Powered by intellect, driven by passion
Text & pics: Veejay Sai
e-mail: vs.veejaysai@gmail.com

September 7, 2015

There are two sides to this story. One, often told by the dancer and the other, less heard, by the dance itself. The dancer’s version has changed over the decades. From a philosophy to a tantrum, the story of the Varnam has traveled stage to stage, mouth to mouth, whisper to gossip and guru to shishya. What is it about this one piece, acting like a fulcrum in a Margam, that keeps one still awed about its everything in a Bharatanatyam performance? What is it about the Varnam that can claim your undivided attention, though it has been performed for the Nth time? The content? The lyrics? The music that carries them? The antiquity of the composition? The nritta where the dancer can exhibit virtuosity? The underlying philosophy? All of them together? Or some sheer madness by a possessed dancer to perform this again and again ad nauseum!
The two day festival-cum-seminar-cum-vidwat sabha organized on August 24 and 25 to celebrate twenty years of Spanda Dance Company by Leela Samson in Chennai was one of the finest festivals done in this decade. Over two days, a packed Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium witnessed performances by four veterans of Bharatanatyam. More than a festival it was a vidwat sabha!
The first day’s performances began with a lecture-demonstration by, who could be easily the world’s oldest male Bharatanatyam dancer, veteran Guru C V Chandrasekhar. He presented the Thanjavur Quartet varnam ‘Sarojaakshiro’, a Swarajathi set to ragam Yadukula Kamboji. For someone who announced he was dancing from the age of ten, he said it was still a challenge. Reminiscing his early days in Kalakshetra, CVC said how he was given this composition as an exam by Sarada teacher. Using his own sense of choreography, he introduced rhythmic components like keeping the charanam in trisra gati adi talam and so forth. While CVC performed the sancharis where the abhinayam was required, his students, the dancer-couple Renjith Babu and Vijna Vasudevan performed the nritta sequences. What a divine sight! At 80 plus, CVC could give men half his age a run for their money! Portraying a nayika while not once catering to the stereotyped perception that men need to ‘behave’ feminine or put on any such mannerisms, he performed every line in great detail.  The fact that it was a male performing a nayika, paled into insignificance. If anyone remembers how good old Kelu Babu performed Radha, the sakhi, even many sakhis and told us stories from the Gita Govindam, without once ever taking on feminine mannerisms, CVC’s performance was just that! In the second half as he performed a perfect thattu-mettu, the house came down with a large round of applause. Even a stunned veteran musician Vedavalli fell short of words in praising him. She pointed out how it was important to know when and where to pause and when to dance in the course of the composition. The kaalapramanam has to be kept in mind giving the foremost importance to sahityam.
There was no great story telling in CVC’s presentation. Just old-world charm and sophistication. Abhinayam takes on different shades and here was a presentation overflowing with a sense of ‘saathvikam’. One got to see CVC’s mastery not only in performance but pace to and fro in-between to render the nattuvangam, not once missing a beat! If every male Bharatanatyam dancer aspires to be like CVC and reaches even the half mark up there, they would have achieved a lot in their careers!

From there to the second presentation of the evening, Nandini Ramani took us through a lecture-demonstration of ‘Sarasijakshudu’, the Thanjavur Quartet varnam written by Sivanandam set to ragam Kalyani. She spoke of how the varnam came down as an oral tradition among nattuvanar families. Recollecting her memories with her guru, the great Balasaraswati and her mother Jayammal, Nandini spoke of how they saw this varnam. While the varnam is fairly known, the technical aspects of their style, like following the sequence in jatis, was like a signature. The order was always Chatusram, Trisram, Misram, Khandam and Sankeernam and this never changed. This was also to establish the strong sthayi bhavam of the whole composition vis a vis its nritta and abhinayam. The thattu-mettu was always from the mukthaai part of the composition. Nandini mentioned the spontaneity of abhinayam that came with the Bala school of performing where nothing was over-dramatized or elongated into stories.
In her second piece ‘Maa Mohalahiri’ written by Namashivaya Pulavar taken from Valli Bharatam set to ragam Khamas and roopaka talam, Nandini’s scholarly avatar was seen. It isn’t for no reason that she is the daughter of the great V. Raghavan, in addition to being a student of Balamma! In her explanation of the piece, she mentioned how the dhaatu set by Subbarama Dikshitar according to the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, one finds much detailing about this less-performed composition. Speaking about the technical details of the piece, Nandini showed how the edippu was in trisram, how the swaraakshara passages in ‘maa paa dha maa’ came in madhyamam and the swara refrain in the charanam was in yet another sequence. This way how the composition blossomed into the story of the nayika’s pining and love for lord Muruga was a journey Nandini explained through the lecture -demonstration.
Nandini spoke of those times when gurus taught each varnam with much patience and it would take a student at least six months to learn one and longer to master it! This must register with today’s generation of dancers who learn or go varnam-window-shopping along with their Guru-hopping!
The session ended with a fine presentation about the Brihadeeshwara temple by Chitra Madhavan. Explaining some of the famous sculptures in the temple, the murals inside the temple and the fascinating history, Chitra took us down memory lane. Dancers must make a field trip with often soft spoken and reticent Chitra to Thanjavur and get more out of her! She is a mine of information waiting to be explored!
Slide show

The second day began with the presentation of Sudharani Raghupathy. At this point it is important to say how she is one of the least tapped and original sources of some of the best abhinayam one could possibly see in Bharatanatyam. Even within Chennai, her performances are scarce. So watching her perform was like re-visiting a fine old recording of Swan Lake, or even better. In her presentation of the famous Thanjavur Quartet Ragamalika varnam ‘Saami Ninne Kori’, she announced elegantly how she would perform what could be the ‘fulcrum’ of the whole piece, the ‘kalayara’ bit. She pointed out the importance of the ‘Ashtottaram’ in the ‘Padaartha’ and ‘Vyaakyaartha’ in the varnam. Within the choreography of the piece, she mentioned and performed how the nayika finds herself small in comparison to the great lord and in this case the physically large structure of Brihadeeshwara. The nayika’s sense of longing comes forth in the lines ‘Biraana nannelukora Brihadeeshwara.’ While Sudharani performed the abhinayam and sanchari bits, her student T.M. Sridevi, with a pleasant demeanor did the nritta sequences. 

