OPINION Dance and poetry are inseparable. To choose the right verses is a worthy task for a dancer.

A new repertoire for Bharatanatyam implies new formatting of a performance as well. While this has been happening in a rather uncontrolled manner over time, it has given an impetus to creative work as well.

Almost as a signifier of quality, dancers rarely neglect the proper technique of Bharatanatyam. Whether it is nritta or abhinaya, the footwork, stances, movements and adavu patterns are followed as also the prescribed gestures and expressions. This, in fact, is the unique quality of Bharatanatyam that it can move so far away from the repertoire taught by nattuvanars and still be definitively Bharatanatyam.

The Quartet's power

The largest contributor, other than the technique of the dance itself, to this defining character is the music which is predominantly based on Carnatic ragas and talas. What has changed over time are the compositions of the Thanjavur Quartet and their extended family. Those composers knew every aspect of dance and therefore, the strength of their dance-worthiness is indisputable.

Over time, nattuvanars have been careful in selecting songs to enhance the repertoire that suits the times. There was a time when the purists would frown upon a Tyagaraja kriti being danced to. Today, with the expansion of the guru-base and a democratic approach to dance, questionable selections of songs have increased.

While in the hands of an astute dancer even a simple song can gain in stature, inexperienced students can falter while negotiating indifferent compositions. The approach to composing (choreography is another matter) for dance has changed considerably. Often highly dramatic representations of complex lyrics gloss over pure aesthetics. In a flurry of activity, the suggestive charm of Bharatanatyam is forsaken for overt narratives which play to the gallery. After all, much of dance is, at present, a community activity.

For serious artists, the need to re-invent their repertoire is as important as their understanding of the aesthetic values. Our rich literary heritage can be explored for nuggets of beauty when it comes to presenting new items. Many do not understand that it takes time to shape a dance piece to perfection. Instant creations just do not often click even with generous inclusion of the fire-works of pure dance sequences. Rasa is not merely a theory to be studied and debated on. The aim of a mature artist is to be creative with restraint in order to do something memorable. Whether it is a verse from Kalidasa or Kulasekara Azhwar, a deep study of the text can make our exploration worthwhile in our quest for that impression we strive to leave on the viewer.

When I presented the ideal dancer’s attributes based on Kalidasa’s ‘Malavikagnimitra,’ my imagination was challenged and the end result gave a lot of satisfaction. Discretion and artistic judgement are important in choosing poetry for dance. Sometimes a single idea through a few poetic words can be expanded in sanchari bhava with telling effect. At other times, demanding texts are needed to tell a story with deep impact. Exploring our mythological characters with the help of the words of great poets has always been rewarding.

With a view to present ‘epic’ women other than the usual heroines such as Sita or Draupadi, I sifted through Tamil poetry and found remarkable verses on two mothers, Kousalya and Devaki. They are, in my opinion supremely selfless women whose voices can be heard if we care to listen. Kamban and Arunachala Kavi sing succinctly about Kousalya’s plight on being confronted with the prospect of being separated from her beloved son Rama for 14 long years. Her woes are inexplicably linked with the nemesis of Rama’s duties.

Kulasekara Azhwar in his inimitable Tamil verses sings of Devaki’s disappointment and anguish at being the mother who lost a child, not an ordinary child! Motherhood has so many facets and Devaki is deprived of everything which Yashoda was lucky to experience with the young Krishna. Such verses which are both poignant and contextual are a challenge for any dancer.

The many facets

The innumerable women bhakti poets provide yet another array of dance-worthy songs. Many facets of bhakti, including madhura bhakti which is full of sringara (divine love), are there for us to study and present through dance. While the intensity of a Karaikkal Ammayar can give scope for both Tandava and Lasya in depiction, the sweet words of Andal in ‘Nachiyar Tirumozhi’ are like the song of the kuyil bird she sends as a messenger to Lord Ranganatha. In Kannada, we have the passionate verses of Mahadevi Akka, and thanks to M.S. Subbulakshmi, many bhajans of Meera are now household songs. To dance to some of them is a pleasure because the simplicity of ideas affords an eloquent opportunity for bhava. Dance and poetry are inseparable. To choose the right verses from the great bank of our classic writers is a task worth straining one’s abilities for. Bharatanatyam has grown. While the standard repertoire is no longer standard, the old gems such as pada varnams and padams are irreplaceable for their grandeur and honest classicism. However, a new repertoire for special programmes culled out of rich literature and tuned tastefully is sure to make the rasikas sit up and watch!

(The dancer is being conferred the title ‘Viswakalabharathi’ by Bharat Kalachar.)