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Connecting text with practice - Nrtta Ratnavali to Andhra's devadasi dance

December 9, 2019

The Kakatiyas, the second major dynasty of the Andhra region after the Satavahanas, were ardent patrons of art. Dealing with the classical and the regional dance forms of the Kakatiya period is the 13th century treatise Nrtta Ratnavali written by Jayasenapati, who surprisingly was the commander-in-chief of the elephant corps (gajasadhanika and senapati as the author himself puts it) serving ruler Ganapati Deva (1198-1262), between whom and the author existed an intimate bond with Jayappa becoming his brother-in-law. It was 'Ganapati Bhupala', who noting the talent and loyalty of young Jayana as he is referred to, put him under the right tutelage to be taught fine arts! And significantly the thousand pillared 13th century Ramappa Temple at Palampet (now declared a world heritage monument) near Warangal, the capital of the Kakatiyas built out of special floating bricks was by the then Chief of Army and Minister of Ganapati Deva.

Its extensive inscriptional and sculptural evidence pointing to the dance forms existing in this region inspired Jayappa while writing Nrtta Ratnavali. This would seem to point to an era when dance was a popular art form attracting people from all disciplines - not excluding the army! Jayappa's deep respect for Bharata and the Natya Sastra are reflected in the starting chapters on classical dance. In fact, he mentions that were Bharata to come back and reflect upon what he, Senapati had written, he would be very pleased at how completely faithful he, Jayana had been to Bharata's Natya Sastra! The later chapters deal with Desi or regional dances and here one sees the influence of Sarangadeva who belonged to about the same period, and is the author of the Sangeeta Ratnakara which also dealt with the Desi forms.

One of the significant programs during the Foundation week at the IGNCA saw Dr. Yashoda Thakore from the University of Silicon throw some light on the Nrtta Ratnavali, following which she embarked on a presentation of the Andhra Devadasi dance. She mentioned that Jayana also authored Gita Ratnavali and Vadya Ratnavali of which no trace has been found.

Terms nritta (abstract dance), nritya (interpretative dance) and natya (drama endowed with a story line) were loosely used with Bharata never using the word nritya - though what he dilated upon as evoking 'rasa' added up to what the word connotes totally. It is Jayana who gives explicit definitions for these words in relation to classical and Desi forms.

Yashoda mentioned how Jayana's preference for pure movement (abstract dance) was in keeping with the practical mind of a soldier, not given to needless intellectualizing. The Nrtta Ratnavali starts with the verse "maulim svedajalardrakuntalamurah..." in a homage to Shiva, who, caressing different parts of Parvati's body in the guise of explaining to her the aspects of abstract dance or nrtta, shows both graceful and forceful movements on the left and right sides of his body respectively. The next verse is a homage to Ganapati with his movements evoking mirth and laughter.

Jayappa eulogises Desi or provincial dances because movement here is connected and concerned with the occasion it is being rendered for, instead of some esoteric aim and he is all praise for Ganapati Bhupala who could differentiate between classical and provincial forms. In the process, even the speaker raised a toast for the Desi in preference to the classical - while also describing herself as hailing from the Andhra Devadasi clan (she mentioned sixth in line, but gave no details beyond this) she explained how pure movement was far from being mindless for Jayana, as he was deeply aware of the body/mind connect and how even a tilt of the hip changed the psyche of the dancer. Yashoda demonstrated fleeting examples of Utpluti Karanas (jumps) and bhramaris (circles) - Antar Bhramari, Bahya Bhramari, Chitra Bhramari, Shiro Bhramari of the thirteen Bhramaris.

Touching on the lasyangas, the speaker mentioned how Jayana in discussing Rekha and the way one stood always, stressed that the dancer was performing for the audience (None of the esoteric self- realization goal!). Yashoda poetically described how like a "water droplet on a lotus leaf" the dancer was attached to what she was doing, but not entangled. That is one involved with portraying a Nayika in a situation, could at once switch on to another Nayika, because there was no personal entanglement here. She explained how the Devadasi dance of Andhra Pradesh believed in laya wherein from slow to fast, one did not have a doubling or trebling of speed but an accelerando. Jayana mentions triangular movements, whether in terms of covering performance space too, is not clear.

The dance of the Devadasi comprised a lot of what came out of 'manodharma' which is beyond the taught vocabulary and pertains to on the spot creativity. This dance is very lilting in tone with no virtuosity in terms of rhythmic cross sections. The dancer also mentioned selecting a chief guest in the audience and dancing for that person!

The dancer learnt Daruvu from Kotippalli Hymavathy. These Daruvus addressed to the rulers generally refer extravagantly to the accomplishments and achievements of the concerned King. The Daruvu selected by the dancer has three charanams and the lyric is addressed to Telugu Kakatiya and Nayak rulers of Tanjavur, with the finishing line "Pratapa Ramaswamy neeku salaam". It was grace filled movement in a mood of obeisance. The body lilt was even more obvious in the purely movement aimed Swarapallavi in Arabhi, the choreography reveling in eye movements, body sway and delightful sundari neck movements.

The abhinaya part, for which the Andhra Devadasi was famous, first comprised a lyric in Surati portraying a Samanya Nayika who sarcastically chides the Nayak for straying into the wrong house, "Illu erugaka maari okar intika." The composition was taught to her by Annabatula Lakshmi Thayaru. "Are you mad coming here like this?" she demands. "Why this drama? Go to that fish eyed woman with whom you have been liaising. It is sunset and my Parthasarathy (her lover) will be coming here soon". The nayika baldly says that any liaison with her is out for he does not have the money. One felt that the sarcasm of such a woman could have been invested in the rendition with a little more bite in the beginning. The end registered strongly.

The Padam "Itarula valache", Yashoda learnt by watching a video of Saride Mythili Amma. "Not even in dreams could I realize that you were such a cheat." "Idi nyayama saami neeku?" in Senjurutti showed the nayika who has been jilted by a man she knew from childhood. "Is this fair on your part?" she asks. Presented with sensitivity, the mood here was a complete contrast from the previous item. And the dancer very pertinently explained how the tempo of music in the Andhra region, much like its dance Kuchipudi, is always fast paced and even a Padam which in the Tanjore region expressed in Bharatanatyam has a slow and savoured rendition, in Andhra Pradesh is fast paced.

The last interesting item was in Gaptu Varasu and Yashoda acquired some knowhow from Manga Thayaru - where a spontaneous exchange on violin and mridangam (the music on tape sounded close to Muthuswamy Dikshitar's Nottu Swaram) inspired by the band music of the time where the dancer's manodharma presentation depicts how "he came, he kissed me and after all the caressing escaped. And I am not able to forget those moments."

The unselfconscious sringar of the Devadasi glimpsed though a time bound presentation could not elaborate in freedom.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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