Tuesday, 7 July 2020

FROM THE EDITOR


“Cyber” and “online” are the latest catchwords. With no let up in the Covid 19 pandemic and the continuation of restrictions, the resumption of truly live performances, in halls big or small, seems to be quite a distant possibility. We have cyber performers, cyber teachers, cyber speakers, cyber organisers and cyber spaces. Cyber sessions by musicians, dancers and theatre personalities are either streamed “live” (!) or resurrected from the archives. The performance space has shrunk from the large proscenium to the restricted camera area in the artist’s room. So too has the space for the audience who watch performances peering into digital screens—big, medium or small, in the casual comfort of their homes. In the wake of social-distancing, online concerts must have drawn several new enthusiasts into the arts circuit and also kept alive the interest of seasoned rasikas. Online performances are a good makeshift arrangement; cyber can certainly coexist and complement live performances, but cannot really replicate the wholesome live experience. However, artists and several arts curators have risen to the occasion and the cyberspace is buzzing with online arts activities, especially on weekends. There is a mindboggling variety to savour. The spotlight in the July issue continues to be on Covid 19 and the arts: two of our seasoned writers—Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Shailaja Khanna, who have watched a range of performances have presented interesting reviews of online programmes during the lockdown.

We present a special feature on the debonair sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, his music and his musical lineage. It is a ‘double delight’ as we have also brought to you a rare interview with his father, the late sarod maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan. And what a coincidence that the interviewer is none other than Lalita Khanna—mother of Shailaja Khanna who has penned the profile-interview of the famous son for Sruti! The interviews throw light on their learning, life and approach to the arts. 

We are launching two new series in this issue. One is an occasional series on popular choreographers/ teachers in classical dance who are crowd pullers—in an attempt to explore the secrets of their success. The first person to be featured in it is Madurai R. Muralidaran, passionate about laya, Tamil and music, who has been showcasing his mega dance musicals globally and whose compositions are very popular among dance teachers. The second series is on the ‘Saptaswara devatas’ by ace painter, musician and musicologist S. Rajam. We published many of his paintings while he was alive. However, it has been our long standing wish to share with our readers, details about the original paintings of the saptaswara devatas that adorn the walls of Sruti office. We begin the series with S. Rajam’s painting Origin of the Swaras, and hope to present each swara in the next seven issues of the magazine.

The Carnatic music world has lost a stellar artist in the passing away of octogenarian musician T. Rukmini on 31 May 2020. Her good friend, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan pays rich tribute to this versatile violin soloist, accompanist, vocalist and teacher, who charmingly couched her laya prowess in the sheen of melody and bhava.

This year Guru Poornima falls on 5 July—the day to pay respects to the guru, guide and mentors. We have come a long way from gurukulams where disciples spent years with the guru, to home tuitions, group classes, and to impersonal online classes. I recently came across an announcement inviting students to learn nattuvangam online qualifying age three to adults! Now where are we heading for? Take care! Be safe.

S. JANAKI

Saturday, 4 July 2020

RASHESWAR SAIKIA BARBAYAN SATTRIYA AWARD


After the untimely demise of guru Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan, the founder-principal of Sangeet Sattra in October, 2000 a group of culture-loving people of Assam introduced the ‘Rasehwar Saikia Barbayan Sattriya Award’ in the year 2009 as a mark of respect to late legendary guru for his untiring efforts to establish Sattriya dance, music and Bhowna. From the year 2013, Sangeet Sattra continued this award to commemorate and offer their respect to their founder-principal. This coveted award is given to persons who have dedicated their life for the all-round development of Sattriya culture and Indian classical traditions. The eminent personalities chosen for this year’s award are – Sonaram Sarma Burah Bhakat, a devoted Bura Bhakat of Mul Kamalabari Sattra, Dr. Nita Vidyarthi, eminent dance critic, and Kalavati Devi, renowned Manipuri dancer.

Due to the current pandemic, the formal award ceremony will be held at a later date.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Apsaras Arts Roundup

Singapore’s initial lockdown restriction was revised with relaxed restrictions to “Phase 2” from 19 June 2020 as the arts community prepares to reopen studios for regular dance classes from early July.  Apsaras Arts surges ahead with continued digital conversations with interesting speakers. 

