', followed by Nithya Subrahmaniam. Aparna Jayaram demonstrated a yet lower level of proficiency, followed by Poornima Balasubramaniam, Divya Sanpath (who brought the most horrible and noisy audio tape) and Reshma Krishnan. Shravani Joshi, for some reasons, could not demonstrate as high a standard as she did at last year's TTD competition. Her movements were very constrained and looked quite weak. N Gayatri and S Ananthashree were quite mediocre but not as bad as C Tara or the last competitor, who made the tired judges eager to end up the event as soon as possible. Their prayers were answered: neither Aishwarya Raghu, nor Divya Malayappam, nor Nithya Ramasubramaniam, nor Sanath Kumar turned up.  

The competition revealed a winning recipe for the top contestants: to win a prize, (1) Be one of the first 5-6 contestants and (2) make sure that, out of these 5-6, the others are the dancers who dance much worse than you do. The prize is yours. There was indeed a very marginal difference between the top 5-6 contestants in each category. It is the individual judge's weightage of the various sub-criteria that determined the winners. This weightage is not something that every judge is well aware of. For example, would one dancer's perfect araimandi and mudras count more than another dancer's agility and flexibility? What type and tradition of mukha abhinaya would be considered more favourably? Would a wide-range, accurate atami weigh more than the full-range, accurate footwork? Will the adavus performed in one style be given more marks than the adavus performed in another style? Indeed, would a particular judge consider the fully-lifted heels in Kudhitametti's sixth step as more impressive (and how much more impressive?) than the half-lifted heels? How will it be reflected in numbers? We don't know. 

Had Natyarangam taken pains to print out a few awards for the dancers, such as "Special award for abhinaya," "Special award for Nritta," etc., and for the gurus, like "Special award for choreography," more of the young dancers would receive what they need most: appreciation. It would be conducive to create the atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. The gurus would not complain that the judges' decision was politically motivated.  

It was interesting to observe that some of this year's 1st prize winners, such as Medha Hari (1st prize at the Indian Fine Arts competition) or Harinie Jeevitha (1st prize at the all-India level competition in Hyderabad) did not win any prizes at Natyarangam's competition, even though Medha Hari, along with Swathy Ashok, did receive a special mention by the judges. There are many reasons behind it. One of these is that, as we know, every dancer has his /her own favourite item or fragment that he / she performs the best, and it is not necessarily a Jathiswaram or a Varnam. Will Natyarangam hold a Thillana, a Kauthuvam and a Swarajathi competition next year? We don't know.  

The judges highlighted another reason: the children cannot do their best while dancing to the recorded music. While the Indian Fine Arts competition or the Music Academy's Spirit of Youth provides the dancers ample time, more space and the support of a live orchestra to showcase a few different items that gives the judges a chance to make a comprehensive assessment of a particular contestant's full range of strengths and weaknesses, a 5-minute fragment from a Jathiswaram or a 7 minute passage from a Varnam in Narada Gana Sabha's tiny Mini Hall will not give the judges an opportunity to make a well-founded decision. This is why the judges clearly stated, "We are not judging how good a particular dancer is: we are judging today's performances only." Will most of the dancers tend to interpret it this way too in the absence of the judges' specific comments? This is a big question.  

Most of the contestants left unconvinced by the judges' verdict. "I don't think the judges are willing to explain and substantiate their assessment," said one participant. Had each of the judges spared 20-30 seconds to comment on every contestant's performance immediately after it ended, this competition would have not been considered as a waste of time by most of the participants. The absence of such comments and clarifications does not enhance the judges' authority - on the contrary. Unlike, for example, some Bharatanatyam competitions at Kerala Higher Secondary Youth Festivals, Natyarangam's competitions envisaged no place for an appeal, as no video records were made and kept in Natyarangam's archives for internal purposes, allegedly, due to some gurus' objections. Such objections, though, do not sound particularly valid after a recent slew of TV broadcasts of full programs of full-length Bharatanatyam recitals recorded at various festivals as well as in the TV channel's own studios. 

Thanks to Narada Gana Sabha's reputation, the competition attracted many young talents from Chennai's Bharatanatyam schools. It is a pity we saw only 50% of those who applied for the Varnam competition. We don't know why such potentially strong contestants as Anusha Narendran's Bhargavi, Shobana's  S Anuroopitha and Shivani Shandiliya, Vijay Madhavan's S Sri Gayathri, Roja Kannan's S Sivasri, and many others apparently did not apply at all. Most gurus keep ignoring Natyarangam's competition. Nevertheless many of the names listed above will determine to a large extent what the Bharatanatyam landscape will be in 10-20 year's time.  Perhaps next year Natyarangam could bring this competition to a higher standard, so that more participants would give it more importance, and fewer of the registered competitors would fail to turn up.