November 30, 2011

Upcoming film: Odissi - from the temples to the contemporary stage

Documentary filmmaker Sandrine Da Costa’s latest project takes a look at the history and evolution of Odissi, the classical dance from the state of Orissa. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sandrine on this project last July. We travelled around Orissa visiting dance schools and meeting gurus and dancers, as well as dance historians, musicians and art critics.

This 2.4-minute ‘teaser’ is just a hint of what’s to come. The film features many well-known dancers, gurus, teachers and dance personalities, including: the gotipua dancers and gurus at Konark Natya Mantap, Bhubaneswar-based dancers Ileana Citaristi, Sujata Mohapatra, Saswat Joshi, Sagarika Mohanty, Guru Bichitrananda Swain and dancers of Rudraksh; Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy of Nrityagram, Bangalore; dance historian Dr Sunil Kothari; dance writer Shyamhari Chakra; Shasimani, former devadasi of Jagannath Temple; and singer Bijay Kumar Jena amongst others.

The documentary is scheduled for completion in 2013. To stay informed about updates, visit the filmmaker's website:

October 30, 2011

Preserving traditions

India has an incredibly rich cultural heritage. There are hundreds of performing art forms, including theatre and drama, dance, martial arts and musical traditions, both classical and folk. Some of these traditions are better known than others, and as a result, are given more opportunities to be showcased. While there is a proliferation of performances of dance forms like Bharata Natyam, Kathak and Odissi, there are few opportunities for audiences to see other, lesser known performing arts traditions like Sattriya, Kutiyattam, Chhau and Vilasini Natyam. Chances are that many people may have not even heard of these art forms, let alone had the opportunity to experience them.

Why is it that some performing arts are better known and more popular than others? Are those which have been given the classical ‘tag’ somehow entitled to more recognition and seen to have a higher value? This brings up some pertinent questions: What makes a dance ‘classical’? Does a dance form need to be a granted a ‘status’ to be recognised and valued?

Despite their different names (and classifications), many of India’s performing arts traditions actually have a lot in common. They have their origins in the Natya Shastra, the ancient text on dramaturgy written in the 2nd century by Bharata Muni and thus share many of the same principles. For example, they feature aspects of nritta (pure dance), nritya (expressive dance) and natya (drama). They have a sacred and ritualistic aspect and were often performed in holy places like temples or monasteries. Today these performing arts traditions have been adapted for presentation on the stages of metropolitan cities and each has developed a distinctive performance repertoire.

Many of these traditional performing arts also went through a period of precariousness and faced many challenges to their continued existence. When support structures and patronage to these arts performed in temples and courts were disrupted, the development and continuation of these forms was interrupted. Following Independence when there was an increased interest in India’s artistic heritage, some dance traditions experienced a renaissance and rebirth. They were adapted for the modern stage and entered a new period in their development. Because of this historical interruption followed by revival and reconstruction, most performing arts traditions we see today can really only be considered to be ‘neo-classical’ as they are reinvented versions of their former selves.

Today a performing art form tends to be classified as ‘classical’ if it has its origins in the Natya Shastra and features, as mentioned previously, elements of nritta, nritya and natya. Despite the fact that many of India’s performing arts traditions trace their origins to the Natya Shastra, it is generally claimed that there are only eight classical dance traditions.

In 2000, Sattriya became India’s ‘eighth classical dance’. Recognition of its classical status was granted much later than other dance forms. Anwesa Mahanta, Sattriya dancer and research scholar, explains that Sattriya’s important ritual aspect perhaps kept it out of public view. “The art form is practiced as a ritual, as a ceremonial offering in the namghar,” she says. “Although the local people of Assam accepted and embraced the art form, the vision of the status of classical developed later. What was more important was the celebration of sacredness of the art form, and even today in villages, namghars and Sattras, Sattriya music, dance and theatre are offered as a ceremonial ritual. This ritual association might have kept away the tradition from the outside onlookers. The geographic insularity of the region might also be another reason.” (Left: Anwesa Mahanta)

Originating in the 15th century, Sattriya is traditionally performed as a ritual form of worship by male monks in the Sattras or monasteries of Assam. Today the form has moved to the stage and is also performed by women. In contrast to the history of other Indian performing arts forms, Sattriya has remained a continued living tradition, explains Mahanta: “Sattriya was never a dying tradition. The tradition has continued as a living art form which has been pursued since the 15th century. The lamp which was lit by the Assamese saint-poet Srimanta Sankardeva was carried out by his disciples with utmost devotion. Even when the soil erosions of Majuli island threatened the precincts of the Sattras, the monks pursued the art form. Hence even today, Sattriya dance is highly regarded as a living art and more than that, a sacred art which has continued, and been practiced and preserved since the 15th century.”

An example of a dance tradition which was at risk of vanishing and has more recently gone through a revival is Vilasini Natyam. This was the dance tradition once performed in the temples and courts of Andhra Pradesh and other Telugu-speaking regions of South India by hereditary dancers. While other dance forms of South India went through a period of revival following Independence, Vilasini Natyam remained in their shadow. By the 1950s there were very few performers left and it was in danger of disappearing altogether. Through the hard work and perseverance of the renowned Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer Swapnasundari, this dance form has been resurrected and revived. She has made many efforts to preserve this dance tradition: by researching and documenting its oral tradition, publishing a book on its origins, development and revival, and performing to audiences and teaching dedicated students. She has also taken the dance back to the temple where the ritual and ceremonial dances of Vilasini Natyam are performed every year as part of worship at the Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple in Rang Bagh, Hyderabad. (See image right)

These preservation efforts will ensure Vilasini Natyam’s continuation and promote an increased interest in this dance tradition. But attaining official recognition is a bigger challenge. Despite its classical structure, Vilasini Natyam is not considered by some to be a classical tradition. But according to Swapnasundari, this question of status is irrelevant. “Though I was already an established and successful exponent of two such ‘classical’ dance-forms, I started focussing on Vilasini Natyam. I did not require to know of its ‘status’ then, nor does it bother me now. After I started to perform this style all over the country, it received critical acclaim at the national level. No one has been bothered about its ‘status’ when they enjoyed the dance-form. Vilasini Natyam has already covered a lot of ground and has made its place in people’s hearts. This style continues to be featured in the best platforms before real connoisseurs. This question therefore bears relevance for the coming generations of Vilasini Natyam dancers. People who have seen Vilasini Natyam over the years tell us that they are shocked and surprised that national and international bodies still choose to remain aloof. This is an abdication of responsibility by these organisations towards the future generation of Vilasini Natyam dancers, some of whom are making good stride as performers.”

The concerted efforts of practitioners and teachers towards the propagation and preservation of a classical art form does much to advance its cause. There are also efforts at the national and international levels to recognise the classical traditions and in this way offer more visibility and recognition. Through its goal to protect and preserve cultural heritage and improve awareness of its significance worldwide, UNESCO established the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Currently there are eight Indian performing arts forms included on this list, including Chhau and Kutiyattam.

