“What is the criterion for a good dancer today?” an irate parent asked recently, “Does a performer who jumps the highest or leaps around the stage qualify as the best?”
In the past few years, Bharatanatyam, one of the most sophisticated and evolved dance forms, seems to have imperceptibly metamorphosed into some kind of a desi form of ballet with arm-flinging and high vaulting leaps. Perhaps it all started with Chandralekha’s ‘Angika’, which brought back into focus the power, the energy and the lines of body movements in nritta (pure dance). For good measure, she had combined yoga and martial arts such as kalari to make her point.
Rukmini Devi summed it up as ‘geometricising’ and added that there was geometry in Nature.
The araimandi (half seated position) and anga suddham (clarity of lines) of Malavika Sarukkai, accentuated by a close-fitting pyjama costume, next arrested the attention of the dance world and soon young dancers toiled to follow the example.
Kalakshetra had all along laid stress on clean lines and the perfect araimandi. While its students followed the instructions, the sari or the skirt costume did little to make this feature apparent.
The last decade has seen a crop of dancers, both male and female, who have cultivated these basic features as part of their body language. Sure enough, their nritta sparkles with power always and sometimes with grace as well. In their effort to wow the audience, attempts at innovations in adavus and adavu korvais are being introduced both by young teachers and seniors among young dancers.
It is here that a new trend is taking over, what Natyacharya Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai once defined aptly as minukku (glitter) superceding charakku (substance). It does impress at first sight. Soon monotony leads to boredom and the viewer is put off by the gimmicks and wants to see no more.
The adavus or the basic movements are classified in the most logical manner and are generally common to all schools of Bharatanatyam. There are a few movements which are characteristic of a particular school. The distinguishing feature of each bani in the matter of adavus is seen in the manner in which they are executed. Handed down through generations, each parampara strove to preserve the identity of the adavus.
Though there is no record of the innovations and embellishments added by nattuvanars of yore, those made by nattuvanars of the 20th century are remembered and practised by their disciples.
For instance, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai and his star pupil Kamala added modifications and variations of the traditional adavus as they composed new items or worked on old ones. But the basic format was kept intact. Towards the end of the 20th century Vaitheeswarankoil Muthuswami Pillai brought in several innovations while teaching his French disciples.
Inspired by the agility and physical fitness of the students, some of whom were trained ballet dancers, he created new adavus, ensuring that the aesthetics were not lost and that nothing was overdone. At the Parampara Seminar of Sruti in the early 1990s, the Bharatanatyam field sat up and took notice of this great innovator. The remarkable feature of his innovation was that each adavu was rooted in tradition. Soon many of the younger dancers and dance teachers started using his techniques of the single-handed adavus, the adavus in diagonal lines, adavus executed all-round as the body turned on its feet, etc. His innovation has come to stay and has become part of the adavu repertoire of several dancers.
Senior gurus today continue to introduce innovations in nritta when they choreograph new items. Within the traditional framework, these creations thrill the viewer with their novelty while blending into the fabric of the familiar nritta sequences.
There is a basic relationship between the every tap of the feet with the mridangam beat. The solkattu, the sound of the nattuvanar’s cymbals and the beat of the feet and body and hand movements, all have an interdependent relationship. For instance, a ‘dhalangu’would normally mean a leap. A traditional solkattu is woven around a basic phrase, working several combinations of rhythm and syllable and carries the phrase to the end. A rhythmic pattern is uttered differently for the mridangam, konnakkol and nattuvangam, while the beats remain the same. The nattuvanga solkattu is musical with its special cadences when recited in the proper manner.
Often, we find a thundering, high decibel rendering of the solkattus or a recitation in a flat sing song manner. The modulations for vallinam (power) and mellinam (grace) are mostly absent. The jatis or solkattus in the varnam have become tediously long and sonorous, unlike the jatis of yesteryear which were short, crisp and full of punch. In professing to create new solkattus, young teachers, who often lack the laya expertise of the natyacharyas, put together a hotch-potch of disjointed syllables and phrases that appeal neither to the ear nor the eye.
A recently heard solkattu in trikalam was made up of the phrase ‘Om Nama Sivaya’and marked a total severance of the relationships between the sound and the movement, the mridangam, solkattu and the nritta.
The French connection
Nattuvanar Vaitheeswarankoil Muthuswami Pillai had many French disciples. Inspired by the agility and physical fitness of the students, some of whom were trained ballet dancers, he created new adavus, ensuring that the aesthetics were not lost and nothing was overdone. At the Parampara seminar of Sruti in the early 1990s where he presented his creations, the Bharatanatyam field sat up and took notice of this great innovator. The remarkable feature of his innovation was that each adavu was rooted in tradition. Soon many younger dancers and teachers started using his techniques -- single-handed adavus, adavus in diagonal lines and those executed all-round as the body turned on its feet. His innovation has come to stay and is today part of the repertoire of several dancers.