This past week, two digital events were held; ‘Spotlight Series’ part five, featuring outgoing India High Commissioner to Singapore, Jawed Ashraf. During this tenure, he created many important initiatives that strengthened India-Singapore relations including the inauguration of a memorial of Mahatma Gandhi at Clifford Pier in 2017 (now the Fullerton Bay Hotel), marking the occasion of the immersion of his ashes here in Singapore back in 1948. All these events were marked with rich cultural content showcasing the vast and rich heritage of India. Many of these performances featuring classical dance, instruments and yoga practitioners of Singapore were curated and coordinated by Aravinth Kumarasamy of Apsaras Arts as well.

In this Spotlight session, H.E Javed spoke on “Transcending Boundaries – The Power of India’s Cultural Heritage.” Speaking off the cuff from the High Commission of India, on 21 June, which was coincidentally international day of Yoga, he spoke with eloquence and depth on the enduring power and potential of the centuries long transcending of Indic traditions and culture through language, ideology, customs and traditions to the rest of Asia and in particular, the specific influences to South East Asia, including Singapore. The many communities he managed to engage, the religious activities he participated in, all had cultural elements embedded and he feels that Indian culture and heritage can continue to build dialogue and bridges for long-lasting friendship and camaraderie between India and Singapore. This session was attended by over 80 participants including those from Europe, especially French-Indian arts organisers who are anticipating his impending arrival and are looking forward to support from the Government of India for Indian cultural exchange in France. It was a pleasure hearing his views, many of our students and participants were encouraged to hear his positive words, especially during this difficult global pandemic. 

This was followed by a new series by Apsara Arts called ‘Heart 2 Arts – Conversations with Darshana Series Artistes’ on 26 June 2020.  Moderated by Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, this series featured conversations with Singapore-based dancers who have been featured in Apsaras Arts Darshana Series. This series began in 2018 and recreates an intimate setting of thematic solo and duet performances by locally based professional dancers.  The first session opened with Kathak dancer, Shivangi Dake Robert who had presented her show, Nupur Lahiri back in late 2019. In this session, Mohanapriyan explored the voice of the dancer through the selected pieces and themes and creates a conversation around how they created their show, the inspiration for their showcased pieces (he shows snippets from the show as part of the flow of discussion) and also how their past training impacts their performance style and what it takes to bring out elements in a piece. In this discussion, Shivangi shared how she used sequential lighting to showcase four unique characters within a storyline and explained how contemporary techniques like this help create more relevant performances. This session is available on Facebook Live at this link: https://www.facebook.com/DarshanaIDS for viewing. 

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Order of Australia Award for Shobha Sekhar


Melbourne based musician Shobha Sekhar was conferred the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM). The Governor-General and Chancellor of the Order of Australia, David Hurley AC DSC (Retd), announced that Shobha Sekhar would be conferred with this medal, in the Queen's Birthday 2020 Honours List.

The Order of Australia recognises individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement.

Shoba Sekhar, founder of Kalakruthi school of Indian classical music in Melbourne, was initiated into music by her grandmother Lakshmi Bai, she continued her tutelage under stalwarts like D.K. Pattammal, R.K. Srikantan and D.K. Jayaraman. Dulcet-voiced Shobha is also a reputed veena artist and has won appreciation for her concerts and lecdems across continents. She founded her school Kalakruthi in 1994 and the school is now accredited by Music Academy, Chennai.

Shobha is a long term correspondent of Sruti and we congratulate her on this momentous occasion.  

Award for Apsaras Arts, Singapore

Vidhya Nair


Singapore based Apsaras Arts, was one of the first of six organisations who became inaugural recipients of The Stewards of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Award – an award given to those dedicated to the promotion and transmission of the intangible cultural heritage in Singapore.

This award conferred by the National Heritage Board (NHB) Singapore aims to recognise practitioners (individual and groups) of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) who are dedicated to the promotion and transmission of their practices and have made outstanding contributions in their field.



This award spotlights Apsaras Arts as a leader in the Indian arts community and is important to the vision of the founders’ Neila and Satyalingam’s in creating a dance company that celebrates local dance traditions and nurtures young aspiring talents to be showcased internationally.

