Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Social Media & the Shatripus


The sudden spurt in online performances and digital marketing pieces makes certain sahrudayas question what is the purpose of Naatya vs. classical dance today – does it only revovle around the artist’s perfect formations, ”collaborations” and ”concepts”? Can’t the performance go beyond just a personal experience? What is supposed to be the viewer’s takeaway? Are they just supposed to like, share, and subscribe or actually take the effort to reflect on their actions?

Most of us have heard, (and few have experienced) that Naatyam as per the Naatya Shastra has the potent ability to mentally and socially uplift those who witness it - compared often to that of performing a ”yagna” of the body and soul. This was also the main need/requirement it fulfilled in the temple festivals, court gatherings etc. The Nartaka or Nartaki becomes a prism through which the audience can see the best and worst of themselves, played out through the characters presented on stage. The Itihasa, and Puranas are presented time and again to help educate, evaluate and elevate every person’s dharma – from the kings to the common man.

But it’s quite a different story today.

While many a case study speaks to the ability of social media platforms in bringing about transparency and agency for civic wellbeing, the classical arts (especially Naatyam) have turned mostly into a grand Showcase. There is no use blaming the platforms, because that was precisely what they were supposed to do. Here, the dancer’s ’showcase’ and his/her ability to capture millions of netizens in 30 seconds or less - has eclipsed its content.

Alternatively, allow me to share one recent online performance that was able to tweak the narrative of a Bharatanatyam piece (within the traditional format and vocabulary), to address millions digitally at a safe distance – a good marriage of both worlds!

”Shatripu: Mukti Perum Vazhi” by Padmabhushan Dr. VP & Shanta Dhananjayan was a curated presentation that was in the works for 2+ years. ”The idea stemmed from a sanchari in our Kharaharapriya Nrityopahaaram, but it was only now that I had the time to give it form,” shares the Naatyacharya. Like a kurinchi tree that blooms only every 12 years, this Nrityopahaaram in a varnam format, chose this lockdown scenario and a digital medium for its birth – and how aptly so

”Shatripu” or ”Arupagai Agatral” is a piece that explores not the usual pangs of separation, srngara, or even bhakti towards a particular deity. It takes a hard look at our selves and at the 6 vices – Kaama ( lust), Krodha (anger), Moha(greed), Lobha (miserliness), Mada (arrogance) and Maatsarya ( jealousy ) mentioned time and again in the Vedas in preventing us from any progress in life. No gendered notions here, but just the self vs the Self.

From today’s political and financial news, to those detective series we read and watch – the seed of malicious intent can almost always be traced to these 6 villains. Such a blessing that our Vedas and Maha Yogis had identified this for us long before, and yet such a travesty that we have yet to learn our lesson!

Knowing these basic human traits that cut across all strata, and more importantly acknowledging their presence when it slips in unannounced in our own minds is the first step to reconciliation. ”One should try to get rid of them from an early age with the right kind of moral education,” says the Naatyacharya, ”Naatya, being a visual medium of education, leads us to Bhakti maarga, (path of devotion) and should be used to communicate this philosophy through creative ideas.” And a creative collaboration it was.

The link opened to an aesthetically decorated stage, with professional lighting and live musical accompaniment balanced beautifully for the screen. After the customary introductions, the lead dancers of Bharatakalanjali Sri Uttiya Barua and Sri Shivadasan presented a Panchanadai alarippu composed by Smt Shanta Dhananjayan. The piece had interesting alliterations of the traditional alarippu adavus in different jaatis, making for a intricate start to the evening. The evening concluded with a remembrance to Naatyacharya Sri CK Balagopal by his daughter Prithvija with the well-known Hindolam Khanda Eka Thillana.

The main presentation of the evening was a new Nrityopahaaram entittled “Arupagai agatral” (expel six enemies). The lyrics were in simple chaste Tamizh penned by Smt. Nirmala Nagaraajan of Kalakshetra, and tuned by Dr. Vaanathi Raghuraman.

Couplets for each of the vices had a very similar treatment to the Tirukkural – describing the vice and its effect on us. The beauty of the kavitvam came to light with a recitation of the verses first, followed by melody and finally finishing off with swarams or jatis. The swaras (musical notes) passages were composed by Smt. Shanta Dhananjayan and jatis and Naatya composition by Sri V.P.Dhananjayan. Another interesting choice was the usage of ”Jati-sanchari””: ”We did not use the usual format of ‘varnam’ pattern, but used the ‘jatis’ as communicative expressive narration of certain ideas taken from the Puranas, Panchatantra and contemporary incidents.”

Kama (lust) was elucidated through a quick jati-sanchari of Indra’s escapade with Ahalya. Krodha (anger) brought back the well-known panchatantra tale of a mother beating her pet mongoose for having harmed her child, when it had infact defended the child from a snake attack. Moha (Greed) was a contemporary take on present-day politicians and businessmen who seek to possess material wealth and power only to pass away alone. Lobha (Miserliness) recalled the nose ring episode that made Purandara Dasar realize his miserliness. Madam (Pride) showed a quick exposition of how an arrogant student who disrespects his Guru, meets his doom in no time. Lastly, Matsaryam (Jealousy) also hit close to home – recounting the unhealthy competition between two dancers a la Vanjikottai Valiban.

The uniqueness of the jati-sanchari composition lies in its efficacy – testing the Nartaka’s ability to communicate with minimal gestures, time and iterations. Announcements of the sancharis ahead of time helped the trained eye to follow through on its quick delination, but could likely be missed by a wandering audience. The seed of creativity, however, has been sowed again by the innovative Naatya dampati for the community to consider – very similar to the swara-sanchari innovation in their Attana Nrtyopaharam way back in 1967.