Chhau is often described as a martial art form though it also uses folk and tribal traditions and yet also has classical elements of nritta, nritya and natya. “Chhau is classified as semi-classical,” explains Bhubaneswar-based Odissi and Chhau performer and teacher, Ileana Citaristi. “This is because the martial art and folk elements from which it has derived are still more predominant than the classical ones.” There are three different forms of Chhau: Seraikhella and Mayurbhanji which originated in the state of Orissa and Purulia from West Bengal. Today Seraikhella is located in Jharkand and Mayurbhanji in Orissa. Seraikhella and Purulia are performed with masks, while Mayurbhaji is the maskless form of Chhau. Chhau was traditionally performed exclusively by men and flourished under royal patronage. “Soon after Independence, the Oustads (masters) had a tough time to survive since the patronage by the Royal family was withdrawn,” says Citaristi. “It took quite some time before government intervened.” Has UNESCO status furthered its cause? Seeing that recognition for Chhau was granted only in 2010, Citaristi, thinks only time can tell: “It is too recent to say and in any case it is not very clear if recognition has been granted for the three forms of Chhau or only for Seraikhella. It may help in achieving the status of classical or in being recognized but it is not enough. Exponents of the particular art form should also stand out for their own merits.” (Image above: Mayurbanji Chhau courtesy of Ileana Citaristi)

Kutiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre form from Kerala was recognised as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2001. Dating back over 2000 years, this is one of the oldest living theatre traditions. Traditionally performed in Kuttampalams, theatres located in Hindu temples, it was reserved for a particular Brahmin caste, the Chakyars. Performed in Sanskrit, performances would last for hours, and often went on all-night or for several days. Today it has been adapted for the modern stage: plays have become shorter, the pace has been quickened. Kutiyattam has also faced its own challenges: rapid and social changes have compromised its continuation in an unadulterated form. “Social changes happening everywhere affected Kutiyattam too,” explains K. K. Gopalakrishnan, director of the Centre for Kutiyattam in Trivandrum. “British rule was disastrous to cultural heritage, temples became poor and peoples’ priorities changed. Few have the time to watch performances which last a full night and even whole days. Other factors which put the tradition at risk were the fading of the joint family system, changes to the class system, population movement and opportunities for high-income employment. On the other side, temples became poor due to social changes and income from the performances declined. As a result, fewer people are committed to take up the art. But even then, a few gurus of each generation preserved the art and never allowed that fire to die. For example, in 1956 late guru Painkulam Ramachakyar took Kutiyattam outside the temple precincts amid strong opposition from his own clan and the orthodox and in 1965 the Kerala Kalamandalam institutionalised the training of Kutiyattam by starting a course for the first time outside the home of a Chakyar. In this way Painkulam was the first guru to train members of other communities to take up the art.” (Image above by KK Gopalakrishnan)

And has UNESCO status helped to preserve this ancient theatre form? Gopalakrishnan remains optimistic: “In the changing social scenario such recognition helps, for example, to get more outreach and funding and it also gives more global publicity to the form. But one should not forget that the system is sustained only through committed gurus and devoted disciples who are prepared to preserve the form at any cost and not only through any such mere recognition.”

An abridged version of the article was published in On Stage magazine in September 2011.

August 30, 2011

Kuchipudi's long journey

(Above: Sobha Naidu by Avinash Pasricha)

2850 dancers. 200 gurus. 11 minutes. This was the recipe for history in the making. When on 26 December 2010, 2850 kuchipudi dancers of all ages performed an 11-minute thillana in a stadium in Hyderabad, they created a world record. This was the largest group performance of kuchipudi, a historical event which was included in the Guinness Book of World Records. The world record was celebrated with much pomp in the Indian media as a majestic occasion which showcased this South Indian classical dance to the world.

For an Indian classical dance form which is often overshadowed by more popular classical styles, the event was considered by many of its practitioners to be a magnificent achievement not only for its scale but also for kuchipudi’s visibility. This landmark event held in a stadium in the state capital also marked a milestone in the dance’s long journey from its origins in a sleepy village in rural Andhra Pradesh. The dance presented on 26 December 2010 was different in many ways from its original form, for along kuchipudi’s 50-year-long-or-so journey, the dance has gone through a process of evolution and change, transforming itself on the way.

Over 50 years ago in Kuchipudi village, from which the dance takes its name, what we know today as kuchipudi was presented in the form of dance drama. This performing art form was performed exclusively by Brahmin men, who passed on their art to their sons, from one generation to the next. The performers (called Bhagavatulu-s) would dance, act and sing, enacting both male and female roles. They would travel from village to village, staging night-long performances which were presented outdoors on make-shift stages.

Writing in 1972, Ragini Devi describes a Bhagavata Mela performance in Kuchipudi village:

“Dance-dramas are staged at night in Kuchipudi on an improvised stage facing the temple. The audience sit on the ground. A multi-coloured curtain is held up by two torch-bearers, who provide the stage lighting. Musical accompaniment consists of vocal music, a bagpipe drone, drum (mridanga) and cymbals… Preliminary prayers are offered behind the stage curtain. The stage manager (Sutradhara) appears before the audience and recites the invocation. Indra’s banner-staff is set up on the stage. The presiding deities of the theatre are worshipped with holy water, incense, lights, and flowers. An actor, wearing an elephant mask, impersonates the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, who blesses the actors and spectators. Then the Sutradhara announces the play. He is always present on the stage, bearing a crooked stick, the symbol of his office, to conduct the play and lead the vocalists… Resin powder is thrown on the torches to effect a sudden flash of light with the dropping of the curtain when certain powerful characters appear. Each actor introduces himself with a pravesa daru, an entrance dance appropriate to his role, accompanied by song and rhythm syllables (daru). There are both masculine and feminine darus with dramatic gestures, postures, and dance sequences, rendered with grace and elegance. Darus also provide the dance element throughout the play.”

This dance drama tradition had developed during the Bhakti movement of the 15th and 16th centuries, along with other forms of vernacular theatre, as a mode of religious expression through the recounting of religious stories. According to a legend, Siddhendra Yogi, an ascetic and Krishna devotee, is credited as the founder of kuchipudi dance drama.

From its origins as a dance drama tradition performed in rural villages exclusively by Brahmin men, today the dance has evolved into a solo dance form performed on city stages by dancers from non-hereditary backgrounds, mostly women. The dance’s revival started, like for most of the other Indian classical dances, in the late fifties following India’s independence. As the gurus moved out of the village to large cities, the dance form and its repertoire inevitably evolved for the contemporary stage.

Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri (Right) had made a significant contribution to the popularisation of kuchipudi in the early 1940s and 1950s. He significantly expanded the scope of the dance drama form by choreographing many nritta and abhinaya items for solo dancers. He had a vast repertoire of ashtapadis, padams and javalis. He was also the first to teach female dancers, including temple dancers. His students included none other than Balasaraswati, Mylapore Gauri Amma, and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai who all became legends in their own right.

Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam (Left) is credited with having made the biggest contribution to the development of kuchipudi. He developed and codified the technique of the dance based on the principles of the Natya Shastra. He classified the dance units or adavus and introduced a systematic teaching method. He polished and perfected the nritta, or pure dance movements. He developed his own particular individual style which is referred to as the Vempati style or ‘new style’ of kuchipudi. Characterised by strong clean lines, crisp energetic jatis and vibrant footwork, the Vempati style seems to be the most popular style of kuchipudi today. Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam is also a prolific choreographer, having choreographed 180 solo items and fifteen dance dramas. He has received many awards for his contribution to kuchipudi including the prestigious Padma Bhushan from the government of India. He established the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai in 1963. Some of his students who went on to become celebrated kuchipudi exponents include Yamini Krishnamurty, Sobha Naidu and Swapnasundari. His son Vempati Ravishankar has followed in his footsteps and is an established dancer and guru.