To thank the community and acknowledge the 43 years of service to Singapore society, a commemorative video was released on 9 June 2020 showcasing 43 faces and voices associated with the company sharing adjectives that reflect their relationship and what this company means to them.

SICH Award 2020 Link: https://youtu.be/idmSmkLxdQE

Saturday, 6 June 2020

FROM THE EDITOR


Its Covid here, its Covid there, its Covid-19 everywhere! It has had its impact on every sphere and will continue to do so in the future too, to the extent that people are now talking about BC and AC—‘Before Covid’ and ‘After Covid” eras! Hence the spotlight in this issue is on Covid and the arts; USbased noted musician and composer Kanniks Kannikeswaran has attempted to analyse arts in the post-Covid scenario. Will arts as we know, ever be the same again?

On television and print media, we are bombarded with facts and figures about the pandemic from morning till night, which can be quite depressing. We have also presented a few statistics for you, but they are heartening figures about the Covid relief work undertaken by some prominent organisations in the arts fraternity. Three cheers to all the artists who are contributing in some way or the other to help others in need. On the one hand, music, dance, painting and other creative activity can be a soothing balm and calm the mind in a positive way. But what about performing artists for whom these could be the source of stress? Read what T. Nandakumar has to say about it in our ‘Wellness’section.

In our ‘News & Notes’ segment we have two reports— one of a regular festival held live in Patiala on a grand scale before the pandemic struck, and the second is a roundup of online events interestingly and intelligently put together by Apsaras Arts from Singapore during the worldwide Covid lockdown. In the coming months we will likely have more and more reviews of music, dance and theatre events streamed online via Zoom, Instagram, Facebook and other platforms. Let us too keep in step with the times! In fact, in this issue we have a first person account from Rama Kousalya, a traditional, septuagenarian musicologist who cast aside her apprehensions about social media and learnt the ropes to successfully coordinate and conduct online the jayantis of Tyagaraja and Syama Sastry from far flung Tillaisthanam! Certainly an inspiration for all of us to gear up and become tech-savvy soon as this will probably be the “new normal” in the near future.

We do have our regular profiles of personalities. This time, Sruti contributor Anjana Anand, who is also a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, has interviewed two senior dancers who have blazed a trail abroad— Malaysia based Ramli Ibrahim and US-based Hema Rajagopalan. Ramli is a classic example of a multifaceted artist who has transcended barriers through his art; he has been decorated with top honours in Malaysia and India. Bharatanatyam exponent and teacher Hema Rajagopalan, who turns 70 in a few months, has been one of the pioneers in propagating the dance form in the diaspora. 

For classical music lovers there is a moving account of how Neyyatinkara Vasudevan rose from humble beginnings, through hard work and perseverance, to become one of the leading musicians and teachers from Kerala to make waves in the Chennai Carnatic music scene and around the world. There are also two analytical articles on the Varnam; one attempts to explore the unpublished varnas of Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar. In the second article, senior Bharatanatyam exponent and scholar Nandini Ramani provides insights into the structure of a traditional pada varnam.

Our varied content this month surely offers interesting fare for you to spend time on a positive note.
S. JANAKI

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Apsaras Arts – Roundup 25th to 31st May 2020

Vidhya Nair


The last week of May 2020 marked the end of the “Circuit Breaker” in Singapore’s lockdown and end of mid-term holidays for school children. With many online content offerings, it was a challenge to hold audiences yet Apsaras Arts had a unique week with many unexpected outreach opportunities and engagements.

TWO gether Season 2 series in collaboration with @Aalaap_concepts

This week, three Bharatanatyam dancers from Apsaras Arts – Seema Hari Kumar, Mohanapriyan Thavarajah and Nikita Menon paired with three Indian dancers, Bhavna Reddy (Kuchipudi), Vrinda Chadha (Odissi) and Souvik Chakraborthy (Kathak) respectively. Each pair created thirty minutes of discourse and presented nritya and abhinaya pieces that showcased the beauty and the unique voice of each of their dance forms. In some of the pieces, it seemed the way the dancers communicated through their hand and facial gestures and expressions so seamlessly enough for us, the audience to disbelief that the dancer pairs were indeed performing in the same room instead of being miles apart! The dancers shared that this twogetherness imposed greater clarity of collaboration and no conditions for any impasse, a disciplined commitment to prepare credible pieces within the short preparation window. They also felt that this initiative broke down barriers of distance and helped them reach out to fellow dancers in similar mental and emotional anguish during the Covid-19 lockdown, bridging this physical gap with engagement in dance and common ideas.

