Dance Is A Many-Splendoured Thing But…

Dance Is A Many-Splendoured Thing But…

Dance means different things to different people. A livelihood to most teachers and a few lucky dancers. A temporary pastime for some till the bridegroom arrives and puts a stop to it. For a tribe of people, let's call them entrepreneurs for lack of a more civilized term, it is a source of receivable, if not receipted, income. Tailors to tinkerers with light and sound, make-up men to jewelers of a special kind, also get their peripheral sustenance from dance.

Only for a select few, balletomanes to use an elitist term, it is a way of life. It includes dedicated dance teachers to whom the well-being of the art and their students is of paramount importance ; dancers who can't do without it, whether they are, or are not, encumbered by spouses, families; and others, maybe retired dancers, or dance mothers whose wards have taken flight into matrimony and parenthood; or long-time spectators whose interest has ripened until dance is something they can’t  do without .

It is this contingent which keeps the world of Indian dance revolving. Without it, the amateur associationsactually gatherings of dancers' motherswhich promote the dance of juniors, would vanish; attendance at lecture-demonstrations, dwindle; discussions on and off the stage and letters to the editors, dry up; and most of the constant questioning, refining and re-defining of the aims, ideas and ideals of dance absolutely essential to keep dance alive, would be lost in a desert of apathy.

It is to these very important people that the following comments are addressed In this, there are axes to be ground, not against personalities or styles but against practices which undermine the basic tenets of good dance. Criticism is hurled, not to scathe anybody's ego but to sharpen the sensibilities. A re-examination of traditional practices is urged, not to dismiss them but to streamline, realign and juxtapose them as warranted by new insights, fresh thinking.

The comments in this issue cover dance seen and talks heard from the middle of December 1986 till the end of January 1987.

Costume and Make-up

Luckily we don't any longer have dancers prancing around in tiger skins to personate Siva or with peacock feathers to proximate Krishna. But that does not mean we should not pay attention to costume and make-up.

Not a single talk or lecture-demonstration was about these important aspects of dance. The performances showed how badly we need to be educated in this sphere.

No face or figure is perfect. Carefully designed make-up and costume can minimise the defects and accentuate, the assets. A strategically placed bun on the head can give an illusion of height. Thoughtfully applied, eye-liner, shadow, lipstick, rouge, highlighters can enlarge, shape and beautify the eyes, help correct inadequately proportioned lips, or balance cheeks, chin, nose and jaw-line in a most comely manner. There is absolutely no harm in using the full palette that is currently available in a vast range of cosmetics. After all, we have graduated from rice powder, haven't we?

Make-up should be applied to all parts of the body that are seen: face, neck and nape, the area around the collar-bone, midriff, arms, legs, feet. Correct use is not overuse.

Intelligent choice of the texture, colours, design, drape and cut of a costume, can create the illusion of height, slimness. Coordination of colour, not only between the blouse and saree, but also amongst the make-up, jewellery and flowers, with the right touch of contrast in accessories, can create an aura of attractiveness.

Natyadharmi & Lokadharmi

V.P. Dhananjayan proclaimed at the Natyakala Conference one morning that lokadharmi should not be part of classical dance. He proceeded to illustrate his point, in an exemplary manner, with an item which excluded this. But later, Vempati Chinna Satyam, the man who has brought a good name to Kuchipudi, did Parulanna mata, the Kapi javali, with a great deal of lokadharmi and also created an exemplary impact.

Artists should have the liberty to advertise their beliefs, right or wrong. If Dhananjayan or anyone else believes his point to be true, he should be allowed to state it, practise it. But, in this particular case, one question nags : Is the natyadharmi style, which he so brilliantly employed at the recent IDA/Academy programme to make Dhoorjati (ragamalika) an experience to cherish, equally suited for the parayan, the untouchable, of Nandanar Charitam to wail Varugalamo ? Rama can be natyadharmi, but the vanaras? Devayani but Valli? I think not. Krishna, of course, can be given any emphasis, natyadharmi or lokadharmi, desi or margi—and he will yet come out effulgent. Because he is Krishna.


Everyone talks about the expansion of the existing repertoire but only some actually do anything about it.

Expansion is of two kinds. One is finding new compositions; the other is refurbishing old ones not current, from among the known genres of jatiswaram, sabdam, varnam, padam, keertana, slokam, javali, tillana. Both were seen during the season.

A recently brewed composition is the varnam praising Rukmini Devi, performed by Vasanthalakshmi under the baton of her husband Narasimhachari. It was premiered at a Sankarabaranam festival last year but I saw it at the Rukmini Devi commemoration programme organised by the International Dance Alliance and the Music Academy in January.

