Interview Swapnasundari on Vilasini Natyam, the art of abhinaya and her new book. ANJANA RAJAN

S ome people speak out fearlessly. Others let their work speak for them. Then there are those like classical dancer, researcher, musician and musicologist Swapnasundari, who manages both. Long known as a performer and scholar of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, a master of both rhythm and the art of expression, abhinaya, not to mention a maestro's singing voice, she has devoted over a decade-and-a-half to reviving Vilasini Natyam, the re-christened temple dance tradition of Andhra Pradesh. This Saturday she presents to Delhiites her voluminous book on the subject, “Vilasini Natyam — Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers”. Just back from performances during the height of the Chennai ‘season' where her dance skills did the talking — introducing highly researched traditional dance pieces, organising a festival dedicated to abhinaya — Swapnasundari answers questions related to her latest feats and the dance art. Excerpts:

Your performance in Chennai during which you drew the picture of a lion while dancing based to the Simhanandanam tala of 128 aksharas evoked awe. How difficult was the project? You used wet colours. How was it historically done?

The process of reclaiming the dance-interpretation of Simhanandana Talam has been both challenging and exciting. After nearly six months' preparation, it was premiered 10 days ago in my concert in Chennai. I am glad that people appreciated it.

I knew that originally Simhanandanam used to be danced by the temple-dancers and also Raja-dasis (court-dancers).

I studied every aspect of the talam, including the angas, the related kriyas, the lakshana geethams, etc. I worked with (late) Pottigari Ranganayaki — a hereditary Telugu temple dancer of Sri Subrahmanyaswami temple in Chiruthanipuram — and several other hereditary temple dancers in different parts of Andhra to obtain details of how they and their predecessors used to dance Simhanandanam. I read the relevant sections of dance treatises independently and gained greater understanding of the correlation between foot-beats and the kriyas (actions of the hands) of the person who chants the talam.

The challenge in Simhanandanam lies not just in drawing a sketch with one's feet but in doing so with the correct footwork, maintaining the positions according to the divisions in the talam.

In the temples of Andhra, powdered rice flour used to be spread over the granite floor. The dancer would separate the powder with her footwork while performing this talam and at the conclusion, the black flooring underneath would show through in the outline of a lion (Simha). Temple visitors could go around the dancing area and look at the form that was created thus.

As it is not practical for the audience to climb on to the stage, I dip my feet in wet colour and paint with my feet, on a thick white fabric spread on the stage. It is then held up for everyone to see.

However, my ‘movement memory' helps only to a limited extent because throughout the item, I have to dip my feet in wet colour intermittently and continue the ‘painting' from the previous point. So I have to execute my “foot-brush strokes” carefully without compromising on the prescribed foot-positions!

How would you elaborate the difference between your presentation and the occasionally seen ‘Simhanandini' of Kuchipudi, which is called a tradition too.

(Vilasini Natyam is now acknowledged even by SNA as a major tradition of Indian dance!)

Vilasini Natyam and Kuchipudi catered to different sections of society and were performed in totally different contexts. The movements also vary from each other. The temple dancer and the court dancer had to observe the Shastric tenets governing both ritual dances (of which Simhanandanam was a part) and Kelika (concert dances). They danced as a part of worship in the temple and for the elite in the court.

Until the 1930s, Kuchipudi tradition thrived as a Bhagavatham (group operatic-play) performed by men in improvised performance spaces. It was meant to entertain large numbers of spectators. Hence there was scope for introducing popular elements into the repertoire.

Simhanandanam was a part of the Telugu temple dance tradition and remained in practice until the 1930s. Some boys of the male-oriented Kuchipudi tradition may have seen it in their region during their young days, when done by the female temple dancers. When these boys later became gurus, the piece is likely to have been re-created from memory, recast in their own way and taught to some female soloists of Kuchipudi. As such, there are bound to be differences between the temple dancers' original interpretation of Simhanandanam and as taught by male Kuchipudi gurus who were not its original exponents!

The Abhinaya Sudha festival creditably drew full houses during the Chennai season. Is this only due to the quality of the performers or because there is an eager audience for abhinaya today?

It is probably a bit of both. But in the first place, it is not just the artists or audience who are responsible for losing the space for abhinaya in the last few decades. This space began to shrink around the1980s when our official cultural organisations began to project what they thought was an ideal “Indian image” that foreigners would relate to. High-speed, almost mechanical dancing in the solo dance traditions and large group presentations came to be favoured and promoted. In the interest of their careers many performers fell in line with this concept. Even artists whose work was wanting in abhinaya, so central to Indian dance, gained by default. Consequently abhinaya came to be neglected, particularly over the last 25 years. But now, Indian audiences seem to have had an overdose of this model shaped by and catering to an alien and incorrect perception of classical Indian dance! My feedback is that the Indian audience has begun to once again appreciate the indigenous artistic identity conveyed through the essential features and strengths of our traditional arts. The success of Abhinaya Sudha Festival in many cities bears testimony to that.

What are the essential qualities to present good abhinaya?

A well-trained body alone does not suffice. The mind plays a crucial role. The mind-body relationship should be such that there is instantaneous response to the accompanying music and lyric. It is this spontaneous response that is called manodharma, a feature sadly neglected in our teaching systems as well as performance. There is good abhinaya and there is great abhinaya. A good abhinaya artist plans well and reproduces pre-meditated imagery. A great abhinaya artist constantly creates his or her own imagery instantaneously. Such an artist would rarely repeat the same idea in the same or another performance even while doing abhinaya to the same song.