Thanks to some prominent dancing couples, kuchipudi has also developed as a duet form. Jaya Rama Rao is from a traditional Bhagavatulu family. He and his disciple and wife Vanashree are well-known and respected kuchipudi dancers and gurus based in Delhi. Chennai-based gurus Narasimhachari and Vasanthalakshmi are better known as bharatanatyam dancers but they are also accomplished kuchipudi dancers known for their innovative choreographies created for duos. The Reddys are probably the best-known kuchipudi couple. They have won numerous awards for the excellence of their dance, including the Padmashri. Radha’s sister Kaushalya is also a prominent dancer, as are their daughters Yamini and Bhavana Reddy. (Above: Jaya Rama and Vanashree Rao)

Compared to the other Indian classical dance styles, kuchipudi is perhaps closest to bharatanatyam in terms of technique, but it has its own unique characteristics. Both styles feature a half-sitting posture as the basic position and strong, rhythmical footwork. But kuchipudi has a certain light-footedness and many graceful hops and leaps that distinguish it from its cousin. Compared to bharatanatyam, it is less angular, with ‘rounded’ arm movements and characteristic bobbing, bending and swaying movements which are unique to kuchipudi. (Left: Yamini Krishnamurty)

The kuchipudi repertoire presented by the solo dancer on the contemporary stage is still evolving and though there is a trend to standardise it, there is no fixed ‘recipe’ when it comes to a performance repertoire, as is the case for the bharatanayam margam, for example. A kuchipudi performance may start with a prayer or an invocatory piece: an offering of flowers to a deity through a puspanjali, or a kautavam in praise of a certain god. Like in bharatanatyam, the jatiswaram set to swara patterns is a popular item (but performed on stage less often), as are thillanas as concluding pieces. Episodes from the traditional dance dramas are also popular, the most famous being Bhama Kalapam which tells the story of Satyabhama, a consort of Krishna. The dramatic aspect of abhinaya characteristic to kuchipudi is an inheritance from its dance drama tradition. There is a rich repertoire of padams, javalis, kirtanams, shabdams, ashtapadis. The padams and kirtanams by Telugu poet and composer Kshetrayya are favourites. Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma is a renowned kuchipudi artist famous for his compelling and versatile abhinaya and especially his convincing impersonation of female roles during which he completely transforms, adopting the grace of a woman with ease and conviction. (Below: Avinash Pasricha's famous collage of Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma. Click to enlarge.)

The Tarangam is unique to kuchipudi, often performed as a finale. This is a technique where dancers stand on the edges of a brass plate, sometimes balancing a pot on the head and holding oil lamps, as they move to complex rhythmical patterns. Another technique unique to kuchipudi which was popularised by guru C. R. Acharyulu is tala chitra nritya. Using her feet dipped in coloured paint, powder or dye, the dancer traces the outline of an animal: a peacock in Mayura Kautavam, lion in Simhanandanam or an elephant in Ganesh Kautavam.

All of India’s classical dances went through a revival following independence which involved a process of reconstruction and codification. Over the past few decades, kuchipudi has made many transitions: From a dance-drama tradition to a solo repertoire. From hereditary male performers to a proliferation of female dancers. From the make-shift stages of rural villages to the theatres of metropolitan cities. From guru-shisya-parampara to institutionalised teaching. From the Natya Shastra to the Guinness Book… This process of evolution continues with the contemporary kuchipudi gurus and dancers of today who inject it with their own perspectives, innovations and inspiration.

This article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Pulse magazine.

July 10, 2011

An urge to explore the unfamiliar: An interview with Swapnasundari

In a previous post, I wrote about the launch I had attended of

Swapnasundari's book on Vilasini Natyam. This is a dance form which she has spent years learning, researching and documenting. In a recent e-mail interview, she told me more about her artistic journey and the origins and revival of Vilasini Natyam.

You have had an interesting journey as a dancer. While most dancers devote their lives to a single dance style and focus on a career as a performer, you have not been afraid to change trajectories and explore other dance forms and fields. At the height of your Bharatanatyam career, you turned to Kuchipudi and later you devoted yourself to the revival of Vilasini Natyam. What was the catalyst which inspired you each time to change direction?

I agree that my artistic journey has been very untypical. The change in my trajectory has been spurred by many factors. Both my mother and maternal grand-mother were knowledge-seekers and enthusiastic explorers of new skills. Perhaps I am similar to them because of genetics. I sincerely believe that continuous growth is essential for an artist. Normally this is forgotten when people become established and popular performers.

Whenever I have sensed stagnation in the external environment, I have sought to build an artistically rich inner world. I frequently evaluate my relationship with the external world and my internal world and I try to achieve a balance, in order to maintain harmony with both these worlds. This is a difficult exercise but necessary for a meaningful life. I am hungry for learning. I feel a latent urge to explore the unfamiliar. I am excited by whatever I pursue at any point of time and like to test my potential for meeting the challenge offered by each new idiom. Other than dancing three dance-styles, I also sing, teach and write.

Both Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam have their origins in the Telugu-speaking region of India. How are they similar and dissimilar?

There is no direct relationship between the Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam. In fact, one can discern some similarities between Vilasini Natyam, Bharata Natyam and Odissi. The historical connect between the solo Bharatham forms which were danced in these parts of southern and south-eastern India has been discussed in my book on Vilasini Natyam (Vilasini Natyam: Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers). Interestingly, the Telugu hereditary dancers of Vilasini Natyam from whom I have learnt, have never studied from Kuchipudi masters. Most of them had not even seen Kuchipudi until television entered their lives. The name of the late Balasaraswati is unknown to them as is that of Odissi dance.

Physical behaviour, mannerisms, language, customs, and preferences of people invariably leave a characteristic stamp on art-forms practiced in the same region, as is the case with the female solo-forms of Mohiniattam and Nangyar Koothu and the male dance-theatre Kathakali, all of which belong to Kerala. Similarly, any passing resemblance between Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam is an outcome of their shared culture.

Though some similarity between Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam is discernible in the operatic repertoire, the differences are many. The Northern and coastal school of Vilasini Natyam alone contains over 100 basic adavus and their permutations and combinations. Another 35 to 40 Nrittha units belong to its Southern school. None of these find place in the Kuchipudi Sampradayam taught to me by its traditional male Gurus. Equally vast and varied is the Abhinaya repertoire and methodology earlier followed by the Telugu hereditary female dancers which continues today in Vilasini Natyam. All this differs from what is currently taught and performed in Kuchipudi.

You have learnt from dance gurus as well as from hereditary temple-dancers. How has the experience been different? Is one experience more ‘authentic’ than the other?

So far as traditional performing arts are concerned, I do not ascribe much importance to claims of ‘purity’ and ‘authenticity’ which are frequently heard. Every so-called ‘authentic’ tradition that we see today is the product of re-invention and recasting by succeeding generations of exponents and teachers. Adaptations have always taken place as and when necessary.

In Kuchipudi, the operatic tradition has all but disappeared and solo Kuchipudi dance is more sought after now. Sweeping changes and innovations which have been made in Kuchipudi over the last fifty years may have even rendered it unrecognisable to the generation which has lived through this period.

In the case of Vilasini Natyam, its new performers including myself, do not belong to the Devadasi community. We are representing the art-form in a new context. We dance in a different forum (the proscenium stage), not in the royal court or the temple (except in the annual temple-festival of Rang Bagh).

I respect the art which has been taught by my Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi gurus as well as my devadasi Gurus. They have sincerely bequeathed to me what they had inherited and nourished assiduously through their lives. Now it is for me to handle this inheritance carefully and take it further. As has been happening over past centuries, it is natural that the dance-styles I perform and teach would acquire new dimensions through my interpretations.

Why didn’t Vilasini Natyam receive the same attention as other dance forms post-independence?

Though I have mentioned some key facts in my book, it is the cultural administrators of our country who have to answer this question. I pursue Vilasini Natyam for purely artistic reasons.

The public-funded cultural councils of the government of independent India were already in place when I was born. The policies and guidelines followed by these councils appear to be susceptible to various pulls and pressures. I am not a part of any lobby, political or otherwise. Maybe this is the reason why organisations such as Sangeet Natak Akademi do nothing to support my efforts. There can be no other reason, because Vilasini Natyam as an art-form has already gained great appreciation amongst connoisseurs as well as the discerning media.

You have taken Vilasini Natyam not only to the stage but also back into the temple during an annual festival at a temple in Hyderabad. Does this feature the ritual and ceremonial aspects of the dance?

