The speakers at the 29th annual Natya Kala Conference, focussed on various dance forms, styles and facets.

Titled ‘Dance Matters' Sri Krishna Gana Sabha's 29th annual Natya Kala Conference generated new vibrations hitherto unfelt. Since dance was the lifeline that kept her spirits up last year while battling cancer, it certainly mattered to Bharatanatyam artist/convenor Dr. Ananda Shankar. Her meticulous organisation covered the multi-hued presence of dance in India, from the inherited and reinvented dances to new directions, not omitting popular media such as television and films, which classical dance seemed to be in conflict with.

The conference was inaugurated by the Secretary, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Jayant Kastuar, who deputised for the chief guest Purandeswari, Minister of State for Human Resources Development, Government of India. Pre-occupied with the smouldering issue of Telengana, Mr. Kastuar's keynote address threw up some significant statements about dance as a liberating force in a social hierarchy.

Odissi's international popularity from a home-grown minimal presence within 50 years, proved how dance had spread. Dr. Sunil Kothari's lecture, ‘Where do we go from here?' supplemented with rare visuals imaging the past such as Bala singing and dancing and Rukmini Devi in Kalakshetra, thanks to the speaker's involvement with dance for over 60 years, could not avoid acquiring a diarising tone. Thus it became Sunil's story rather than that of dance, till speaking of the new directions of the late Chandralekha and he raised the pertinent questions she had asked of - what was happening to the instrument of dance, the body, and why the dance dialogue and serious scholarship on dance issues (different from Sastric erudition) were missing.

Changing kinetics

The trump card of the day was the lec/dem of Harikrishnan and Srividya Natarajan on ‘Changing Kinetics' and how the late Kittappa Pillai, their guru, had already started adapting the inherited solo version to the new circumstances of proscenium space.

In a superbly structured lecture, they demonstrated how the guru through the kinetics of full stretches and torso thrusts gave to the solo body an expansiveness covering large performance space, and also making the dance body androgynous in what hitherto had been a female-centric tradition.

The visual harmony of a “tei tei dhititai tai,” strong aerial thrusts contrasting the firm foot-stomping, the un-convoluted jati, which, with aural vibrations and adavu movements, were counterpoints to sollukattus that acquired a feel of virtuosity - were all excellently demonstrated stylistic features. The first half of the Chakravakam swarajati ‘Saamimel Chintaiyahinen' as performed by both was a high-energy treat.

Priyadarshini Govind's lec-dem, while showing an individualistic, creative style, built on the base of what she had imbibed from the Vazhuvoor bani, fell short in analytical explanation on the logic of body kinetics as she visualised it. She spoke of music as a main inspiration. Her visualisation of words set in jati form with movement evoking rhythm and thematic resonances of Muruga, Siva or Devi was well demonstrated by her troupe.

The second day saw a flawless execution of each section. Nandini Ramani's carefully analysed talk on the Balasaraswati style kinetics, dealt with nritta, Bala's own forte till her late forties, which remained unpublicised, thanks to the stress on her exceptional abhinaya.

According to the overall format of strict Natya Sampradaya, nritta dignified and unhurried without contrived poses or needless embellishment had hidden space/time arrangements in the sollus of a jati, never easy to fit impeccably into the strict tala cycle. To lose the thread of a jati, and later continue by entering midway at a point within the tala cycle, with the singing never stopping even as the jati was executed, required uncanny understanding of fractional intervals of rhythm.

Overt indulgence of laya or exploiting the tattumettu for effect were prohibited, nor was nattuvangam ever exhibitionistic. Tillana design had three ‘poi adavus' and five jatis, with cross-rhythm playing in the tattumettu at the end. And in abhinaya, left to the disciple's evolution after the initial prescribed format for the arangetram, sanchari went beyond the word. A student learnt only the simple Alarippu, things such as the Sankeerna nadai coming much later. Daughter Sushama Ranganathan demonstrated with K. Ramiah, disciple of K. Ganesan, and Sri Balaji, nephew of Muktamma, provided support. Nandini's own singing with dancing was a unique feature, lost today.

Rukmini Devi's contribution of introducing the male Bharatanatyam dancer as such and not imitative of the female had its vociferous supporter in V.P. Dhananjayan, who conducted a bristling section, with 12 male dancers adorning the stage. The plain tattadavu or a Sarukkal and the ‘tat tai tam' adavu meant for the male body, and segments of Nrittaswaravali in Mohanam, and Dhananjayan's Nrityopaharam, topped by a racy segment of the Natabhairavi Veena Krishnamachari composition ‘Nritta angahara' comprised the spirited session. Keeping audience entertained with details from his youth, Dhananjayan topped it with abhinaya interpreting a Malayalam padam.

No less incisive was Dr. Anuradha Jonnelgedda's lec/dem on Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam's contribution. Aside from the traditional inheritance, he imbibed the innovative spirit from “tradition breakers” (his gurus) Tadepalli Peraiyya and Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastry. His own understanding of innate female bodily grace made him internalise overt rhythmic articulation of the male Kuchipudi dancer, rib cage shifts adding further lasya to movements. The way he knit ‘gamanas' and charis in jati execution and the natya element of characterisation that he emphasised even in the solo tradition (unlike dancer as narrator) was important. For new characters he adapted traditional models and his bold use of ragas from the Hindustani tradition also was mentioned. With the full troupe from Hyderabad stalled by flight cancellation, Anuradha had to fall back on some video material of the Guru.

It ended on a high note with Ashish Mohan Khokhar's presentation of the documentation legacy of his father, Mohan Khokhar. Narrating how a 20-year-old from Lahore trained in, what was called, the Punjab Gharana of Kathak under Pyare Lal, came to Kalakshetra in ‘Madras' to study Bharatanatyam and how when the idea of documenting dance was not even thought of, this youngster began collecting dance images from photographs, advertisements and even ghee tins, made the introduction - followed by unique visuals meticulously arranged with suitable music - interesting.