Anjaneyam – Hanuman’s Ramayana: Encore! on Sistic Live

Apsaras Arts’s 2017 production Anjaneyam- Hanuman’s Ramayana received an encore re-rerun, albeit on an online platform, Sistic Live as part of a tie-up with Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay’s featuring three Singapore-made productions from the Chinese, Malay and Indian community. Over eight days, from 24 May to 31 May, patrons could purchase tickets to watch the full production at their leisure. A large number of new patrons, both local and international were able to access this link and Apsaras Arts received much feedback and accolades for this work that featured an ensemble of close to 200 cast and crew who worked tirelessly to create this high-energy production. Digital outreach is now expected to exist in the new-normal as arts companies engage with viewers in the post Covid19 age. As technology and access gains momentum, we can expect more digital offerings and this is a trend that Apsaras Arts is preparing itself for in coming days.

In the course of the week, reflective conversations on the production were organised to give greater insights on its making. Esplanade hosted a talk on 30 May, where Aravinth Kumarasamy who created this production and helmed its artistic direction, spoke at length on how this staging was made possible and the long-standing relationship Apsaras Arts has created in collaboration with Esplanade in the past 15 years with many innovative works. Do watch this conversation here:


Spotlight Series Session 4 with author and 
theatre personality, Gowri Ramnarayan

This session themed Shaping a Nayaka – evolving characters onstage was held on 31 May. Gowri Ramnarayan, using images from her theatre productions shared the thought process behind the techniques used to shape characters such as Yasodhara, the wife of Prince Gauthama and the use of thought provoking monologues on the characters from the epics such as Manthara, Urmila, Shantha and Soorpanaga, the lesser known heroines from the Ramayana. It was an absorbing session attended by over 60 participants. The Q & A helped dance practitioners to ask questions on how the stage can be used with images of these Nayakas through cloth, painting, lighting and choice of words in scripting and the importance of silence and pause within a performance which all help to create a spellbinding experience for an audience.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Bereaved

Veteran Bharatanatyam exponent and guru Sudharani Raghupathy, on the sudden demise of her husband R. Raghupathy, on 29 May in Chennai. Sruti offers its condolences to her and the family.

Vidushi T Rukmini passes away


Eminent violinist T. Rukmini passed away this afternoon. She was 84.

Born on 27 November 1936, T. Rukmini has been one  of the most preferred violin accompanists in the Carnatic music scene for years.  Rukmini's first performance as accompanist was at the Town Hall in Bangalore when she was just 16 years old. She accompanied T.R. Mahalingam (Flute Mali) in a benefit programme. By then she had already taken part in some concerts presented by the same organisers and earned a name as a competent accompanist. In her career, spanning decades, she has played as accompanist to stalwarts as well as up-and- coming musicians of many generations. audiences not only with her vidwat and the way she has played her part as an accompanist, but with her stage presence and the pleasantness which always seemed to surround her.

Sruti conveys its heartfelt condolences to her family members.

To read more on vidushi T. Rukmini pl see Sruti 182

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Apsaras Arts – Roundup – 16th May to 25th May 2020

Vidhya Nair

In the third week of May, Apsaras Arts presented  an in-depth discussion on the making of Anjaneyam – Hanuman’s Ramayana - Aravinth Kumaraswamy in conversation with Chitra Sundaram, dancer/choreographer and theatre personality based in London. This session was hosted by @samarpanafortheartsandwellbeing and received an interactive audience who also engaged in Q&A with Aravinth.  Chitra posed candid questions on the making of the mega-production Anjaneyam from the genesis of the idea, the text references and how the story came to be scripted. She also asked about the theatrical techniques employed and how Bharatanatyam came to be combined with Balinese dance. They shared many interesting anecdotes about bringing legendary dancers VP Dhanajayan and C K Balagopal who played sage Valmiki and the elder Hanuman respectively. Aravinth also shared his experiences on working with Esplanade, one of the prestigious venues in Singapore.  Link: https://youtu.be/lUm2rZOGl80

