Bharatanatyam competitions: lessons from Concern India
- Meenakshi Ganapathy

January 25, 2009
The competition started a bit late, with probably 30 spectators most of whom later appeared on the stage: the functionaries, the judges, the musicians, the parents, fellow dancers, and a few stray individuals in Narada Gana Sabha's main hall. A representative of Concern India made a brief introduction, dwelling on the NGO's work and urging (the 30 spectators?) to contribute to its charitable activities and sponsor Bharatanatyam performances. The dancers, 95% of whom arrived on motorbikes, many of which had 3 riders, have had a hard time trying to sponsor themselves, as Concern India's Bharatanatyam competition required them to be able to afford to bring a live orchestra for the solo recitals. Remarkably, the group performances were miraculously exempted from this highly charitable requirement.

Before the competition started, a representative of Concern India announced to the dancers that after each solo performance "the judges would speak, give their comments and ask the dancer questions." The judges in the final were the same (!) as in the preliminary round: Madhumati Prakash, Rajashree Vasudevan and Dakshayani Ramachandran. Why they could not produce any comments on the solo recitals is up to you to guess.

The preliminary 3-day elimination round held in November promoted, according to Chitra Visweswaran, "quite a few dancers" (she probably meant the number of the dancers in the groups) to the final competition held on 23 January. At the preliminary itself, out of the astonishing 10 applicants in the sub-junior (below 10) division, only 2 were deemed worthy of dancing in the final: Simran (of guru Sheela Unnikrishnan) and Aishwarya Raman (of guru Divyasena). It was Simran who danced the first on 23 January, and it was Simran who got the 1st prize. As you could have already figured out, the second prize went to Aishwarya, who was so significantly less impressive that led to the humorous speculations that the first prize winner could have been decided upon in the preliminary round itself.

The two solos of the youngest contestants were followed by a most baffling mix of solos and group performances in no special order. Was it indeed on a "first-ready first dance" basis? Shuffled like a stock of cards, the order of these performances was presumably to confuse the judges so that they would not be able to remember (for any meaningful comparison) the performances of the contestants in the same age division. Of course, the order did not matter if the prize winners were determined in the preliminary round itself.

The third was Poornima (of Anusham group) who was quite proficient in her rendering of "Padma Ananda Dayinee," especially in the passage describing how the snake's poison was coming down in ashes. Sudharma Vaidyanathan (of guru A Lakshman) was dancing leisurely and error-free, mostly due to the fact that the choreography itself was not at all intricate or demanding. The more plain, the better? Nevertheless, she was somehow allocated the second prize in the junior (11-14) division, which had another 3 contestants beside her. A very big competition indeed.

Curiously, the solos in the junior and the senior (15+) divisions were supposed to last for 10 minutes each, but some dancers were - for an unknown reason - allowed to dance for over 15 minutes, while other dancers' performances were cut immediately after 10 minutes had elapsed, by completely switching off the stage lighting. Sudharma's was followed by Divyasena's group performance of some kind of fusion or modern dance. The group's 11 dancers found it a bit hard to move (leave alone dance) when lined across the stage in one row. The smallest, Aishwarya Raman, was given the central role, although Nikita would have certainly been a better choice. Next there was Subbalakshmi of Anusham. She surely did deserve her second prize in the senior division for her impeccable rendering of Shakti Kautuvam and a thillana, leaving some contestants wondering why they had not been told that they too could include 2 fragments rather than one continuous passage from one item. The 7th slot was Revathi Ramachandran's ballet full of folk dance, Dayinee. Out of the 5 dancers, the only one worth mentioning was Darshana. It was followed by Sai Swapna's (of Anusham group) recital. It was already 7.30pm, and the auditorium was filled by at least 200 people by that time.

Next there was S Sahana's (who recently joined Roja Kannan's school) impeccable performance of the varnam "Nee Inda Maye." Sahana had a mobile face and smooth expressions that changed each other seamlessly and naturally. Her style of nritta was very crisp. Every simple nritta step involved a visible and sharp movement up and down, which was well coordinated with the movements of her chin, her eyes and eyelids. Sahana was given the first prize (just as in the 2008 Natyarangam's competition) in the junior division. Perhaps she deserved it. Or perhaps it should have been given to the 10th contestant, Harinie Jeevitha (of guru Sheela Unnikrishnan), who attempted a much harder job to do as she was performing very demanding nrittas, peppered with the most complex moves and karanas that one hardly ever gets to see in Chennai. Well, Harinie's performance was not as error-free as her videos on YouTube would suggest: the sheer complexity of this highly demanding choreography requires more practice.

Sridharini in the senior division (of guru Revathi Ramachandran) was the 11th participant, and she proved that even the worst contestant can still get the first prize. Her performance was followed by Anusham group's fusion dance dedicated to Shiva and Shakthi, where one dancer, Sulochana, deserves a special praise. The masala fused together modern dance, Bharatanatyam, Odissi and god knows what else. The 13th was a very decent recital by Shivani (of guru Revathi Ramachandran) who was placed the 3rd in the senior division. The 14th was Padmaja (of guru Divyasena) in the junior division who presented keertanam "Om Kara Karini" in a graceful manner, although the skirt costume limited the scope of her nritta. It was the same K Padmaja who was awarded the 2nd prize at the Indian Fine Arts Society's competition 2 weeks ago. The competition's last solo was a very interestingly choreographed Sadaksharam kautuvam performed by the 16-year-old Sruthi Kalyana Sundaram (of guru Manimekalai Sharma), ably assisted by excellent beats of the mridangam. The choreography was very sophisticated and involved frequent use of fast, full-range attamis that blended harmoniously with everything else. Sruthi was masterful in her presentation, and stood above all other contestants in the senior division. Unfortunately, guru Manimekalai Sharma is hardly known even in Chennai.

Sri Devi Nrithyalaya's was the last group performance that had a larger share of elaborate Bharatanatyam proper than the previous groups' items. Most of the dancers, among whom was Harinie Jeevitha again, were admirable, the costumes and accessories were very impressive. Not surprisingly, Sri Devi Nrithyalaya got the 1st prize for its ballet. It was also not surprising to hear one of Concern India's representatives explain that, "ethically speaking," it would be wrong to give more than 2 (out of the 4) first prizes to the same school.

The award function started at 9.30. There was a speech by Chitra Visweswaran who was praising the efforts of Concern India and was urging everyone to support its activities. It was quite different from a "speech" by a differently abled gentleman from Concern India when the audience could not understand a word.

"Helping people help themselves" ran the slogan through a huge backdrop just under 'Concern India.' How helpful was this competition for the dancers? And how seriously was Concern India taking the dancers' concerns? If fewer and fewer Bharatanatyam schools care to come and showcase their best students at Concern India's competition, does it reflect how much importance the dancers attach to this event? Well, if the Blue Cross, Coca-Cola, the Communist Party of India, or the ICICI bank were to hold their own Bharatanatyam competitions, how many dancers would apply?


Jan 26, 2009
I wanted to point out that Sahana shared the first place with Sudharma at the Natyarangam competition. Oddly enough, in the Concern India competition the first was again Sahana and the second was Sudharma.
- Saatvika