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Seminar on 100 years of Nritya Bharateeyam: Day 2
Text and pics: Lalitha Venkat

June 16, 2017

Seminar on 100 years of Nritya Bharateeyam: Day 1

Day two was fully packed from start to finish. Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh gave an energetic start to the morning with an animated overview of Karnataka Yakshagana. He said the tradition of presenting a narrative through mime, gesture, dance, choreography, song, décor and music as a single dance-drama has its roots in Natya Shastra. Yakshagana is performed in an open air theater using Kannada as communicating language. The badagu thittu style has many movements similar to Odissi. The temples are booked for the next 30 years at a stretch with people offering Yakshaganas to the god as thanksgiving. While this ensures continuation of the dance form, the quality of performance is not necessarily high. It was interesting to learn that nowadays even contemporary films like 'Kati Patang' or 'Bahubali' have been made into Yakshagana with names of characters changed to names of kings and kingdoms! Regarding other changes, Dr. Ganesh pointed out that Shivram Karanth edited out the vachika for Yakshagana to reach a global audience, thus, spontaneous witty dialogues got lost and though Karanth did a lot to rejuvenate the music, costumes etc, in the process of refinement, some traditional elements were lost. Keremane Shivananda Hegde, director of Sri Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali, trained under Guru Maya Rao, brought in some of the old traditional elements. "Through Mantap Prabhakar, it has evolved from Natya Shastra to nritya shastra and ekaharya too. More than 100 doctoral theses and thousands of research papers on Yakshagana have been produced. A noteworthy fact is artistes practicing Yakshagana are all economically stable. No other state can boast of this enviable situation," concluded Dr. Ganesh on a happy note.

Moderator Dr.KG Paulose, Dr. R Ganesh, Leela Venkataraman, Priyadarsini Govind

The fine orator that she is, critic/scholar Leela Venkataraman threw light on the history of Odissi in her paper on ‘Renaissance and birth of Odissi,’ how from a few basic movements, it got developed into the beautiful dance form over the last 6 decades to what it is today. She said that what is recognized as Odissi now came into being in the 20th century, as the Mahari, the temple dancer, who would do some basic dance movements, had already lost her reputation. By the early 40s, some Maharis were assigned some temple duties but they were addressed as Bhitar Gaonis and Bahar Gaonis, and their dance role was absolutely minimal. It was interesting to learn that the only person who has actually seen a Mahari perform is late Mohan Khokar (who saw it performed outside a temple, arranged for him by Kalicharan Patnaik), and his report of what he saw was hardly flattering. The other tradition was of Gotipuas – boys dressed as girls – trained in gurukuls who sang and danced in praise of the male god. Some dance was taught at akhadas. In the early 40s, dance had no takers. After this brief intro, Leela Venkataraman spoke about the Odissi stalwarts and some historical events in the evolution of Odissi. The 3 great gurus Kelucharan Mohapatra, Pankaj Charan Das and Debaprasad Das all hailed from the Ras Leela theatre troupes as theater had music and dance elements. They happened to join the Annapoorna Theatre almost at the same time. The real Odissi had its beginnings in such theatre that was active in the second half of the 20th century. To attract more people to the theatre, they started adding some small dance sequences and the dance teacher who was employed by them was Pankaj Charan Das, the percussion guru was Kelubabu, while Debaprasad Das provided the comic element. There were others like Dhurlav Singh who worked with them to produce these dance items. The first one was Mohini Basmasura choreographed by Pankaj Charan Das. In theatre, Laxmipriya started doing small items and a few Maharis in Puri did the female roles, which were earlier done by men. Through various teachers, a few items like Dashavatar by Pankaj Charan Das with Dhurlav Singh providing mnemonic element, and Kelubabu the rhythm, were produced; choreography got an impetus through Dayal Sharan. In the 50s, Babulal Doshi started Kala Vikash Kendra to propagate Odissi. Kelubabu studied the Konark sculptures and did many new compositions and soon many students went to him. Priyambada Mohanty won the first prize for her performance in 1956 accompanied by Kelubabu, and Odissi soon got recognition as a classical dance of India. All the gurus and scholars got together in the Jayantika movement and worked out an Odissi dance format in the late 50s. Kelubabu, Pankaj Charan Das and Debaprasad Das each developed his own dance style and characteristics. Abhinaya was introduced thanks to Mayadhar Raut's Kalakshetra training. Hindustani and Carnatic music was used but now the former is more common. Indrani Rehman went abroad in 1957 with Debaprasad Das, performing the still evolving Odissi, and with subsequent international tours, put Odissi on the world map. In 1984, Odisha state started the Odissi Research Centre and a number of books codifying Odissi movement were brought out. She concluded by saying that, "Many institutions in Delhi started teaching Odissi, and the dance, which had been confined to home soil till 1954, started spreading to all parts of the globe. With the spread, cultural energies combined to create attractive works, like Sutra Dance Theatre's productions in Malaysia. Not all changes get approval from the Odisha traditionalists. Odissi is so strongly rooted in Odisha that no other dance form has been able to strike roots."