The performers per se showed strong dedication towards the task at hand. The nritta passages had signature new adavus, hinting at the sthayi bhava to follow with the usage of specific hastas and adavus. For the right rasottpatti, a medley of ragas were chosen from Kamavardhini (Pantuvarali for Kama - Lust), Kannada (Krodha/Anger), Ratipatipriya (Moha/Greed), Kuntalavarali (Lobha/Miserliness), Mukhari (Madha/Pride), and Vaagadheeshwari (Matsarya/Jealousy). One notes that while depicting a series of vices, it is easy to slip into a single-faceted approach and mukhajaabhinaya. The lines get especially blurry between Kama, Moha and Lobha, all commonly driven by a unappeasable Want to own. Krodha and Matsaryam by Shivadasan, and Moha by Uttiya Barua showed good balance of angika and mukhajabhinaya, displaying the different stages of intoxication and repentance in quick succession.

The need for such innovations is self-explanatory. Its presentation takes us to the first level of realizing that the enemy and obstacle to spiritual growth lies within. Multiple puranas, itihaasa, slokas, tevaram, paasuram and prayers across religions speak to this. But what is truly noxious, which we encounter everyday, is the surreptitious manner in which infects the mind, clouding all objectivity and judgement. In most cases, all this happens behind the veil of civility. This duality can be explored more by the performers of this piece.

In this way, as one pens his thoughts, one realizes there is a strong resemblance between the Shatripus inside and the Corona outside. It can come from anywhere, anyone, anytime, only vigilance and distancing can help.The time has come to better enable the divine artform to educate, evaluate, and elevate this truth.

Nattuvangam: Smt Shanta Dhananjayan

Vocal: Sri Shalin M Nair

Violin: Sri R Kalaiarasan

Mrdangam: Sri KP Ramesh Babu

Stage & Technical Direction: Sri CP Satyajit

Nartakas: Sri Uttiya Barua & Sri Sivadasan

~Nandi~

Anand Satchidanandan is a Bharatanatyam Practitioner, Director of the Shanmukhananda Natya Vidyalaya, Mumbai, and Associate Director of Consumer Science & Research at Nepa India 

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Punarnava – an inspiring initiative

 NEWS & NOTES

Punarnava -- Resurrection through Dance, was a commendable online initiative during the pandemic by well known Hyderabad-based classical dancer-teacher and orator, Ananda Shankar Jayant. She chose four iconic artists, whose life stories and the challenges they overcame in order to stay true to their passions, were awe-inspiring. Listening to how they rose resplendent as the phoenix, renewing themselves, will surely provide many the inner strength required to stay on the chosen path no matter what vicissitudes may come their way. The session revealed that the success of these stalwarts had not come to them as a ready package. The arduous, at times hazardous, journeys of these artists had at times come to a point when many would have given up. However, their indomitable will, incredible passion for the art, combined with hard work, determination, discipline and dedication have made them what they are today.

The iconic artist and Rajya Sabha MP, Sonal Mansingh was the first to be interviewed by Ananda Shankar Jayant.  Trained in music, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, she did not think twice before running  away from affluence, after graduating while in her late teens, driven by her inner courage  and conviction – to find her gurus in Bengaluru. She has always been “constant as the Northern Star” as far as her passion for dance goes. She gave up the comfort of her home at that early age when most would not have dared to do so.

Even after a serious car accident in Germany, when doctors had declared that she would never dance again, her determination not to let go, led her on the arduous and painful path of recovery.  The viewers were awestruck and many were moved to tears by the story of resurrection of this nonpareil artist. Though a septuagenarian, this accomplished artist is as energetic as ever, travelling around the globe,  giving performances and conducting workshops. Her will power is indomitable; if Sonal Mansingh wants do something, she does it and if she does not want to, then no power on earth can force to! That is what the power of the human spirit means to this charismatic artist. 

For Ramaa Bhardwaj it was faith  that powered her destiny; faith has shown her the way to resurrect her life. She answered  the call of her guru to leave her successful dance career in the US to join Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukul in India. She received a “divine signal” from Lord Nataraja in Chidambaram, to start teaching when she could not dance anymore. While in the United States, Ramaa  had led  a successful protest march  of artists in California, when their grants  were stopped. She soon realised her inner strength when the Arts Council restored the  grants. Presently, she is an able story teller who curates the festivals of her gurukul. She gave up her lucrative work of teaching and performing dance with divine inspiration.

Anita Ratnam is a multifaceted  artist trained in Bharatanatyam,  Mohini Attam, Tai-chi and Kalaripayattu by stalwarts. Her versatility is not confined to dance alone. She was a successful television producer and commentator in New York. She has a doctorate, a Masters degree in dance theatre besides being a contemporary classicist. She  left her lucrative career to relocate in Chennai -- her home city where she grew up. Her journey too has been a fascinating tale as she dared, where few would venture. She has lived her art life on her own terms;  “barefoot and solo” she has traversed new ground. Her out-of-the-box thinking has invariably made her come up with novel and creative ideas. She has pioneered Arangham Trust, launched narthaki.com -- an online dance magazine soon after, with a full-fledged list of all artists and their addresses. Research oriented articles are to be found regularly in narthaki.  


