at the Nalanda Seminar
October 6, 2010
The Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Mumbai, organized a three-day National Seminar on “70 Years of Indian Classical Dances” at its premises in Juhu during September 17-19, 2010. After the traditional lighting of the lamp by some of the panelists present, Jawhar Sircar, Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, inaugurated the Seminar. Kanak Rele, eminent Mohiniattam artiste and founder of Nalanda, welcomed the audience that consisted of a large number of students, dancers, choreologists, choreographers, writers and critics. She explained the purpose of the event. It was to review the trends and changes in the major classical dance forms of the country during the last seventy years that would cover the pre-Independence period too. The dance forms covered were Bharatanatyam (BN), Mohiniattam, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Manipuri.
The evening on the first day was devoted to film shows giving bird’s eye views of various dance styles evolving over the years. Ashish Khokar, master dance archivist and historian, who has inherited rich materials from his father, the late Mohan Khokar, and has since made his own contributions to the collection, presented a 20-minute film that captured in a capsule form, the developments in various dance styles not just in 70 years but over a century. The old-timers in the audience felt nostalgic to see some of the well-known figures like Uday Shankar, Kamala, Balasaraswati, Muthukumaran Pillai, MK Saroja, Kelu Babu and others. It was followed by a documentary of Kanak Rele on the developments in Indian classical dances. She recalled the great difficulties that she had had to encounter in her efforts to document them.
This writer hopes that the efforts and experiences of artistes like Khokar and Rele will alert the public and the government to the need for encouraging such activities. Unlike in the West, the importance of documentation, in general, and of traditions in fine arts, in particular, is not as well recognized in the country as one would like it to be. The patronage of the government for arts is still halting and tentative making only token or pro forma support despite the various institutions set up for the purpose at the Centre and in the States. It is depressing on two counts. Funding is not a problem when events like the Commonwealth Games are sponsored but it exists for the nurturing of fine arts. We read daily about the unsavoury developments and squandering of resources connected with the Games. Secondly, governments in USA, Canada and Singapore are known to actively encourage music and dance of other countries to promote international understanding through liberal grants that enable Indian artistes to go there either to present programmes or participate in seminars. On the other hand, our government does not take that much interest in promoting our own arts except by way of token support.
On the second day, Prof. C V Chandrasekhar, the doyen of BN, presented a lecture demonstration that was highly stimulating. He recalled his days in Kalakshetra when there were only 5 to 6 students in a class, sometimes with two teachers! Today, many dance schools are like factories. Then students never asked questions in the class room. The “why” of any aspect of BN was never raised out of regard for propriety. (This writer would like to say that it was part of the ethos prevailing then in the cultural field including classical music. “Guru Bhakti” implied an unquestioned acceptance of whatever he said.) But today, students ask questions in the class room and can carry on interaction with teachers and other artistes outside also. The pedagogy has also undergone changes in keeping with the times. One important point that he made which this writer had not heard before was that sancharis in a varnam should not become story telling, which is the common trend now. On the other hand, as originally envisaged, sancharis in a varnam are meant to provide myriad facial expressions on every line for showing skills in abhinayam. However, he was quick to add that story-telling has a place in sancharis in other items presented in a BN programme like keertanams and slokas that used to be part of Margam where one could recall episodes connected with Siva, Krishna and other gods.
What was interesting and reassuring was that he demonstrated in BN what he had said. He danced to Papanasam Sivan’s varnam “Swami naan undhan adimai” in Nattaikurinji, Adi. After dancing to an introductory invocation in Bowli and Latangi, he took up the song for a detailed elaboration. The Siva poses were well delineated. Each line in the song was repeated by the vocalist not in the same routine manner but with variations in sangatis as in a music concert that added to aesthetic enjoyment. The many ways in which the dancer interpreted every line with varying expressions testified to what he had said earlier. His vigorous jati movements after each line of the sahitya ended in a loud approbation from the rasikas in the auditorium that overflowed. The clear articulation of words by the vocalist helped those in the audience knowing Tamil to appreciate it. The various sthanakas and Nataraja poses were marked by steadiness. The teermanams were short as the professor pointed out. The conveyance of the stayibhava of bhakti sringara to the spectators was complete, which is the ultimate test of success of any BN artiste.
Chandrasekhar referred to yet another trend in recent times, viz., the use of mridanga sollus, instead of the ones meant for BN. Kittappa Pillai, the late dance maestro, used to wonder often why mridanga jatis were used in BN instead of the regular sollus. Now both in BN and Kuchipudi, mridanga jatis are common. He said that while depicting “Natanamaadum” in a song, no jatiswaram was interpolated in the past. One highlight of the lec-dem was the nagabandha adavu that took the breath of the audience away. It was a quick execution of a difficult stance from a fully-seated position with his limbs twisted as in a complex yogasana posture to a standing one. I understand from him that he has used this adavu in his performances in the Simhendramadhyamam tillana and the Hemavati jatiswaram. He is in his Platinum Jubilee year. In the normal course, at his age, many of us find it difficult to get off the floor without help, leave alone dance! It is obvious that he has followed a disciplined life in terms of diet, habits and exercise. There is a saying in Tamil that you need a good canvas to paint a picture. The body is the canvas for a dancer to carry out his or her art. Chandrasekhar is a role model in that respect for all dancers, irrespective of gender. Later, in a private conversation, he told me that he had seen the nagabandha stance done by a New Zealand student of his and he thought of incorporating it in an adavu. It only shows how artistes evolve all the time if they have an open mind to accept from other sources whatever is good.
The programme came to a close with an ashtapadi that dealt with the viraha of Krishna. He said that there are experts who feel that Krishna never suffered from viraha because he had so many gopis to choose from. He raised the question as to why then Jayadeva had verses depicting the viraha of the Lord. (This writer feels that, though Krishna had other gopis for dalliance, Radha was special to him, the first among equals.) There was padartha abhinaya done for this piece which was in Ahir Bhairav (the equivalent of the Carnatic Chakravakam). He regretted the introduction of elements of Odissi, Mohiniattam and Kathak in the BN performances of some artistes. (This writer is of the opinion that it is inevitable when the same artiste learns more than one dance form. Often it is unconscious. In fact there is a view that even within one style or bani of BN, students should not go on moving from one guru to another.)
Chandrasekhar was competently supported by Jaya Chandrasekhar on nattuvangam and the strong Kalakshetra team comprising Hari Prasad (vocal), Padmanabhan (violin) and Adyar Balu (mridangam).
One wishes Prof Chandrasekhar and his wife many more happy and healthy years of service to the arts.
The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.