If this paean is not a case of overkill, it certainly is a case of overloading the fuse. Enormous amount of effort must have gone into it. This showed but not in Vasanthalakshmi's dance which was truly effortless. She winged through the taxing constructions like lightning through dense clouds.

Two independent aspects proved to be problems. It is an axiom that, when stating a simple idea, a complex mode may be chosen—or a simple one—but when a complex statement is being made, simplicity has to be the keynote. Otherwise, it will be tiresome. The music of this varnam is. Different raga-s. Different tala-s. By the time one section builds up the mood, another comes on, another raga, another tala, almost pushing the rasa to its starting point.

Choreographically, it is more of a documentary. To those who knew Rukmini Devi, it would have seemed prosaic or even an unintentional caricature. To be more meaningful to others also, it should have had more 'poetry'. This could have been also the effect of the lyrics—by Punthaneri Subramaniam—but these are poetry only by proclamation. Good melodies set by Narasimhachari himself are but a transparent veneer on this common grain.

Some new tillana-s too have been entered on the lists. I take exception to the deployment of those which are unsuited to Bharatanatyam. The one in Sivaranjani composed by Maharajapuram Santhanam, for example. By its raga and construction, it paints a morose colour, is hence totally unsuitable for the thing of rhythm, joy and pace a tillana should be, to be a dessert in a programme of Bharatanatyam. Lalgudi Jayaraman's tillana-s in mostly Hindustani raga-s—and those composed by other eminent instrumentalists to illustrate their virtuosity or give rein to their prediction for the Hindustani mode of music—are essentially unsuitable for Bharatanatyam. For each and every Carnatic gamaka, a corresponding, congruent movement can be found in Bharatanatyam. For flights of Hindustani meend-s and briga-s, either they must be left unlit (which makes the dance seem vacuous at times) or illustrated with nuances that give Bharatanatyam an alien shade.

No need to say that the tillana-s wrought by vocalist-composers are better suited to dance. To name only two, Balamurali's in Kuntalavarali, Madurai Krishnan's in Mohanam, are excellent. So are the jatiswaram-s of the latter. This is because, like the composers of yore, they have taken special care to accomodate the requirements of dance in their creations.

Also added to the repertoire—and seen recently—are pada-s, of Annamacharya, Kshetrayya and various Tamil composers, ancient and modern, songs new to the milieu of Bharatanatyam.

I am not against new pieces. I am not fanatic about Enna tavam or Pal vadiyum, etc., either. I'd just rather not see a vocalist singing her own song, the nattuvanar doing his own 'thattu' and tne dancer dangling in between. Rehearsal with the same team is important no matter whether the dancer is Kamala or Komala.

Every dancer has the freedom to pick and project new items. But certain requisites should be kept in mind. A dance is the fulfilment in rasanubhava, the culmination of song, music, singing, choreography and performance. The better the ingredients, the more the chance for success.

Dancers fortunate in having their own stable band of musicians—Chitra Visweswaran, Sudharani Raghupathy, the Dhananjayans—can attempt new things because they have the chance to edit, alter and pace the items over time until, finally, they have a carefully wrought piece. The others would be well-advised to take up pieces already well-received at recitals. Definitely, even greatly talented dancers who perform with a different singer, drummer, or nattuvanar each time—for various reasons that I'll not explode now—would do well to stick to the likes of Sivan, Subbaraya Iyer and Subbaraman.

Meaning of Songs

Then, the bugbear that has been bugging Bharatanatyam for the past five decades at least—my personal experience, I don't know how it was earlier—and which continues to do so: the meaning of the song.

How many dancers employ correct texts of songs for their dance? How many know the meaning, completely, to its finest nuance? How many have the singers singing it right, in word, inflection and note?

It is right to sing 'Roopamu juchi valachi vachi' (not 'vachi vachi') and it is taught so by the Dhananjayans and Adyar Lakshmanan. But when Dhananjayan performed it, it was sung wrong by a non-Telugu even though the nattuvangam was by a Telugu who should have known better. Perhaps he was content to stick to his alma mater's teaching, no matter what?

Aruna Sayeeram and Geetha Raja sang pada-s and javah-s at the Natyakala Conference and sang them well. In the javali Nee mata (Poorvikalyani) they split the charanam into two and repeated 'Chakkani sami vale chekkili nokki rava' (like a good lord, holding my cheeks, jewelled . . .) before coming to 'Mukkera nee kichhenani takkulache sokkinchina' (. . . nose ornament, I'll give you, you said—and tricked me and got around me). For one who knows the language and appreciates it, this seemed an unnecessary travesty. Especially if it can be done without the melody and the notes, nothing will be lost if the whole charanam is sung and then repeated, but there will be a gain in meaning.