Ananda Shankar Jayant, the convenor of this virtual programme,  was interviewed by her disciple Sneha Magpu. Nothing can match her ability to deal with every contingency -- be it her ability to come out from her life threatening affliction and her incredible TED talk. Dance has always been her passion and she has plunged into it heart and soul. Proficient in both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, she did not lag behind in her academic pursuits but qualified in the civil services, which would take care of her finances. As one can imagine, managing a high profile job alongside her passion for dance could not possibly have been  a bed of roses.  Uncannily and invariably she made the right choices. And today she stands tall amongst artists. In the difficult times of Covid 19 marked by isolation and social distancing, Punarnava was her inspiring  contribution to the dance community and aspiring dancers.     

What these icons shared, has the ingredients to make a one-of-its-kind-book. With carefully selected illustrations, it  would be  inspirational material for artists and connoisseurs alike – especially the young – to follow their dream and  forge new paths with grit and determination.

Our technological advancement has certainly made a difference. Had not Covid 19 hit us globally, the idea of holding programmes online would not have caught on. Programmes are being viewed by several hundreds across the globe, rather than a half-full hall of audience! Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube – have all played a role in reaching out to the  elite and  the enthusiasts alike.

TAPATI CHOWDHURIE

Monday, 31 August 2020

FROM THE EDITOR


Will there be a December season this time? Is it going to be really live or online? Who could be the lucky awardees? Such queries doing the rounds among rasikas have been set to rest with the sabhas declaring their broad intentions about conducting the season in the gloomy scenario created by the Covid-19 pandemic which has shown no great signs of abatement. There is time enough for them to work out the finer details.

“We are very particular to keep up the unbroken tradition of our annual music season from 1928. The only difference is that the format will be different and also of a shorter duration. We will not have all the features and trappings of a full season in these extraordinary times. It will be an online or digital music festival. We do not want to expose our musicians, members, and the rasikas to the dangers of the virus,” says N. Murali, president of the Madras Music Academy. The Academy plans to feature junior, sub senior and senior musicians, but will not have daylong concerts, nor the morning lecdems. Rasikas are going to miss the Dance Festival this time; and most disappointing is the fact that no awards will be presented this season, including the Sangita Kalanidhi!

The Federation of City Sabhas too is drawing up plans to face the challenges and conduct the season for a fortnight by making good use of technology. It is commendable that the big member sabhas in the metropolis have finally come together to present a composite season under one umbrella—in the digital format. Music concerts with accompanists and dance programmes are to be held in the evenings, and the programme feed will probably stay on for 24 hours for people in various time zones to relish it. Concerts may be ticketed with preference given to members. The entire surplus will go to the Artistes Welfare Fund created by the Federation. However, no awards this time, but lec-dems yes. So sabhas and  rasikas can now gear up to enjoy the digital season 2020.

The Lalgudi siblings too have planned to celebrate online the 90th birth anniversary of their multifaceted, famous fatherguru Lalgudi Jayaraman, which falls on 17 September 2020. The logistical feat behind “Lalgudi-90” is being coordinated by Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, under the auspices of the Lalgudi Trust. They launched a new YouTube channel called “Lalgudi Jayaraman - God of Violin”, and have been showcasing video tributes from disciples of the late maestro. A befitting lineup has been drawn up for the grand finale on 20 September.

In the September issue of Sruti, we feature two very talented artists whose sincerity, commitment and passion for their art has helped them scale peaks. Carnatic vocalist Gayathri Venkataraghavan, through her perseverance and dedication, has made a remarkable comeback after a hiatus and has earned a place among the top women vocalists with a large fanfollowing. Bharatanatyam dancer-teacher Ramya Harishankar, has while remaining steadfast to the teachings of her gurus, made adaptations to create a love for the art and sustain to propagate it over decades in a conservative place like Irvine, in the U.S.A.

Besides reports and reviews on several online programmes, we present the first part of a triad on Siva temples along the Akhanda Cauvery—on Kadambar Koil—a sthalam rich in verse and song. There is also a crisp account about the Brahma Gana Sabha which celebrated its golden jubilee in 2018-19; a story long due, which got delayed further by the pandemic. Rishabha, second in the series of the saptaswara devatas, finds a place in the section on S. Rajam’s paintings.

In the passing away of Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj, the music world has lost a towering personality of the Mewati gharana, whose contributions to music are manifold. He drew audiences worldwide with his melodious, emotional, and sonorous music, incorporating haveli sangeet, and Jasrangi jugalbandis. He is no more, but his music is immortal.

S. JANAKI

Rathna Kumar conferred Lifetime Achievement Award

Rathna Kumar, Founder and Director, Anjali Center for Performing Arts, in Houston, Texas, was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award on 29 July 2020, by Sathyanjali Academy of Kuchipudi Dance, Kerala. On the occasion of  its 8th Guru Smarananjali Nrutyaarchana, the Kochi-based organisation, headed by Anupama Mohan, honoured the senior dancer for her achievements in the field of Bharatanatanatyam and Kuchipudi. 

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Apsaras Arts - Digital live screening of Anjasa

Vidhya Nair

Apsaras Arts production - Anjasa (pronounced as “Anyasa”) refers to ‘the path’ in Pali, the classical language of Buddhism and explores the beauty of Buddhist temple architectures. The production takes the audience on a journey through monuments including Mahadevi Temple in Nepal, Bodhgaya Mahabodhi Temple and Sanchi Stupa in India, Vattadage in Sri Lanka, Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, Bayon in Cambodia, Borobudur in Indonesia and Wat Pho in Thailand. The production also highlights the contributions of Buddhist emperors,  Asoka and Jayavarman VII who were iconic in the spread of Buddhism across Asia. 
 
