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Kadamba of Natya Darshan flowered without rambling
Photos courtesy: Natya Darshan

January 8, 2019

It never rains, it pours! And with so much happening at the same time, my preference was for attending morning discussions, which are generally 'once only' happenings, whereas the chances of catching up with the artists featured in the evening performances, at some other event, are always greater. Natya Darshan's Kadamba - the flowering Path, under its curator Priya Murle, very wisely spread its events with different venues like the Forum Art Gallery, Bharata Kalanjali, Kinsley Manor and the Government Museum - not just highlighting the inter-relationships existing among art disciplines, but also making festival proceedings accessible to people living in different areas.

Lakshmi Gopalaswamy

Sathyanarayana Raju

After seeing the Moving Canvas presentation comprising glimpses of the Navarasa, with painter A.V. Ilango in simultaneity, catching impressions of these moments on his canvas as did Biswajit Balasubramaniam in his endearing cartoon images, and attending the Conference deliberations held at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, what impressed most was the strict adherence to the clock - with none of the rambling with total disregard for the clock, which we as a people are known for.

To throw light on changes in pedagogical approach to training, in this Bharatanatyam based festival, Jayanthi Subramaniam in a very short demonstration brought out salient features of Guru Adyar Lakshman's teaching. Describing him as 'a traditional Guru with a modern approach', she spoke of her having to unlearn what she had acquired previously while relearning basics under Adyar Lakshman. She underlined his particular emphasis on Anga suddham - how to stand with the two feet turned outwards 180 degrees, the angle at which the shoulder and the wrists were to be held when hands were stretched and how the crossed leg at the back balanced on toes with heels lifted had to be very correct and not held in a way that made 'one look like an injured dog'. Adyar Lakshman's way of describing the aerial route of the hand doing a 'Kitataka tadiginatom' with a circle at the back, almost brushing the nose in front and "coming down like a stone smoothly rolling down a hill" was so clear. Programs were incidental and every class would be treated with the same care where 'assimilating, observing and practicing' was the motto.

In the same session, Anita Guha's training revealed a different graph, with guidance from many teachers starting with her mother Karthiyayini Natesan, after which she came under the tutelage of Guru Govindarajan , Guru Radhakrishna and Dr.Ananda Shankar Jayant. Speaking frankly about her attraction for the nritya natakam genre, and the way she related with bhakti oriented themes based on mythology, she demonstrated through her students how after absorbing different influences, she had evolved a methodology for communicating with youngsters (her students are famous for their araimandi perfection) - her teaching bearing fruit with Bharatanjali grooming fine dancers with excellent technique. "No ducks back" she told the tiny tots as they took their stance with a straight back without the lower half sticking out, and her students showed the Natyarambam stance (A of Dance is how she called it).

Anitha Guha and young disciples

Glimpses of Laya as approached in the orthodox Tanjavur tradition of Guru Kittappa Pillai, were demonstrated by his son K.P. Chandrasekharan, now the Bharatanatyam teacher in the Tiruvarur Government Music School. Kittappa Pillai's jatis were in a category of their own with foot contact rhythm and tala beat seeming to be having an understanding while on independent journeys, fusing together with compelling exactitude at the end, touching sama together. The varnam jatis were demonstrated by his daughter Charumathi.

Evolving a laya process from tradition to the present was Bharatanatyam/Kuchipudi Guru Narasimhachari whose approach was articulated by his disciple /wife Vasantalakshmi whose earlier career was as a senior disciple of Guru Adyar Lakshman. Narasimhachari used the jati in ways to enhance the impact of a situation in the composition, as for instance in the Natakuranji Papanasam Sivan Varnam, the guru paying special attention to the point of 'eduppu', and in the charanam line of the same varnam "Nataraja Deva Sachchidananda," the jati suited the string of epithets used to describe Shiva. Similarly the manner in which swaraksharas and the dhrigutaka tom syllables were used for the nritta part ending "Nrityati nrityati Sadasivam" described poetically as "sculpture released into rhythmic motion" in a Swati Tirunal composition, as also the "Baja Payal" segment of the Dhanashri Tillana of Swati Tirunal, which gave place for emphasizing the role of the anklets, were some of the examples, demonstrated by the students of Kalasamarpana Foundation.

