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New Benchmarks in Bharatanatyam and Orissi
Photos of Nadam Fest courtesy: Nadam

November 30, 2016

What makes a benchmark performance? Is it the content or the costumes, music or make up, script or students, aesthetics or artistry? Or all of above and more?

In the month that was, 5 interesting BN performances, by 4 rising stars of the form, in 4 different cities can be assessed as trends in the form. Geeta Chandran in Delhi; Zakir Hussain, A. Lakshman (from Malaysia settled in Madras, so as not to be mistaken for the great Adyar Lakshman) and Roja Kannan of Chennai; Jyotsna Jagannathan in Bangalore and much junior in age and experience, Vaidehi Rele of Mumbai.

Geeta Chandran's dance school NATYA VRIKSHA is 25 YEARS OLD. Her content, consistency and concerted effort over decades make her art solid. After almost four decades of dancing, Geeta has also managed to train students, who have grown in numbers. This was evident by the turn out of proud parents, family and friends at the silver jubilee celebration of Natya Vriksha.

Delhi also has only 3 real solid BN dancers who are left, others being too unprofessional or uninterested to teach properly, with demands and desires of today's fastracked generation. Diva Yamini Krishnamurthy continues to be senior-most and the most qualified in all aspects of dance (except PR!). Her first student Rama Vaidyanathan, who is also the daughter-in-law of Saroja Vaidyanathan and runs the Ganesha Natyalaya that has many students. And then there is Geeta Chandran. These three are really the wholesome or complete learning points in the capital city. Complete in terms of music, dance, literature etc. Add some here and there, who dance occasionally and teach like Jayalakshmi Eshwar, Justin McCarthy and Sudha Jagannath (at Natya Ballet Centre). Some others who teach and perform on and off are both the Kanakas, Sudhakar and Srinivasan; Jamuna Krishnan (abhinaya ability items) and Navtej Johar (more interested in yoga than BN now). In my old age, maybe I'm forgetting a few more in some nook of Delhi, so do pardon. Just under 10 real BN dancer teachers in the capital city of nearly 20 million (with NCR put in), that often gets to meet the SNA, ICCR or Culture Ministry officials, personally or professionally. Thus they have great branding and recall value and often sit on many forums and committees that decide the fate of rest of the country. Disproportionate.

The epic-centre of BN is Chennai where at least over 50 gurus/teachers/institutions of repute abound and next is 25 in Bangalore. But Delhi still gets maximum visibility, outreach and patronage because it is close to patronage systems. Rest of India be damned, even if south India pays for half the national exchequer and taxes! And 70% of all popular classical forms emerge from the south. This overview is for those who don't have the practical experience of having lived in both south and north and having being born in west part of the country. India is one but cultural patronage systems need an overhaul and a better pan Indian representation, Mr. Prime Minister and Culture Minister. Just because Delhi is where the govt seat is, doesn't mean Delhi is India. The rest of India exists too. Look at last year's Padma awards list in dance - both again from Delhi base. As if there is no dance talent in rest of India.

Geeta Chandran, in her fifties, is clearly reaching the stage where she is ahead in her generation. She is today well-equipped to position herself as numero uno in Delhi and that's largely because of CONTENT and a supportive family. Geeta learnt since her childhood from various gurus like the last devadasi in Delhi, Guru Swarna Saraswati, then much later from mridangist turned guru Dakshinamoorthy and briefly abhinaya intensive items from Jamuna Krishnan and her guru Kalanidhi Narayanan in Chennai. Geeta also trained in Carnatic music from Meera Seshadri. She thus has good overall understanding of structure of a south Indian pan Indian form like BN. To do some new theme in a given format of dance is always a challenge, which new generation dancers are forever exploring, maybe out of ennui from old margam format, though those who can't do a margam properly often also venture into "innovation and experimentation" of late. Geeta has done margam format for first decade of her three decade dancing career and now in last two decades experimented with puppets and textiles, toys and ploys. While classical dance is art of suggestivity, such props take away from that though welcome to unsuspecting audiences, always looking for some novelty. A true artiste never caters to audience taste but builds it. Alarmel Valli is a prime example. Or Vyjayanthimala. So for her dance school's 25th anniversary, Geeta was gifted ‘Anekanta' derived from the Jain philosophy - of several truths or endings - by Sudhamahi Regunathan, herself a writer-researcher of religion, faith and philosophy.