This dance production featured dancers from Apsaras Arts and a unique musical orchestra with music composed by an array of Singaporean artistes including Aravinth Kumarasamy who composed the score which comprised both classical Indian and Chinese instruments including the Er Hu, Yang Qin.  The costumes and set design have been inspired by Buddhist iconography using color schemes of gold, saffron and red as found in Buddhist robes from India and Southeast Asia.
 
Anjasa premiered in Singapore in January 2015 at Victoria Theatre and has toured to several countries 
in the last five years. To promote this digital screening, three unique talks were organized to showcase difference aspects of this production. On the eve of the screening, Directors’ Circle was launched. This is a new initiative that brings together behind-the-scenes insights from the people who created the production in a roundtable discussion. For this inaugural edition, dancer-choreographer Rama Vaidyanathan hosted Aravinth Kumarasamy (who created the concept, directed and composed the music) Mohanapriyan Thavarajah (who choreographed the dance sequences & designed the costumes) and Stanley Ang (who performed the Chinese instrument, Yang Qin). 
 
During this talk, they shared several details of their conceptualization, and both Mohanapriyan and 
Stanley performed unique excerpts and shared the working philosophy and the research undertaken 
to depict the different elements of Buddhist architecture.
 
This was followed by an exclusive spotlight session with eminent heritage experts - Chithra Madhavan (India), Peter Lee (Singapore) moderated by Tara Dhar Hasnain (Singapore) on four specific Buddhist monuments – Sanchi, Pollorunuwa, Bayon, and Borobudur. Here, they delved deep into the historic time period and the impact of these monuments to both the local environment and the composite identities that evolved over the centuries. This session was highly anticipated and we had over 70 attendees in a closed session.
Finally,  a youth-oriented talk was organized under the Apsaras banner, 'Cultural Conversations' with a session called “Tamils’ Routes in Southeast Asia.”. For the first time, this was bilingual talk in Tamil and English featuring four young Tamils – Harini Vee, Vinita Ramani, Seema Hari Kumar, and Mohanapriyan Thavarajah who engaged and explore Tamil identity, historical routes within their roots as citizens of Southeast Asia. The speakers addressed the impact of classical India on Southeast Asia and how passing this on to future generations will always call for reflection and understanding of the past ideologies and strengthen our appreciation of Tamil roots and heritage.
 
A unique online art challenge was organised to garner interest in the production and the Buddhist monuments. Many young artists participated in the junior’s category and used this opportunity to research and explore different artistic methods to recreate the monuments in charcoal, digital art, pencil work. The most popular monuments were Sanchi and Borobudur.  The winners of the final round received Amazon cash vouchers and an opportunity for their artwork to be featured as part of Anjasa’s overseas tours in coming years.

Links to all the videos

https://www.facebook.com/ApsarasArts/videos/2989143891196865

Watch the dancers share their experience of the tour:

https://www.facebook.com/anjasa2015/videos/602843957036212

Listen to Artistic Director, Aravinth Kumaraswamy's 

https://www.facebook.com/anjasa2015/posts/1979091048887475

Watch the Culture Conversation

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Press Release on the December Season 2020

Federation Of City Sabha, Chennai 

Press Release

The Federation of City Sabhas, Chennai in its video conference meeting held on 9th Aug, 2020,  discussed the current scenario with regard to conduct of cultural programmes in Chennai. The festive spirit of Margazhi with Music , Dance, DramaNamasankeerthanam and spiritual discourses have been nurtured by the Sabhas /Cultural organisations for many decades now. The City was given the UNESCO recognition for its contribution to propagating our art and cultural traditions. Artistes and rasikas acknowledge the stellar role of Sabhas in fostering art and culture and their work to showcase our heritage. In this context, the Members discussed ways and means to hold the cultural events in the Season without disruption by adopting Technology. 

Considering the Covid 19 pandemic, which is showing no signs of abatement and coupled with the concerns of the all regarding safety, social distancing and avoiding congregation of any sort, as per the Government guidelines, it was felt that the Federation of Sabhas present the annual December seasons cultural events during the first half of Margazhi (i.e.,during 3rd and 4th weeks of  December 2020) using Digitalplatforms and thereby preserve the continuing tradition amidst this Pandemic. The Federation will chalk out the events for this Art Festival in due course of time. It was agreed that the Federation of Sabhas will work out the details and organise support for indigent artistes who are financially affected during this period.  All the member Sabhas have expressed their unanimous support to make the annual Festival a success in this new challenging environment and reaffirm the Sabhas commitment towards promoting arts and culture in a sustained way. The Federation solicits the support of artistes, patrons, rasikas and other cultural organisations making this years Festival a success.

The Federation of City Sabhas consists of Brahma Gana Sabha, Hamsadhwani, Karthik Fine Arts, Narada Gana Sabha, Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha.

 

K.HARISHANKAR 

Secretary

Monday, 3 August 2020

Abhai’s ‘Artistes for Artistes Welfare Fund’ initiative

 S. Janaki

The year 2020 began as usual with festivities connected with the New Year. In Chennai, the cultural capital of India, the December- January Margazhi Mahotsavam was slowly coming to a close with most sabhas boasting of more than two months of non-stop programmes featuring thousands of artists from all over the world. February heralded the festival of Sivaratri when dancers congregated at the thousands of Siva temples to participate in dance festivals celebrating the Lord of Dance, Siva-Nataraja. March saw the commencement of the annual and board exams for students and a general lull in cultural activities. It was a bolt from the blue for the fraternity of artists world over when the deadly Corona virus struck and literally stunned people into a shocked silence and inactivity in the form of the “lockdown”. Realisation about the enormity of the situation dawned slowly with everyone trying to come to terms with the novel challenges in day to day life.

