The discussion on Styles in Bharatanatyam dealt with the salient features of three contemporary schools – Vazhuvur, Pandanallur and Kalakshetra. As ill health prevented acclaimed scholar B.M.Sundaram from attending, his role as coordinator was assumed by panelist, dance historian Devesh Soneji.
With leading exponents Urmila Satyanarayanan (Vazhuvur) and Meenakshi Chittaranjan (Pandanallur) representing the two most widely followed bhanis, the discussion took on a lively tone as the dancers drew from practical experiences to illustrate points, complemented by guru Savithri Jagannatha Rao's cache of Kalakshetra memories and Devesh's pertinent observations. Some excerpts:
Urmila had her initial training under doyen K.N.Dandayudhapani Pillai, who emphasised the importance of anga shuddham. Later, she came under the tutelage of guru K.J. Sarasa from whom she absorbed the bani's unique upper body fluidity avoiding rigidity, muzhu mandi adavus and oyyara nadai. It was essential to cover and optimise full stage space, with Sarasa urging, “Odi Vaa, Odi Vaa”, especially in the latter half of varnam and in thillana.
Meenakshi recalled veteran gurus Chockalingam Pillai and Subbaraya Pillai laying stress on anga suddham and aramandi. Even at age 75, Chockalingam Pillai's dedication was such that he guided not only advanced students but also beginners, teaching for hours. Tala was marked by thattu kazhi more often than finger counting (the thin supple kazhi is whittled from guava wood).
Adavu and paatu
The maxim “Adavu and paatu should walk hand in hand like young lovers” best described the link between nritta and melody. Beauty in azhutham and fluidity in forcefulness were among the Pandanallur ideals.
Covering the stage was important, too, with supple, graceful movements, not too many leaps. To relax and smile was a must, something that Meenakshi frequently impresses upon her students today.
Guru Savithri recounted the inception of Kalakshetra and Rukmini Devi's trailblazing vision of ‘art without vulgarity, beauty without cruelty, education without fear' and approach. Beginners underwent intensive training for two years, six days a week, two hours a day, establishing a rock-solid foundation that served as a reference point even after a long hiatus.
Tracing the origins of most current styles to Thanjavur, Devesh named three nattuvanars, Subbaraya (father of Tanjore quartet), Venkatakrishna and Ramu ( all patronised by the Serfoji rulers) whose descendants and disciples perpetuated their styles.
While banis were defined by the notion of individual aesthetic choices (for instance, Pandanallur bani was shaped by the individualistic aesthetic of Minakshisundaram Pillai) and are today perceived as the preserve of nattuvanars, the sociology of dance was different in the nineteenth century. An essential component, then, was the devadasi and her melam (troupe) mainly comprised female family members and their unique artistic expression.
Thus, when the devadasi tradition was abolished, much of the knowledge handed down for generations from mother to daughter was lost.
In addition, as the aesthetic genealogy was safeguarded by inter-marriage within the community in order to ‘protect ' the gene pool and keep the hereditary repertoire intact, many abhinaya traditions disappeared as the art died with the practitioners.
Technique and bhava
When putting young dancers through their paces for an arangetram, it is important to ensure their grasp of technique and bhava while structuring a margam programme that would captivate, said Urmila, describing the challenges she faces as a guru.
However, the subtleties and intricacies of sringara would dawn on the dancer only with age and experience, to generate evolving insights and myriad interpretations that would help in crafting distinct approaches for different compositional forms such as varnam and padam.
In this context, she had greatly benefited from familiarising herself with word-to-word artha bhava in sahitya.
Questions from the audience were fielded and answered with elan, making for an instructive, interactive experience.