Shukran: A Tribute to Singapore’s Migrant Workers was an initiative by Kathak dancer, Sunena Gupta to create community awareness and outreach through dance. Apsaras Arts’s Kathak dancer/choreographer, Shivangi Dake Roberts performed a segment in the third episode of this five-part series on the theme Fizaa- Tropical Paradise. Her performance was received well among Kathak enthusiasts in Singapore Link:  https://youtu.be/6OYmHzjjlgs


Aalaap Concepts, presented, Home Sketches@Aalaapconcepts with dancer Mohanapriyan Thavarajah. Aalaap’s theme of Home Sketches featured six dancers reflecting on the idea of home. A place of refuge, an abstract space filled with emotion, feelings and memories. This session saw Mohanapriyan engage in a conversation with Aalaap’s founder-director, Akhila Krishnamurthy; he shared his memories of growing up in Srilanka, his education in South India and his professional move to Singapore which led to his eventual growth as a dancer. He then presented a short abhinaya divinity piece that called upon oneness with the Almighty as an ode to being called back home.

22-25th May – TWOgether Season II@AalaapConcepts. A collaboration with Apsaras Arts

Season II of TWOgether featured six pairs of dances from Singapore and India presenting contrasting classical dance forms. In the first three sessions, Bharatanatyam dancers from Singapore and France faced up to a Mohiniattam, Manipuriand  Kandyan dancer.

Each performance was unique as each pair showcased aspects of their dance forms in varied ways – by their song choices, nritta items, explanations on the characters they often create in their solo work. The audience was able to interact and pose questions. Most cited the key challenges they faced which included navigating the technology of Instagram, time lag in music and expressions and getting to know an overseas partner and finding a common working ground in under a week, yet appreciated the opportunity this concept offered them to sharpen their own skills.  From the audience perspective especially in Singapore, the artforms intricacies and interactions with Mohiniattam, Manipuri and Kandyan dancers are extremely rare to see and hear up close.  This collaborative concept allowed for intimate interaction with these dancers – their thought process and their willingness to adapt and find comradery with an overseas Bharatanatyam exponent.

·       Launch of SISTIC Live – Anjaneyam : 24 to 31 May

Apsaras Arts was invited to be part of a joint showcase by Singapore’s Esplanade, Theatres by the Bay and SISTIC ( largest ticketing platform in Singapore) for a Live Production feed that enabled three Singapore made productions from the Chinese, Malay and Indian genres in this inaugural digital feature.  

The production, Anjaneyam – Hanuman’s Ramayana which premiered for a single show in November 2017 as part of Esplanade’s annual Kala Utsavam Festival is part of this prestigious feature.

In the last four days, a substantial number of tickets have been applied for from both Singapore and overseas patrons to watch the entire production in the comfort of their homes with surround sound and brilliant stage production and artistic craft. Patrons can avail these tickets at no cost or offer to pay a nominal donation which will go to support Apsaras Arts during this pandemic downturn.

For information on Anjaneyam, behind the production.
To download the ticket link to watch Anjaneyam till 31 May 2020

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Who is Bharata?


Indira Parthasarathy

Who is Bharata, the author of the Natya Sastra?

Unlike Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who raised the question, “What is Truth?” and would not pause for an answer, I would pause and venture to think aloud about the question that I have raised.

Was Bharata from Kashmir or Kanchi? Was he an Aryan or a Dravidian?

True, it is difficult to find a perfect answer for such questions, considering the hoary past of our Indian heritage, deeply submerged in the darkness of pre-history and proto-history. The ethnic divide as Aryan and Dravidian was an imported concept created by the Western philologists to fulfil the political agenda of their masters – the rulers of an occupied colony. But Max Mueller, who introduced the Vedas to the West, later revised his earlier opinion and said that these terms referred to the linguistic divisions of the languages spoken in the northern parts of India and the southern regions. That Tiruvaimozhi by the Vaishnavite saint Nammalvar was hailed as ‘Dramido upanisad’ by the saint-scholars from both regions during the medieval period, is worth pondering over.