Members of the artistic fraternity were preparing themselves for the various tours abroad for performances, arangetrams, workshops and other assignments for extended periods of over five to six months. How would the lockdown affect their livelihood? The first reaction was one of shock, disbelief, and dejection, which got slowly transformed into acceptance of the current situation and drawing up of plans to deal with the crisis.

Steps were required to resurrect the largely unorganised sector of culture comprising mainly of professional and non-professional artists from various classical dance and music styles, as well as the thousands of folk artists and traditional arts & crafts persons who were rendered jobless.

The Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) has, over the years, been playing a proactive role in artists’ welfare. This time too it soon swung into action. The organisation’s president, Roja Kannan, shares how ABHAI implemented its plans.

“We had to take some hardcore decisions on how to deal with the crisis that artists were facing because of the pandemic and how to find intermediary and immediate solutions to their day to day problems. An emergency committee meeting was convened online and thus was born the initiative called ‘Abhai—Artistes for Artistes Welfare Fund’.

An appeal for funds was framed by means of a video which was produced by Abhai, wherein all the committee members performed, and I appealed for funds at the end. The songs were carefully chosen, keeping in mind the gravity of the situation, and the need to gain strength from one another in a spirit of mutual give and take. We put together lyrics of poet Sahir Ludhianvi which speaks of equality and equanimity, verses from Ramalinga Adigalar’s Jeeva Karunyam which talks of compassion towards everything on Earth—the flora, fauna, the hungry, the poor and the sick, and finally verses from Maitreem bhajata which talks of universal peace and harmony. Each committee member recorded his/her portion from home and with some in-house editing skills we launched the appeal-video on Tamil New Year’s Day on 14 April. The video was shared through all our social media platforms, as well as the Abhai WhatsApp groups comprising nearly 3000 members, in the spirit of self reliance or ‘atmanirbhar’.

The response was immediate and heartwarming. What started as a slow trickle has now transformed into a steady flow with the donations received so far amounting to over thirteen lakhs rupees. We are humbled and happy to state that all these donations have been from fellow artists, students, rasikas and the general public who have supported our initiative. The stony silence from a section of artists and the hate and sarcastic emails that were circulated did not deter us even a tiny bit from our mission to revive the spirit of the artistic fraternity and help them gain a foothold till things settled down. The lack of government support also did not matter to us.

Our disbursements till end of May have been to the tune of over 12 lakhs rupees. The total number of artists helped is around 162, which includes dancers, teachers, members of the orchestra (vocalists, violinists, flutists, mridangists, tambura artists, special effects artists, tabla artists), make-up artists, costumers, tailors, stage decorators, lighting technicians, instrument makers and repairers, folk artists, puppeteers, members of the Irula and soothsayer communities. The list is long.

This is an ongoing process of ABHAI—for the artists, by the artists, to the artists—a mission that we as an organisation of artists, hav  committed ourselves to engage in apart from our regular schemes like monthly medical assistance to old and indigent artists as well as outreach programmes in Corporation and Government aided schools to take the arts to the grassroots level.

 (www.abhai.org.in)

Vidyasundari Bengaluru Nagarathnamma

Tribhuvanae ae ae ae, as you listen to the Mukunda Mala stotra sung by Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, you observe an older way of singing. It is at a higher octave, the lines are sharply cut, there is less gamaka and the singing is stronger. Composer Pusthakam Ramaa begins the play, Vidyasundari Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, on the same note, but with softer continuity of lines, adding more body with gamakas reflecting contemporary Carnatic music. The play on Bengaluru Nagarathnamma was premiered on 27 December 2019, at Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bengaluru.

The opening scene depicts the samadhi of Tyagaraja, with the two groups of Peria Katchi and Chinna Katchi squabbling over the conduct of the saint’s aradhana. Bengaluru Nagarathnamma enters with several devadasis and decides to conduct the aradhana on her own. Young Bannibai (who went on to become a Harikatha legend), adopted by Nagarathnamma, is introduced and the crowd flocks to listen to her at the aradhana. However, the event is cut short by a fire started by a jealous miscreant.

Vidyasundari Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, a musical play produced by the Sangeeta Sambhrama Trust in Kannada with Tamil and Telugu (also English) dialogues, was directed by the award-winning theatre and movie director Nagabharana; with music composition by Pusthakam Ramaa. The play draws inspiration from Sriram V’s book The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, and the Kannada novel Vidyasundari by Maleyuru Guruswamy. The text for the play has been adapted by Prathibha Nandakumar and Hooli Sekhar.

It was a fast-moving play showcasing several events: The life of young Nagarathna in Nanjanagudu near Mysore, her education, training in music, her mother Puttalakshamma falling into penury, their move to Bengaluru, the death of Nagarathna’s mother, and her musical prowess were well enacted. Nagarathna meets judge Narahari Rao who becomes pivotal role in her rise. The role of the Dewan was played by Pulikeshi Kasturi who was also the choreographer of the play. Interesting were the scenes unfolding the building of a house for Nagarathna on a small hillock that Narahari named Mount Joy, which came to be known as Narahari Raya’s gudda, the breakup of the couple, and their reunion heightened by Nagarathna singing the javali Matada barade (won’t you talk to me?) addressed to him. The roles of young Nagarathna and Narahari were played by Ananya Bhat and Nitin with sweetness and gusto.

