Morsels Of Learning & Moments of Despair


Morsels Of Learning & Moments Of Despair

Dance, dance, dance. If the year-end cultural explosion in Madras is getting bigger and longer as we roll towards 2000 A.D., so is its dance component, consisting of a plethora of talks and lecture-demonstrations on, and solo, duo and group performances of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, Odissi, Chhau and whatever else there is for the terpsichoreans to do.

The show-and-tell sessions started this time in the second week of December itself, with the seminar organised by Kalanidhi

Narayanan's Abhinayasudha, but the principal platform for them was, as usual, the All-India Satya Kala Conference organized by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. The latest meet, eighth in the yearly series, was cosponsored by the Nalanda Dance Research Centre of Bombay.

Dance is a many-splendoured thing, but. . . Continuing his observations on this theme V.A.K. RANGA RAO here comments on the morsels of learning, the moments of despair and so on that the season's goings on threw up

For the senior dancer and dance enthusiast, the talks and lec-dems each invariably offers at least a little morsel of learning. Unlike the performances which are angled towards pleasing the audience in most cases, these are generally directed towards sharing some personally experienced, searched and researched truth. Also they are better-planned, briefer and more neatly executed. The occasional question from a committed dance-goer and the answer-or-parry sessions that follow are also instrumental in making these proceedings lively and more interesting. The only pity is that, as Kalanidhi Narayanan laments every year, relatively few dancers attend them.

During the annual jamboree, invariably there is an outbreak of the human variantof the Aphthous Fever of animals with cleft hooves, called open-your-mouth-and-put- your-foot-inititis. Pratibha Prahladfrom Bangalore, a student of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, was the first one tobe afflicted by it. Throughout her talk, inwhich she said something tenable aboutclassical dance and cinema, she used thewords 'devadasi' and 'prostitute' as thoughthey are interchangeable. She had to be told that the former community had a privilegeaccruing by birth to entertain peoplegodward while the other belonged to the world's oldest profession, either by choiceor by compulsion. Also, she went on todescribe cinema as a parasite feeding on the other art-forms. When she was asked if what she really wanted to say was that a symbiotic relationship existed between cinema and the other arts, meaning that there was mutual benefit, she said 'No'. When pressed further, and asked whether she would say that dance is a parasite of music and lyric, she said 'Yes'!

Pratibha, in spite of her considerable achievements, is a young girl and she has time to learn yet. But how to explain the faux pans committed by a woman in hermid-thirties, who has been a dancer foralmost a quarter of a century, who has an academic background besides, who isadept in French and English, and who toured abroad before settling in the U.S. a few years ago, where she has been successfully running a dance school?

Ratna Kumar, better known in India as the screen moppet who grew up to receive acclaim as Ratnapapa the Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer, was talking about dance. Referring to a celebrated Andhra danseuse of yesteryears (good sense and reverence prevent me from naming her), she said : "She did not enjoy a good reputation." It was not a meet of Yellow Journalists International to give warrant to Ratna Kumar to refer to the dead dancer's private life. What was the innuendo? That the gone dancer was notorious for bad singing, incorrect lava, inadequate abhinaya? No. She was famous for all three. Then what was Ratna Kumar trying to say by this unconscionable remark? Trying to be flippant? In any case, it is, or should be, beyond Ratna Kumar to be condescending about hereditary professionals who for generations saved an art so that people like Ratna could make a name and also money buy it.

It may seem axiomatic to many that, at seminars, conferences and similar public gatherings, speakers should be a little circumspect, sensible when talking about the arts and the respected and dead artists. But there are always the few who don't know or care, plunging us into despair.

Pratibha, Ratna and then. . . "According to musicologist T.S. Parthasarathy," said archaeologist R. Nagaswamy, "dancers would not be doing pada-s and javali-s if they knew their meaning." With that he had the dancers at the Natya Kala Conference in tears and privately whining and whimpering like ill-treated puppies. One girl rushed home, perhaps to cry on her father's shoulder.

There were at least a dozen dancers present, if not a score, some of them running dance schools at home and abroad. Grieved and hurt maybe, but they kept mum. Generations of inbred timidity, I guess.

Kalanidhi Narayanan, a terpsichorean who earned her Padma Bhushan by her exemplary ability to do, and teach abhinaya, both of which would be impossible unless the minute implication of each word was understood, remained silent. At a previous session, she had rushed up to the mike to make an impassioned plea that footwear should be forsaken while treading the sacred stage. Then why should she keep quiet when the image of her work, the sincerity of a hundred of her students, was being trampled upon?