Sudharani spoke of how she met her guru Kittappa Pillai for the first time when she was a five year old kid. How he made her practice the Navasandhi Kauthuvams, observe the Arayer Sevai and other rituals way back in 1957! Getting into the technical aspects of the composition, she mentioned how the theermanams were mostly in four avartanams, including the Pallavi section. The usage of ‘Uthpluta’ or leaps within the movement was probably choreographed on her for the first time.
In her presentation of the famous Husseini Swarajati ‘Ye mandayaana raa’, one got glimpses of Sudharani’s excellent abhinayam. Portraying the scorned nayika, her involvement and spontaneity captured the essence of the piece. Her health wasn’t in the best of shape and she had to cut short her presentation. But one can imagine what Sudharani might have danced like in her prime! Even now, she is one of the finest exponents of abhinayam. Why haven’t sabhas, organizations, festival curators not tapped her potential more? Especially in these times when just about everyone is cloning the other in abhinayam! Her son K.S.R. Aniruddha’s mridangam accompaniment was a delight to listen to. He is easily one of the finest mridangam vidwans we have today on the scene, in fact far better than most of those who play for Carnatic kacheris. Crisp and concise, Sudharani’s presentation had a long-lasting effect, like a quick waft of perfume that lingers on.
The last presentation of the festival was by the one and only Lakshmi Vishwanathan.  Articulate, engaging, a wonderful sense of humor and insightful, Lakshmi’s lecture-demonstration was like a satisfying dessert after the large Spanda buffet. She performed two pieces. One more rare than the other on today’s dance scene. The first one was the lesser known and even less performed (in today’s times) varnam ‘Daanike tagu jaanara’ set to ragam Todi by Sivanandam of the Thanjavur Quartet. Lakshmi began by detailing how she kept encountering ragam Todi in her life. From her childhood music lessons with vidwans T. Narayanaswamy and T. Krishnamurty and dance classes with the great Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai to listening to the 78 RPM records of T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai perform Todi, she literally ‘journeyed’ with Todi. She said it was important to live with the mood of the ragam, long enough to bring it out naturally in one’s dance performance at any point. The raga bhavam was extremely important to bring out in dance. She remarked that though the Thanjavur Quartet wrote lyrics in Telugu, which were of no great poetic quality, they made sure the ‘rasa’, in this case shringaram, was highlighted effortlessly. The varnam as such was written in praise of king Shivaji and not for any god. There was no question of the fairly recent theory of ‘jeevatma-paramatma’ masking on to the whole composition.
Now this was a big insight into learning a varnam. In today’s times when Guru-hopping is in vogue, one wonders if students of dance ever think of how important the knowledge of a ragam is. Do they value in investing time learning music before thinking of ‘hoarding’ ‘items’, which they can perform? Worse, those who learn from watching DVDs!
The second one Lakshmi presented was the famous ata tala varnam ‘Viriboni’ composed by Pachchimiriam Adi Appiah. She said while the lyrics of the composition were very basic, it was important to bring out the raga bhaavam of the varnam. Once again it was important to have journeyed with the ragam till one arrived at a comfort zone, enough to perform it in dance. From the very basic attami in the opening sequence to the more complicated usage of trisram, a clear change in the talam pattern, in the charanam, Lakshmi detailed the varnam with grace.
This was followed by a small presentation on the famous Rajagopala temple in Mannargudi, incidentally the deity being addressed to in the Viriboni varnam. Being one of the largest temple complexes spread over twenty- five acres on the banks of the Haridra river, the temple is a lesser-visited destination among others in the rich Thanjavur district.  With her inputs and detailed explanations paired with slides, historian and scholar Chitra Madhavan gave us a wonderful visual treat. The icing on the cake was vidwan Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s scholarly commentary at the end of the session. Agreeing that most varnams were a window into the past, he said that Carnatic music must have surely borrowed these from dance. He also mentioned how Padavarnams lent themselves towards dance and Taana Varnams were better for music. One could have heard Sanjay go on about the fine intricacies of the musical side of these compositions. In fact, this coming December when he will be honoured with the prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi award, dancers must make it a point to attend the morning vidwat sabha (the lecture demonstrations) in the Music Academy to listen to more of Sanjay. This is a golden opportunity for dancers who want to expand their knowledge of music.
There are very few festivals where you feel they ended too soon. This was one such! From simple and elegant stage aesthetics to the presentations of these veterans, celebrating Spanda at their twentieth birthday was historic. It was easily one of the best festivals curated around Bharatanatyam in this decade. If every other dance form, like Kuchipudi could follow this module, there might be good chances of salvaging what is left. Towards the end of the festival, dancer Priya Murle came and slowly whispered, “Move over stars, the legends are here!” How true! Every generation of dancers need their heroes to look up to. These four veterans are living archives of their respective traditions. The more one can get out of them, the better for the course of the dance form. Thanks to this festival, a whole generation of young dancers, dance enthusiasts and rasikas got to witness some vintage varnams, some excellent performances and some food for thought. This will remain an experience worth cherishing. Thank you Spanda and thank you Leela Samson for putting together this excellent festival! More power to you!
Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.