While other observers at this event who have parallel columns explain and expound the production, I have focused on the big picture. How does an artistic work unfurl and unfold like a rose or lotus petal? What's the process of creation? How does one develop content? How can a production hold? How much to show? What to avoid? Geeta's latest offering shows all of above. It shows the process and protocols, approach and attitude. Because she is also trained in basic musical mode of the form, Geeta understands structure. Because she with her family initiated Delhi's elegant sari/fabric boutique shop - Utsav- she understands fabric, colour and appeal. Because she has students, she understands how to create and execute choreographic works. Because she is world travelled, she is exposed to editing, how not to drag an evening or production. Because she is a polyglot she cross references. Because Geeta is supplemented and supported by family, she can just focus on art of creation.


Geeta Chandran

Geeta surrounded by fans

Geeta is well poised now to grow further and make BN productions, polished. That's what's lacking in most BN productions today. Kalakshetra has had no new work come from its stable, just recycling old productions and touring on past reputation. Other BN dancers are researching on new themes like Malavika Sarukkai, Leela Samson and Alarmel Valli. They danced the margam format early in their careers so have requisite experience to build on that but younger dancers, less qualified or experienced, why they are giving up the beauty of margam beats me. They can't blame organisers or audiences, most of whom don't know Tyagaraja from Rajaraja anyway. Geeta hence is in the midpoint of her evolution in BN and represents a traditional form in a modern avatar. Without murdering it or mauling it or calling it names to get world attention or not being able to do margam properly thus resort to innovation or modern dance (many, in last decade).

Natya Vriksha's team of well trained students did her proud and each one did her best. All formed clear choreographic lines, entry and exits. Pity, there was not a single boy student in the company though. Dedicated teachers like Geeta living in metro cities should make conscious effort of finding, mentoring and training boys for dance. At least one! Her first student twenty years ago was a Marathi boy. Today, she should adopt one from a village and groom, if boys in big cities are not attracted or interested. It's a social responsibility now of a successful dancer in capital city which has all privileges and patronage. Think. There are many deserving boys in Andhra, Odisha or Tamilnadu, even Kerala who would benefit from such tutelage, training and mentorship.

The live music was a delight, even if the flautist was off scale often. One left wondering if one had attended a show or a wedding! It was so grand an evening at Kamani in Delhi. Sharanya, the only child of the happening dance couple of Delhi, conducted the recital well and looked proudly at mother on stage! Sandhya Raman's costumes are smart and sensuous but add girth to Geeta's frame because of the side slit/cut but I've not seen better stitched costumes (without a single offensive thread dangling!) in last decade in BN or any form! So well stitched and ironed, not a crease! Sandhya is an ex NID product and it shows. She started her career in dance design for Mallika Sarabhai (NID being in Ahmedabad it was a natural fit!). Mallika's close alliance with Jonathan Hollander's Battery Dance Company led to making costumes for him and then many more like Aditi Mangaldas.
Zakir Hussain

The day 2 of this function had students of Natya Vriksha, who showed their art and all were equally well-trained and showcased substance of the form, line, its grammar. Geeta need not have danced that day at all having had a full evening to herself a day before and should have sat and enjoyed the fruits of her labour. The younger lot stood by itself and performed admirably. The themes were well chosen and the concluding piece was a spectacle. Well done! Geeta and Rajiv, now that you have raised the bar, you will have to work harder! 50th anniversary will be much awaited. If some of us are around to see it!