It is only the ritual and ceremonial dances of Vilasini Natyam that we perform annually in Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple in Rang Bagh, Hyderabad. These ritual-dances (called Agama Nartanam in Sanskrit and Gudi-Seva in Telugu) can be seen here every day during the Brahmotsavam, which usually falls in the months of January-February. As a part of worship in the temple, we dance these to the accompaniment of religious chanting and traditional music that includes ancient talas and rare ragas. Every Vilasini Natyam dancer looks forward each year to this one-of-a-kind experience.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?

Besides performing Vilasini Natyam, I have also been teaching it over the past ten years to a select few. Some of my disciples are multi-stylists, like myself. Their experience while dancing Vilasini Natyam appears very similar to my own. They tell me that they feel ‘centered’ and sense a certain kind of ‘inner equanimity’ within themselves, not just while dancing temple-rituals but even during their stage concerts of Vilasini Natyam.

I can’t help thinking that indeed, this is the true purpose of art. If I am able to lead people there I am deeply honoured and humbled, especially by the fact that it is the honest art of the much-maligned Telugu Devadasi and the proud artistic legacy of the Telugu Rajadasi that has brought me so close to the core of dance.

This article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Pulse magazine.

June 10, 2011

In the eye of the photographer: Avinash Pasricha

Earlier this month, the renowned dance photographer Avinash Pasricha was in Bangalore for a workshop and exhibition organised by local Odissi dancer Kshama Rau. Over the past fifty years, Avinash Pasricha has captured images of almost all of India’s greatest musicians and dancers. He has contributed his photographs to several books on dance, often in collaboration with dance historians Sunil Kothari and Leela Venkataraman.

As an admirer of his work, I didn’t want to miss the interactive session with the photographer on June 4th at the Alliance Française. We were a small group of photographers and dance enthusiasts. He began his talk by saying that photography cannot be taught. He told us how he began taking pictures and became a dance photographer. He also showed us a film on his life which was made 19 years ago. It was a collection of his photographs with his own voice narrating his career as a photographer. We also watched a short video which included a superb series of images of Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal set to music. Finally, he shared several aspects of his journey as a photographer with us…

On how he became a photographer…

My father was a portrait photographer. I grew up in his studio. I would watch him at work. It was an interesting experience to see the old method of photography. At that time, the photographs were hand-painted afterwards. I enjoyed sitting in the shop and attending to customers. When I was in school, I was also a businessman. I used to sell prints to my classmates. A print cost 4 annas and I used to sell it for 8! That was business. The plan was that I would take over my father’s shop. But there’s a guy upstairs who decides what’s good for you, and that’s what happened. From 1957 I learnt darkroom on the job. Later I heard about a new magazine starting called SPAN. And I became the photo editor. And that journey made a photographer out of me.

At the time I used a Roleiflex camera and I worked in black and white. The printing process was complicated. The blocks were made in Calcutta and the printer was in Bombay. And Indian Airlines coordinated the rest.

I became known as a photographer when I started working for SPAN. I was with SPAN from 1960 to 1997. I’d been on many assignments. The writer collects all the materials and has ample time to write the story but as the photographer you have to think fast… you have to think ‘Where is the story?’ and capture it. As a photojournalist you’re constantly looking for pictures, pictures with a purpose. I developed an approach to people and situations. Each picture must tell a story. After all, a picture tells a story without words. If I’m able to produce that picture then I think I’ve done my job.

My father was a photographer, I followed in his footsteps, and now so does my son. It makes me feel proud. My son Amit Pasricha is a better photographer than me.

About dance photography…

My first dance pictures were pretty bad. They were of Indrani Rahman. They went green because the ektachrome process turned pictures green because of the chemicals. I still have them. There was no telephoto so the photo was always small no matter how close you got.

A lot of people shoot dancers as a statue. They get in a pose and shoot. In fact a lot of people today still shoot like that… as a statue in all her finery. All they think of is the beauty of the costume and jewellery but not the dance. You have to see where the dance is. For me, dance is in the eyes – if you can capture it, then you’re a dance photographer. Only 10% of the time or even less, there’s an expression. By the time you see the expression and you click, it’s gone. (Left: Bharata Natyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai)

In studio photography the dancer stays in one spot and the photographer moves around the dancer. In the theatre, I sit in a seat and watch the dancer dance. In the studio, I dance around the dancer! I’m constantly interacting with the dancer… trying to make her think that she’s dancing. So I say “There’s a tree. A bird. Krishna,” to get her mind away. “Look there! There!” I do it very fast. I tell her to look here and there very quickly so she has no time to think and become self-conscious. Otherwise the mind is always thinking ‘Where is my foot?’ ‘Is my hand in the right position?’ …Otherwise the guru is always there.

In the theatre you never know what the lighting will be like and what will come next. Fortunately in Indian classical dance many things are repeated so you can anticipate. So I’ve learnt to anticipate repetition. (Right: Kuchipudi guru Vempati Chinna Satyam)

Sometimes I’m invited to a dance performance and people are surprised when I don’t show up with my camera. When you’re a photographer, you’re expected to do it every day!

How he started taking pictures of dance…

While I was working at SPAN as a photographer, one of my cousins was into music. He would go to all-night Hindustani music concerts and festivals. I was experimenting those days with black and white triads. So I went with him to concerts. I went there but I had no ear for music. I tried to capture the mood with my camera. At the time I didn’t care about disturbing the artist while I shot and some of my best pictures were taken at that time. And it hasn’t happened since… because now I’m too conscious wondering if I’m disturbing the artist or the audience. And pictures didn’t matter that much at the time when I was experimenting... from there I moved to dance.

Above: Hindustani vocalist, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

I’m over attached to dance. I don’t know how to detach myself. Sometimes I feel stuck. I tend to do the same thing. Even one of the dancers had remarked that my lighting is always the same. A lot of people have copied my lighting. Sometimes I can’t even tell if a picture is mine or somebody else’s! A few years ago one could tell because there was a standard lighting used. But a dancer once made a funny comment: all you need to do is change the face. [He laughs.] I need to grow to get out of that. Fortunately some of the younger photographers are doing things differently… without make-up, in the forest, plain pictures… and there are magazines that now publish those. The point I’m trying to make is that one needs to get out of the rut. You tend to get in a rut and should ask yourself how to get out of it. And now at the age of 75, it’s more difficult. Partly because people who come to me have a certain expectation. They want the kind of pictures I’ve been taking for all these years. So am I going to satisfy their need? Or am I going to satisfy my inner need, my urge to shoot things differently? Is it possible to satisfy both?

Above: Carnatic vocalist, M.S. Subbulakshmi

I probably produce only one great picture every five years. Not much more than that. One was a portrait of MS Subbulakshmi singing. It was pure luck. I feel that the picture captured that moment of devotion on her face for which she was famous for. I can show you pictures of Pandit Jasraj that I shot in the 1960s and last year and give you a kind of pictorial biography without saying any words whatsoever. Also Shivkumar Sharma and Bhimsen Joshi…

On digital photography…

I feel digital photography fails in recording dance. It’s too slow. By the time it records the image, the dancer has moved. You may miss moments. After a performance of 1.5 hours I may get a few decent pictures.

Another thing that would be taught in the early days would be to take monuments from a distance… it’s a learning process to use aperture to get enough depth when you need depth. You learn this yourself or someone teaches you. One advantage of digital is you don’t run out of film. Sometimes I would finish one or two rolls of film and then something more interesting would happen! So what’s good with digital photography is you don’t run out of film. But you’re left with too many pictures in the end! It takes time to choose and edit them. Editing is a headache. My computer is full and I have to put images on a backup. There are too many to look at! (Left: Kuchipudi dancer Sobha Naidu)

On the photographer’s eye…

I’m a very bad street photographer. Also, I don’t shoot negative pictures ever. Because my whole grounding was in SPAN and we had to always show positive pictures. Once we printed some pictures of an American working in eastern India and there were some children watching him work. A child watching had a torn shirt. The editor said that we can’t show negative pictures. There was nothing negative, just a man working and some children watching… but the child’s shirt was torn. There are different ways of looking and seeing.