What are the implications of this statement attributed to T.S. Parthasarathy and cited with evident approval by Nagaswamy? There are at least two. First, that all dancers who perform pada-s and javali-s, are quacks, charlatans who pretend to know what they don't. Second, that pada-s and javali-s are invariably obscene, pornographic in lyrical content.

About the first I am not going to waste much of my breath. Let dancers and dance teachers come and fill this breach, if they think it worth their time. But I would say that those dancers I have seen in the past 10 years, the vast majority of them, have understood their lyrics whether they are in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Sanskrit. They might have been mistaken about a word or a phrase. Sometimes they might have understood only the surface meaning, not the deeper. So, they might not accurately depict an erotic idea. But these are human frailties, choices, which do not deserve a blanket statement that all dancers are ignorant and indifferent.

I take serious objection to the second. The obvious retort is that vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.Moreover, the suggestion that all pada-s and javali-s are prurient and therefore objectionable is nonsense. But, more importantly, can any person possessed with a mature understanding of human emotions really condemn as perpetrators of pornography any or all of the great poets who have used their gift of imagination and language to portray sringara? Would  he really suggest that we should forego the rasanubhava offered, not only by the pada-s and javali-s but by the ashtapadi-s of Jayadeva and the hymns of Tamil saints like Manickavasagar and Arunagirinathar? Would be look down on the pious Vaishnavites who daily chant: 'Kamalakuchachuchuka kumkuma. . .'?

If a person feels that these are objectionable,I can only say that his sanctified, sanitized, phenyled, aseptic, holy personage should come nowhere near dance which is but a mirror, coloured sringara, to reflect life.

I am reminded of Ella ballavarilla, asong of Sarvajna. a saint moralist of Karnataka of the 16th century :

There are none who know everything

Those who know are not many;

No strength is drawn even from them;

Literature is not for all, Sarvajna!

I found this translation in K.R. Prabhu Prasad's monograph on Sarvajna, in the Makers of Indian Literature Series of the Sahitya Akademi.

There are many who pay (f) lip (pant) service to the contribution of devadasis to the art of dance but very few have produced authentic records of their role in temple ritual of the recent past Saskia C. Kersenboom -Story is one of the latter. Her book Nityasumangali (Motilal Banarsidass) is a treasure-house of information on the lot that was a devadasi's, till this institution was abolished by the zeal of some social sanitizers.

Whatever she said in her book, or says in person, is a result of first hand observation and direct-from-the-dancer's-mouth information. She separates, very clearly, the facts as related to her from the conclusions she draws from them, a very necessary thing left undone by intention, or by incompetence by many so-called scholars.

Quite out of character, then, was this remark of hers as she was talking about poetry : "My guru changed 'sthanathil' to 'manathil' in the song Tiruvotriyur Tyagarajan and I think this is good because it ismore poetic."

When you call a piece of writing poetry (or literature), you are automatically admitting its sacrosanct nature. Then what is the need to change a word, or two, a line, or jumble up into one stanza fines taken from many? For reasons that might not be clear now, someone, possibly a great artist, had wrought that change to suit the whim of a patron and the auspiciousness of a social function at which this artist was paid to perform. Should we follow this blindly?

Later Saskia changed her version that her guru "picked out the better alternative" and that she'd like to defer to her guru's decision. Her guru was a dancer. By all means let Saskia defer to the standards she set in dance, if they're good ones. But what right has one to change a poet's polished word? In a celebrated song of Tyagaraja, Manasu nilpa (Abhogi/Adi) there are words to this effect: 'If the wife of a man who performs yagas, goes after other men. . .' If such a man, a somayaji, was in the audience, would it be all right to change the word so that he might not be offended, into a tailor or tinker, soldier or sailor?

All these considerations are absolute nonsense. If you are singing or dancing a piece, you must value it enough not to damage its integrity. The words should not be changed. But if someone has been following a wrong version, there is no harm in changing it once the fact is discovered. Like Anuradha Jagannathan did recently replacing the word 'Ammammo' with the original 'Ayyayyo' in the Kshetrayya padam popularly referred to as Paiyeda, [The switch to 'Ammammo' had been made decades ago because patrons of that time objected to the other word as being inauspicious]. Similarly, in the Kannada Chikkavane, the bowdlerism of 'bhujagalu'which makes nonsense of the accusation 'See, Krishna held me thus; is he a child!' has been cut in favour of the original 'kuchagalu,' meaning breasts. It is to the combined credit of Anuradha and her two gurus, Rajarathnam and Kalanidhi, that this correction was made. The deference was to the original text and not to the fault-finder.