The second benchmark in BN is a Muslim boy who knows more about Vishnu lore than many a devout Hindu of Madras. His being born a Muslim is pure chance and doesn't matter unless when one sees him reel off temples and tradition; songs and poems all in ode to the Lord. "Son of Andal" is how Zakir Hussain describes himself. A Ram Gopal look alike on stage, though shorter and chubbier, he is a dancer of quietude and depth. Here is the most unusual Madras dancer. Forget being Muslim doing Vishnu themes. That's a novelty alright, thus interesting enough. What's better still is his total lack of extra histrionics many in Madras suffer from on stage. Neat and clean. No effeminate mannerisms male dancers suffer from or namby pambiness.

PANCHAKANYA of Srirangam was his thematic presentation on the occasion of Nalli Kuppuswami's Chetty's 75th birthday celebrations, at Sivagami Petachi hall in Mylapore, on an auspicious chhat puja day. The Panchakanyas - Tara, Mandodari, Ahalya, Draupadi and Kunti - as a work, has been done by many iconic kanyas of dance in past (Shanta Rao, Ritha Devi, Padma Subrahmanyam, Sonal Mansingh) but no male solo dancer has done it successfully. The Panchakanya of Srirangam undertaken by Zakir were Cherakulavalli, Chozhakulavalli (Kanagavalli), Andal, river Kaveri and Thulukka Nachiyar. Zakir Hussain started out well in varnam format but lost the plot to a solo ballet-type production in the end. A battery of off-scale musicians accompanied him. Except for the male vocalist, not one musician kept scale. It'd be better if he records this production, professionally - easy for him to travel with and for hosting organization. “Zakir Hussain is a sincere dancer and serious researcher,” the iconic Vyjayanthimala said on stage and blessed him.

North or south, one sees the outreach and impact of BN. It is truly a national dance symbol. A Marathi born of Gujarati mother, Vaidehi Rele proved just that at the India International Dance Festival mounted by arts writer from Odisha, Shyamhari Chakra, on a lazy Sunday morning in Indira Nagar Club of Bangalore, with help of local talents Madhulita Mohapatra and Sai Venkatesh. All chosen to dance that morning had able standards. While many danced that morning, 24 year old Nidhaga Karunad made a mark and showed the beauty of BN as it sits on a male form and he reminds one of another excellent BN dancer of Bangalore, his immediate senior, Parshwanath Upadhye.

Vaidehi, Kanak Rele's granddaughter, was a chip off the old block. Her odd short frame did nothing to hide the beauty of her delivery. She has this Rajesh Khannasque aankh mattkana look (slight shut of the eyes in sync with rhythm) and dances bindaas! There is a certain careless abandon, a jerk of head and body that makes her stand out. A good year with a senior guru in south will help polish her art.


Vaidehi Rele

Jyostna Jagannathan


Kumar Sharma

Crossing Oceans

Bangalore's NADAM festival is soon of marriageable age - 18! (legally for girls in India; 21 for boys). The 3 day festival presented an eclectic mix of dancers and forms, of whom Jyostna Jagannathan reminded one of Vyjayanthimala in her heydays. Or Valli now. JJ is a qualified doctor who has left practicing medicine totally for dance. She has also joined Malavika Sarukkai's dance ensemble and is seen flitting from Chennai to Delhi to Bangalore to ICCR tour abroad. Seen on NADAM grand stage, as opening artiste, she showcased a well-devised Ardhanariswara followed by a Varnam. JJ has come of age as a dancer, neat and clean, though huffing and puffing occasionally to build stamina but on the whole the dance is pleasing and pleasant. She is poised to be the next star material, if she continues another decade. Live musicians always add delight and her team was mellifluous. She was followed by a Punjabi boy from Mumbai, Kumar Sharma doing Kathak as he had learnt from Guru Sita Ram in Ludhiana, biceps and all. It may work in Bollywood but not classical stage where lajja is still a concept. His dance was melodramatic and sort of Bollywood Kathak, but that's because stardust of students like Madhuri Dixit and many dance-related TV shows, has rubbed off on him, making his own shine! He is short but special; full of youthful energy and aplomb.

