Side Steps: Asides, comments and murmurs at the Chennai dance festival 2012-13
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat

January 11, 2013

What better way to start attending season programs than with two stellar presentations on Dec 30 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan by Vyjayanthimala Bali followed by Alarmel Valli. Vyjayanthimala  dedicated her recital to the Delhi rape victim who had passed away the earlier day and urged the rasikas to join her in protesting against such atrocities against women. Valli dedicated her recital to Shobana Swamy, her nattuvangist for 15 years who had passed on in October. She hailed Vyjayanthimala as her idol and inspiration for many years. Our Mylapore audiences are very time conscious and come 8.30pm there started the usual exodus even though one of the top performers of the country was on stage.

The well attended Music Academy dance fest was a time to bond with dancers and rasikas from all over the globe. In a continuing trend, the audience claps heartily after a prayer song is sung and after every set of jathis executed by a dancer. How come exquisite abhinaya does not get any such reaction? The margam does not end with a thillana any more. There is a benediction / stotra / prayer / sloka (especially some old ones!) or even a patriotic verse that follows the thillana. There are no more awkward silences between items. A brief instrumental interlude or aalaap keeps the tempo going and gets its own applause. Between programs, the vocalist is a subject of discussion, especially his/her mispronunciations of Telugu words since many of the Bharatanatyam items are in Telugu. The Telugu speakers make known their righteous indignation about the many mispronunciations to whoever is willing to listen. Apart from language disasters, one vocalist was imitated for almost murdering a Jayadeva ashtapadi!  On the subject of singing for dance, TM Krishna said at the Natya Kala Conference that, “When there is music in dance, it is not Carnatic music, it is dance music.” But some of the experienced vocalists for dance sounded more like they were giving Carnatic vocal recitals (oh, the gamakas!) than accompanying a dance recital. We saw some maamaas actually keeping beat as they would for a Carnatic music concert.

While audio level at the Music Academy was consistent, it was not so at other venues. The mridangist at the tiny Narada Gana Sabha mini hall had the volume so high (a dancer attributed that to his having won an award recently!) that he drowned out the rest of the orchestra. The high decibel level of the mridangam must have knocked off first one earring of the dancer, soon the other one too and she performed minus earrings for the rest of her program. At the Academy, we had wonderfully subtle mridangam accompaniment for Mythili Prakash’s recital by a young lady Rajna Swaminathan, a disciple of Umayalpuram Sivaraman.
Costumes ranged from drab, bright, single color to multi-color… and one dancer even looked like a gift wrapped package complete with bow and all! It couldn’t get any weirder than an off white shiny capri costume with red fan in the front, topped by a turban, for a Bharatanatyam recital! However far from the stage we are, we can always spot an aaharya mishap! A leading dancer had a costume disaster within few minutes of commencing her recital, leaving exposed a strip of black velcro (on a reddish costume) that had held one side of the fan, distracting the audience through the item that was performed with the fan flapping to one side. Perhaps this could be a lesson to dancers to first check out how costume / accessories behave instead of directly venturing with it on stage. One must also beware of this particular shade of blue that looks gorgeous on stage but sweating through the recital, my talented young dancer friend from the US discovered after her recital that she was covered in blue hue!

Sweat…those terrible patches under the armpits that look terrible in the photos too…sometimes rasikas were not discussing the dance but talking about X having sweaty underarm patches and Y not sweating a drop despite a 80 minute recital… would wearing sweat absorbent underarm pads help the dancer? Critic Leela Venkataraman said UK based Akram Khan uses a special material developed in Japan for his costumes so even after a hectic recital, the costume remains fresh and the performer looks cool too! What about perspiration on the face? The mistake one dancer did between items was wipe her face with a paper tissue. Many of us wondered if something was wrong with our eyesight when we saw patches of white clinging to the dancer’s cheekbone, chin and neck! But sweat is not all that bad. When the pretty young thing stepped on to the stage, my dancer friend sitting next to me got quite concerned that her cleavage might show every time she bent! Fortunately, not only was the top garment firmly in place, the perspiration made it stick to her like a second skin and there was no cause for panic through her charming recital!

We saw Bharatanatyam in slow motion as well as fairly fast to tongue twister jathis. While many of the younger lot danced to a sedate pace, the older dancers sizzled with leaps and jumps, inviting sarcastic observations that a dancer should dance according to her age! If so and so can carry it off, why not, argued another!

The dancers depicted heroines pining for the lord, a lover or a philandering Casanova, or berating the errant two-timer or a sneaky sakhi who has a romp when she’s not around, prompting ‘Sruti’ Janaki to post on Facebook after watching a brilliant performance by Vaibhav Arekar: “Phew! After seeing all that Bharatanatyam over the past few weeks, had to come to the conclusion that life was all about love-making and nothing else!! Thanks, Vaibhav, for breaking that notion. Appaada! The nayikas and their avasthaas are becoming too much of an avasthaii for us poor rasikas!”

Referring to an avasthaa of a different kind, dancer Methil Devika asked me, “Why are Bharatanatyam dancers showing so much of their back to the audience?” The answer came a couple of days later after one of the morning shows at Academy, when Priya Murle declared that “back is the new front” and all present nodded in agreement. Really, lots of meaningful discussions were going on between shows and after shows or when rasikas walked out before a show ended as in the case of Dushasana disrobing Draupadi scene in ‘Panchali Sapatham.’ I found the three young men (all from outside Chennai) chatting outside. “We see enough of rape news in paper and TV and now rape on stage? It is too much. If Panchali is going to be dressed like that, she is surely asking for trouble,” they said with a sigh!

It is a wonder how absolute strangers or new acquaintances share feedback with other strangers. Music Academy features a few artistes again and again, grumbled some visiting rasikas because they had come all the way to watch new performers. A rasika from New Zealand found performances by Anwesha Das and Vaibhav Arekar worth coming for all the way instead of the ‘usual divas.’ According to another rasika, these dancers were fabulous earlier but one’s recital had been ‘lacking in grace’ and the other ‘only meandered’ on stage this year! People complain that this particular dancer’s presentations are always somber, but this year she was extra chirpy on stage and they complained about that too! Really, there is no pleasing these rasikas!

Samhara by Nrityagram and Srilankan dancers of Chitrasena Dance Company ended the Academy festival on a magnificent note. We actually heard someone exclaim ‘Sabash!’ Watching them, dancer Sulakshana Jayaram wondered, “Why is Bharatanatyam so overrated?” Young dancer Sarvesh from South Africa has not been much impressed by most Bharatanatyam shows he has seen and wanted to know if any Chennai based Bharatantayam dancers had done such meaningful collaborations.

It is not for nothing that Chennai rasikas (we could say rasikas gathered in Chennai) have been hailed as discerning. The rasikas clearly reserved their standing ovation for the impeccable presentation by Mythili Prakash, powerful Kathakali of Sadanam Balakrishnan’s troupe, the super graceful Sujata Mohapatra and the scintillating Nrityagram / Chitrasena Dance Company.

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Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of