The why and how of Bharatanatyam

Sudharani Ragupathy, Padma Subrahmanyam and Chitra Visweswaran   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Only a year away from its 40th edition, this year’s Natya Kala Conference convened by senior dancer-choreographer Rama Vaidyanathan, was held at the Krishna Gana Sabha from December 26 to 30. Titled ‘Nirikshana: Bharatanatyam under the magnifying glass’, the conference set out to explore the dance form and address some of the issues.

Here are snippets of selected sessions over the five days of the conference:

Day one witnessed visible excitement over the first session, hosting Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Sudharani Raghupathy and Chitra Visweswaran, titled ‘Dance Buddies: Re-visiting the Kuravanji Story.’ The film began with a shot of Sudharani Raghupathy. As it played out, the audience relived a slice of 1987 with Doordarshan’s (DD) recording of Viralimalai Kuruvanji, an abridged version. The success of the episode took them to the Festival of India in the USSR and Middle East. This was followed by re-creation of the piece by the trio that met with rousing applause and loud cheers. Although the hooting audience was a new addition to the Chennai dance scene, the session was an eye-opener in how improvisation in performance comes with experience.

Audience at the Natya Kala Conference held at Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai

Audience at the Natya Kala Conference held at Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

‘Alarippu Adventures’ with Christopher Gurusamy, Harinie Jeevitha, Radhe Jaggi and Preethi Ramprasad explored different interpretations of alarippu. The navarasa, temple structures, garuda and the joy of playing games were all uniquely woven into khanda triputa, khanda ata, misra jhampa and chatusra dhruva talams, composed by Ramamoorthy Sriganesh. At the end, a demonstration in group dynamics to a chatusra alarippu explored interesting formations and convergence of styles. This experiment in choreography and creativity, represented a celebration of the new dimensions the upcoming generation of dancers bring to the table.

The possibilities of building tension in a room are aplenty. There was enough to debate and deliberate upon in ‘Arangetram: A Boon or a Bane’. It is to be noted that none of the gurus were opposed to the concept of the arangetram itself. A genuine concern among young dancers, with respect to opportunities and the economics of performance, were reflected in this session. Moderated by Chitra Visweswaran, this session delved into how arangetrams are being used as a social status showcase, the rising exclusivity through expensive arangetrams and navigating the Guru-Sishya parampara over these issues. Some in the panel reflected upon involvement and commitment students exhibit for the arangetram. “(Children) rise to the occassion. They must, they have no choice but to,” quipped Leela Samson. “However, one does question its purpose if it is only a one-off performance-based involvement. If dancers are not motivated by the love for dance, what is really the point?”

Another concern with arangetrams is the presentation of a detailed repertoire without the theoretical knowledge or movement vocabulary. While traditionally teachers are expected to decide if the student is ready for an arangetram, the litmus test in honesty and parents’ insistence are an open secret. Sheela Unnikrishnan mentioned that it is up to the student’s family to choose how lavishly to conduct the event. Samson said, in particular to the young dancers, “What is the choice you’re making to spend this amount of money?”

Whether the takeaway from this session would lead to more temple performances, crowdfunded arangetrams or a conscious economic cap for arangetrams need to be seen.

Evolution of the art

‘Of Bharatanatyam Then & Now: Tracing changes in its content and performance’ by Rajika Puri on the Third Day was an insightful presentation with visuals, studied observations and wit. A crash course or a refresher depending on your acquaintance with the dance form, Rajika also put forth questions to ruminate upon. An interesting point she made was that until the 90s, students largely learnt from male teachers. While students copied their movements, they did not copy their style. “Today, there’s the danger that students might become clones of their gurus, who are themselves performers and have their own styles,” she said. Focusing on stylistic changes, influence of learned proponents of other dance forms, changes in the margam and reworking the pieces, she drew a comprehensive picture of Bharatanatyam’s evolution over a century.

The discussion on emerging trends in new-age training explored learning over Skype, workshops in regions with less access to culture, masterclasses in abhinaya, classes for students unfamiliar with the framework of the art form and gurukul-based workshops for a specific period of time. Important takeaways from this session were the emphasis on artistic expressions of different schools, the exposure to diversity that masterclasses and workshops offer a dancer and creating platforms to share knowledge among the dance community.

The 39th Natya Kala Conference was overall a confluence of knowledge, performances and some of dance community’s legends. Over the course of five days, the sessions covered a variety of topics, however, one wonders if popularity tended to cloud relevance. Nonetheless, Nirikshana laid the foundation of what it set out to address.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 3:05:02 PM |

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