The performance theory

Swarnamaiya Ganesh with her students. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Swarnamalya Ganesh in her lec-dem on ‘Koil and Kottagai Sadir Traditions’, presented for Natyarangam, delved deep into the subject, analysing every aspect with sensitivity in her hour-long presentation. She interpreted the koil and sadir traditions from her point of view, giving them an appropriate place in the history of Bharatanatyam.

A student of guru K.J. Sarasa, Swarnamalya began her lec-dem with a series of questions, like — Who are dancers? What is their role? And suitably answered them too. “We narrate because we are as dancers narrators,” she said.

According to Swarnamalya, the purpose of a performance is to communicate to the audience. That is when the dancers become narrators in a performance. (Here, Swarnamalya’s usage of word ‘performitivity’ sounded unusual, but she said it is derived from the verb ‘to perform’).

Even though all of us know that performance is a live presentation of any art in the presence of an audience at a specific place and time, Swarnamalya chose to explain it in the context of sadir or Bharatanatyam. She defined performance as telling of a story or stories by a narrator/dancer and the audience experiences this performance — dance, music and dialogue — visually and acoustically. “The dancer’s voice, body or actions form the core of the performance.” This, according to Swarnamalya, gives freedom to the dancer for different degrees of impersonation.

This can also be applied to non-corporeal presentation, such as, poetry, sahitya or even nataka. (Here, the dancer and her disciples presented ‘mandooka sabdam’ using the basic stance of ‘chatushra’ of sadir, used in Nayak period, a fact, she discovered in her doctoral thesis.) Here, the activity refers to the imitation or illusion of a performance, wherein the audience reconstruct the performance dimensions in their minds.

Swarnamalya gave another example of ‘Kuluppam’ (a term in Tamil, perhaps not explainable) which referred to the performance at the sayaratsha puja in the temple, near the flag-mast or dwajastambam.

Another kind of performance relates to the narrator’s self-thematic presentations. The dancer’s explicit observations and feeling in the story or the act of narration, like expanding it — developing ideas with manodharma for any composition can be witnessed in sadir performances, she said. (Swarnamalya presented the characteristic, ‘Nee Arulayo Thaye’ to provide a visual imagery to her explanation.)

“Seeing Bharatanatyam as sadir helps me see both the actual and implied act of narration used in

presenting a story. I am interested in both,” affirmed the dancer.

Swarnamalya brought here what she learnt as compositions from devadasis. “I am supposed to draw lesser from narration although we focus on narratives in a wider communicational and contextual framework, like mythologies-history-sthalapuranas-ithihasas, etc.” Swarnamalya explained in the context of self-thematisation that it is the dancer’s personal observation and comments on a particular composition. “She uses her understanding often born out of her intimate relationship with the deity, temple and society to create her narration. This is as opposed to miming stories from mythology or purana, which Bharatanatyam dance largely does today for sanchari. Manodharma, in the devadasi way of placing her own observation on the composition, makes it spontaneous and transitory as opposed to Bharatanatyam’s static narration of stories.”

To cite an example of changes in situation, attitude or behaviour of the dancer, Swarnamalya presented ‘Salamu Sabdam’ re-constructed by Serfoji, which she sourced from Saraswati Mahal library.

The activity of performance is realised in a dance presentation, which includes bhava, anubhava,

vibhava, aharya, etc. whether it is done in the proscenium stage or temple, but the intensity

varies. The spatial proximity between performer and audience, as well as, the possible

manipulation of light and sound along with cultural, ritual overtures or the lack of it and the

creation of the stage as an allegory of temple lean heavily on this experience, she said.

According to the dancer, the line between loka dharmi and natya dharmi blurs finely and yet they stand clearly distinguished from a cultural behaviour point of view. Her students then performed ‘modi’ a kottagai composition about a snake-charmer keeping ‘modi’ and his wife removing it. Their banter was in a bit hybrid Hindi-Parsi language.

To emphasise her statement that ethnographic and anthropological work investigates the way in which a society constructs, preserves or changes its traditions, identity and cultural memory, she presented Viralimalai Kuravanji, performed by Muthukannammal of devadasi community in Viralimalai. Every nuance in the movement has been preserved in these families for a couple of centuries. The text of the Kuravanji may be available to us earlier through Bharatanatyam dancers and their re-choreographies of this Kuravanji. According to Swarnamalya, the context and movements of the community as done by the devadasis make this Koil Sadir learning very precious.

Swarnamalya concluded that Bharatanatyam as such de-contextualises dances, has limited capacity to participate and absorb moments of transition and changes in social behaviour. The dancer could have delineated the actual difference between Koil and Kottagai Sadir repertoire, so that it would have been easily understood by the audience.

Anjali Ramesh, Ankita Ramesh, Ishwarya Jayakumar, Padmasani Iyengar, Pooja Balaji, M.A.

Rukmini, Prithika Ruth and Kuzhali Jagannathan – all students of Swarnamalya’s Ranga

Mandira, participated in the lec-dem, while Archana Sridharan rendered the vocals.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 10:45:02 PM |

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