Who better than Lakshmi Viswanathan to speak on the Pada varnam given her expertise in abhinaya (particularly in sringar) and fluency in articulating her thoughts? She spoke of her early collaboration with Jitendra Krishna of Holland, who having learnt from one of Kittappa Pillai's disciples settled there, has original recordings of the Guru and for Lakshmi who with her scholarship is particularly interested in the old varnam paddhati, this association proved fruitful. Describing the God/King concept, which coming after a very dark period in Tanjore history, became the norm, in the Nayak period (which saw a new flowering of Bharatanatyam) she explained and in her own inimitable fashion interpreted through abhinaya the varnam statement "nee sati dora neevani neranammi naanu" where Sarfoji is praised as Devendradau, as musician, as writer, as ruler of the world. The Prema Bhakti concept, later addressed to deities like Mannargudi Rajagopala when bhakti sringar came in compositions like "Mohamana en meedu" demands subtlety in portrayal. Lakshmi, as is her wont, in humorous sarcasm said that bhakti sringar cannot be trying to embrace the huge Shivalinga passionately - as portrayed by some. The music which is the most significant aspect of a varnam where melody and bhava are important without any recourse to niraval singing, was fitting with Shivasri the vocalist acquitting herself with credit, with the rest of the accompaniment by nattuvangam by Sudarshini, Shivaprasad on mridangam, and Sri Lakshmi on violin.

Lakshmi Viswanathan

Nalini Prakash, Ananda Shankar Jayant, CP Satyajit

Along with Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant (Artistic Director, Shankarananda Kalakshetra of Hyderabad) were two dancers exchanging thoughts on Change in Content, context and functionality of Bharatanatyam - Nalini Prakash who combines her role as a dancer trained under Sudharani Raghupathy with working to spread arts education through Silambam in Coonoor as a dance movement therapist and co- artistic director of Spilling Ink, a multi-arts organisation in Washington D.C. and C.P. Satyajit, a performing artist, teacher and photographer. Ananda laid down the main concerns of the discussion - What is dance to you and to the audience? What will you bring to the table? What is the takeaway for audience and for me? How do you relate the then in Bharatanatyam to the now? What is your raison d'Ítre as an art dancer? Is Bharatanatyam only performative for you, or has it entered the crevices of your being? How do you visualise content? Art and Culture for Rukmini Devi represented life. Can one see them in individual compartments? This is a flow which we should not stop where context, content and inherent intent are all significant.

Nalini Prakash emphasised that saying Bharatanatyam is therapeutic is different from Bharatanatyam as therapy which involves specialising in movement therapy and in psychological therapy. (Art and science bond here). She was involved with the chronically ill African Americans outside the prison system, whose drastic need for healing, has made her use the language of hastas and navarasa, with the stories as metaphors and symbols to help these deprived patients express themselves. Satyajit having studied in the J. Krishnamurti school where one was encouraged to question everything, wondered why kids who in the Montessori system are taught so differently in school, are not initiated into abhinaya, while learning Bharatanatyam at a much younger age. Pointing to discrepancies in training outlook, Satyajit also spoke of the later years between 15-25 when students yearn to dance, they are forced into a gruelling college routine which has no time for other activities and a zone of conflict emerges right there. "We are all the time developing youngsters with conflicts".

Ananda's answer was that the interested student will find a way as she did from a scholarship in Eton to Kalakshetra to learn Bharatanatyam. Having got into "the very male space of the Indian Railway Service," she had right through followed a dual path of bureaucrat and dancer with conviction. She focused on other important issues like how to fund the passion for Bharatanatyam and fuel it. She disagreed with youngsters apologetically calling every performance chance an 'opportunity' one is grateful for. "You are entrepreneurs. Look at art as core competence and strength - as empowerment." She touched on technology in art. While the feel of presence is very necessary for all teaching and learning in Bharatanatyam, technology like her Apps Adavu lessons (being made use of widely all over the world by Bharatanatyam students) can help in economising the leaning curve. Technology cannot give life but by giving life to technology, one can derive some benefit.

