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Striking a pose

September 7, 2013

In Bharatanatyam performances, audiences are treated to "poses" by dancers. When I was a young girl learning dance, I used to attend performances of senior dancers every now and then and I noticed that some gurus had taught their students to give statuesque poses, while others eschewed them completely. For example, Guru Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai's students struck the Nataraja and other poses at frequent intervals in their shows, whilst the students of Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai were more reticent with poses. I noticed also that Balasaraswathi never lifted her leg in the Nataraja pose. I assumed then that perhaps it was because of her age (then in her forties) or perhaps she was heavier in build as compared to many others whom I saw in performance. Later, I read Dr. Raghavan, her mentor. He was very disapproving of unnecessary poses and thought they were aberrations! He used phrases like "rasabhasa" meaning contrariness to Rasa, which said it all. I loved that brevity of expression.

Kumari Kamala in Snake Dance

In due course, I deduced that in the old nattuvanar tradition there was a tinge of conservatism that shunned lifting the leg. And I also perceived that Ramaiah Pillai was rather more modernistic in approach, therefore he made his star pupil Kamala strike lovely Nataraja poses. Much later I learnt that Kamala had actually trained in acrobatics as a child! No wonder then that she could strike poses with ease. Furthermore, she was very young (in her teens) and also did the snake dance which was a must in her shows (Nadhar mudimel irukkum naga pambey) with remarkable suppleness. That dance was her show stopper...many mothers wanted their tiny tots to learn under Ramaiah Pillai AND master the snake dance.

Well.....I learnt from Kousalya, his disciple, and after class, my mother supervised my exercises holding the wall as if it was a bar used in ballet workouts, to get steady for poses and bend fantastically to do the snake dance. I don't attempt the snake dance now.... But can hold my Nataraja pose pretty well! My later guru Ellappa guided me in striking poses, but he was careful to select when and where. Whether it was in a Jathiswaram or Thillana or in the famous Natanam Adinar, he believed in variations suitable for the situation. Nothing acrobatic, but always elegant.

Why am I bringing up the above? Well, I wish to emphasize that no pose can be struck in dance without proper technique. Most times, I am as tense as the young dancer attempting a pose. Watching the ordeal is not a happy situation. Many times the dancer looks as if she is merely contorting doing some difficult pose. Her feet are in the wrong position... her balancing is not even.... And, the photographer is making her more nervous as he catches her tentative smile. What to do? .....sigh!

The thing to do is practice poses separately... work out the sequence of movements of feet, legs and limbs in proper order so the culmination is a pose. You don't need NATYA SASTRA theory lessons which give the sequence of movements in Angaharas and Karanas to do a striking pose. Of course, you can study the text to understand that there is a technique of movement involved. But how about actual practice and getting an understanding of the kinetics of the body?

Among the more important aspects one must understand is a shift of body weight from left to right, a twisting of torso, extension of arms for balance, holding the head in proper equilibrium, etc. A firm foot indeed helps a steady pose.

All pauses in Bharatanatyam are indeed minor "poses" because they are creating beautiful visuals while emphasizing correct posture. The word statuesque is not easy to define. In the old schools, the curves (of hips of course, what else?) were certainly very slight and subtle. No "tribhanga" like Odissi... Not even the slight push as in Kuchipudi. If you look very carefully at a Chola bronze of a standing Parvati, you will understand that perfect stance which the old gurus prescribed. There is only the slightest hint of a curve, with the feet in a balancing position. The gentle fall of the arm is a perfect "dola".... no angles there, but a creeper like flow. Look like a Devi, before you dance like one! Alas, nowadays even the ordinarily easy Krishna pose with flute in hand and swasthika feet, looks less than attractive. Who conducts classes for posture, movement and poses? Perhaps some teachers do.... I don't know. If you are a performing dancer, you better figure it all out. A mirror will help.

Observe the beautiful statues you are attempting to imitate. Even very mature dancers tend to over - lift their leg in the Nataraja pose, displaying a copious thigh. There is an aesthetic to be conscious of.... ALWAYS, in classical dance.

Beauty lies in control, not confusion. Surely a pose, struck well, with or without that sudden blue spot light, can be an exciting visual. But, dear dancers, practice that perfect pose with attention to detail, and a fine breathing technique.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a prime disciple of Guru Kanjeevaram Elappa Pillai, is an exponent of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. She is also a trained vocalist. She is the author of several acclaimed books: Bharatanatyam - the Tamil Heritage, Kunjamma - Ode to a Nightingale, Kapaleeswara Temple, Women of Pride -The Devadasi Heritage. Her film 'The Poetry of Dance' was commissioned by the Festival of India. The Mamallapuram Dance Festival started in 1991 was Lakshmi's brainchild. She has served on several arts committees. She has served as Vice President of Music Academy (Chennai) and is a member of South Zone Cultural Centre.


This is so well written and presented for the reader to seriously think about the purpose of dance movement and intent. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
- Malathi Iyengar (Sept 11, 2013)

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