'Nattuvangam' is not even treated as an instrument these days, says K.S.Balakrishnan

Nattuvangam artiste K.S. Balakrishnan at a workshop in Thiruvananthapuram

Nattuvangam artiste K.S. Balakrishnan at a workshop in Thiruvananthapuram   | Photo Credit: S.Mahinsha

Veteran nattuvanar K.S.Balakrishnan on the changing profile of nattuvanars and his attempts at giving them pride of place in classical dance circuit

“I will be frank and might sound harsh in my views..,” K.S. Balakrishnan says at the beginning of the interview. FridayReview caught up with the veteran, Chennai-based nattuvanar when he came down to Thiruvananthapuram for a workshop on nattuvangam. “I am more emotional about Bharatanatyam than most dancers. That’s why I have no reservations about giving my opinion,” he says.

A Carnatic vocalist and composer, Balakrishnan sounds upset when he talks about how nattuvanars have ended up as accompanists during dance performances. “Many classical dancers and teachers don’t know that there was a time when a nattuvanar ran the whole show. He was a vocal percussionist, dance teacher-choreographer and composer-conductor. We have not been able to create anything different from what they had composed or taught. We still perform those pieces or something on the same pattern, be it kauthuvam, alarippu, shabdam or varnam,” elucidates Balakrishnan.

A nattuvanar, he says, is expected to have ‘naalvakayaana gunam’ or four qualities — natya jnanam (knowledge of dance), sangeetha jnanam (knowledge of music), sahitya jnanam (knowledge of literature) and thaala jnanam (knowledge of rhythm). “Dance was all that they knew and promoted. They didn’t go after money, never marketed themselves and, unfortunately, didn’t nurture a new generation of artistes. They produced new compositions and chose a laidback life. However, they were very competitive when it came to dance matters. If one nattuvanar came up with something new, as soon as the news reached a nattuvanar in another village, possibly after a few months, the latter would design something new. That’s how we have got this treasure of margams. Look at the scenario now. The nattuvanar is not in the picture at all and nattuvangam is not even treated as an instrument!” he says.

Looking back

Nattuvangam came late in life for Balakrishnan. A native of Poonthala in Alappuzha district, he learnt Carnatic music from Chengannur Balamuralikrishna and Pandalam Venmani Sreekumar and also played several instruments. But at the age of 24, he decided to leave his home because he knew his “destiny” lay elsewhere. “I was working as a Hindi teacher at a private college in Pandalam then. I reached Ernakulam and stayed at an ashram. A well-wisher who noticed my affinity for music took me to Chennai where I learnt music from violin exponent M.Chandrasekharan. I began singing for dance programmes. Gradually, nattuvangam caught my attention and after that I became the singer as well as the nattuvanar. However, later I started focussing on nattuvangam,” says Balakrishnan, who has worked with Bharatanatyam exponents such as Malavika Sarukkai, Leela Samson, Chitra Visweswaran and Priyadarshini Govind among others.

Eventually, he started doing research on the significance of nattuvanars in the history of classical dance. He worked on a syllabus that got its final form two years ago. “It is this syllabus that I teach at the workshops. Basically, I tell the students that if they learn the notations, they should be able to pick up the beat and know how to dance,” he says.

Nattuvangam artiste K.S. Balakrishnan

Nattuvangam artiste K.S. Balakrishnan   | Photo Credit: S.Mahinsha

Today, he takes pride in the fact that there is a renewed interest to learn nattuvangam, among both men and women. “Many dance teachers are attending workshops. Rhythm holds the key in naatyam. Unfortunately, now all are concentrating on abhinaya, because that’s easy. I am disappointed that they are going after Bharata Muni, forgetting the nattuvanar. What has Bharata Muni got to do with Bharatanatyam? Also, teachers keep the students at bay, instead of adopting a give-and-take relationship between the two,” he adds.

A prolific composer, he has worked on music and rhythm composition, orchestration and choreography of dance productions. He has conceptualised productions for dancers such as Shirisha Shashank, Renjit-Vijna and Priyadarshini Govind. He was a part of ‘Sayujya’, a creative collaboration of T.M.Krishna and Priyadarshini. “A work that gave me immense satisfaction was ‘Saptaswara’, a musical drama staged in Singapore. We included Indian, Western and Chinese instruments in the production,” he says. Among his other productions are ‘Sita Kalyanam’ and ‘Shanmatham’. His upcoming work is ‘Prakrithimanushyan’.

Learning the rhythm

The artiste points out that it is necessary for a teacher and student to learn nattuvangam. “If you are able to understand the nuances of spaces between the syllables, you can set an adavu. Take ‘thaka thaka’ for example. You can come up with so many steps using these rhythmic syllables. And if you take ‘tha ki ta’, you can come up with at least 15 variations,” he explains. He points out that a dancer should listen to music and should read about dance and other topics. “How many dancers and teachers know about the ragas? They have half-baked knowledge when it comes to music and rhythm. A strong foundation is necessary in any field of study,” he adds.

So, does he share his concern and views with well-known dancers and dance teachers? “Some of them don’t let me talk and so I refrain myself from saying anything. But I am writing a comprehensive book on nattuvangam, in which I will deal with the sum and substance of nattuvangam and my concerns about the changing role of a nattuvanar,” he sums up.

The 50-year-old artiste runs Malavika Fine Arts in Chennai. The nattuvangam workshop was organised by Lakshya School of Dance and Music run by Aswathy Nair.

The instrument

Nattuvangam has two metal pieces, the one in the right hand is made of brass and the one in left is of cast iron. Balakrishnan has named them ‘thattuthalam’ and ‘kuzhithalam’ respectively. A thick thread made of cotton is tied to these pieces separately. The instrument is mostly made in Kumbakonam.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 8:17:25 PM |

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