Performance was the highlight of Swarnamalya’s multi-layered endeavour.
Commencing with a ‘Stories from the Attic’ session Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh’s three-part exposition dealt with dance history with particular reference to the Nayaks. In the Storeis session, Dr. S. Baluswamy, historian and Associate Professor, Madras Christian College, provided a lucid chronology of the Nayaks who were vassals of the Vijayanagara kings, before they declared themselves independent and ruled in South India between the 16th and 18th centuries. Swarnamalya spoke of the cultural and artistic mind-set of the Nayaks through interesting anecdotes.
‘Beholding The Attic’ was an exhibition of rare photographs and artefacts, some from the personal collection of hereditary performers, from the Nayak mural pictures to the salla costumes of Tiruvazhaputhur Kalyani Daughters, an ivory inlaid box gifted by Swati Tirunal to his court musician Vadivelu and precious Thanjavur Quartet manuscripts and palm-leaf scripts of their compositions along with Nellaiyappa Nattuvanar (Kandappa Pillai’s father) leather diary with dance notations and personal diaries of Kandappa nattuvanar and Thanjavur Ponniah Pillai wherein dhobi accounts are interspersed with dance notations. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh and co-curated by K.T. Gandhi Rajan.
Most of us are enthused about a peep into the past. Actor- dancer- dance historian Swarnamalya had a sizeable crowd for a performance titled ‘From The Attic,’ in which rare pieces from the Sadir-Bharatanatyam repertoire were re-created.
Swarnamalya’s all-round training affords her a panoramic view - traditional Bharatanatyam under late Guru K.J. Sarasa, training in the karanas under dance scholar Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, and training with hereditary dancers, Tiruvazhaputhur Kalyani Grand-daughters near Kumbakonam, in addition to learning the Grantha script.
At first look, the setting did the job with panels of temple murals hanging, muted lighting, the orchestra dressed in turbans and saris in the Telugu Nayak- style fashioned after the sangeetha melam that accompanied the dancers, and Swarnamalya in a replica of the 100-year old sari costume/salla of the Tiruvazhaputhur Kalyani daughters (Jeevaratnammal, Rajalakshmi).
Swarnamalya presented the Mukhacali and Pushpanjali, Perani, Nava Pada (‘Kuvalayakshiro,’ Kshetragna), English Padam written by a devadasi addressed to Thomas Munro (‘Tis thy will’ tuned in Ahiri, Adi, by HMV Raghu), the much-awaited Jakkini (tuned by HMV Raghu) and a Gondali (along with the Maharashtrian Gondal drummers-Nadi Rao, Jeeva Rao) tuned by Balaji Bhagavathar and Mala Balaji in a Maharashtrian tribal tune and using lavani-inspired steps and desi lasyangas. Though not every piece maybe strictly Nayak-period - some original lyrics were from the Maratha rule - this is not relevant since their existence is not in doubt.
There are, however, many interpretations for some of these pieces; for example, while Mukhachali is spoken of as a prelude, Perani has been variously described as a group dance, a solo, and only by males. In the Melattur bani of Bharatanatyam, it is the name of a pot dance. But as per Swarnamalya’s research, it is performed by a female soloist. The Perani involves five sections starting with a jester (Jagan), a Kaivara composition eulogising the king, a rhythmic jugalbandhi, jathi and ending with a Gita. In the last part a complicated literary puzzle from Raghunathabhyudayamu was used, with four questions and double the number of answers, in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Telugu, tuned in ragamalika including rare ragas like Malavasri (R.K. Sriramkumar). This was an exercise to show vidwat rather than to communicate with the rasikas.
Jakkini was piece-de-resistance in many ways: most-awaited, most-inferred, most-dramatic. The dancer took a cue from the Persian words in the composition, ‘..Ellilaam laale..’ meaning ‘O God, look at me..’ and the mention of Brahmaris (twirls) in the Jakkini manuscript and extended them to the Sufi connotation and to the whirling dervishes in the Sufi Mevlevi who twirl in meditation. She added Sufi Manganiyars (vocalist Anwar Khan Manganiyar) music, the traditional Jakkadi tune for a pre-Rumi poem to bring in the ‘real thing’ or the Persian presence. Tuned in Kapi, the devotional Marathi Jakkini included three kinds of brahmaris, salaam steps and was sandwiched with the Sufi poem in between. While the effort was commendable, cutting the Jakkini to accommodate the Persian poem, seemed to cut the mood itself.
Most ‘original’ was the opening Mukhacali. The dancer walks on stage behind a tirai and a melaprapti is played by the orchestra, followed by Ganesha Sabdam, ‘Sakala vigna harure’ (Nattai, khanda chapu). The Tirai opens, and the sollukattu, ‘Jahangane mahangane’ that is used frequently through the piece follows. Swarnamalya takes the flowers, the number of which are specified, and puts them down in the centre, the Brahma Sandhi. After a brief Naandi slokam, the nritta begins. Here the dancer used sollus, ‘Ta tai Tha Tai Ta..’ from the third century Arachallur caves. The starting position is the square position - Chaturashra, feet apart and elbows bent at right angles, much like the Odissi chauka. Maintaining this posture, a khanda Alarippu follows ending with the talapushpaputa karana to ‘Jahangane’ and a small jathi sequence. This leads into the Pushpanjali (Nattai, tuned by HMV Raghu) to the four gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Bharatha).
The music, tuned with deference to texts such as Venkatamakin’s Chaturdandi Prakashika and others, also incorporated a style of singing with a different use of gamakas. It was the choice of instruments that was puzzling. While texts speak of the flute and the veena among others being used, why was the violin (brought in during the Maratha rule) and the harmonium (brought in by the colonials with foot pedals and then adapted) used? This is not to discredit the musicians: Mannargudi Srinivasan (violin and tambourine) made a difference to the quality of the music and B. Srikrishnan (harmonium) gave good support. Singers R. Vidya and R. Nithya (Svetaranyam Sisters) had a shaky start but steadied themselves well. K.P. Prakash (tattu) was accurate, while K. Parthasarathy (muttu) played with special kappi moottu mridangam to provide the strong resonance.
The dancer explained that as a researcher one depends on oral traditions, sculptures, murals, texts and their interpretation. True, but It is significant to understand that barring oral traditions, the resource material is static and what we are looking to re-construct is dynamic; interpretation is the key. This may differ from artist to artist... but does it matter? Our culture is after all an inclusive one.