Backed by very gifted musicians, Ileana Citaristi's lack of rhythm was evident through her recital. She also overshot allotted time by half hour cutting into the next slotted group. Since she does Chhau also, and there are few women taking it up professionally, maybe Ileana should focus more on that form. Strangely, the best Orissi language was seen in same festival a day later by Daksha Mashruwala's group, Kaishiki. Here is a real genius artiste - complete in all dept of dance: aesthetics, composition, choreography, costumes, music, lights, concept, even compering. Crossing Oceans is a delightful assembly of different cultures - Japanese, Australian, Greek - set up in structure of Orissi and Chhau. This was the only group in the 3 day festival featuring 9 events that got a standing ovation, rightly so.

The last of this BN benchmark list will be Roja Kannan. What choreography! What beauty of patterns by students! What purity of devotion to Tyagaraja. Roja reminds of dancers of yore, simple but supreme. Excellent music team showed why Madras is the king of the form, both in dance and in music.

A. Lakshman is a happening guru of Chennai's younger generation go to learn from but his recital was marred by an awful sound track and too one dimensional a content. Varnam / sakhi / lovelorn nayika he did well but it sits best on female form. He is a neat and clean dancer, positions are taut and well enunciated. But the show never rose to heights he seems to be capable of. His ghungroos were minimal with zero sound, as though afraid to give false or faltered steps or notes!


A. Lakshman

Poorna Acharya

Nadam's own in house talent, now as soloist, Poorna Acharya, showed a strong foundation, especially in footwork. Costume was tacky and where is alta? (Red coloured Shastric patterns?) Increasingly classical dancers are not putting alta. It's not mere decoration but symbol of Shakti centres in palm and upper foot, to give strength (shakti!) to their rendition. I know many think their costumes get smudged but that's an excuse for laziness or unprofessionalism in applying. Only Roja Kannan and her group followed this tradition to a T.

Lights were uniformly bad most days except for Daksha Mashruwala's Crossing Oceans done by an expert light talent Debiprasad Mishra, popularly known as Tikki, flown from Odisha. On all days, the music /sound levels was often loud, as though audiences were deaf. Seems ADA Rangamandira hall's control room was asleep, if not clueless. When a Kathak dancer comes to mike to recite bols then music track should be subdued. When organisers dance themselves both suffer: their own dance and overall organization. Nadam should present its star students that too for maximum 20 minutes. Keep 45 for exceptional soloist and one hour plus for productions. Simple. This is not rocket science but common, artistic sense.

Best comment came from Nadam head Murali Mohan Kalva, when Bank of Baroda manager, as a co-sponsor, was on stage: Artists have no black or white money, only art (is their wealth). BN is indeed our national dance symbol. Orissi is fast becoming international. Kathak remains grounded!

Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year ahead!


A lover of history and dance, Ashish Khokar is author of more than 40 books, and is a columnist and critic for mainstream media like the Times of India and India Today. He edits and publishes India's only yearbook on dance ATTENDANCE (19th year) and teaches dance history and heritage at many universities, worldwide. He curates and hosts many Dance DISCourses and awards 5 annual awards. He is in charge of India's largest archives, the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He lives in Bangalore and Chennai.



Comments

Ashish Mohan Khokar's article "New Benchmarks in Bharatanatyam and Orissi" straightens out many misconceptions on the BN scenario in the country in general and New Delhi in particular. The observations are valuable. He has valid bits and pieces of advice for dancers such as his suggestion to Geeta Chandran to adopt a boy from a village and groom him into BN with her expertise.
Also his suggestion that only a dancer who has danced the margam format early in her career and has the requisite experience can innovate and experiment. This and many other observations and opinions coming from a seasoned critic is a must read for aspiring critics of dance.
- Tapati Chowdhurie (Dec 5, 2016)








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