Sanskrit, as a language of communication between the various intellectual groups in the north and south, was a ‘created’ idiom as the etymological root of the word itself suggests, that is, ‘one that is cultivated’ – like English is, as of now, the world over. The early Rig Vedic language is totally different from Sanskrit of the later periods. Scholars from both regions – north and south – wrote in Sanskrit. And all those southern philosophers, poets and grammarians had a comprehensive knowledge of Sanskrit, to whatever caste they belonged. Kamban could not have excelled Valmiki in his masterly literary recreation of the Ramayana in Tamil without knowing Sanskrit.

That Bharata wrote his dramatic manual in Sanskrit does not make him a north Indian as one hailing from Kashmir. Secular literature in the field of art and culture found expression in the southern region much before it was known in the north. The authors of these treatises could have written them in Sanskrit but this does not warrant a north Indian origin in regard to their Nativity

Bharata was called ‘Bharata Muni’ and not ‘Bharata rishi’ like the authors of the religious works in Sanskrit were called. ‘Muni’ is a word of non-Sanskritic origin, according to the eminent scholar Manmohan Ghosh, the English translator of the Natya Sastra.

‘Bharata’ means ‘actor’ and according to the traditional stories in regard to the author of this dramatic manual, though he was born a Brahmin, he was considered belonging to an inferior status in the caste hierarchy since he was an actor-author, This could have been the reason he was not given the exalted status of a rishi as was given to the authors of the itihasas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. This is corroborated by the Silappadhikaram, in which it is mentioned that an inferior category of Brahmins, such as the musicians and practitioners of theatrical arts, lived in the outskirts of Madurai city, far away from the colonies of the Vedic chanting Brahmins.

So it is possible to believe that Bharata, who came in the rich tradition of Tamil heritage and culture, could have composed the Natya Sastra in Sanskrit to give this art a pan-Indian appeal. According to Adiyarkunallar (14th century CE), the commentator of Silappadhikaram, a treatise on theatre written in Tamil, called Bharatam was lost. It is difficult to say, which was earlier, the one written in Tamil or the one written in Sanskrit.

This brings us to the question of Bharatanatyam – whether it had its origin in the Tamil region or elsewhere. Of course, Bharata had nothing to do with the dance form associated with his name. What was once known as Sadir, and remained an exclusive possession of a privileged section of women in a feudal society, was ‘sanskritised’ (literally and as the sociologists would have it) and came to be known as ‘Bharataanatyam’ at the dawn of the 20th century.

The contemporary Bharatanatyam style perhaps owes its origin to Silappadhikaram (5th century CE), where it is described in detail in Arangetru Kathai, Kataladukathai and Venirkathai.

The erotic aspect of this dance form is brought out in Venirkathai. Eight varieties of dancing styles are described. (1) Histrionic gesticulation of the heroine at her initial meeting with the hero that happens accidently. (2) A dance form in which the hero comes much too often to draw attention. (3) The hero coming in disguise to meet the heroine. (4) The feigned ignorance of the heroine in regard to the hero’s presence at the spot where she dances. (5) Posture of an offended lover and the lovers’ quarrel mediated by an intermediary. (6) Expressions of bitten love narrated to the companion. (7) Acute pangs of separation exhibited by various expressions of sorrow and misery. (8) Theatrical action of swooning in desperate mood of love hoping to be bodily lifted by her lover.

Kovalan, the hero of Silappadhikaram mentions these eight styles of erotic dancing as befitting a courtesan like Madhavi and that he is not amused by her theatricals, when he decides to reject her and return to his lawfully-wedded wife Kannagi.

Sadir, which was later baptized as Bharatanatyam, was in true succession of the styles of dancing as portrayed by the epic. A thin line divides eroticism and bhakti. Instead of a human lover, God was chosen as the Supreme Lover, which became the sum and substance of bridal mysticism.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Covid and folk artists

V.R. Devika


My cellphone rang… it was Roja Kannan (president of the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India). “Devika”, she said, “ABHAI has been asked by IGNCA to identify artists in dire need of help during this COVID crisis. Padma Subrahmanyam advised me that you could identify such folk artists.” Immediately I sent the phone number of  leather shadow puppeteer Selvaraj who was not only without any performing engagement in March but also had met with a road accident. His son was asked a huge sum of money for a surgery in a private hospital nearby as he had no means of transport to go to a government hospital. ABHAI immediately transferred Rs.15000 to them that was a great help said Selvaraj’s son.