Nagarathnamma’s move to Madras and her friendship with Veena Dhanammal (Nagini Bharana), becoming wealthy and building a bungalow, inviting her guru Bidaram Krishnappa to sing Kannada songs in Madras, her sweetness and coyness giving way to confidence and strength (acted with authority by Deepthi Srinath) were all portrayed with conviction. The receipt of a letter from Bidaram Krishnappa (Vageesh Krishna), Nagarathnamma’s first visit to Tyagaraja’s samadhi in Tiruvaiyuru which she cleans up on finding it in a state of disarray, how she sells her jewellery and her house to build Tyagaraja’s samadhi (she exchanges fertile land for the barren to construct it) and Nagarathnamma’s final resting place in front of the samadhi—the scenes narrated in Harikatha style with a chorus connecting them, with great music, were gripping. P. Ramaa played a dignified senior Nagarathnamma.

Some artistic license seems to have been taken in the depiction of the friendship between Nagarathnamma and Veena Dhanammal. Was Dhanammal present when  Nagarathnamma went to Tyagaraja’s samadhi for the first time? Did she dance? The well known humorous side of Nagarathnamma could also have been highlighted. There were some glitches in the malfunctioning of the sets, which can easily be corrected in future presentations.

The play combined drama, dance and music with interesting production values that enhanced the narrative. One hopes it will have a long run, with many presentations, as it tells the story of a woman extraordinare.

V.R. DEVIKA

(Gandhian scholar, cultural activist, critic, and managing trustee, Aseema Trust)

FIRST PERSON

Harnessing technology to tradition 

Rama Kousalya

My father used to tell us “Never hate anything. If you do, you may have to live with it forever”. That said, I had to make peace with my contempt for social media and accept it with all the positives it has to offer, especially when it has the world tied up together during these testing times.

Every year, the janma nakshatras of Syama Sastry (1762-1827) and Tyagaraja (1767-1847) are important events at Marabu Foundation, Tillaisthanam. Since its inception, we at Marabu, have had the blessing of paying musical homage to the great saints in their houses. In the month of Chaitra, on the day of Kritika nakshatra (the birth star of Syama Sastry), Marabu Foundation has been presenting a special musical offering at his house in the morning, followed by a concert in the evening at the Tanjavur Bangaru Kamakshi Amman Temple. The celebration has always been preceded by a workshop to teach some of his priceless compositions in the usual gurukula pattern at the Marabu house, Tillasithanam, where the candidates are handpicked and taught free of cost by senior music teachers.

This year too I had elaborate plans in mind to celebrate Syama Sastry’s jayanti. I had planned a musical homage covering all the important sthalas pertinent to him like Kanchipuram, Tiruvarur, Tanjavur and Tiruvaiyaru, while depicting how Bangaru Kamakshi had travelled with the family for more than two centuries until the Maratha ruler brought them all to Tanjavur.

It is said that Syama Sastry’s ancestors were anointed to be the official pujakas of Bangaru Kamakshi Amman (then in Kanchipuram) by Adi Sankara, and fearing the invaders, they fled with the deity from Kanchipuram to several places. It was King Tulaja (1763- 1787), the Maratha ruler of Tanjavur, who brought the family and the deity to Tanjavur, by building the temple and presenting the family with a house and lands for comfortable living.

With regard to Tyagaraja, Marabu had conducted workshops on his kshetra kritis (Lalgudi, Tiruvottriyur, Srirangam and Kovur) four years ago which was facilitated by gurus Leelavathi Gopalakrishnan, Shyamala Venkateswaran, Prema Rangarajan and Bhushany Kalyanaraman. While his ghana raga pancharatnas are popular and widely sung, his kshetra pancharatnas are not sung as groups, although kritis like O Rangasayee, Dharini telusukonti, Ee vasudha and Sambho Mahadeva are very popular. It was my keen desire to have these 20 kritis sung by the workshop participants on Tyagaraja’s janma nakshatra (Chaitra masa – Pushya nakshatra, which fell on 30 April 2020), in front of the Rama idol worshipped by Tyagaraja at Varagappaiyyar lane in Tanjavur.

I was hoping to bring out all this glory, but as they say, God finds the right time to execute our plans. Well, He also gave me a solution on how to go about it!

I have never understood what social media is all about. While apps like WhatsApp have become an important means of communication, I have always looked at Facebook as a means to fritter away time. YouTube still has some useful content to refer, while sucking up energy and time. I didn’t know Instagram existed until my niece Madhuvanthi Badri (also one of the trustees), threw some light on it, when I happened to discuss my plans with her.

The possibility of a musical offering performed live through a social networking site excited me. It was startling to know that people from different geographical locations could go live over a social platform for this purpose!

It was decided that the four girls—Madhuvanthi Badri (Chennai), Krithika Vika  (Tanjavur), Swetha Ramarathnam and Archanashree P. (Coimbatore) would sing one kshetra pancharatnam each through Marabu Foundation’s Facebook page on 30 April 2020. Due to certain technical shortcomings we decided on this format.

In the meanwhile, I had discussions with S. Vijeyajeya, who heads the Department of Music at PSG College of Arts in Coimbatore. One of the senior disciples of Chandrasekhara Bhagavatar of Pandanallur was to perform on 25 April 2020 for Syama Sastry day at the Bangaru Kamakshi Amman Temple. With the lockdown situation at hand, we pitched the idea of her performing online. She in turn suggested we do a similar homage like the one planned for Tyagaraja and roped in the four girls to join her in singing the gems of Syama Sastry. In no time, a video conference call had us deciding the kritis to be sung.

