The pursuit of Bharatanatyam

Bala Kala Vidhanam founder Vrinda J. Ramanan (seen with some of her students) feels Bharatanatyam should be made more accessible to the younger generation. Photo: RM Rajarathinam   | Photo Credit: R_M_RAJARATHINAM;R_M_RAJARATHINAM - R_M_RAJARATHINAM

Like many traditional arts, Bharatanatyam has been through innumerable transformations before it assumed its current identity. Bharatanatyam as we know it today is a recalibration of Sadir, Chinnamelan and Dasi-attam – the art of the temple dancers of the 19th-20th century.

Tiruchi has its own long-standing connection with Bharatanatyam, as seen by the number of schools mushrooming around the city. The Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts offers degree-level studies in the dance form, and also debuted the first-ever off-campus degree programme in Bharatanatyam in 2004.

Reputable teachers and schools have been functioning here without aggressive advertising for decades, even though many of those interviewed expressed sadness at the limited number of venues open to hosting performances.

From teacher to institution and innovator, here’s a cross-section of what is happening in the world of Bharatanatyam education in Tiruchi:

‘Everyone wants to learn the art’

“Most of our students come to us by word-of-mouth,” says Vijaya Mukundan, who runs the 29-year-old Salangai Academy of Indian Classical Arts with her husband, Kathakali exponent E. Mukundan.

“Parents often think their child can learn dance if he or she imitates cinema dances perfectly, but adjustability is a key factor for young students. They must be willing to obey the teacher,” says Vijaya, as her school (which has five centres in the city) accepts students from 6 years upwards.

“After the Kalai Kaviri College, now there is a dance school in every street in Tiruchi,” says Vijaya, who along with her husband had taught 300 students at the institution during their two-year stint as the first instructors in the discipline. “A degree is not important, though it is good to have schools and a formal structure of instruction,” she adds.

“Everyone wants to learn the art, but ‘Guru-bhakti’ (devotion to the teacher) is going down,” she rues.

A full-time career in performance is however not an option for everyone, she says. “Most of our students are also studying for engineering or medicine, and many stop performing after their arangetram,” she says.

For Vrinda J. Ramanan, the increasingly expensive pursuit of Bharatanatyam is cause for concern.

She has been teaching the dance form since the mid-1980s, established the Bala Kala Vidhanam in 1997, and argues for a more simple approach to encourage Bharatanatyam among the younger generation.

It is not just the amount of time (around eight years by her estimate) that has to be spent in learning the dance, but also the money invested in costumes and jewellery that can keep away students from Bharatanatyam, she says. “Stitching charges for a Bharanatyam costume range from Rs. 3,500 to 4,000. And then if you add jewellery, it could cost anywhere from Rs.20,000 to a lakh of rupees. It is a major investment for anyone,” she says.

Added to this is the paucity of performing venues in the city. “Rather than sponsoring themselves in a big city show, I advise my children to perform in temple premises for free,” says Vrinda.

She has 55 students, with only one of them a boy. “Boys are afraid of being seen as effeminate for learning this dance,” she says. “As man, you have to make a small effort to maintain your gender identity when you dance.”

Dance lessons in government schools will promote a more equal social structure, and continue the patronage of the arts, she feels.

Stepping out

Kalai Kaviri College has modernised the process of learning Bharatanatyam from the Gurukulam system, where the student lived several years with the teacher to learn the dance, to a regular semester-based syllabus affiliated to the Tamil Nadu Music and Fine Arts University, Chennai.

The shift has earned praise and censure from those in the dance community, a fact that has not escaped notice from the institution which belongs to the Catholic diocese of Tiruchirapalli and was founded as a communication centre by Reverend Monsignor S.M. George in 1977.

“Unlike what many traditional exponents of dance fear, Kalai Kaviri has nothing to do with promoting religion through its courses,” says its principal Reverend Sister Dr. Margaret Bastin, who holds a doctorate in Indian music and a Masters degree in Yoga.

The college’s Bharatanatyam dance troupe promotes secular values through its social message-themed ballets for rural audiences, she says.

Though the methodology may look different, the college strives to preserve the purity of Bharatanatyam, says Sr. Margaret. “We train students from different backgrounds for a full-time career in teaching the art, either in institutions or their own schools,” she says.

“A semester sets a time limit,” says Sr. Margaret. “We will know the concepts that our students will be introduced to and familiarised with, within six months, whereas a Gurukulam system may rely on repetition of one concept for many years.”

For parents, a formal course in dance is a way to boost their child’s self-confidence.

“My daughter Yazhini has been attending Kalai Kaviri for over six years now, training first in Bharatanatyam and now in Kuchipudi,” says Mrs. Aruna. “She manages to balance her studies and dance classes, and has become more confident in school because of her exposure to dance.”

‘This is the trend’

The readiness to embrace innovation could partly be the reason for the award-winning danseuse Revathi Muthuswamy’s success in the Bharatanatyam performance circuit.

“I have never answered any exam on Bharatanatyam, but I believe in learning the art in the right manner, and also tell my students to enjoy the dance for what it is,” says the director of innumerable dance dramas and the brain behind the Srirangam Bharatha Natayalaya. Mrs. Muthuswamy, a Kalaimamani awardee, has also served as the Senate Member of Bharathidasan University and a member of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Annamalai University.

“In a solo performance, one person has to portray all the characters. What is wrong if we introduce other dancers to essay the other roles? I find our ballets are well-attended because they are easier to understand,” she says.

Busy travelling with her students throughout the year, Mrs. Muthuswamy has been in the field since 1973.

“As far as my troupe is concerned, dance is a paying profession,” she says. “I have around 15 dancers in a troupe, and share my earnings with them. Moreover, they are taught choreography as well, so they are happy to emerge as professionals from my course.”

Deflecting criticism for her ‘light classical’ touch, she says, “We are still basing our adavus (steps) and expressions on pure Bharatanatyam. Kalakshetra is doing it too. This is the trend, and we should learn to utilise it.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 10:07:27 PM |

Next Story