Priyadarsini Govind spoke on 'Banis in Bharatanatyam.' She did not speak of each individual bani but gave an overall picture. She cited the salient features of the known banis while stressing that the bani is about certain aesthetics and style of performing given down through the generations. An important point she made was that the dancers today are both gurus and performing artists unlike the earlier nattuvanars. So though it is likely that the dancer guru may leave a certain personal style on the form, she is all the same communicating predominantly the aesthetic of her school coming to her from her gurus and theirs in turn. Priya concluded with the screening of excerpts from the Baani Festival conducted by Kalakshetra last year. She said anyone interested in watching the quite long seminar sessions could get access to it at Kalakshetra.

Dr. Gayatri Kannan
In the second session, Dr. Gayatri Kannan (Principal, Nrithyodaya) elaborated on 'Institutionalizing and government support' and here are some salient points from her talk on institutionalizing: The concept of institutionalizing is a modern version of the gurukula system. A school was first founded by Tagore for children at Shantiniketan and it was around this nucleus that later the structure of an unconventional university developed. In 1951 it was granted the status of a unitary teaching and residential university. A decade later, Vallathol started Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur. It recently became a deemed university, fulfilling the vision of its founder. In 1936, Rukmini Devi started Kalakshetra and it became an autonomous body in 1993. K Subrahmanyam started Nrithyodaya in 1942 as a charitable institution. Certificate and diploma courses are offered now and for past 6 years, it is connected to Sastra University, Thanjavur. The Dept of Dance was established in MS University at Baroda in 1950. Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwa Vidyalaya in Khairagarh inaugurated in 1956, is one of the oldest universities to offer degrees and diploma in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak. An academy for girls and ladies started by Raja Kerala Varma and his wife in Ernakulam, was brought under control of the govt and renamed RLV Academy of Music and Fine Arts, now offering degree and post graduate courses. The Banaras Hindu University started the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1978 offering undergraduate and post graduate degrees in 1999 and 2007 respectively for Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Many universities and colleges in as many as 16 states offer courses in performing arts. Some like IGNOU, Sastra University, Annamalai University offer distance education. Institutionalizing performing arts has brought a structure to make it syllabus oriented, exposing the students to the academic side.

The aspect of government support was summed up thus: The Ministry of Culture has many schemes to support artistes and awards are given in recognition. Various grants are offered to artistes through different schemes for shows, lectures, seminars, theatre shows and solo programs. Building grants for construction of studios is offered. Apart from its prestigious awards and fellowship, the SNA has established several institutions like Manipur Dance Academy in Imphal, Centre for Kutiyattam in Thiruvananthapuram, Kathak Kendra in Delhi etc. The Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram was started in 1955 on a state level. The ICCR founded in 1950 is concerned with India's external cultural relations through cultural exchange. While all these sound positive, the process of application and obtaining the grants are very cumbersome.

Madhavi Puranam (the chief editor of Nartanam quarterly) aptly spoke on dance criticism in India, past and present. She said we have had many eminent dance critics whose contribution has been immense and they have set a path which sadly there is none to emulate today. In Bharata's time, he suggested suitable audience responses and parameters for who could qualify as a judge to assess a production but today, one judge or critic gives the final word. Madhavi acknowledged the "role of Indologists and other scholars and writers on dance and their prolific writings on Indian arts, literature, treatises, books, sculpture, history of arts, aesthetics, music and dance which set the foundation for the art critic in India to arrive. Dance being a composite art, criticism of dance cannot be discussed without references to many genres of writers and researchers, activists and institution builders - writers and scholars Ananda Coomaraswamy, Manomohan Ghosh, R Nagaswamy, V Raghavan, Mohan Khokar, PSR Appa Rao, Premalata Sharma, Adya Rangacharya, musicologist BM Sundaram, filmmaker K Vishwanath to name a few. Kapila Vatsyayan stands tall as an arts institution builder." The journals, magazines and publications that are contributing to arts writing are Kalakshetra Journal, Sruti, Nartanam, The Hindu, Times of India, website etc. Attendance, Avantika, Aalaap, Shanmukha, Keli, Sangeet Natak etc deserve mention too.

