Seminar The focus of the 30th Natya Kala Conference was on how traditional dance forms are coping with changing needs. LEELA VENKATARAMAN

A fter consecutive years of weaving imaginative thematic flights, the 30th Natya Kala Conference, organised by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, with Shanta Dhananjayan as Convenor, anchored the concerns once again to the basics of training to review how institutions coped with traditional forms amidst diverse changing needs. What better way to start than with the Neo-Classical period of the 1930s when classical dance underwent changes, spearheaded by institutions such as Rukmini Devi's Kalakshetra?

Director Leela Samson emphasised on how Rukmini Devi's guiding principle of combining art with education, was to make dance training part of inculcating in young minds a sensitive feel for art and aesthetics.

While inspired by her love for the Pandanallur bani, Rukmini Devi's teaching, by deconstructing each adavu into its micro units and re-assembling it with attention to minute details (flight, balance, maintaining shoulder levels, breathing), imparted to learners an increased awareness of bodily responses and energy flow in Bharatanatyam movement. Even an oft-rendered Kalyani Jatiswaram , when done with these minute considerations, acquires a special impact.

Rukmini Devi's integrated view drew upon compositions of the Trinity such as Dikshitar's ‘Ananda Natana Prakasam' in Kedaram for the textual base for Bharatanatyam. How Kalyanams, Kuravanjis, Kavya Natakams and Charitrams inspired her and how her compositions, while not deviating from tradition, were most original in approach, was pointed out through snippets from dance drama productions.

Brilliant demonstrations

Little nuggets of duets such as Rama and Sita enjoying the beauty of the forest and seeing the Kinnaras dance were presented with Vasudevacharya's Naganandini raga score adding so much. The verse describing the high mountain range combining Kathakali and Bharatanatyam movements skilfully and seamlessly was demonstrated. One marvelled at Rukmini Devi's choreography of the high vaulting jumps and movements so fitting for Hanuman's Patra pravesham (brilliantly demonstrated by Haripadman, Kalakshetra's most evolved male dancer at present ), and for the much savoured Setu bandanam scene - for no Bharatanatyam legacy of such movements existed.

Many fine dancers including Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, Janardhanan, Kunhiraman and Leela Samson herself added to the rich legacy of Rukmini Devi with their own ideas. With outsiders such as Lalgudi Jayaraman contributing his medley of three Pallavis in conjunction, one was treated to not just the rich inheritance of the institution, but also its varied all round exposure to temple sculpture and ritual, literary compositions, and scholarly discourses. In the process, it produced students who were doing research into aspects of hasta, transgender performance traditions and how Bharatanatyam's internalised strength leading to externalised expression to evoke rasa differed from the sage's totally inward journey awakening the kundalini sakti.

Down memory lane

Mayadhar Raut, one of the Odissi doyens participating in the Odissi Jayantika endeavour of the late 1950s to expand the meagre survivals of history of Mahari and Gotipua Nritya, Sakhinatta and Dakkhini Nritya, by working on a new Odissi margam format, with daughter Madhumita conducting the demonstration, took one down memory lane.

He demonstrated what was agreed upon for an Odissi recital. Pada charis, the chauka, chira, utha, baitha, bhasa, bhauri, pali, short pure dance pieces called khandi, talas, minadandi, bartula and brhmarighera were all shown with items such as ‘Nindati Chandana' done by Mayadhar himself, Basant Pallavi, the Ashtapadi ‘Pashyati Dishi Dishi,' and the Gotioua favourite ‘Nachhanti Krishna.' For those who are treated to Odissi recitals of today regularly, it revealed how much the dance form has evolved in just half a century.

In minute detail

Kathakali demonstrations are always popular even for the less initiated. The Gandhi Seva Sadan demonstration by Srinathan and Vignesh conducted by Harikumar and Sadanam Balakrishnan, was unique in treating one to not just the body training but, more important, the literary, tala, angika, and aural aspects of each move.

Starting from the way the feet are placed in the mandala position, turned inwards with sides stamping the floor so as not to damage nerve endings under the soles of the feet connected with the head, to how the frontal body is held with regard to weight, depth, height, control of breathing and how it established connections with floor, sky, water, fire and air and the way energy travels in various movements, were explained.

The body was likened to a tanpura with knobs on top tightening to give the right tautness to strings. The importance of the eye movements which carve out space and the Suzhippu with eyes, hasta, body inclines and height coming together in focussed communication, was demonstrated.

After a brief explanation of talams - Chempada, Chempa, Adanda, Panchari and Mudiadanta, the Todayam and Purappadu -- incorporating the full technique was explained. Sadanam Balakrishnan gave an evocative demonstration of Kaikasi's contrasting expressions (as reminisced by Ravana years later) with little Ravana on her lap, her attention drawn to the Pushpavimanam in which Ravana's half brother Vaishravana is bringing home the riches and luxury of one in contrast to the modest circumstances of her own son.

In an informative lec-dem, the one aspect missing was Natya Sangeet which is unique.