Bharatanatyam dance recital, Berne, Switzerland, 2003 
by Linda Eisele, Berne, Switzerland  
Photos: Jean Pierre Beekhuis from the Canadian Embassy  
January 23, 2004   

Saturday, December 6, 2003, attending a Bharathanatyam dance recital at the Hochschule für Architektur und Technik in Berne, Switzerland, an Indian lunch buffet begins at noon. 

After lunch, we move into the auditorium.  In front of closed gray curtains, pale yellow flowers lay interspersed with lit lamps; to the right, a statue of the dancing God Shiva, hands and feet touching the inside of a brass ring, rays flowing from his head.  Herr Meyer, president of the Verein Pro Schule Bangalore, presents a history of the school’s progress and introduces the dancers, Lakshmi K Devadas and K Shanmuga Sundaram who will graciously donate their fee for the benefit of the school in Bangalore.  

Lakshmi K Devadas is a passionate Bharatanatyam dancer and poet from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, South India.  She currently lives in Fribourg in Switzerland.  Lakshmi began her Bharatanatyam education in the Tanjore Pandannalur style with Guru Ganapathiappan in Coimbatore.  She trained with several others and now studies with A Lakshman in Chennai.  Besides frequently performing Bharatanatyam, she also teaches Bharatanatyam. 

K Shanmuga Sundaram has undergone a long and complicated training to become one of the leading male Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai, India.  A star disciple of Guru K J Sarasa, he has many solo performances and dances with leading Bharatanatyam dance personalities to his credit.  An A Grade artist, he has received several awards and won many prizes including the esteemed Tamil Nadu Government Young Talent Award.  Besides performing regularly in India and abroad, Shanmuga Sundaram leads a successful dance school, Sathir, in Chennai. 

“We have two very special guests with us today: the ambassadors to Switzerland from India, Shri Praveen L Goyal and the Ambassador to Canada, Monsieur Jean-Paul Hubert,” Herr Meyer says.  He gives the floor to the Ambassador from India, Mr. Goyal, who expresses his great pleasure at being here, especially as  “Lakshmi is a very dear friend.”  

He tells us,  “Bharatanatyam is the leading dance form of contemporary India.  The first references to the Bharatanatyam dance form are to be found in Silapadikaram, an epic poetry composed during the early Golden Age of the Tamil culture, which extends from 500 BC to 500 AD.  Bharatanatyam is a 2500-year-old dance form rooted in classical literature, especially poetry, and most especially, poetry set to music.  Indian culture endorses a holistic approach with a philosophical view on how to live your life.  The philosophy of the dance has a physical part (which you practice) and, as with yoga, a philosophical part.  The structure creates a mandala of conceptual form, which inspires Indian architecture, especially the architecture of temples, and, it gives a worldview.  The dance reduces philosophical concepts to practice.  It is made up of Tala and Laya.  Tala is the beat, usually given by hand, but sometimes by drum; Laya is the rhythm, the basis of movements in time and space.  In the Classical form of dance, you disassociate yourself to find the language of the dance, which is universal.  The dance uses a repertoire of gestures.  You don’t need to understand the words to know what the dancers are saying.” 

“A typical Bharatanatyam recital has a traditional order which carefully prepares the dancer as well as the audience with its gradual increase in tempo and challenge.  The great diva, T Balasaraswati (1914 to 1984), a peerless exponent of this art, has given a beautiful analogy.  According to Balasaraswati, the Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a great temple.  You enter through the gopuram or outer hall of alarippu.  The first piece prepares you to cross into the ardhamandapam or halfway hall of jatiswaram.  Melody is added to rhythm to reach the great hall, the mandapam of shabdam.  In response to the dance, you enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam, the heart of the temple.  The diva says,  ‘Dancing to the padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drumbeats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of sacred verses in the closeness of god.  The tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a measure of din and bustle.  In conclusion, the devotee takes to his heart the god he has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order by dancing to a simple devotional verse.”  

The ambassador continues,  “Bharatanatyam dance places rhythm, melody, mood, movement, and music together in one continuum which leads to self-fulfillment in the fullest scope.  It is creativity through interpretation.  You achieve containment, cool, and quiet after the expanse and brilliance of the outer corridor. What is more important?”  he asks.  “Not who dances, but the audience and the dancer finding empathy to share the moment.  The dancer creates; the audience shares until you can no longer distinguish between audience and art, between the artist and the art which is there.”  

At 2:35, the dance recital begins.  How to describe this event?  It is a true Murphy’s law experience: whatever can go wrong will go wrong.  And yet, this doesn’t matter.  The dancers transcend the technical difficulties – through the dance.  Even during the long pauses while technicians attempt to find the music for the next dance, dancers and audience are united… in frustration.  However, when the music begins, Lakshmi and Shanmuga are totally present – body, mind, and spirit – in the dance.  Because of their professionalism, in the end it is the dance, which triumphs. 

