Music & Dance Dance

Which way, Margam?

The excitement that envelopes Chennai air in December when the Margazhi Music and Dance festival gains momentum, slowly gives way to a sense of fatigue by mid-January even as art aficionados hop from one venue to another. Music concerts taper down slowly but for dancers, the Season continues unabated till Sivarathri and the Natyanjali festivals.

Sitting through a spate of dance performances across various venues last Season, I looked back at trends, issues and responses. How relevant is Margam? What are the new trends? What is the response of the viewers?

I often hear comments such as “Who wants to see the same old pining nayikas again. The Margam is redundant and what the audience wants is a new repertoire.”

Is the Margam outdated then? “No,” says Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar, Bharatanatyam exponent. “It can never lose its appeal. But what worries me are the changes being made to the format by way of new interpolations. It’s not that I am against creative ideas but these ideas need to be backed by complete understanding of the structure of the composition.

The final outcome should be an embodiment of aesthetics. The other aspect that has come into vogue is elaborate storytelling in place of subtle sancharis, quite often irrelevant and unnecessary to the lines of the poem, a disturbing trend indeed.”

Contrary to fears in certain quarters and dismissal by some others, the traditional Margam of alarippu to thillana repertoire, continues to maintain its stature as an appropriate format for solo performances. “Margam will always be relevant as it has a beautiful structure where one goes on a beautiful journey from the physical to the sublime,” says Sheejith Krishna. “You first begin by understanding your own physical form (aangikam) with alarippu/mallari/ jatiswaram, then move on to explore and exploit the emotional potential (abhinayam) and then reach the realm of enjoying the beauty of poetry, music and rhythmic fervour.

It is in the varnams one sees many changes where the rhythmic nritta passages look more like martial arts exercises and marathon events. “The dancers are so focussed on showcasing their virtuosity and prowess in tala and wizardry in mathematical calculations that nuances of movements are often lost,” says Prof. Janardhanan of Kalakshetra, and adds, “Kalakshetra even today maintains the old format and the nritta segments are short, brief passages.”

However, the urge to present something new and different every time has led to a new fad -- presenting a thematic Margam. Those days, many performances were woven around a particular theme mostly based on the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. So one could watch the stories of Krishna unfold in one show or of Devi in another.

“This format is fine provided a lot of thought has gone into it and the dancer develops the theme to suit her individuality and not just compile a few items randomly on a specific theme,” says Chitra Dasarathy. By and large, most theme-based shows are merely a medley of songs. This leads to a layer of predictability of the narratives that unfold and when the dancers’ explorations are at a superficial level, boredom can set in. “This happens because most often it is a manifestation of the persona rather than the art, where the dancer is projecting herself rather than the poetry of the composition,” says a practitioner seeking anonymity.

“A theme can be worked out in such a way that there is a logical progression of ideas and philosophy in the narrative structure to reach out to the audience. Even a sequence like Krishna stealing butter can be interpreted from a direct depiction to a deeper philosophical interpretation, in tune with the dancer’s level of experience,” she says.

The main problem is that the focus is on the form and not the soul, thereby depriving the viewer of true rasanubhava.

Dancers need to come to terms with the fact that the field is reaching a saturation point, not only with performance slots but also with a diminishing audience base. What could be the reason, is a question they need to ask themselves.

As an avid rasika of dance, I often do not feel motivated to go and watch a performance. For, though the name and the appearance of the artist vary, what does not change is the presentation of the art itself. Bhuvana, an IT professional, says, “Dancers are highly competent technically but what is lacking is the soul, and this makes the performance mechanical; so much so, the individuality of the artist is lost, leaving the viewer unmoved. It is not just the problem with young dancers, but also with some established ones, who are so entrenched in their comfort zone that they have worked out for themselves that what emerges often is a predictable pattern.”

Another rasika Seethalakshmi says, “I exercise my power of choice carefully, and having watched performances ranging from the good, the bad and the ugly over the years, I have made a conscious choice to settle for nothing but the best.”

When this is the dilemma with tried and tested dancers, it has become a matter of grave concern today that rasikas are not to be completely blamed when they become naturally apprehensive about testing new waters - most artists get to be painted with the same brush. But the scenario is definitely not so solemn, because rasikas have been treated to some very memorable performances every Season, and as Chitra Dasarathy says: “Even if I get five minutes of memorable experience in a performance, that is something I would savour for ever.”

It is for these experiences that rasikas are still drawn to performances Season after Season. Unfortunately though, to use an economic adage, we remember only those moments “where bad money drives good money out of circulation.”

This is a truism of every field of art today. Leave alone the apathy of the rasikas, what is distressing even more is the apathy of most dancers themselves. Contrary to the belief that the audience response is better for music, Ravi, secretary, Brahma Gana Sabha, says, “Barring some popular artists in music, when it comes to mid-level artists, it is the dance performances that attract a larger audience.

But the sad truth is that only 10 per cent of the audience comprises the youth.” With a rise in the number of dance schools dotting the city, it would suffice if even a small percentage of the students from each of these schools came to witness the performances. It would definitely be a source of encouragement to the artists.

With successful artists busy with their tours, and most young dancers not wanting to look at anything beyond performance opportunities, it is only a few who charter their individual paths and forge ahead in a determined manner irrespective of the turbulences in the journey ahead. There is a strong need, therefore, to move out of the cocoon and time for the dancers to pause and ponder.

Perhaps, this Season will tell a different story.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 3:51:30 PM |

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