Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A tall ladder

A key to the ATTIC

By Swarnamalya Ganesh

I vividly remember a rehearsal day just a month before my arangetram more than fifteen years ago. Sarasama—my guru KJ Sarasa—was sitting in front of me at our Rani Annadurai Street dance class, supervising me rehearsing the varnam that I was to present for my arangetram.

She whispered into the ears of our musician, Gowri Akka, “Look at her lovely araimandi, she is almost in a perfect half sit. She is really out there to impress Padma Amma.” I, the 12 year old who knew that a compliment from Sarasama was as rare as a perfect araimandi in rehearsal, was surely peeking my ears to listen in even as I was dancing, and needless to say was ecstatic at my guru’s observation.

Of course, I was working hard to impress Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam, Paddu Akka, who was to be the chief guest at my arangetram. I don’t know if I managed to impress her with my arangetram but I was yet again so inspired by her. Her dazzling big jhumkas were also a great attraction. I pestered my parents soon after my arangetram to buy me similar jhumkas. They did and the first day I wore those jhumkas, I felt truly like her fan! One that wanted to follow her and her path.

Incidentally it was this araimandi pushed me in the direction of a thought process that was to shape me into a researcher too. One day I was sitting with TSP Mama (Sri TS Parthasarathy, the musicologist) in his home during my classes with him. He spoke of the basic stance and suddenly asked to demonstrate it. I stood up and proudly showed off my half sit.

He smiled and said, “Do you know what the texts describe the araimandi to be? It is the halving of the lower body starting from the torso in equal proportion to one’s own upper body. Therefore, it is the subjective calculation of each person’s height and torso length and it is the careful halving of that”. I was stumped. He further added with a chuckle, “Anything more than this proportion would look like you are sitting on a potty!” Mortified, I sat through the next few hours with Mama only half listening to him speak on concepts of aucityam (propriety), soundaryam (beauty) and much more. 

I came home that day and suddenly felt a rush of inadequacy in my understanding of a form, I until then believed I was introduced to in its entirety, at least as far as performance was concerned. I realized the need to look back at the grammar-s written down to codify what the mind, body and psyche produce. This intellectualization of dance beckoned me.

I had to work at this process of understanding my Bharatanatyam, a deeply personal journey through its historic course when much of its theorization was penned. As a student of history and archaeology, I was and am even now, fascinated by the Cholas of the Tamil country (like many others). Rajaraja and his magnificent contribution that is the Rajarajeswaram is truly the holy grail. “What did the Cholas dance? What repertoire? What compositions? How did they stitch the karanas into their choreography?” were some of the impetus questions.

So, I headed for ground zero. When I looked up and saw the board “Thanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library” I felt fresh blood was being pumped into me. My first visit there as a serious researcher was in May 2006.

Armed with pen and paper, I walked in and got introduced to the Administrative Officer. After a very warm welcome he gently asked me if I would like a tour around the library. I said, “Yes, that would be great, but I wish to speak to the Sanskrit and Telugu Pundits regarding a few manuscripts”. He looked completely taken aback. He quickly re-checked if I was in fact the “actor/dancer” Swarnamalya. When I smiled and replied in the affirmative he asked me what I wanted to do in a library!

This is the general perception that people have. When doctors, lawyers and other professionals engage in research, people take them seriously, but when people in the entertainment world talk of research (especially younger women) it is eyebrow-raising! Quite used to it, I explained patiently to him that Dance was my passion and that I was a Masters Degree holder in Bharatanatyam. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it and quietly guided me to the Telugu Mss section.

Thrilled, I subjected the Telugu scholar to a long monologue of how I needed to understand the connection between the dances of the Chola period and that of the Tanjore Quartette (what we essentially practise and perform). He looked at me blankly, and told me that I could go through the catalogue of the Mss and see what I wanted to investigate.

I sat there at his spartan desk, under the tall tombed, lime-washed pillars, on a wooden chair and grabbed the first catalogue for Mss. That day passed. A tap on my shoulder from my driver/guardian/confidant Kumar reminded me that it was 5 pm and time for the library to close.

All day, everyday for the next four days and similar four/five days for the next three months, all I did was pore over the catalogues religiously. I made detailed notes of every Mss I wanted to see, check, read. I went to the Sanskrit, Tamil, and Marathi sections and did the same.

After a few months, I recognized my first understanding of dance history. Much of contemporary dance history of the South is steered towards seeing its hoary past and links to Vedic and early historic extant texts like the Natya Sastra. While this link is undeniable, it is from the immediate cultural memory that the performing traditions of today have been culled out. Its copula to “Sadir-attam”, “dasi-attam” and also its close link to geographical and political structures are its rich traditions. It is from these numerous corpuses of dance repertoire that the Tanjore Quartette and others excogitated the margam. Therefore, to comprehend the Chola dances I must find a tall ladder that will take me from the known (Bharatanatyam) to the unknown through its various immediate past memories. The association between art and political power shift is an important paradigm too. The study of dance in the context of a political, racial shift is the key to unlock this attic.

From the attic is a journey through the immediate past centuries when the memories of modern Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music were created. My seven years of research have helped me identify the context of the art forms we practise and thereby find a personal identity. From the attic is a process of reverse engineering, I could say. It will reflect the various processes, lives of people, stories and anecdotes from these eras. I hope to write about some of these in the issues to come.

Still in possession of my jhumkas, I endeavour to continue in this path, which makes me a performer and a researcher turning the torch on to the corners hidden in the attic!

FROM THE ATTIC: a performance, lecture, exhibition series of the past performing practices by Dr Swarnamalya Ganesh, with a key to unlock the attic

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