On the second morning, unable to catch the early 8.30am lecture by Dr. Rama Kausalya on the use of sacred and secular Tamil literature in Bharatanatyam, I was in time however to take in Nandini Ramani's lec/dem on use of Sanskrit and other language poetry in a Bharatanatyam performance. She began with the statement that from Krishna Karnamritam to Krishna Leela Tarangini to Shahaji's copious writings, one knows that Sanskrit and Grantha literature provided fuel for Bharatanatyam performances right from ancient days and that Gurus like the Quartet and Kittappa Pillai were not strangers to Sanskrit literature. Putting the focus on works of Swati Tirunal, who had Vadivelu in his court to create music, the speaker stressed on the composer's use of swaraksharas and the way swara and sahitya were matched like in the Todi Dani Samajendra varnam - in the note 'dha' as placed in the makuta swara, the accenting of which opened up possibilities for the imaginative dancer. Words were limited but laden with possibilities for elaboration by the creative dancer. The best part of the session for me, lay in Nandini's ability to sing, to do the nattuvangam and to dance while demonstrating - a one man squad - an ability that performers today rarely command.

When it comes to throwing light on the use of traditional and non-conventional Telugu literature in Bharatanatyam, the obvious choice is the one and only V.A.K Ranga Rao who in his usual manner effortlessly came out with countless examples from the film world - Tamil (Partibhan Kanavu) and Malayalam. His well known criticism levelled against starting the interpretation of a lyric with the Anupallavi (like Netrandi nerattile) was that this strayed from the dominant mood expressed in the Pallavi which the Anupallavi line may not always build on. The speaker dilated on poetic interpretation of the sahitya. He referred to Manmatha Leelai of Haridas in Charukesi, where Vazhuvoor's interpretative approach showed the nayika thinking "Why do I need black kajal in my eyes, when Krishna is already in my eyes." He also gave the example of Kadoor Venkatalakshamma's interpretation telling Krishna that while people called him great because he lifted Mount Govardhan, what of me as consort, who carries you on my chest? The most erotic poetry lends itself to being shown in Bharatanatyam in the most poetic manner. He forbade vulgar interpretations. The problem has always been on the yardstick used to measure vulgarity and auchitya!

Padma Subrahmanyam, as the inevitable person to discuss Sculpture and Dance, spoke of how long it took her to finally realise that the Karanas were not poses but represented frozen moments of one movement. In her first production Meenakshi Kalyanam she too had used Karanas as poses. Her understanding of the Natya Sastra meant going to innumerable references in Sanskrit and even the Agamas - for not even Abhinava Gupta's commentary could help her completely. It took years of toil to understand that the Natya Sastra was known in the entire Jambudweepa and it is when she saw how her visualisation of the Karanas for the Sattara temple tallied so completely with the Karna sculptures in Prambanan of Java that she felt she was on the right track. Padma described the Rechakas as the 'gamakas of dance'. Padma's work on Karanas inducted into her Bharatanritya, perhaps marks a way of recalling and adding the Sanskritic tradition of the Natya Sastra sculpted on temple walls, to the regional tradition of the adavu alphabet which constitutes Bharatanatyam.

Padma Subrahmanyam

S. Rajeswari and Swamimalai Suresh

From Sadir to Sabha music for Bharatanatyam, the route has seen many changes - as emphasised by S.Rajeswari and Swamimalai Suresh representing the Tanjavur and Vazhuvoor schools. The session, unavoidably, comprised largely known information which can however bear repetition. The conventional start with Pillaiyar Paatu, "Jayasudha Purivasa Ganana Sabesa" stortram in Vazhuvoor, along with the fact that dancers themselves sang while dancing were mentioned. The Yazh as accompanying instrument with too many strings, and the too loud clarinet which drowned the rest of the music were not good for gamakas in the music and the veena (played in the standing position by the Sharma brothers) which came later with its frets and the harmonium made long notes difficult to execute. The violin in their place could sustain long notes while imparting the music with an unbroken continuity. Both speakers stressed how music functioned within the practice of Bharatanatyam and since dancers were also musicians, the mistakes as one sees today with lack of coordination is because musicians having expertise in their field but functioning outside the Natya tradition are hired as accompanists for Bharatanatyam programmes. Rajeswari stressed that niraval singing was totally banned in singing for Bharatanatyam. When I sang "Bhavayami Raguramam" for Kamala, and it meant singing one line 18 0r 20 times, one could not count but one got to know something of the hastabhinaya, which provided the cue for the next line to start. Rajaratnam Pillai used some sangatis in his singing. With continuous singer/dancer associations, some elaborations suitable to the performance can be worked out and Rajeswari spoke of special life given to the 'gandhar' in a varnam with opportunity for the dancer to bring in her own embellishments and expansion of a word 'Krishna' in the Charukesi varnam of Lalgudi Jayaraman (her foray into elaboration at one point earned her plaudits from the master himself). She recollected Madurai Krishnan's "Maye..." Todi varnam performed by Sudharani Raghupathy with elaborations (including the music and the dance) to the line "Sringara sruti laya bhavame". Stating that the Margam has its own beauty, she said that as a singer one can play with lines like "Arivenayya un andarangam" but all done with care and constant dialogue with the dancer.

