Sangeet Natak Akademi recently organised a talk and demonstration by the iconic Bharatanatyam dancer, Padma Bhushan Dr Padma Subrahmanyam. Creator of a new style called Bharatanrytam, Subrahmanyam is a scholar, innovator, author and teacher par excellence. She is also a musician, with a masters in Carnatic music.
Subrahmanyam started her talk with her journey – her study of Bharat’s Natyashastra 55 years ago. She had started teaching at the amazingly young age of 14, at her father’s (film maker K Subramanyam) dance school. Wanting to do “vidya daanam”, he brought in 25 orphan children to be taught classical dance, and paid all their expenses. While teaching, she herself had innumerable queries for which she wanted answers. So she started studying, eventually going into research. She found there was a gap between history, theory and actual dance practice.
Bridging this gap became her overwhelming passion. She didn’t even marry to remain focused on her goal. The dance sculptures at the Chidambaram temple which she had admired since childhood inspired her to study and interpret the 108 “karanas” (sculpture postures). Even at that young age, she saw movement in the stationary sculptures. She saw them as still photographs, and her research involved reading the scriptures, commentaries on the scriptures and then physically testing out what she theorised, by dancing the movements herself.
Paduakka, as she is lovingly known in the dance fraternity, explained how the nomenclature “Bharatanrtyam” was coined. She had danced in Delhi, and the renowned critic Subbudu reviewed of her performance. He wrote though it was beautiful, it was not Bharatanatyam, but “Padma-natyam”.
When she met him later he asked if she was hurt by his review, but she replied that it was a compliment that he felt she had created something novel, so many years after Bharata himself had enunciated the principles of the form! However, in her view she had not created something novel, she had merely recreated what was there from before, her inspiration was in the ancient sculptures of dance poses she had studied.
On another occasion her dance was likened to Odissi, which incidentally she had never seen. In her view, this only proves Odissi, like all other dance forms, originated from the Natyashastra since that was the only treatise she had studied.
She went on to add, attaining a speed of six times the original is not only done in the Kathak tradition, even folk dances of Tamil Nadu have this feature.
Doordarshan had also commissioned a 13 episode series on Bharata muni, which should be re telecast for viewing by a younger generation she felt. “Our National Cultural Policy must include a study of the Natyashastra at school level as it is relevant even today.”
She also recalled how she was the first to have danced to a Meera bhajan, in Hindi, way back in the early 1970s. Though reviled then she said everyone is today bringing in such innovations. Going further, she recalled another revolutionary performance, where she had danced to Western classical music.
She shared that our dance forms were pan Asian, and not limited to India only. In Bangkok, she saw the masks of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in a prayer room adjoining the performance hall. With them, there was also a mask of Bharata muni.
Feeling saddened to see Bharata being ignored in the land of his birth, she resolved to set up a centre dedicated to his memory and studying his precepts, in a pan Asian context. The centre is near Mahabalipuram with an extensive library, training facility to dance students and a four rmed statue of Bharata muni. His four armed aspect came to her in a vision, as traditionally Bharata is shown as a bearded sage. Coincidentally, a sculpture and inscription of the 7th century of a young Bharata muni exists in a temple near the centre, making it quite remarkable that the venue of a centre in his name is now situated in the same area.