If Nee mata were sung in accompaniment to dance, and if the charanam were to be repeated six or eight times as done by Aruna and Geetha, what would the dancer do for 'rava'— create a jewel in the air and keep it suspended there till the second half of the charanam is taken up three minutes later ?

Textual Integrity

Iencountered also the changing of the text of pada-s. Kshetrayya's no less. At a morning lecture-demonstration session of the Music Academy, the singing of Nirmala Sundararajan and Subhashini Parthasarathy, chaste and classic, glowed with a limpid beauty. But in rendering Payyeda (Ahiri), they changed 'Ayyayyo vegatayene' into 'Ammamma vegatayene'. Why? T. Sankaran explains that this change in text was effected several years ago when this song used to be performed at musicales held in the houses of Telugu-speaking Chettiars, for fear of upsetting the women by singing the inauspicious word 'Ayyayyo'. Maybe, but is there need to retain the corruption still? If so, would it be permissible to change the text of a famous Nandanar Charitam song and sing 'Amme metha kadinam' instead of'Ayye metha kadinam?’

Also, I heard the anupallavi of this song rendered, again, as 'Payyeda pai meeda cheri' which means 'melakku on over-reaching . . .' (Melakku is the part of the saree covering the torso and going over the shoulder). The 'pai' is redundant and has no place in the line.

Haphazard separation of words, and interpolations, go against the intentions of the composers. And against sense as well.

Misinterpretation of Text

Aparna Suryanarayana, dancing in the Pongal series of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, made a mess of a line from the Surati padam Indendu—'Machhika todutha manasu challaga chesi'. She mistook 'machhika' for 'majjika' (cultivated intimacy vis-a-vis buttermilk) and depicted how buttermilk cools the heart. Earlier, in the programme honouring Rukmini Devi's memory, a more experienced dancer, Alarmel Valli no less, announced Ethai kandu (Kalyani) as a song of Goddess Parvati's mother and portrayed the character as though she was Snow White's step-mother, or Gnanasoundari's, cruel and sarcastic. Nowhere did she make motherly concern evident, not for a second. This mother is, however, neither Parvati's nor Ganga's but that of a devout girl born into a devadasi family. She belongs to an obscure story but only her circumstances justify the cheapness, avarice evident internally and externally in the text.

Knowing the text, understanding it but losing sight of the intent was Vani Kamalahasan, a mid-ranger who danced to Tyagaraja's eloquent, introspective Ela nee dayaradu (Athana). She brought to mind Savitri wailing eloquent to Yama for Satyavan's life.

These are not motivated, prejudiced judgements, but questions, suggestions, modifications prompted by logic. No dancer, for that matter no artist, would be harmed by including a modicum of logic to cut the intoxication of unthought- out emotion.


Sanchari-s are very fine but they shouldn't be like too heavy embroidery on too frail a muslin.

The delicate web of javali is better spun around only two characters. 'Me and he' in Enthati kuluke. 'You and me' in Nee mala. 'You and she' in Meragadu. Third persons can be referred to, of course—the in-laws who don't bother, the journeying husband in Samayamidera—but they shouldn't be personified and brought on to the stage for any length of time. A fleeting glimpse may be given, perhaps of a deaf father-in-law, a 'Kumbhakarni' of a mother-in-law, a husband always away. Merely to state facts and set up the props.

A padam, of a heavier fabric, slower pace, may comfortably accommodate a third person but this should spring from a contextual reference, like the husband in Magadochi, but not the husband in Vedaki tera. (In the latter, a Kshetrayya padam, the heroine is asking her paramour to bring an aborti-facient root, for the hero got her into trouble when her husband was away. Incidentally, the problem is solved by the husband's arrival and consequent union. No devotional, atma-paramatma piece this! The pious are advised to stay away.)

But even a padam is no romping pen for a far allusion. If it refers to Krishna as 'apadbandhva' (saviour from danger), it should not be used as a device to show 'Draupati manarakshanam' (the saving of Draupati's honour), 'Gajendra Moksham' (the release of Gajendra from the old croc's jaws) or Govardhanodharana (the lifting of the Govardhana hill).

Back to Payyeda. The line 'Payyeda meeda cheri' is incomplete. A sanchari spun from this line can say anything, but the first, straight delineation shouldn't show more than the lover using the saree-end as a spread for reclining, signifying only the tender relationship between the lovers. The line doesn't permit representation of lovemaking or the hero sleeping with his head on the heroine's bosom, a crick-causing exercise.