A. Lakshman and Bragha Bessell

The subject of sringar and gender will always be debated, though I feel greatness in art lies in transcending the gender identity as legends like Kelucharan Mohapatra succeeded in achieving. With two well chosen participants A. Lakshman and Bragha Bessell, the former performed to prove the point made (before his rendition) that if male poets could so effectively reflect the female point of view, why not a male dancer? Complete knowledge of the lyric projecting a female centric view and the ability to wipe out the persona of the dancer while getting immersed in what one is trying to portray is what will determine the conviction in the performance rather than the gender of the performer. He presented with aplomb, the 24th Ashtapadi "Kuru Yadunandana" sung in Behag, where Radha as Swaadheenapatika, after the bliss of union with Krishna lovingly demands that her dishevelled look be repaired, by him. Symbolically this is believed to be Radha regaining her own individual identity, lost in the oneness of love, for without the search for that oneness, Lila of love cannot go on.

Bragha Bessell made a very crucial point about lakshanas associated with each of the great characters which the dancer in his or her portrayal needs to bring out and the entire training of a dancer's body is to be able to transcend that body with an awareness where gender plays no role. She chose for her demonstration the Ashtapdi "Kshana madhuna Narayana manugatamanusara Radhike". This song expresses Krishna's passion and the coming together of Radha and Krishna. The delightful conclusion to the two day event was the duo presenting "Rusali Radha, Rusala Krishna, Rusale Gokul Sare". Radha is angry and so is Krishna and in their anger, it seems as if the whole of Gukul reflects their feelings. The pouting, the ched/chad as the Kathak dancer would say and above all its effect on Nature with even the deer, and the peacock and peahen distancing from each other was most effectively brought out and above all one could see the dancers deriving a great deal of fun out of the exchange.

A good way to bring down the curtain with kudos for Priya Murle's designing of this edition of Natya Darshan!

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.

I enjoyed reading the column Taalam by Leela Venkataraman on Natya Darshan's Kadamba: The Flowering Path in Narthaki. The conference curated by Priya Murle was agreeably a huge success. I would like to clarify some points I made on dance/movement therapy during the panel discussion on Change in Content, Context, and functionality of Bharatanatyam.  Dance / movement therapy allows people to connect with the self and with others. It does not prescribe to any specified form of dance - Bharatanatyam or otherwise. As dancers of varied forms, I am sure most of us have understood and experienced first-hand the therapeutic value of dance and how its practice is often a cathartic experience. However, there is a difference between using dance of any form as therapy and dance/movement therapy, which is an entirely different field of practice. The distinction lies in the psychotherapeutic training imparted to a dance/movement therapy practitioner. Dance/movement therapists work with their clients as specially trained clinicians through the body and its movement and also have the skills to facilitate verbal processing among clients during group sessions.

In my work at Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington DC, my clients primarily comprised a vulnerable population of African Americans. These individuals who committed crimes due to mental illness were serving time in a psychiatric hospital instead of a prison and received treatment for their mental illness. I combined the use of the language of hastas and the navarasas from Bharatanatyam with creative movement during dance therapy groups with these individuals to encourage them to tell their stories using metaphor and symbolism as a non-threatening and effective way to heal from the trauma of mental illness.
- Nalini Prakash, BC-DMT, CMA
Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist, Certified Movement Analyst
PhD Candidate, Creative Arts Therapy Program, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA
(Jan 11, 2019)

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