Two well known singers discuss what it takes to be a good vocal accompanist for dance

Traditional dance gurus were as adept at music as dance — besides related arts like literature. Since music is considered the essence or starting point of dance, a grounding in music, if not a full-fledged training in it, is also considered essential for a dancer. But in today’s hurried hobby class era, such a holistic approach is often missing. Still, whether trained in music or not, dancers cannot perform without music.

In response to the comments of eminent classical dancer Yamini Krishnamurti on what she desires in a dance accompanist (published in Friday Review of May 24), to which we received interested comments from readers, we asked two well known vocalists based in the Capital for their take on what can be called a fraught topic — because there is no doubt that while at times there is great bonhomie, at others there is definite tension between dancers and musicians. If one opinion is that musicians often don’t get enough credit for their contribution to the success of a dance recital, another view is that dancers are at the mercy of their accompanists! Yet only synergy can ensure a great performance.

Rukmini Devi Arundale, who founded Kalakshetra in Madras in the 1930s to teach Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music and allied arts in a pioneering approach that fused the guru-shishya parampara with institutional training, collected around her as collaborators some of the greatest musicians of the era.

In Rukmini Devi’s solo Bharatanatyam performances, say old-timers, her vocalist would close his eyes and become immersed in the spirit of the song, improvising musically while she did the same with abhinaya. The two obviously had a comfort level artistes don’t always achieve today.

“Singing for dance is a challenging task as one needs to be well-versed in the musical compositions presented as well as sensitive and receptive to the mood and mental frame of the dancer,” says G. Elangovan. A nattuvanar and vocalist, Elangovan has a definite edge as a dance accompanist as he has a grounding in Bharatanatyam as well, having been trained by his father, late Guru K.J. Govindarajan. Thus he entered the profession with a knowledge of mudras and traditional compositions, which other vocalists would have to pick up on the job.

Vocalist Sudha Raghuraman has also sung for a spectrum of classical dancers over more than a decade, and this Saturday will perform a set of her own compositions in “Ashta Darsanam”, a programme in which she investigates the concept of bhava through music, while well known dancer Geeta Chandran interprets the songs through Bharatanatyam abhinaya.

“The very words ‘singing for dance’ mean to sing according to dance, but not as a solo concert,” says Sudha. “One must remember that singing for dance is not merely singing (lines) a number of times in any item. There is so much more to it. Every song in a margam has a different feel, moods, lyrics, musicality.” Sudha adds, “Most importantly, every item has its own pace.”

And so do dancers, says Elangovan. “My father used to tell me about the importance of understanding the nadai (natural rhythm) of a dancer to be a good singer for dance performances,” he explains. “It is proven scientifically that every individual has a unique heartbeat. That is, all hearts are beating but we can’t find two hearts beating in the same identical way. Like that, every dancer has his or her own natural rhythm. While recording music for dance, I have experienced that whenever we do a ‘click recording’, in which the rhythm is perfectly maintained by an electronic meter, the dancer invariably feels that ‘something’ is missing, even if the overall impact of the recording is great. I believe it is the nadai of the dancer which is missing, something that is unique to each individual and which is the beginning of the dance.”

Sudha agrees on the individuality aspect. “Each dancer has a unique style and execution. How to adapt to every dancer and dance form is a very big question.”

She offers a sort of checklist of fundamentals for dance vocalists. Among them is the practical consideration of how many concerts one can handle, given the preparation involved. “Here the number of programmes doesn’t really matter but the quality does.”

While adherence to sruti (pitch) is a must — otherwise “anything sung is a waste and sounds totally ridiculous” — it is equally important to acquire a “complete understanding of the whole margam or repertoire in any classical dance form.” For example, she explains, “Padams are to be sung in an unhurried manner.”

As for lyrics, singers “do not have any right to mispronounce any language,” declares Sudha, and they should know the meaning, so the “feel will automatically flow.”

Elangovan says the singer needs to be “both receptive and inspiring” so the dancer can give her best. “During a performance, it is essential for a singer to understand the emotions depicted by the dancer and, accordingly, bring those emotions in the singing with the right intensity. The abhinaya of a dancer will look suitable only if the singing is in sync with the feelings depicted on stage.” In Sudha’s words, “Give energy to dancers who give energy to you while performing, and be subtle when you see a dancer doing slower and subtle movements and modulate your voice accordingly.”

Sudha notes the centrality of a dialogue between dancer and singer, saying, “Firstly, understand the concept of the concert.” It is important to know the dancer’s ideas, she says, “instead of just going and starting to sing.” Then, the singer should understand the piece thoroughly, noting pauses, repetitions and points where a singer can improvise. She gives as example places where the dancer can perform sanchari abhinaya (elaboration on a theme). “Not all places are there for us to explore anything that we want to,” she remarks.

Elangovan adds, “Singing for dance requires a great deal of creativity. To suit the needs of the dancer, the singer might have to repeat the same phrase of the lyrics several times and embellish the presentation by rendering numerous sangatis.” On this point, Sudha suggests, “Orchestration also plays a crucial role. Try to incorporate instrumentalists’ ideas too. Everything can’t be sung.”

But all dancers don’t agree. Sudha relates, “Many a time I have found dancers saying ‘don’t leave it to instruments; you sing even if it’s 50 times,’ as some of them are weak in rhythm and don’t want to miss a beat. It becomes cacophony at the end, I feel.” Clearly, a good accompanist has a lot of homework. “All these things are time consuming,” admits Sudha. “A singer might think, ‘It’s only a dance programme and the dancer will earn the name.’”

On her part, Sudha avers, “In my career I have always considered any dance programme as my own concert which has dance as the main character. Only then a singer can create an impact on the audience even when they have left.”