The original words should not be changed, yes. Nor, I believe, the structure of the songs. This means that a song, and its dance interpretation, start with the pallavi. At the Natya Kala Conference, Dr. Arudra agreed about not changing the words but he felt that the song could be started from the anupallavi, (and when questioned) even from the last line of the last charanam, "if pertinent". Arudra is a lyricist who must have penned about 3,000 songs. I have examined at least 300 of them. Not one of them is made more meaningful when it is taken up from the anupallavi, leave alone any other line. I cannot fathom what he means by 'pertinent'. Kalanidhi Narayanan also feels that some songs become more 'meaningful' when taken from the anupallavi. I think these two incomparable people, one a litterateur, the other a teacher-exhibitor of abhinaya, should get together and demonstrate how a traditional composition is made more meaningful when a line which isn't the one intended by the author, is used as the opening line.

In fact, subsequent to this discussion, a disciple of Kalanidhi Narayanan, did three pada-s in her recital, taking all three from the anupallavi. She brought so much skill to bear upon it that this 'against-the author's- intent' practice was not detrimental to the mood it was supposed to convey. I stood chastened. But I ponder still: if someone could recite the suprabhatham so beautifully standing on her head, how much more effective she'd be doing it right side up?

Next, the suitability of using Hindustani music for Bharatanatyam.

C.V. Chandrasekhar of Baroda, represents that wonderful combination of pedantic knowledge and practical wisdom. He is a dancer, teacher, singer, composer, choreographer. He started: "Hindustani songs and tunes sit well on Bharatanatyam. . . . To suit the delicate Seeta, I have composed a delicate choreography."

The first needs so much of qualificationthat it can stand true only in exceptional circumstance. The matching of the music and the dance is likely to be fortuitous, perhaps even accidental. A taan can be matched by the whirling of a skirt, which a Kathak dancer has and a Bharatanatyam dancer hasn't. A palta can be made visual by the free-wheeling whisk of the hands in Kathak. Bharatanatyam has no idiom that can fit in this niche. And so on.

It is true, that in all the examples of Chandrasekhar's art seen in Madras, there has been an extraordinary correlation between music and movement. Never, not once has it struck the viewer that Bharatanatyam is being conscripted to meet the ends of Hindustani music or vice versa.

This achievement, personal, should not be confused as a general rapport between the two. To test this minutely, his ballets have to be video-taped. First the music has to be played back (without the visuals, which might distract) to see if it sounds totally and flawlessly Hindustani. Then but only then the visuals (without the music) may be checked to ascertain whether they are authentically Bharatanatyam. Certain deviation from absolute norms should be permissible, considering Chandrasekhar's work is a ballet.

One might ask, why this vivisection, can't a ballet be enjoyed for its 'extraordinary correlation between music and movement'? But of course, yes. The vivisection is needed to clarify the boundaries of technique, not to dictate what is art.

In short, Chandrasekhar succeedsby his good taste. Not all of us have it, alas!

Now for the word 'delicate' he used to describe Seeta. I can think of three antonyms: Indelicate, robust, bold. And by a little stretch of imagination, foolhardy also. I am talking about the Seeta of Valmiki, not those myriad Seetas created by later poets. As a robust child, she moved the bow of Siva. As a bold wife, she asked Rama whether he was a man as presumed by her father. As an indelicate woman she accused Lakshmana of coveting her. She was foolhardy when she chose to commit suicide; if she was successful, she would have forever left doubts about her chastity and Rama's ability.

The point is this. The choreographydevised by Chandrasekhar was delightful. But the choice of the word delicate, was not justified.

It is impossible to define 'taste' (the adjective 'good' is implied) without recourse to a few other words equally undefinable. But a good lot were horrified by what they fancied as the lack of it in another programme that offered two styles.

Pushkala and Unnikrishnan have Kalakshetra, the Dhananjayans, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali in their foundation, which has been strengthened by years of toil. They have each been abroad for sometime, headquartered in London. They performed three times in the season, packaging unusual and not-so-usual items in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam strains.