Vijeyajeya chose to render Devi Brova  (Chintamani) and Palimsu Kamakshi (Madhyamavati), Madhuvanthi selected Karunajoodavamma (Varali) and Meenalochana brova (Dhanyasi), Krithika - Durusuga (Saveri) and Kanakasaila (Punnagavarali), Archana - Sarojadala netri (Sankarabharanam) and Ninnuvina (Reetigaula) and Swetha - Enneramum (Poorvikalyani) and Mahilo Amba (Anandabhairavi).

I took rapid lessons from the girls on how to download and install the apps; that seemed more nerve wracking than the process of planning the event itself! On hearing these developments, Kunjithapatham Iyer, the Mudraadhikari of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham for Tanjavur, who helps in arranging Syama Sastry’s janma nakshatra programme year after year choked, “This year, I thought we had to be satisfied with the offering of a few flowers and neivedyam to Syama Sastry’s portrait at the temple, but it was Her will which made the programme possible in this unimaginable period.” Vishaka Hari, who supports our Syama Sastry programme, was overjoyed with the developments. Auditor Sundar of Chennai, instrumental in executing this programme, was equally elated.

The days that followed comprised constant rehearsals, creating the invitation, and giving me tutorials on how Facebook live sessions work, over video conferencing. Vijeyajeya was as anxious as I was—like new recruits learning the ins and the outs! The fascinating idea of connecting to the world from the comfort of our homes was finally coming together.

On 25 and 30 April, it was extremely gratifying to witness them all singing so soulfully for the two saints. I had requested them to feel the aura of Bangaru Kamakshi Amman in the ambience of the temple, which they brought out with their bhava-laden singing. The kshetra pancharatnas were all rendered with equal devotion. As much as I did miss the satisfaction of all this happening in Tanjavur, I couldn’t have asked for something better with thousands of people getting together to pay their respects to the great saints.

It is heartening to see so many artists perform every other day in the online sphere and even more heartening to see unprecedented viewership for the same. It does look like the way forward until things return to normalcy. Also, it has got many like me to embrace the social networking world with open arms— with a cheer!

(The author is a veteran musicologist and academician)

Awards galore for the Dhananjayans

The Dhananjayans were honoured with the title, Bharatmuni Samman by Kalingayana Touryatrikam at Rabindra Mandap, Bhubaneswar on 16 December 2019.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, eminent Bharatanatyam exponent and guru Shanta Dhananjayan was conferred the Sthree Ratna award by The Fine Arts Society, Chembur, Mumbai on 14 March 2020.

Rasikapriya Fine Arts Academy, as a part of their three-day arts festival, honoured the Dhananjayans with the title, Rasikapriya Kala Ratna on 16 February 2020. Rasikapriya Fine Arts was started five years ago by a group of music lovers with an aim to bring classical music, dance and drama to the residents of OMR, Chennai.

Malladi Brothers receive Sangeetha Vedanta Dhurina Award

Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira, Bengaluru, presented the G. Vedanta Iyengar Memorial Award to the Malladi Brothers on 19 January 2020. The Sangeetha Vedanta Dhurina Award was presented to the duo by Sri Yadugiri Yathiraja Ramayana Jeeyar, and comprises a cash purse of one lakh rupees each, a silver medal and citation. Also in the picture are mridangam maestro Sangita Kalanidhi Trichy Sankaran, H.R. Yathiraj (president) and G.V. Krishna Prasad (secretary) of Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira.

Online teeming with classical performances


It has been three months since the last “live” music and dance concerts were held; yet the deluge of online performances streamed live on various platforms, or recorded in isolation, then streamed live, are in thousands.

There are differing views on this phenomenon—seasoned listeners are grateful for an opportunity to listen to their favourite stars online. “Earlier, where did I get the chance to peek into Ustad Zakir Hussain’s home in California and see him playing in his drawing room live!” said an excited fan. (The tabla wizard periodically goes live on his Instagram account, sometimes even live jamming with other musicians in other cities; a recent interaction with Anantha R. Krishnan on the mridangam in Chennai, was thrillingly racy.)

Shilpi Ravi who listens with as much enjoyment to Carnatic as well as north Indian music confessed, “There is so much music, starting from 9 am till the night, one has to literally make time for household chores. Every day Durga Jasraj’s Utsav interactions with artists followed by a live concert by the same artist are a must for me, as are the morning Carnatic music broadcast by the Mani Krishnaswami Academy. One day, I was glued to my screen the whole day during the weeklong Spic Macay annual online convention where there was music, a talk, yoga, a film.” Indeed, Spic Macay’s successful attempt to replicate their annual weeklong immersive festival was impressive—the interaction with doyens like Padma Subrahmanyam, Chitra Visweswaran, Dr. Karan Singh of note. The all-night music concerts ended as always at dawn with the vocal dhrupad of Wasifuddin Dagar who represents the oldest performing line of classical musicians pan India, being the 20th generation in an unbroken line of musicians.

On the other hand, the erratic internet connections make the listening experience of live concerts a disturbed one, with connection interruptions, lag in transmission and bad sound. There are many who prefer to listen to the concerts uploaded, amongst others by NCPA, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Prasar Bharati and the YouTube channels of popular artists which are now being updated regularly. NCPA’s broadcast of a recent dance performance by the inimitable Malavika Sarukkai and a themed concert by Ulhas Kashalkar titled Bandish focusing on great compositions by stalwarts like Anant Manohar Joshi and Ratanjankar stand out amongst the many interesting performances.