An Indian girl appears by the stage and explains,  “In this first dance, Pushpanjali (Raga Amrthavarshini), you will see a flower chain, a call from God to you which will join you with the dancers in a form of prayer.  It is followed by a shlokam invoking the blessings of Lord Ganesha, Goddess Saraswathi for learning, Goddess Lakshmi for good luck, and Angikam, Bhuvanam Yasya from Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpana.”  

The music begins.  Lakshmi and Shanmuga appear onstage dressed in exquisite costumes of red and gold created by D S Aiyyelu of Chennai.  During the Pushpanjali, their movements are perfectly synchronized as they slap the ground with bare feet, bells at their ankles jangling to create rhythm and beat.  

At the end of Pushpanjali, the girl introduces Nagendraharaya (Ragam Ragamallika), a hymn in praise of Lord Shiva who wears a snake around his neck and has a third eye on his forehead, always pure, with the Ganges river flowing from his head and sandal paste on his skin.  Lord Shiva makes the Ganges when he lets water fall from heaven to save the earth.  In this dance, Lakshmi dances alone.  She is exquisitely feminine, body perfect, balance impeccable, countenance tranquil.  I am amazed that she can move with such skill, endurance, and agility!  Knees bent fully, her skirt flares like a golden fan nearly touching the floor.  Red silk disappears.  She bows her head, revealing a perfect oval of black hair at the center of a ring of white flowers surrounded by red flowers.  When she stands, her long black braid dangles behind tied up at the waistband.  As I watch, I become part of the dance.  
The third dance, Varanamukha va; Kirthi (Ragam Hamsadvani, Talam Adi) is a beautiful kiriti by Kotteswara Iyer in praise of Lord Ganesha.  Poor Shanmuga stands at the center of the stage.  “The next,” he whispers softly;  “the next.”  A Swiss technician stares, face expressionless, into a computer monitor near the stage.  Each time music begins, it is the wrong music.  The Swiss beckons to a young Indian man seated in the audience who comes forward to help coerce the computer to cooperate.  How difficult such a disruption must be for the complete and total concentration required to execute the complicated and difficult steps of the Bharatanatyam dance in which no movement is repeated.  When the proper music is found, Shanmuga dances.  His poses are flawless.  He clasps the toes of one foot high above his head behind his back, holding perfectly still; even the bells on his ankles making no sound.  In another pose, he grasps toes, holding his foot high out to the side, the heel forming an unbelievable angle of 25 degrees.  

The next dance, which includes various karanas and thandava of Lord Shiva is a dynamic Sankara Sri Giri (Ragam Hamsanandhi), a well-known composition by Maharaja Swati Thirunal.  Again, technical difficulties create a long pause during which four guests rise and leave.  

Will Lakshmi be able to dance?  When the music begins, she appears onstage.  She does not miss a beat.  Pure professionalism guides her.  She is the dance: smiling, centered. The fifth dance is Geetham on Sita (Ragam Panthuvarali, Talam Adi), a composition by the poet Narasimha in praise of Sita, also the goddess of beauty and prosperity and the wife of Lord Rama, and Lord Vishnu.  Choreographed by A Lakshman, the mood of the dance is fine and gentle as it describes the beauty of lotus-eyed Sita radiant as the moon, and the marriage of Rama and Sita.  Rama is the only one who could bend and break the bow and thus win Sita in marriage. 

The sixth dance is an exceptionally beautiful Thillana (Ragam Kuntaravarali, Talam Adi) composed by M Balamurali Krishna, and choreographed brilliantly by K J Sarasa.  This dance tells the story of Lord Krishna with a swift tempo and dynamic choreography of nritta or rhythmic movement.  Lakshmi and Shanmuga display a succession of foot rhythms and sculpturesque poses, graceful movements of arms and body.  Their precision is breathtaking, their agility, amazing.  In the middle of the dance, unexpectedly, lights come on illuminating the audience.  Someone manages to extinguish them.  Only the back of the stage is lit.  At the front, Lakshmi and Shanmuga are silhouettes.  The dance ends with Mangalam.  The audience applauds and applauds.  Lights come on.  Center stage, Lakshmi thanks the audience,  “for your patience during the long pauses.” 

Shanmuga is thrilled with this Swiss audience.  “If so many technical difficulties were encountered in Madras,” he tells Lakshmi,  “everyone would have left.”  When I approach to thank him for the dance, he clasps my hand and shakes it vigorously, beaming appreciation.  “Thank you!  Thank you!”  he repeats, then asks,  “How was my dance?”  
 “Thank you, thank you!” 

Lakshmi’s foot is bleeding where the bell-covered bracelet rests against it.  She says,  “The technical difficulties were a challenge for our concentration.  When you dance, it requires the whole of you: soul, body, mind.”  

Soul, body, and mind is what Lakshmi and Shanmuga have given to the dance. 

Linda Eisele is an American writer living in Berne, Switzerland.  She writes articles, short stories and poems.  She loves nature.