Madhavi referred to 2 types of critics - one who has vast scholarship and has been exposed to variety of arts over years of watching and learning, but may not be an expert on Indian dance and music. The other is the trained dancers and musicians who can write and hence critically examine a performance. Madhavi gave examples of different styles of writing: Charles Fabri's style of criticism, considered balanced and enthusiastic, created interest and even moulded art lovers. Even without complete knowledge of a dance form, one can still write in an interesting manner. His review of Priyambada Mohanty's Odissi performance, paved the way for popularity of the dance. Subbudu was a man of impeccable scholarship with an acidic and witty tongue whose opinion was valued by all. People eagerly looked forward to reading his reviews, some of which got him sued! VAK Ranga Rao would not shy away from being incisive and critical of what he saw. He always maintained that his writing stemmed "from the love of dance and not the dancer." Shanta Serbjeet Singh's style was always "to converse with the reader, to believe that the reader wants to know what is happening, and then to inform." Sunil Kothari's style is that of giving a detailed account of performances with many related anecdotes and a suggestion or two thrown in with very mild criticism here and there. He says his seniors advised him to write in this style so both the dancer and the readers would "read between the lines" and the message would be conveyed! A trained dancer, Leela Venkataraman developed her own individual style of writing, and is known to write a fair review, looking at the dance, not the dancer. She opines that a good review pleases a dancer whereas if criticized they say she knows nothing! According to Sadanand Menon, "The dance reviewer has made an art of juggling into a meaningless mosaic, a choice of stream of epithets like lively, sprightly, vivacious, beautiful, energetic, exquisite and uses these almost prescriptively for every dancer - junior or senior, maestro or novice." That sums up what dance review writing has now degenerated into. No criticism is tolerated nowadays and most newcomers are ill equipped to assess performances. Program notes provide all the info. Page 3 gets more coverage than the arts. Gone are the courageous, informed critiques of the Subbudu era. Also, every spectator is now a judge, some artistes write their own reviews, and overnight, these 'reviews' appear in blogs and social media!

Dr. Sandhya Purecha
The third session commenced with Dr. Sandhya Purecha (Serfojiraje Bhosale Centre, Mumbai) whose paper was on 'Revival of royal Maratha compositions for Bharatanatyam.' She spoke about her strict gurukula system of training under Acharya Parvati Kumar for a number of years. How she was not allowed to perform outside without her guru's permission and how for this reason, for 2 years he did not teach her a thing! Her talk centred around her guru's path breaking works. A scholar, choreographer and teacher, Parvati Kumar did an in-depth study of an entire repertoire of Marathi compositions of Serfojiraje Bhosale and others of Tanjavur, the research resulting in the publication of his Tanjavur Nritya Prabandha. Written in Devanagari script, the book provides us Serfoji's dance compositions with notations and the jatis and adavus to be performed along with the abhinaya to be employed for each line of the sahitya. He choreographed these Nirupanas (repertoires) into dance form and Sandhya explained these items though a table in her slide show. A special item in the Nirupana is the Jakkini. It is not found in any form in the traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire, though there is a mention of it in the Kuchipudi style of dance. After overcoming various difficulties, Parvati Kumar could present a complete Nirupana, Sakhine nayikes Buddhivada sanganyachi kalpit Katha which was first performed by Parul Jhaveri in 1980. All 18 items of this Nirupana were sung in one raag (Pantuvarali) and one taal (Surfakta-tisra ata). In Serfojiraje's tradition, the Nirupana is woven around the narrative so as to allow it to proceed without a break; therefore, it has to be presented exactly as it has been noted. No departure from this norm is possible, said Sandhya.

Sucheta Chapekar performed many of the newly choreographed Marathi items by Acharya Parvati Kumar from 1960-1975 and went on to develop a margam in Marathi. Parvati Kumar was intent on preservation of some of the ancient texts, and this led him to develop a system of notation that is useful for dancers and choreographers. His interest in reconstructing and recreating textual material found in Indian tradition led him to study and choreograph the entire verses of the Abhinaya Darpana. He trained Sandhya Purecha to present solo, all the 324 slokas of Nandikeshwara's Abhinaya Darpana, archived in an audio-visual form by IGNCA, New Delhi. To keep her guru's research on royal Maratha compositions for Bharatanatyam tradition everlasting, Sandhya said she established an institute named Sarfojiraje Bhosale Bharatanatyam Training and Research Centre, in Mumbai in 1993. Through Sandhya's talk, lots of slides were used to illustrate her points and that made it easy on the audience to absorb. Musicologist Dr.BM Sundaram who had come specially for this talk, was invited on stage to provide his expert comments. The next speaker, Sattriya dancer Indira PP Bora could not make it to the seminar.

