Nine dreams for the Motherland...

Dreaming of India... Well known Kuchipudi dancer Swapnasundari turns a new leaf with her music album, `Janmabhoomi Meri Pyaari', launched in New Delhi recently. Photo: S. Subramanium  

CONNOISSEURS OF classical dance know Swapnasundari as a top ranking artiste adept at Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, renowned for her ability to tell a mesmerising story through classical dance and make ancient poetic compositions come alive in a strikingly contemporary manner. So some were surprised to hear that she had released a music album, "Janmabhoomi Meri Pyaari" produced by RPG-Saregama. But for those who know the ancient definition of 'sangeet' as an amalgam of dance, vocal and instrumental music, says Swapnasundari, there is no paradox in her latest venture.

"If I may venture an opinion on myself, I think that my strength is in the fact that I am comfortable in more than one area. I don't view myself as an either-or person. It's the artiste's privilege to step across into another discipline," she says, adding tantalisingly, "A few years from now I may choose to do something with an instrument."

In any case this is not her first album, having earlier produced three volumes of Kuchipudi music including commonly performed items along with her own compositions, as well as educational cassettes for Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, padams of Annamacharya and duets with maestro M. Balamurali Krishna. Most of these albums were aimed at dancers or connoisseurs of classical music, whereas this time the intended audience consists of the public.

"It is for people who may or may not know me as a dancer, who may not even be interested in my dance."

Nine dreams for the Motherland...

The album consists of patriotic and inspirational poetry in nine Indian languages Kashmiri, Telugu, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and Bengali and is described as "poetry of dreams, hopes and love for India. The musical arrangement is by Swapnasundari. Some of the tunes are also hers while the rest are by Sarala Rao the dancer's late mother.

Swapnasundari has indeed choreographed and performed these songs with a group at a programme dedicated to Independence Day this past August, but the flavour of the music is very different from what the public associates with classical dance. With the performing arts scene fraught with controversy, nepotism and monetary politics, Swapnasundari has forthright views on the musical component of a performance. On the one hand she is happy that her dance music cassettes are of use to students, specially for small programmes, competitions and exams.

"I myself have sat on scholarship committees where students who are not even practicing my school of Kuchipudi use my music."

However, it is not so nice though possibly flattering to know that these cassettes, which have already had two editions, are being sold in the black market. Unscrupulous no doubt, but overly eager dance students in Andhra Pradesh are not the only ones who can be thus accused. Musicians who accompany dance performances can also be unscrupulous, says the veteran performer. There is no standard of payment, as in the film industry. The result is that due to a shortage of accompanists for, say, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi in a place like Delhi, the rate of payment can be arbitrarily high.

The solution is to "reduce the gap between demand and supply. We need more musicians."

And as for dancers being restricted by this suppliers' market, she points out that the level of musical knowledge of most dancers is such that they are unable to steer their own boat in any case.

"How many dancers are there who make musical demands on the musicians?" she asks. "That's why I don't like to define myself as a dancer, because I feel it is a very limiting definition. They must have complete authority over the whole, regardless of the singing voice. And that takes us to the system of training."

Today's dance students are not given a comprehensive education that includes an in-depth study of the theory and practice of music. The dancer should be able to "determine the musical output." This requires a knowledge of music, tonal quality of the accompanying instruments, literature and language, with the inner meanings of the poetry, and finally the ability to harness these to enhance the particular piece to be performed. The one institution that functioned on these lines was Kalakshetra in Chennai, says Swapnasundari, but adds, "it has its own problems." As for her the possibility of introducing these facilities in her own Kuchipudi Dance Centre where she runs classes, she says "I can't do it. I don't have the funds and never will, despite the fact that I am considered among the top ranking dancers."

But as she herself is more than well equipped with the practical and theoretical requirements, Swapnasundari has been able to take charge of her musical accompaniment better than others. It was a few years ago, she recounts, that she decided to record her music. Struggles with payments and availability of musicians, were contributing factors in the decision. There is a general bias today in favour of classical dance performances being accompanied by a live orchestra.

Nine dreams for the Motherland...

"We are obsessed with the idea of a live orchestra. Once Indians get an idea enshrined, we become obsessed. This hails from the time when there were diggajas and asthana vidwans in courts," she recounts, with reference to the musicians of old whose genius could flower under the umbrella of royal patronage.

But recorded music runs on a machine, and the argument runs that a machine cannot respond to the subtle mood changes and improvisations that a dancer is supposed to be expressing. To this Swapnasundari retorts that if you have the ability to express a single literary idea with eight different kinds of expression, then you can just as well succeed in this using a piece of music in which a single line has been recorded eight times. The musician in the flesh is not the essential feature. It is the quality of the music and the preparedness of the dancer. In any case, getting musicians to understand exactly what you want is not easy for a fastidious dancer.

So Swapnasundari decided to surround herself with "the kind of sounds I want to hear. When are my senses flooded with perfect joy? When I hear good music."

Though she speaks in the context of her dance career, Swapnasundari's thoughts cover a large canvas and she reverts to the topic of compartmentalisation, even within one's own mind.

"Before I build walls around myself, I want to step out. And the more recognition you get, the more danger there is of that. I never want to be afraid to experiment or make mistakes. The compulsion of wanting to do anything is justification itself for doing it."

And knowing that classical dance and its music have a limited audience, she asks rhetorically, "If you can give joy to a million people, why should you be happy giving joy to only a thousand?"

Why indeed? And so, this toast to the Motherland. Let's tune in and dream for India.