I may have shot 100,000 pictures. Very often I’m clicking a picture in my mind without a camera. I see a picture, I stop and take it. It’s gone but it stays in your mind even though you don’t have it on film. There are so many missed pictures in your life.

Each one sees differently. What you see and I see is different. My theory after over 55 years of photography is I can learn and continue to learn but I can’t teach others how to see. See for yourself. You can learn by looking: this is good, this is bad, I can do it differently. (Right: Sattriya dancer Anwesa Mahanta)

Then there’s the observation of light. How light falls. If I can’t change the light, then I can change my position. Or I can compose it differently. I can include or exclude. I have to compose my frame. With digital today you can see the image right away. But I feel that by constantly trying to see, you may miss the shot…

The other thing I’ve learnt is that when people come to you, half the time they don’t know what they want. So it becomes first your own understanding of what they really want and then making them understand. This is what would work for them. If they still don’t appreciate what you’re saying, then you shoot their way and your way and you choose.

Everyone sees differently. I have been doing photography for 55 years. I can continue to learn – it keeps me alive but I can’t teach it. You have to learn for yourself.

June 7, 2011

Dance jewellery: A trend towards minimal elegance?

Bedecked and bejewelled: Shobana modelling Prince Jewellery's temple jewellery

From the rakkodi on the crown of her head, to the nupura adorning her feet, the classical dancer is literally bejewelled from head to toe. Jewellery is an essential part of the dance costume. It adds sparkle to a dancer’s appearance and enhances the visual effect and aesthetic appeal of her dance, invoking rasa in the observer.

The use of costume and jewellery is called aharya abhinaya, one of the four types of abhinaya described in the Natya Shastra, Bharata Muni’s classical treatise on the performing arts. It mentions the four types of jewellery or ornaments to be worn by a dancer, which “if used properly and with understanding add beauty to the body.” It then illustrates in detail the specific ornaments to be worn by male and female performers. While these number to 16 for men, there are over 38 for women, including six for the hair and head, eight for the ear, six for the neck, at least two garlands of jewels and pearls for the breast, eight for the hands and fingers, five for the hips, and three for the ankles and feet!

Bedecked and bejewelled in this way, it is difficult to imagine how a dancer can attempt even the simplest dance movement. However, after this detailed description, the ancient text does concede that too much jewellery can restrict movement and defeat its very purpose: “Too many ornaments are not to be used lest the artists feel tired or hindered in free movements. Weighed down with heavy ornaments one cannot move much and one is likely to feel exhausted. So decoration not done properly is no decoration at all.”

It is no surprise that many dancers today prefer a minimal use of jewellery. Real jewellery made of pure gold and precious stones is heavy and cumbersome – and not to mention, exceedingly expensive. Among some dancers today there seems to be a trend towards reducing the ‘bejewelled from head-to-toe’ look to one of minimal elegance which responds to the dictate that less is certainly more.

Less is more: Aditi Mangaldas (Image source: her website)

“I don’t wear any jewellery when I’m performing contemporary dance,” explains renowned danseuse and choreographer, Aditi Mangaldas. “But I like to wear jewellery when I’m doing traditional Kathak. Traditional Kathak jewellery is made of gold, uncut diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Most of the jewellery I use is Jadau jewellery which I find in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Lucknow. When I wear a beautiful piece of jewellery, it gives me a sense of grandeur even if it’s just a small thing. I think jewellery adds embellishment to a dancer: the tikka frames the face, and bangles bring attention to the wrists because we use a lot of mudras and wrist movements. I like to keep the look minimal but classy. I don’t like heavy, overbearing jewellery. For me, jewellery has to be as light as possible but it also has to look real. I wear only a tikka, earrings and slightly thick bangles on each wrist. I don’t wear long necklaces anymore. I don’t like wearing rings or anything on my feet.”

Minimal elegance: Rama Vaidyanathan (Photo by Avinash Pasricha. Source: Rama's website)

For leading Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan, the sheer resplendence of South Indian temple jewellery is a good reason not to wear too much of it. “I love temple jewellery because its vibrant colours are very striking,” she reveals. “It’s the ideal jewellery to wear with Kanchivaram saris because it matches so well. But because it’s so striking, I don’t want to clutter myself. The less I wear, the more it stands out.” Rama gives much thought and importance to her jewellery: “I choose my jewellery to match the costume I’m wearing but also according to the theme of the performance,” she explains. “For example, one of my recent productions, Akhilam Madhuram, is based on Krishna and the symbolism of Mathura and Vrindavan, and explores the theme of bhakti. I used Rudraksha beads which are significant for their healing powers and matched it with a Tanjore pendant. I like old, traditional pieces and I often come up with my own designs. My inspiration comes from temple sculptures, old Tanjore paintings and Ravi Varma paintings.”

The vibrant colours of the contrasting deep red rubies and brilliant green emeralds of temple-style jewellery are indeed visually striking. The intricate, often symmetrical designs are inspired by temple sculptures as well as motifs found in nature like flowers, lotuses, leaves and creepers, fruits like mangoes, and animals like peacocks and swans. The traditional jewellery was made of pure gold and embedded with uncut diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. Today replicas are made in silver and covered in gold leaf, with semi-precious stones.

This jewellery worn by Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dancers has a very long tradition dating back over 5000 years to the Nayaka period. This jewellery of gold and precious stones was traditionally made for temple idols by master craftsmen whose workshops were located within the precincts of temples. Nagercoil, a temple town in Tamil Nadu, is famous for its temple jewellery which would be used to adorn the temple deities during important festivals. It was also worn by the resident temple dancers, a tradition which has continued onto the stage today.

Temple jewellery not only adorns and embellishes a dancer, it is also believed to have a deeper significance. Pure gold is believed to promote well-being. The surya worn on the right side of the head and the chandra on the left brings positive energy to the dancer allowing her art to flourish. The rokkodi worn on the crown of the head protects the brain.

In contrast to the opulent temple jewellery of South India, the silver jewellery used by Odissi dancers is elegantly understated. Cuttack in the state of Orissa is famous for its silver filigree work. Orissan tribal jewellery is also made of silver. The silver belt worn by Odissi dancers as well as the tahia or crown, are unique to this dance style.

“Odissi jewellery has a distinct style,” explains celebrated Odissi dancer Sujata Mohapatra. “It adds beauty and elegance to the dance. The tahia (crown) is unique to this dance style and resembles a temple spire. The bengapatia, (silver belt) is also unique to Odissi. The maharis who had danced in the temples had worn many necklaces around the neck and several chains around the waist. The leading gurus had come together and decided on the aesthetics of the Odissi costume and jewellery. It should not be too heavy. The beauty of the body has to be seen.”

Elegantly understated: Sujata Mohapatra (Photo by Alec Himwich)

Inspiration for the Odissi costume came from temple sculptures as well as the Abhinaya Chandrika, written in the 15th century by Maheswara Mohapatra. This text mentions the costume, ornaments and make-up to be used for Odissi and describes a silver belt to be worn around the waist. In her biography of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, The Making of a Guru, Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi recounts when the bengapatia was first introduced: A broken and discoloured bengapatia was found in an old box of jewellery belonging to the mother of a Brahmin from Puri. Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra painstakingly rethreaded the belt and meticulously cleaned it with tamarind. It was first worn by legendary dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi at the All-India Dance Seminar held in Hyderabad in 1963. Now it has become a hallmark of the Odissi costume.