In Kathakali style, Unnikrishnan mimed a story. The birth of a child, the death of a woman, the killing of a pet dog, a man's remorse—all in great detail. It was excruciating to the point of being emetic. Why? Because he was good. The woman in the heaving pangs of childbirth, the bursting ofthe bag of waters, her straining to push out the head, the baby, expelling the afterbirth, her sobs and sighs, and final collapse were more terrible than a documentary of it would have been.

A good part of it could have been brought under the heading of art, if the distancing mechanism of Kathakali make-up had been used, if he had not frontally confronted the audience, if he had reduced the graphic-quotient by two-thirds. It would have even been tolerable, had he been a bad dancer, ineffective in communicating. One can't be flippant and say that he wanted to create bibhatsa (disgust) and succeeded. He must have intended karuna (compassion) and like Seeta, over-stepped the boundary of auchitya (propriety) and got carried away into rakshasam (devilry).

Together Unnikrishnan and Pushkaladid a brief version of Ramayanam to Bhavayami; and a twin-coloured (Revati/ Tilang of Lalgudi) tillana. The scorchingdisdainful look Seeta gives Rama, as he sidles up to her after her cleansing-by-fire, as cut and aired by Pushkala made up for the shortcomings of Bhavayami.

In the two dimensional imagination, synchronous and asynchronous choreography can be set up innovatively. But when it comes to execution in three dimensions, it could suffer and tax, compounded by the dancers facing the diagonals where even perfectly executed, synchronous mirror-image choreography looks out of kilter to most in the audience. The tillana-s with mutated mathematics had both performing together and singly to each raga in turn. Why these two raga-s, why these two combined in this form? No reason could be discerned from the performance. If all the heavy, tandava movements were done to Sankarabharanam by a man and the light, lasya ones to a lighter raga like Yaman by a woman or some such logic had prevailed, some sense could have been attributed to it.

Vempati Chinna Satyam's star disciple Sasikala had a lot of the sprightly sparkle associated with the dance style, apart from the correctness one expects from a student of Satyam's academy. But her/his elaborations/ interpretations for two pieces puzzled me.

In the javali Vagaladi bodhanalaku(Behag/Tirupati Narayanaswami) there is a line which means 'she has many lovers arraigned in her bedroom.' This was done at length ; for each lover, opening the door, welcoming him and getting him to sit /rest /recline and serving him with pan/ drink/fan. This was too long for a javali. In a padam, apart from the hero andheroine, a third person too can be brought in for the fabric of text and melody is strong enough to bear the detailed embroidery. The lighter javali can also show a third person, but fleetingly. It is best to act out 'She's that kind of a woman', not become that woman for a length of time continuously. There are no hard and fast rules, I admit, about this sort of a thing, but on a closer examination, the validity of my statements will emerge.

In a private conversation-after the performance Chinna Satyam said that the Kshetrayya padam Evvade (Sankarabharanam)

portrays a khandita, when I remarked that Sasikala's anger seemed real and not feigned as it should be in the circumstances. Does it? What is a khandita? A woman who is angry with her hero for his—real or imagined—dallying with others. The nayika in the text does not fit this type of heroine or any of the other seven. Dr. Gidugu Venkata Sitapati who edited Kshetrayya Padams (1952/ Pithapuram) identifies her as a parakeeya, etc. The only interpretation which goes well with the general tenor of the piece and accommodates all the internal facts is this. She has a husband. When he's out of town, Krishna comes and overcoming her pretended objections has a good time with her. Her sakhi must have come in and noticed the tell-tale marks of love, with a knowing smirk. Feigning innocence the heroine asks: "Who is that man who came in, while I was sleeping, to have his fun and go? In broad daylight he comes in, has his way, and is off! He identifies himself as the Gopala who gratified 16,000 gopis.Who is he?”

Isn't it clear that she knows well who he is and also all that he does is welcome and that her sham is only to save face? That being the case, this should be done as an outwardly querulous complaint, but with the joy a woman just satiated by the master

lover would feel. And flustered covering up of love-marks, and when the sakhi notices them, pouting and complaining' about those very things, can be the attendant attractions.

Possibly what Chinna Satyam feels and has taught is that which has been traditionally been at Kuchipudi. Quite a lot of the old school dancers did not strictly follow theory while interpreting a piece. Instead they relied on a spontaneous thought and elaborated upon it, which in time became the norm. It would be a splendid thing for dance if the great Satyam examined the piece afresh and re-interpreted it along these lines.