The issue of listening to music at home is also a controversial one. Vidushi Sudha Ragunathan cautioned: “People should not get so comfortable listening to a concert at home; you can stop, listen, then come back to it, like watching a movie …. is that really what we want? Complacency in the audience should not set in. There is a surfeit of online concerts I feel, leading to impatience amongst listeners, not wanting to wait for the artist to warm up and get into the zone—singing zone or connecting zone—whatever you want to call it.”

Organisers are a worried lot—the audiences they have so assiduously built over the years may find it easier to just settle for online concerts at home instead of making the effort of first buying tickets, then reaching a concert venue, and maybe having to wait to hear your favourite artist. Since there are so many free online concerts (on an average of 6-8 concerts daily, even more over the weekend), one may even be saturated in the next few months! Dr. Sathish Kumar of Rajalakshmi Fine Arts, which has been hosting concerts in Coimbatore and parts of the UAE for several years, enunciated in no uncertain terms: “Online concerts… disaster in the long run.” Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar who hosts the massive Swar Samrat Festival in Kolkata every year says: “I have mixed views on online concerts; but in no way feel they will present a threat to the real experience which simply cannot be replicated. Someone who loves the thrill of a live concert experience cannot be satisfied by the online experience, however many months we have to make do with them.”

Popular Carnatic duo Ranjani Gayatri give the artists’ perspective which is, “We are waiting to perform to a live audience but in the interim, will be sharing our music online”. North Indian diva Kaushiki Chakravorty has resisted offers to perform online but admitted she will be singing online soon as there seems to be no immediate end to the current isolation we are stuck in.

The other factor at play is the commercial one—nearly all the online fare on offer is available free and neither are the artists paid their full fees. Some get paid token expenses which is going to be a problematic issue once concerts start. Without a doubt, the audience at a well-known online festival like the HCL Concerts (two or three concerts a week for the past few months, and slated to continue) or Mahesh Kale’s California based ICMA Foundation with its weekend concerts is larger than a medium sized under-1000-seater auditorium, with the added ability to hear the concert any time from the organiser’s website, taking the number of listeners into thousands. As such, online audiences of established\ virtual concert organisers are a powerful force; leading one to wonder why organisers assume that their platform is needed by an artist without concerts, and that artists should be available to them without payment? Costs involved in a virtual concert cannot compare with the costs of a real concert with advertising, venue booking and sound system to name just the essentials. 

Of course, one must remember there are literally hundreds of artists who want and need the visibility online even without the fees, hoping that the exposure will translate into an audience when the time comes.

Kshitij Mathur who has just hosted an online weeklong Young String Festival opined: “Artists who are so impatient to go live every day on social media are ruining their own market. As an organiser why would I pay such an artist once things go back to normal? The audience has already heard his music several times over!”

Indeed, the Young String Festival was noteworthy in many ways. The 16 instrumentalists from all over India were young—none was above 35 years, and the youngest at 11 years was Kolkata based seventh generation sarangi player Amaan Hussain who held his own with an excellently rendered raga Sri, played with aplomb. Additionally, many of the performers were new to even seasoned listeners and included the excellent sarangi performer from Delhi, Kirana gharana’s Mudassir Khan, guitarist Shahnawaz Ahmed and sitarist Rishabh Rikhiram. Some of the artists played without any accompaniment, confining their recitals to the precomposition section of alap jod jhala / ragam tanam—sarodists Indrayuddh Majumder, Australia based Praashekh Borkar and Pratik Shrivastav, sitarist Soumitra Thakur, Carnatic veena exponent Ramana Balachandran and Abhay Nayampally on the guitar and violinist Yadnesh Raikar impressed. Others like the dazzling Mehtab Ali Niazi on the sitar had his brother accompany him on the table during his rendering of raga Suddha Kalyan; as did the very dexterous and impressive Satyendra Singh Solanki on the santoor, with his able brother Ramendra Singh on the tabla. Seasoned violinists Ragini Shankar and Manas Kumar expectedly, were a delight. Since the concerts were recorded earlier by the artists at home, Kshitij Mathur was able to ensure none of the ragas were repeated, which added to the appeal of the festival.

Another novelty thrown up in Covid 19 times has been musical collaborations. Many artists have united through music; though in their different lockdown zones, their musical offerings have been collated together to create pieces of music. These have usually been to raise awareness or raise funds for a cause. The first of these was Dharti Ma in April to offer gratitude to Mother Earth, followed by many others including maestro L. Subramaniam’s Vasudaiva Kutumbakam with stalwarts like Jasraj, Yesudas, Parween Sultana amongst others, musically interacting with the London Symphony orchestra. Another interesting song was by Sudha Ragunathan entitled Maitreem Bhajata with 47 singers. Mysore Manjunath has recently launched Life Again with musicians from several countries. The latest collaborative venture was entitled Raga for Healing conceived by Purbayan Chatterji with, amongst many others, musicians Bombay Jayashri, Rashid Khan interestingly accompanied on the guitar by his son Armaan, U. Rajesh, and Kaushiki Chakraborty singing with her young son Rishith accompanying her on the tabla.

Despite all on offer, one is eagerly waiting for pre-virus safe times to come back. As Sudha Ragunathan puts it: “Online concerts are just a makeshift arrangement to connect the audience and the artist, the [actual] live experience with the energy, visible body language where you can feel the love and energy, is a totally different feeling that cannot be replicated”.

SHAILAJA KHANNA

(Writes on music, musicians and matters of music)