For practical and aesthetic reasons, there seems to be a trend among dancers towards reducing the ‘covered from head-to-toe’ look to one of minimal elegance which responds to the dictate that less is certainly more. Dancers agree that jewellery should embellish the dancer but not hamper the dance. Afterall, as Bharata Muni cautions in the Natya Shastra: “decoration not done properly is no decoration at all.”

A modified version of this article was published in the June 2011 issue of On Stage magazine.

March 24, 2011

The last disciple: An interview with Dominique Delorme

Image source: The Hindu

This year during the prestigious Madras Music Academy dance festival, a foreigner was among the distinguished dancers to perform during the festival. This was Dominique Delorme from France. He was actually supposed to perform during the previous year’s festival but had to back out because of a serious injury.

There are very few non-Indians who are invited to perform at this important dance festival. Others I can think of are Ramli Ibrahim and his troupe of Malaysian dancers, and Mavin Khoo, also from Malaysia but based in London, UK. When I put the question to the director of programming, he confirmed that only three non-Indians have performed at the dance festival. “But there will be more,” he added.

Dominique Delorme is probably the best known French dancer of Bharata Natyam. He first came to India to study dance 25 years ago. He had created a stir in the Madras dance scene when he presented his arangetram in 1990 and though he had to leave India soon after, many remember him for his excellent technique and perfect angasuddhi.

“Is that Dominique?” I overheard a local dancer ask. It was after a performance at Spaces, when people mill around, chat, say hello to old friends, gossip, and rub shoulders with the ‘stars’ of the dance scene. Then the next day while having lunch with a dance friend at the Woodlands, she leaned towards me and whispered: “I think that’s Dominique Delorme sitting behind you.”

Having been absent for 10 years but still very much in the memory of many dance aficionados, his performance on the concluding day of the festival was much anticipated. Not less because he would be performing the choreographies of VS Muthuswamy Pillai, a rare treat.

I was interested in hearing about his experiences learning with his late guru and had the opportunity to interview him. I found him affable and easy-going. During our discussion, I noted his obvious passion for India and dance, and absolute sincerity and dedication to learning every aspect of it. He lives and teaches in France and has choreographed many productions and performed in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia.

Our discussion follows…

You studied dance on a full-time basis in Chennai during the mid to late eighties. When were you last in India?

I haven’t been back to India for ten years. To come back after 10 years is very moving. The most moving thing was to meet my gurus again. To meet those who are still with us and to go to my guru Muthuswamy Pillai’s room. To step into that room was something extremely moving. His son is teaching in the same room in Mylapore near the Kapaleeswara temple. Some things have changed: they have put in floor tiles and the walls have been repainted. And my guru had sat on the other side of the room where his son sits teaching now. I had no news of my vocal music teacher. So on my second day here I went to visit her. But I met only her husband. He told me she passed away two years ago. I didn’t know. That was a shock.

Last year I had an accident while dancing just three weeks before I planned to come to India, so I had to cancel my trip. I had been invited to perform at the Music Academy dance festival. So it was postponed to this year. I would love to come to India more often but it’s difficult for me to come more often for financial reasons. Also for the past seven years I was busy building a house. It took me a lot of time and money. Now it’s complete. I built it with my own hands, from the foundation to the roof. I’m happy I did it. But maybe I shouldn’t have done it because I injured my arm in the process!

But I would love to come to India more often… not only for the pleasure of performing but also the pleasure of seeing other artists and seeing how they have evolved with time. There’s also a special atmosphere here during the music and dance season.

There was a wave of dancers from France who came to study dance in Chennai in the eighties. Many of them started learning in Paris with Christine Klein, whose stage name is Malavika. Why was Indian dance so popular in France at the time?

I think Malavika was really the pioneer of Indian dance in France. Her first guru was Kanchipuram Ellappa. And when her guru passed away she went and learnt from Muthuswamy Pillai in Madras. She had also learnt a few items from Padma Subrahmanyam.

I started learning from Malavika in Paris in 1985. I had one year of training with her before I got a scholarship from the French and Indian governments to study dance in India. When I got the scholarship, Malavika told me about a master in Chennai. She said: “His name is Muthuswamy Pillai. I think he would be extremely happy to have a male student. He’s been waiting for a male student for years and years. Of course there are many masters, but I think it would make him happy and it would make you very happy.” So I went to study with Muthuswamy Pillai. He had a lot of French students because many had initially learned from Malavika in Paris. Only some of them are still dancing now. Most of them have left dance.

Perhaps Indian dance was popular because we had the Festival of India in France in 1985, just when I started learning dance. I think that was an opportunity for many dancers in France to see Indian classical dance and they were inspired to learn it. I had never seen Indian dance before joining an Indian dance class in Paris.

And the second reason was Malavika. She was teaching workshops in Paris as well as many other places in France. The third reason is that Malavika developed a scholarship and cultural exchange programme through the French ministry of foreign affairs. It was a joint effort between the ICCR and the foreign ministry who both contributed financially to a scholarship programme. So we had the opportunity to study in India for years and learn from great masters.

But two years ago, this scholarship scheme was unfortunately stopped and we don’t have such a system anymore. I was part of the selection committee. There would be auditions where students would dance an item and we’d interact with them and then we would give marks and according to the marks, they would get the scholarship or not. The decision to stop the scholarship scheme came from the Indian government, not France. If it had been because of France I would have fought like anything to make sure it stays. But unfortunately the decision came from the ICCR itself. It’s very sad. Because I know what it’s like to stay here for years. You cannot make a dancer in 6 months, in one year, in two years, in three years or in four years. You need a lot of time for the Indian classical arts. Look at classical western ballet. It also needs a long period of training. So now there are no more auditions and no more scholarships for French students.

I got the scholarship from the French government and the ICCR initially for three years and then the ICCR extended my scholarship for a fourth year. Then for my fifth year I was on my own. My guru had passed away by then. I started teaching his students, Indian and French. I was his last disciple. Just before he passed away, I had promised that I would stay here and continue his style. It was a promise. I didn’t want to go back to France. The French government had sent someone to fetch me! They told me: “You promised, you had signed the paper saying you would go back. Your time is up, you have to go back to France and you have to teach what you learned here." So I had to go back.

Then I got the Villa Medicis prize. It was a fellowship. I also got the Romain Rolland scholarship. So that helped me come back to India to do research on the karanas and the Natya Shastra with Padma Subrahmanyam. I had already started learning with her in 1989 before Muthuswamy Pillai passed away.

With guru V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai (Courtesy of D. Delorme)

Tell me more about your first guru, V.S. Muthuswamy Pillai…

I went to learn with Muthuswamy Pillai in Madras after only one year of training in Paris, and like many dancers, I thought I knew a lot. But when I came to Muthuswamy Pillai, I found out that I knew absolutely nothing. So the training began with adavus in a very vigorous way. It was hard work. He was a very demanding master and he met my expectations. I learned only adavus for at least one and a half years. And he taught me something like 500 adavus when most masters teach between sixty and eighty. He had developed a lot of different varieties in each family of adavus. And I didn’t mind at all to work only on adavus because it was a new discovery every day. Even he was discovering and composing new adavus every day. So it was a lot of joy even though it was hard work and after some time he started composing items for me, starting with the pushpanjali and mallari, and then jatiswaram and varnams and padams. He never choreographed the same item in the same way. He was always choreographing according to the capacities of each student. So not one of us had the same choreography.

He had had most of his training from Meenakshisundaram Pillai but he had also learnt from Muthukumar Pillai. But Muthuswamy Pillai had evolved from what he learned from his masters. He had really come up with his own style. During the last 5 years of his life, he composed a lot of new things, both adavus and choreographies. My choreographies were full of mandi adavus. Maybe because I was a boy and he thought a boy could manage it! I think he got his inspiration from his students. That’s why he didn’t always teach or choreograph in the same way for each student.