Then there are the sanchari-s premised on patent misunderstanding of text. We can do without them, surely.

In a recital at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, a little girl who showed herself to be very good in abhinaya— Tulsi Badrinarayan is her name— made the mistake of starting the Khamas piece Teruvil varano with its anupallavi line, 'Oru vizhiyil tiru purattai', compounding it by depicting 'Manmadha dahanam' (the destruction of Manmada by scorching fire from Siva's third eye) before she came to the scorching of the three metallic cities. For a good five minutes we were left wondering whether she had taken leave of her senses. Some years ago, another girl but not so little, in fact an illustrious disciple of an illustrious personage, mistook the word 'Kutilakuntala' in Etuvanti vade to be a reference to Krishna's hair and projected his dark, curling, luxurious, lustrous, lovely locks for six minutes. 'Kutilakuntala' actually refers to the sakhi, not Krishna. And a sanchari in this case should at best give no more than a cursory depiction of her hair. Her fish eyes, moon face, long locks are not relevant and, if elaborated, would be distracting.


Is the dancers' reaction to the new, the innovative, the odd or the unusual efforts of other dancers receptive and open? I'm saying that it should be, not accusing that it is not.

In the IDA/Academy programme saluting the memory of Rukmini Devi, held 19-20 January in Madras, the maximum applause in terms of loudness and duration—this wasn't from any particular faction or partisan group as slyly suggested by some—was reserved for the numbers of Revathi Ramachandran and Swarnamukhi and the part of Nala-Damayanti featuring the heroine (Krishnaveni) and the group of swans (led splendidly by Master 'Soumya Bheema' Satyajit).

Revathi did Suddba Nrittam as fashioned by her learned guru, the late Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer. It consisted of various tala patterns played on the mridangam and illustrated mostly by the feet, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in jugalbandi fashion. Some dancers in the audience turned Bostonian and sniffed that it was bringing Kathak into Bharatanatyam. Some even went to the extent of saying that it was a simple adavu exercise any child could perform. Children never and few dancers of any age could, or can, do pure nritta with such aplomb, such finesse as Revathi did. I know of many who, attempting much more complicated footwork to Pandyan Expressed jati-s, manage only to gloss over them, neither the footfall nor the hand gestures registering any degree of precision. Nothing can gainsay the fact that the interaction between the mridangam and Revathi was supreme. Given the choreography, the execution left nothing to be desired.

As far as the charge of Kathaking Bharatanatyam is concerned, these points should be considered. The Mangudi Master was too thoroughly steeped in Carnatic-based dance to pass off borrowed goods as our own. Perhaps his disciples, Kanchana-Gowri or Revathi can name his authority for what he has done. Maybe he felt, like Padma Subrahmanyam, that the entire world of movement-to-rhythm is encompassed by Natya Sastra—Padma adds that each regional version tends to emphasise one aspect over the others—and that he should bring into current practice an ancient and longdiscarded tenet.

Swarnamukhi performed two numbers, Siva Tandava and Nadar mudi melirukkum, interspersed with the mind-boggling karana-s which only she can do. I am sure she has lived long enough with the scathe of being acrobatic, but what does it mean when someone dismisses her dance as 'acrobatic jugglery'? That the dismisser can't do it? Or is there some truth in it?

Defined loosely, 'acrobatic can be applied to any difficult movement involving the precarious wedding together of balance and rhythm. Strictly speaking, the movements in 'acrobatics' have no meaning. In Swarnamukhi's dance, they either have meaning or suggest it. If the criticism is that her reconstruction of the karana-s is not according to Natya Sastra, the learned ones should point out where she has deviated, or say if it could be done better or differently.

Be that as it may, there has been a steady improvement in Swarnamukhi's dance in the past decade. The taxing body movement and postures are better integrated, more smoothly essayed in and out. More complex nritya angahara-s are being done by her, with more ease. She is effecting a closer correlation between the song and the sequence of movement.

And who else can do what she is doing? Not one, - to my not limited knowledge. Breathtaking is the word for some of her inspired moments. A little more facial abhinaya would be in order, true.
I remember the day 40 years ago when my grandmother saw Nadar mudi mel performed by Kamala and called it 'acrobatic'. She wanted to know why, apart from questioning the very item, why the sole of the foot had to be kept squarely on the head. If it could be said about Kamala performing under the Vazhuvoorar, I suppose it can be said about anybody.