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Chiselled to perfection
- Jyothi Raghuram
Photos: Jayasimha Reddy

January 6, 2019

As one goes on in the years, how one looks is a reflection of the life one has led. With dancers, it is an added grace and poise they carry, if they have imbibed from the art and truly lost themselves in it. This is how two creative dancers, B. Bhanumati and Usha Datar adorned the stage, their gracious presence interestingly contrasting their spontaneity and joy to dance.

Bhanumati, even after decades, with competition from young dance teachers breaking new ground in choreography, remains one of the most sought-after Bharatanatyam teachers. Much of this has to do with her benign persona, her intuitive, comprehensive training of her wards complementing her creative forays, especially in group choreographies, her Bharatanjali troupe standing the test of times.

Usha Datar, a hard working, ingenuous dancer known for her deeply-researched dance compositions, is an encyclopaedic dancer, whose worth is not known to many, her disarming naiveté keeping her inconspicuous. The only scholar-performer of Temple Dance, a form of worship by devadasis gone into oblivion, Datar alone has it in her to perform the elaborate, six-hour ritualistic dance, which she has, in the presence of revered art critic B.V.K. Shastry and culture czar Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, with much acclaim.

Those were the days.....Some lessons to learn, an unusual interactive session got up by Ananya on Dec 30, 2018 at Seva Sadan, Bangalore, that traced the learning years of veterans belonging to a different generation, was a trip down memory lane for the two incomparable gurus. Unrelenting in its punishing daily schedule where dance dominated the time-table, synchronized with music and Samskritam classes, and body discipline exercises, the interaction of the duo was remarkable for its succinct underlying message - no shortcut to daily rigorous practice, years of chiseling through repetitious routine, and immersing in the margam as the acme of rasa evolution.

A lesser dancer than Datar would have quit dance, given the apparent repression and military regimentation. A young child uprooted from home and planted in alien surroundings as a residential student in Kerala Kalamandalam, seems tortuous! The severity of learning, with a ceaseless schedule from 4am to 9pm--unimaginable to younger dancers - gave an insight into the long years of physical and mental discipline that went to make her a true dancer. That Datar had gone through this rigor is in itself an achievement, especially juxtaposed against today's world of instant gratification. This strenuous journey, with its authoritarian set-up for several interminable years, provided Datar the foundation and tenacity to blossom into a complete artiste. The ability to stand up to the vicissitudes of life with a spirited smile perhaps encompasses her entire learning, enhancing her art.


Informal in speech and subdued in judgment, Bhanumati was yet unequivocal about the years of training sans expectations that makes for a seasoned dancer, dancing with total enjoyment being the essence from which the much-misunderstood rasa arises. "Rasa is the culmination of bhava, vibhava, leading up to the sanchari bhava, created by the dancer among the spectators, the success of a performance measured by a specific rasa experience of the audience." It couldn't have been more rewarding than to watch Bhanumati's demonstration of rasa creation through the aged Shabari, that greatest devotee of Sri Rama; a deeply-touching portrayal in just a few minutes. What heart-felt emotions! How blessed her wards!

Interpreting sringara as having two different strains - divine and the mundane, where the nayika is not a divine entity, Bhanumati emoted to a few lines of Yaaro Ivar Yaaro, throwing light on several aspects of adaptation of the lyrics to dance, which often fall prey to misinterpretation. "In Yaaro..., it is Sri Rama talking to Sita, and not vice versa, as is often represented. A complete understanding of the language, meaning of the lyrics, the mood and gist of the song, is a precursor to choreography, and then on to performance".

Her denouement of Aadsidaleshodhe had a similar message: The irony of this dance composition is that the one sleeping on Adisesha is being intimidated by Yashodha who is trying to scare him (baby Krishna) with an artificial snake! The same supreme manifestation is tied to a grinding stone, and is made to plead with her to release him. "Unless one has a very high level of creativity, an understanding of what the poet / composer has tried to communicate, it is better to stick to the literal meaning."

Archana and Chethana

Twins Archana and Chethana, her wards, deftly demonstrated how adavus have to be formatted according to the jathis, the matching length of the sahitya and abhinaya in consonance with the jathis, and the flexibility of karvais in lending themselves to striking poses of different deities. Balance was the key word here.

Taking a cue from Bhanumati's demonstration, Datar pointed out how the same jathis could be treated differently as an aural backdrop for abhinaya, without using them as adavus, sans sahitya. As spontaneous a thought as this was, so was her manodharama in delineating the Arjuna-Krishna samvada in the battlefield, memorably the readying of the chariot by Sri Krishna, and the sharpening of the arrows by Arjuna. "Vadyams are important for Kathakali, the chenda and maddalam being central to the form". Datar's one-line statement of parakaaya pravesha imperative to evoke rasa is perhaps a pointer to what ails dance today, particularly solos, dancers unable to be one with their dance.

Evil Puthani, in who is evoked vatsalya and bhakti at the sight of the effulgent little Krishna, saw Datar transiting rasas effortlessly, the lightning speed of the change of emotions creating an immediate rapport with the audience. Her rapid, regulated eye movements-the signature aspect of Kathakali, were expressly communicative.

"Feel the joy of dance in you, learn from watching innumerable performances, surrender to the Guru, keep dancing the same pieces till they get internalized; proliferation of items is not the key to successful performing. Surrender to the art," were Bhanumati's valuable guidelines that in actuality personified her. "Today's dancers must understand that they don't have to do something new or different; art is beautiful; it is divine; immerse completely in it".

Usha Datar

Conversations through mudrabhasha (which would help in choreography later), prayers, frugal vegetarian diet, dance as an education along with allied arts, respect for the art as an offering to the divine, and unsparing regimen - the path traversed by Datar - are visible even now in her suppleness as a dancer, her simple lifestyle and unquestionably, her exultation of spirit, the takeaway from the interaction being that the aesthetics and divinity of the art demand the time and respect it is due.

A word about Ananya. Perhaps it takes a non-artiste to think out of the box and present an academic program that is a worthwhile record even to present times. Dr. R.V. Raghavendra, who heads Ananya, says more such talks are on the anvil, interactive sessions spanning different generations of dancers being its thrust.

Sheela Chandrasekhar (nattuvangam), D. Srivatsa (vocal) and Karthik Datar (shudda madalam) were the support artistes. Roopashri Madhusudhan moderated the show.

Jyothi Raghuram is a senior journalist and an art critic.