His son Selvam has a different style because he didn’t learn from his father. He learned from his father-in-law who was there in the village - Kuttalam. We used go to his village often. We would take the night train and reach there in the early morning. We would stay there for two or three weeks. We would have class there every day and we had a wonderful time.

He spoke very little English. Only a few words, maybe five or six words. So he had a way of looking at you. He would look at your arm, or your araimandi in a way that revealed that it was not up to his expectations. So the language was dance, it was not a spoken language. It was as simple as that.

I was holding his hand when he died here in a hospital in Madras. It was on the 18th of January 1992. He had died of cancer. So from 1987 to 1992 I was with him as his disciple. And until the last second, as he was lying in his bed, he was still composing… until his last breath. When he passed away, I left the hospital and took my moped – I had a TVS 50 – and didn’t realise that he had passed away. It was only a few days later that I realised that I had lost my master. It was a big shock… a very big shock. Soon after Bharat Kalachar gave me the opportunity to do an offering to him. So I composed a pushpanjali for that occasion and other students, mostly French students, participated in that offering.

What was the dance scene like back then?

With regard to dance, a lot has changed. When you look at the choreographies of gurus like Kittappa Pillai and Muthuswamy Pillai and others from those days, you didn’t see so many movements and so much speed. What for? The dance is not there. It’s not in the speed or how many movements you’re doing. But if you’re able to express something in one movement, even if it’s a slow movement, if the involvement is there, then there’s dance. But when there’s too much speed and too many movements there’s no time for the dancer to get involved. There are too many things to do. We observe it in modern life, in India and in western countries. Life is going faster and faster, people have no time to live and they’re not happy. But when you see a person going to a temple just to bring a flower and with so much humility and not in a rush… you see that they’re in peace with themselves. That makes a big difference. But too much agitation can only lead to an unpeaceful life.

Are students today ready to make a commitment in terms of time and dedication? Or do they just want to collect items and are not concerned about technique?

Today many foreign students, as well as Indian dance students, want to learn items immediately. I have a good friend who teaches dance in California. She told me that she has parents coming to her – most of her students are of Indian origin – with their kids who are 7 or 8 years old and they tell her: “My child will learn with you and in 6 months will present her arangetram.” Imagine! When I went to learn with Muthuswamy Pillai, I had studied dance for one year with Malavika in Paris, but that was nothing. If I had one hour of adavu class, I would practice for two hours at home. Because whatever he taught me I wanted to make sure that the next day I would have it perfect. The expectation was there. We were exposed to great masters and dancers and to reach that point we realised that it needed a lot of work. So I don’t think any dancer, foreign or Indian, can learn in a few months. It’s a long process. Even now after 25 years of learning, I need to learn more and more. Items, items... They all want to learn items. I face the same problem with my students.

I have some dedicated students. Some got scholarships to study in India. But money is an issue. It’s difficult to stay here without working and to survive without a scholarship. My scholarship was sufficient. I was living in a simple way which suited me. We got 700 rupees a month at the time. It’s good that there was also some support from the French government too.

With Padma Subrahmanyam (Courtesy of D. Delorme)

Do you teach your students Muthuswamy Pillai’s style, or Padma Subrahmanyam’s Bharata Nrityam style?

My guru is no more. People tell me that I’m the only one who’s still maintaining his style and they want to invite me for workshops. In France I teach Bharata Natyam and Bharata Nrityam. But most of my students want to learn Bharata Nrityam. After I had researched the karanas, they saw me dancing in that style and wanted to learn it. When you learn Padma Subrahmanyam’s style, you go back to the sources of Indian dance and theatre, so you go back to the Natya Shastra where the basics are very different. You go through a process which involves the whole body, the angas and ubhangas, minor and major limbs. Then there are the charis: how to move in space, which involves movements of the lower part of the body. They you go on to training the upper part of the body which are the nritta hastas and then the combination of the charis, nritta hastas and sthanas, which are the static postures. When you combine these three aspects, you have a karana. So some of my students have learnt up to the 70th of the 108 karanas. They’ve come that far.

My students only want to learn Padma Subrahmanyam’s style. They seem to like it more. It’s something new for them. They have already seen Bharata Natyam. When I performed the karana style, they saw something new and they wanted to learn it. I think they see a lot more variety in the karana movements. And it links to the western classical style where you can lift the leg, you can do the rond de jambe and the grand battement. All these movements from western classical ballet have been in the Natya Shastra for thousands of years. So they can relate to that.

During my training with Padma Subrahmanyam, I had to start from the beginning. I do the same thing when I’m teaching. If I have someone who has studied Bharata Natyam or Kuchipudi or Odissi for 10 years, I bring them back to the basics, because they’re very different. And you know, not many dancers have the humility to learn from the beginning.

What was your best performance experience?

One of my best experiences was performing my own production, Nandanar. When I came back to India with the Villa Medicis fellowship in 2000/2001, I was studying with Padma Subrahmanyam. I danced Nandanar at a seminar organised by Kalanidhi Narayanan and also at the Alliance Française. Padma Subrahmanyam was not in town when I performed it. When she came back she said to me: “Oh Dominique, tomorrow’s my birthday. Would you give me a treat? I heard a lot about your Nandanar. Can you please come tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock and perform for me?” So the next day I came and danced it, and at the end she said: “Dominque, it’s beautiful. See you tomorrow.” The next morning I came for my class and she told me: “I have organised performances for you in the temples of Nagapatnam and some other big temples. There you will have a good audience for Nandanar because you will have village people in the audience, common people and farmers who go to the temple, like it used to be long ago. They know the story of Nandanar. They know that he was an untouchable and that he became a saint.” And that was an amazing experience to dance in those temples. One of the greatest experiences I ever had. I have also danced in some churches in France and that was also a nice experience because there are some positive vibrations there. And also the response of the audience is important. Performing is not only that, it’s also an interaction with the audience.

How can you feel your audience?

It’s in the vibration. You feel it. You don’t even need applause. Sometimes until the last second of the performance there’s a silence… And even when it lasts a few seconds after that, you feel it. You feel how the space has been filled with something which is in the air. And nobody wants to clap because it’s still up there, in the air, and clapping would bring it down.

When did you have your arangetram?

I had my arangetram with Muthuswamy Pillai on 11 April 1990. It was at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore in the evening and in the morning we had had only one rehearsal. In those days we never had more than one or two rehearsals. And today it’s the same because it’s so difficult to get musicians! During the morning rehearsal, in the middle of the varnam, I fainted. That was the only time I saw my guru stand up! He was shaking me, yelling: “Dominique, Dominique! What happened? Dominique!” I opened my eyes and I knew I had to finish the rehearsal. I went outside and bought a packet of glucose, poured the full packet in a glass of water, drank it, finished the rehearsal and went home. The performance was at 6 or 6:30 that evening. I was so weak. The mallari started. I was ready to go on stage and he was there. I took the first step, “Taa…” and I didn’t know how I was going to take the second step. I looked at him and he said go on… and then I didn’t think at all and just did what I had learnt. It was not a matter of mind anymore. It was a matter of soul. It was my guru and me. I was connected to his talams. I don’t think I even heard the mridangam, the flute or violin or whatever. I only heard his talams. Because for years I had only heard him beating the tattukazhi. And I was connected to him. I got through the performance.

After the performance people came and complimented me. The whole of Madras was there because I had gone all over the city on my moped delivering invitations to all the gurus personally. The next morning, I went to class and my guru said to me: “Yesterday so many people, very good speaking, very nice Dominique, very nice, very nice. This side coming [he points to his head], immediately outside going. Inside going, not outside coming, big head coming.” That was a lesson! Don’t get a big ego because of praise. You have done your arangetram, you are a beginner, you are just starting.