In the fourth session, Dr. Jayashree Rajagopalan (Nrithyodaya, Mumbai) spoke on 'Academic research - an extension of the horizon.' She pointed out that there are so many gurus and scholars who have done so much research but don't have the PhD to show for it. Jayashree spoke of the pioneering PhDs in the field of dance, highlighting their academic achievements and of the generation after them. Even during the freedom struggle, movement towards reviving our cultural heritage was underway. Focus was on retrieving and identifying old manuscripts. Jayashree commenced with the earliest attempts being translation of the Abhinaya Darpanam into English by Ananda Coomaraswamy, as Mirror of Gesture, published in 1917. The Natya Shastra by Manomohan Ghosh followed in 1951. Pioneer dancers who undertook academic research for a doctoral thesis in dance with an inter-disciplinary study of literature, sculpture and painting, were Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dr. Minati Misra and Dr. Kanak Rele. Jayashree spoke briefly on their achievements:

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan did her Ph.D. in 'Classical Indian Dance and Literature' in 1956. Her prolific writings, in the form of articles and books, have widened the horizon of literary sources. She was instrumental in starting the IGNCA in Delhi. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam did her doctoral thesis on 'Karanas in Indian Dance and Sculpture,' studying the Sanskrit texts of Natya Shastra and Abhinavabharati, understanding Bharata's pedagogy of anga-upanga-chari which was no more in practice, and co-relating this study with the karana sculptures in the south Indian temples. She reconstructed the 108 karanas and brought them back to performance. She was termed as an "intellectual rebel" who "opened a new chapter in the history of Bharatanatyam." Her academic research extended the horizons of dance and literature. The younger dancers were inspired to learn the karanas and expand their repertoire and content, and embark on academic studies as well. Dr. Minati Misra did her Ph.D in 'Natyashastra' in the Sanskrit language itself, from the Dept of Indology from Philipp University of Marbury, Germany, in 1962. It helped her formulate an academic methodology for teaching Odissi in The Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Bhubaneswar. Dr. Kanak Rele, hailing from Gujarat, imbibed the Mohiniattam and Kathakali techniques of Kerala and went on to do her Ph.D. in 'Mohiniattam - All aspects and spheres of influence' in 1977, from University of Bombay. She was instrumental in starting the Dept. of Fine Arts in University of Mumbai.

Jayashree then mentioned those who acquired a Ph.D degree in dance through academic research (like Dr. Vasundhara Doraswamy, Dr. Sarala, Dr. Anuradha Jonnalagadda, Dr. Mallika Kandali, Dr. Sucheta Chapekar, Dr. Sandhya Purecha, Dr. Malati Agneeswaran to name a few) and those monumental gurus whose work speaks for their research. Academic research also manifests itself through practical performances by many great acharyas and dancers, such as Rukmini Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Bipin Singh and Darshana Jhaveri, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Sanjukta Panigrahi, Vempati Chinna Satyam and Shoba Naidu, Pt Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen, Kumudini Lakhia, Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and G. Venu, Acharya Parvati Kumar, and Sucheta Chapekar to mention a few. Scholars whose academic contribution has enhanced the academic research in dance are to start with, the earliest musicologist of the 20th century, Prof. P. Sambamurthy, Dr. V. Raghavan, Dr. T.N. Ramachandran, Dr. K.D. Tripathi, Dr. Pappu Venugopal Rao, Dr. Paulose, Dr. Shatavadani Ganesh and many more who have ventured into various allied fields of art. An awareness of dance art is now inspiring many to undertake further research.

Darshana Jhaveri

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam

The last speaker was Darshana Jhaveri (Manipuri Nartanalaya, Mumbai), who spoke on a century of classical Manipuri dance, aided by illustrative slides. She said she and her three sisters Nayana, Ranjana and Suverna, were fortunate to find a guru in Bipin Singh who came to Bombay in 1943 when he was 25. "He was a Manipuri dancer, singer, musician, scholar and choreographer with great creative talent and aesthetic sensibility. In the last 100 years, the study of shastras in Manipur was diminishing, Sanskrit texts written in Bengali script was no longer followed, so the rich tradition of Ras (stories of Krishna) and Sankirtan continued to be passed down orally. The gurus had vast knowledge of talas, rhythm patterns, dance and music with lyrics in Padavali languages and they transmitted their knowledge using technical terms in local Meitei language. Natasankirtan has highly developed dances with pung (drum) and kartal (cymbals). Ras and Sankirtan were performed for 8 to 10 hours in temple courtyards."

