Danseuse Padma Subrahmanyam on creating contemporary history in granite
Indian classical dance is often described as moving sculpture. On the other hand, sculpture is frozen dance. A story that dance gurus like to tell their students is about someone, who wanted to become a painter and was directed to first learn sculpture to imbibe the knowledge required from the maker of a 3-D object that would then be transformed into a 2-D picture. On requesting a guru of sculpture, the student was directed to first learn dance, because sculpture is a 3-D attempt to capture movement, rhythm and form. Of course, rhythm brings us to the musical aspect, and we hear the student was then advised to learn music first, because somebody who is well versed in music can only translate its emotions into body movements.
The story tells us something about the patience required to learn an art form thoroughly, but it also lets us know that sculptures are documents from an era long before photography and filming. Today we live in hurried times. Even documentation has become a faster process. But classical dance exponent Padma Subrahmanyam, known for her extensive study of the Natya Shastra and developmment of classical dance, realizes the importance of sculpture even today. She is at present undertaking an ambitious project to recreate the sculptures of the 108 karanas (dance postures of Shiva in his form of Nataraja, the lord of dance, which she hopes will be funded by dancers in the same spirit as devotees contribute to temple projects. “The merit should go to them,” she feels. For other aspects of the building, envisaged as a temple to Bharatamuni, the legendary author of the Natya Shastra, India's oldest extant treatise on the performing and allied arts, she is counting on corporate support as well as personal funding, which she has no regrets in volunteering.
It is often said that India is not a country that traditionally appreciates its history and monuments and thus we don't have a significant tradition of art history. The veteran dancer disagrees.
“The sculptures of the karanas were made because that's how they could document them. They didn't have photography and video. That's how sculptural documentation was done. And there are lots of manuscripts.” Just because we may not be able to lay our hands on the manuscripts, she says, we tend to say India doesn't have a tradition of documentation. “We have to do a little concentrated research. There are so many facilities,” she points out, however adding, “India is too big a country, and the cultural elements here are something that cannot be documented fully. So what is done, we should give credit for.”
Today, she feels, India needs to document the contemporary history of the classical arts. “When I say contemporary style, people think only of Western style. It need not be something imported from America,” she explains. “What is happening around us even in the classical field, is contemporary.” She cites and example: It may be the same Todi raga, but when it is sung today it is a contemporary interpretation. “India is a place where centuries co-exist, so those need to be documented.”
At her Bharata-Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture she is having constructed 108 sculptures of karanas by Shiva and 108 by Parvati. The major difference between these statues and the old existing ones in temples across South India is that she has visualized the movement of the karana by using multiple hands. “The secondary hands show the action and the main hands show the final position,” she explains. “I would call it contemporary history of karanas.”
She recalls her brother's video documentation of her dance being damaged over time. That may be part of the reason behind the sculptures being created in granite. The sculptures will also have panels with information on dancers who contribute, leading dance schools and performers. This is on the model of ancient stone inscriptions from which we have garnered a lot of history.
It was Guru Padma, incidentally, who first put forward the theory that the 108 karanas shown carved on temples at Chidambaram and Thanjavur, etc., were not static postures but the culmination point of movement units of dance. Introducing these flowing karana movements into her Bharatanatyam, she pioneered a distinct style she named Bharata Nrityam, averring that this was the style closest to what Bharatamuni described in the Natya Shastra.
Known for first having spearheaded the creation of modern karana statues at the Nataraja temple in Satara, Maharashtra, her current project is located in Mahabalipuram on a five-acre stretch near Tiger Cave. “There is a 7th Century inscription there mentioning Bharatamuni,” she adds.
Also, convinced that the dance culture across Asia has common origins, and having come across sculptures of karanas in South East Asian countries like Cambodia and Thailand, she feels the “Asian” in the name of her foundation is apt. Moreover, Sage Bharata is better remembered in those countries. “In Indonesia and also in Cambodia and Thailand, every Thursday Bharata is worshipped.” She even acquired a portrait of the sage from Thailand. “We use his name, they take his name,” she notes wryly, distinguishing between reverence and expediency.