My gurus were not only teaching dance, they were also spiritual gurus, all of them: Padma Subrahmanyam, Kalanidhi Narayanan, Kamala Rani. I always felt that I was their son and that they were my parents. I always felt that they were also teaching me in a spiritual way. That’s one of the most precious teachings you can have. Another thing, Dakshinamurthy is a teacher: Shiva as a teacher. He teaches in silence. He doesn’t speak. You had asked me how I had learned from my guru if he didn’t speak English and I didn’t understand Tamil. In this silence we also learn, and from the silence we learn.

On which occasion did you perform the 108 karanas?

This was just before I had to leave for France in 2001. Padma Subrahmanyam had taught me the 108 karanas and she wanted me to perform them in Chennai. So she organised a performance at Bharat Kalachar. I was leaving on the 2nd of May and she organised it for me on the 1st of May, the day before I was leaving. It was 42 degrees, the height of summer, and the performance was in an open-air auditorium. And that day I really thought I was going to die. And she saw that. She realised it because she was in the audience and she saw. Because no one had performed the 108 karanas before! At a certain point during the performance, I heard a voice from the wings calling: “Dominique, come!” So during a karana I walked out to the wings, and she put a towel on my face and poured a bottle of glucose water in my mouth and said, "Go!", and I finished the karanas. I danced them continuously. It takes 45 minutes but it’s like doing 3 varnams in one go because you have no sahitya, it’s only nritta. And afterwards her brother told her, “Padma you should never do something like that. We don’t know what it’s like to perform all the karanas!” So they told me that if I ever do it in France, I should split it in two or three parts, and not do it in one go. Plus it was 42 degrees! It was mad.

Gurus sometimes put you in situations where they try to see what your limits are. I remember another time Padma Subrahmanyam was performing in Mamallapuram in front of Arjuna’s Penance and she told me to come and perform two items. We were in the green room, the musicians were there and we were waiting to start. So she went to the stage, and then came back and asked me: “Dominique, you know how to do nattuvangam?” And I said, “Um, yes.” She gave me the talams and told me to go and sit with the musicians. So I went, thinking that I had no idea what she was going to perform. So I thought: there’s only one thing to do; follow the feet. So they put you in these situations, to test your abilities.

She’s a genius. She’s reconstructed movements from frozen things, books, sculptures. And I’m very lucky I learnt from her. When I first came to Madras I saw a performance by her at the Music Academy and during the first moments I was disappointed because it wasn’t anything I had seen before. I was expecting Bharata Natyam. But after five minutes and until the end of the performance I was riveted and couldn’t take my eyes off the performance. That day something happened.

While she was filming her documentary series on the karanas for Doordarshan we had visited the temples in South India where the sculptures have been recorded in stone. It was also a great experience to see an artist like Padma Subrahmanyam in front of the camera doing certain things. For example, I’ll always remember when she did the vyabhichari sanchari bhavas – which are the physical reactions to the emotions. Like perspiration, getting a red face because of anger, getting goosebumps, etc. One after the other, just like that. It was amazing. And these physical reactions only happen when there’s a deep, very deep physical involvement of the artist. As a young dancer, it was just amazing. I thought, yes this is what I want to do. This is what I want to reach. This level of involvement.

I always wanted to learn from great masters. Only when you learn from great masters can you really grow. They become what you want to reach. Their values stay with us and we have to maintain this and continue to the next generation. That is our role now.

March 20, 2011

The karana sculptures of Thanjavur temple

(Image Source: The Hindu)

As part of the 2010-2011 music and dance season, the Music Academy Madras ran an interesting lecture series every morning during the second half of December. On December 21st, renowned Bharata Natyam dancer and scholar, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, presented a one-hour talk on the karana sculptures of the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore).

She introduced her lecture by revealing that she feels she has a special affinity with this majestic temple which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She first visited the temple as a teenager with her father. As soon as she stepped into the temple complex, she had a feeling of déjà-vu, a strong impression that she had already been there. She described her experience:

“When my father took me into the temple for the first time, I was about fifteen years old. It was quite dark. It used to be frightening to enter that temple. There was no crowd. It was after dark and there was no light. Something very strange happened to me. As I entered the temple, I anticipated what I was going to see. I knew which mandapam would be there, what would follow which path. I felt very familiar with the place as though I had already been there. This was long before I did research on the karanas. It is with this kind of psychic affinity that I started doing my research…. It was out of passion, love and inquisitiveness.”

It was on that day that her fascination for this temple took root and what followed was years of active and intense research which resulted in a PhD degree and a book on the karanas in Indian dance and sculpture.

Construction of the Brihadeeshwara Temple started in 1003 and was completed in 1010. Dr Subrahmanyam emphasised that it is not only an important historical monument but also an immensely significant cultural one. King Rajaraja Chola had made the temple an important centre for music and dance, and there are detailed records existing on its cultural administration. The original name of this temple complex was Rajarajeshwaram. Last year the temple commemorated its 1000-year anniversary. To celebrate this occasion, 1000 Bharata Natyam dancers performed at the temple on September 25th, 2010.

Watch 1000 dancers dance at a 1000-year-old temple:

The focus of Dr Subrahmanyam’s lecture was on the karana sculptures which are found in passageways located on an upper level just above the sanctum of the temple. They were discovered in the year 1956 – a significant year, as it was the same year, she revealed, that she presented her arangetram, or debut solo performance. She described this as a ‘divine ordination’, as if it was god’s wish for her to study the karanas.

It was an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) who discovered a hidden passageway while removing weeds. This passage led to the long forgotten sculptures. Dr TN Ramachandran (director general of the ASI) identified them as sculptural depictions of the karanas. It took months to clear away all the debris and completely uncover the sculptures.

These sculptures are the oldest attempt at creating sculptural depictions of the karanas. These are figures of lord Shiva demonstrating the 108 karanas as described in the 4th chapter of the Natya Shastra, the ancient treatise on the Indian performing arts. However, here in Brihadeeshwara temple, there are only 81 sculptures and many empty slabs. The work was never completed.

Dr Subrahmanyam explained that the karanas are not poses (as was previously believed) but movements. The sculptures are like still photographs of a dancer performing the karanas. The sculptor portrayed a different aspect of the same movement. Each figure has four arms: Dr Subrahmanyam believes that the secondary arms show the course of the movement of each karana.

Dr Subrahmanyam spent 12 years researching the karanas which resulted in a doctorate degree and a mammoth work in three volumes: Karanas - Common Dance Codes of India and Indonesia. The task was not an easy one: “I had few secondary sources,” she explains, “so I had to study the scriptures and sculptures myself. I worked under the guidance of Dr TN Ramachandran who opened my eyes to many things. He’s a great scholar and archaeologist. He was the president of the UNESCO Museums Council at the time.”

(Left: Dr Padma Subrahmanyam and the karana sculptures of Brihadeeshwara temple. Image source: her website)

Unfortunately the part of the Brihadeeshwara temple where the karana sculptures are located is not open to the public. But this is not the only place where karana sculptures are found. They can be seen on the temple gopurams (entrance towers) of Chidambaram temple and at Saranagapani temple in Kumbakonam. Interestingly, there are also karana sculptures at the temple complex at Prambanam in Cental Java, Indonesia dating back to the 9th century.

(Above: karana sculptures at Chidambaram temple)

Learning the karana movments is part of every dance student’s syllabus. Dr Padma Subrahmanyam has made a tremendous contribution to the dance world by studying all the sources describing the karanas and reconstructing and documenting them. During her presentation at the Madras Music Academy, her 14-year-old grand-niece demonstrated some of the karanas. Excerpts of Dr Subrahmanyam’s television series on the karanas were also screened.

A clip of her more recent DVD Karana Prakaranam - Marga Tradition Revived is available for viewing here:

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