During the fifties, Bipin Singh and the Jhaveri sisters worked to "preserve, perpetuate and propagate Manipuri dance in a scientific and sophisticated way to bring the traditional and classical Manipuri dances from the temples to the theatre retaining its original form and spirit." The sisters learned, studied and did research, worked and collaborated with Guru Bipin Singh for almost 50 years. She said they collected and recorded the oral tradition from many gurus of Ras and Sankirtan, studied the Vaishnavite Sangeet Shastras, co-related the oral tradition with shastras and established the scientific tenets underlying the tradition. Based on this, Guru Bipin Singh composed and choreographed items for the proscenium. Since 1958, the Jhaveri sisters have been presenting 2 hour classical Manipuri dance recitals all over India and the globe. Darshana mentioned that they had to keep in mind, the demands of the modern stage, reducing duration from 8 hours to 2, choreography from circular in temples to the proscenium stage, addressing a secular audience seeking an aesthetic experience. But the devotional aspect of Vaishnavism was kept intact.

At present, there are two main Manipuri gharanas, of Guru M Amubi Singh and of Guru Bipin Singh, said Darshana. For the past 25 years, some institutions in Manipur have been presenting 2 hour programs which include all the traditional and classical forms like Lai Haraoba, Thang Ta, Ras and Sankirtan. She seemed happy that the younger generation is now presenting new productions other than Krishna legends and though these productions are tech savvy, they still maintain the traditional and classical elements. In Manipur, from the birth of a child, till death, all social occasions are celebrated with Sankirtan, and so music and dance have been part of the lives of the people of Manipur for the past 200 years. Darshana Jhaveri charmed the audience with the performance of a short item.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dr. Sonal Mansingh, Prof. Y Sudershan Rao, Prof. V Ramakrishna

The valedictory saw talks by Dr. Nanditha Krishna (Director, CPRIIR), Prof. Y Sudershan Rao (Chairman, ICHR, Delhi) who announced a national fellowship in dance and Prof. V Ramakrishna (former dean, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad), who declared that Kuchipudi is going through a crisis and the Andhra - Telangana issue will surely die out soon. He said though the seminar was too crowded with too many presenters, each topic was worth a seminar in itself! In her seminar report, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam said, "Indian dancers are looking to the west for inspiration. While we can do that in terms of technology like sound and light, punctuality etc, indianness of our art forms has to be maintained and the female dancer as an Indian female has to be saved. One must also think of the vastu of dance. A dancer performing out of angashuddha, dancer performing vulgarly or performing out of rhythm, is like disturbing the vastu of dance." She was distressed by the regional competition in claim of dance forms in Andhra/Telangana.

Dr. Sonal Mansingh delivered the valedictory address. She said Google is brahma vakya and Skype and YouTube are today's gurus. Each generation reconstructs and rebuilds, so look at the reality of now rather than what we want it to be. She recommended a historic month long seminar like the 1958 seminar that people will talk about for years to come - Invite papers, evaluate, so at the venue, there is discussion on the paper, instead of reading out the paper, and look at things decadewise instead of century wise. On a pessimistic note, she said, "I pray that dance doesn't become history in India. Costumes, dances, movements may be striking at the moment but there's no rasanubhava as such. Dance has gone to the last rung of the ladder. Therefore, there is all the more reason we have to work harder to give it more space in society. We must rethink on how to reconnect with the present generation. Looking beautiful on stage is one thing, remaining beautiful off stage is more important!"

Each speaker was given a 20 minute talk time followed by a brief Q & A session with the audience, well coordinated by the moderators of the various sessions. The seminar was very well organized by the three collaborators, the technical part was conducted smoothly, and the tea, lunch and snack breaks much welcomed but the intense heat and humidity of the Chennai summer did not help every time we stepped out of the lovely cool hall! The fact is there were too many speakers spaced over a day. This led to audience blanking out from too much information and going into a semi comatose condition by evening tea break to a fully spaced out condition at the end of a very long day of knowledge overload! Perhaps next time such an in-depth seminar is organized, there will be fewer speakers who have more time to speak and the seminar time not extend to unbelievable hours in a day!

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of