Maintaining proper standards of presentation aesthetics is as important as the performance itself.
More than half a century has gone by since Indian classical dance travelled from the Deva Sabha to the Jana Sabha, but how many dancers and organisers have fully understood the need for minimum standards of presentation aesthetics demanded of the proscenium theatre?
Untidy makeshift altars on stage, lamps which defy being lit with flickering wicks dripping oil on to the stage, tacky logos of sponsors pinned on to the backdrop — all irritants witnessed once too often. In Chennai during the ‘season' the assortment of stage décor that the various sabhas present, sometimes make the viewer shrink in dismay. Outsize pictures and memorabilia, garish backdrops which make nonsense of dance lines, clashing costume colours, are all aspects audiences have stoically learnt to turn a blind eye to. One wonders how a city which houses Kalakshetra with late Rukmini Devi's hyper sensitivity to aesthetics of presentation has not become more attuned to the artistic needs of proscenium layout. All this is annoyingly premised by public passivity.
Of course there are highly sensitive presenters like the Music Akademi and some individual dancers and organisations who pay a great deal of attention to how the stage should look. Last year at late Chandralekha's home, a Margam-based Bharatanatyam recital entitled ‘King's Salon' (featuring Harikrishna and Srividya Natarajan) was presented in the elegant Mandapa with lavish floral decoration reminiscent of the regal splendour of the Durbar Hall creating a perfect ambience for the programme. And in the delightfully appointed Kootambalam, inside the same campus, Koodiyattam had just the right surroundings in starkly simple artistry of green plants and a bare stage, with the giant lamp burning, throwing its glow on the shining faces of the actors.
V.P. Dhananjayan the Bharatanatyam veteran, has over the years, earned the wrath of many sabha bigwigs for waging battles for suitable stage decor for dance recitals.
Turned out heavily decorated like a Christmas tree, it is a common sight to see the dancer's loosely pinned flowers, hair ornaments, and bits of jewellery being shed as she moves on the stage. Shanta Dhananjayan often remembers her arangetram at Kalakshetra along with late Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, when the ankle bells of one of them came off while performing on stage. The youngsters got a dressing down they never forgot and Rukmini Devi for years would revert to the incident asking in an outraged fashion, “How could you have been so careless as to not fasten the bells properly?”
Unaesthetic sound management adds to mismanaged aesthetics. Technology becomes a hindrance instead of an aid. One remembers the great Balasaraswati breaking into song while performing a padam, the voice emerging from that physically demanding dancing body, clear as a bell, heard even in the last row of the huge crowd seated in the Red Fort area. Today the dependence on the microphone poses innumerable problems, starting with poor sound balancing — a too loud flute or violin drowning out the singing voice. Music often becomes an unholy aural onslaught with individual musicians wanting their music to be heard above the others.
During the India Festival in Germany, one can still recollect the astonishment of the sound technician about the tabla player constantly asking for raising the volume of his microphone. “Such a loud instrument does not need amplifying” was his constant refrain. “This contraption has destroyed voice training for the singer. It encourages falsetto singing and the voice coming from the lower abdomen is now missing,” said a maestro. Hanging mikes in theatre events result in actors always trying to adjust their moves so that they are in the proximity of the mike for dialogues. One remembers the actor in a Tamil play, involved in some action towards the rear of the stage, suddenly marching purposefully to position himself before the mike to say “Good bye” before making an exit!
Even when auditoriums are equipped with sophisticated sound systems, the right way of managing technology continues to elude most organisers. At the Kamani auditorium, an ear shattering decibel level for the audience in the first four rows coincides with inaudibility in the rear rows.
The Kathak dancer's addiction to the microphone has turned every recital into a lecture demonstration. As for the floor level mikes, the less said the better. The unlovely dragging of it and placing it in different spots has become pat of the stage movements of a Kathak dancer.