Then I gave ABHAI the contact for Terukoothu artist Kumar, son of Kalaimamani Dakshinamurthy who passed away recently. Kumar is struggling to keep the company together and trying to get performances in his father’s absence, knowing well that it was Dakshinamurthy’s prowess that had been getting them performances.

Then I called kattaikuttu artist Thilakavathi Palani. Thilaka said she was going around to the villages of Kanchipuram, distributing amounts sent by musician  T.M. Krishna to artists who were shell shocked at the cancellation of all night performances and Bharatakoothu festival in which the whole village participates in rituals connected with the Mahabharata. After listening to the musical narration of the Mahabharata in the morning, episodes are enacted in the koothu form all night,  culminating in “Padukalam” when the huge statue of Duryodhana gets destroyed and the icon of Druapadi Amman from the temple also ritualistically has her hair tied up at the same time when the artist performing the role of Draupadi does so. March, April and May are the busiest months for koothu artists who may also take on casual work in farms during the lean months.


Thilakavathi Palani works for the NGO “Katradi” (Wind Dancers Trust) founded by Sangeetha Isvaran and Elizabeth Haynes. They sent foodgrains and cash to many artists who are among the poorest of the poor like the pambai rhythm players, neyyandi melam, karagam artists and medai natakam artists who perform during temple festivals and household rituals. Thilaga has been packing bags containing rice, dal and oil and going around on her two-wheeler to distribute to Kattaikuttu artists and others.

“We learn that there are several artists among migrant workers. Katradi has been receiving appeals from marginalised communities like the Irula and Narikurava tribes, traditional performing artists, daily wage earners, single mothers whose lives have taken a catastrophic downturn when livelihoods have disappeared,” says Sangeetha who is planning to set up an office in the village of Kalavai koot road for better coordination of distribution. “Community workers from the Katradi team (most of them folk artists) are following up each appeal, assessing the situation and delivering the help needed while respecting the rules of social distancing.”

Dadi Padamjee of  UNIMA also has been reaching out to puppeteers to help them. Radhika Ganesh of Ek Potli Ret Ki is also raising funds to help craftspersons, folk artists and others.

Even as I write this, I am moved by a story that came up.  Eighty labourers in Andhra Pradesh’s Puttaparthy, that included many Kashmiri craftsmen who weave exquisite carpets and make wooden artefacts, were asked to pay 1.8 lakhs for a bus ride to the Hyderabad station by the local authorities. However, the brothers Ram and Laxman Rao who own gold jewellery shops and petrol pumps in the area, advanced the 1.8 lakhs needed for the journey to the railway station. The brothers said,  “We have known the Kashmiris who stay in our area; they are our brothers.” Shek Tariq, a Kashmiri shawl and cloth seller, said they were miserable till Ram and Laxman came to their rescue. 
I sighed. There is still hope for humanity.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Reinventing the classical performance for the virtual audience

Aarthi Srinath

COVID-19, in a few weeks, has achieved what many Chief Technology Officers have striven to do for years - forced businesses and professionals alike to embrace the online virtual world! This is true for performing Indian classical artistes too.

I usually catch up on kutcheris in the December margazhi season. But today, despite being in a lockdown mode, I have access to choicest selection of performances to ‘attend’ from the comfort of my home, every single day.

We are at the cusp of a new format of performance taking its legitimate spot in the world of performing arts - the virtual performance. Our classical artistes are only beginning to scrape the surface of this new format with solo live performances on social media and insta-live chat interviews. The opportunities are however, endless. 

The biggest opportunity that this virtual format has created is that of a brand new audience - the social media savvy millennial. The virtual space has allowed the physical-space deprived artist to take control of their performance and reach a much larger audience.

Classical dance in sabhas has always brought in a younger crowd, but the Carnatic audience tends to often be in shades of grey. However, with online live and recorded performances, the audience demographic has the potential to change - classical music and dance can now reach many youngsters in their twenties and thirties, not just in India but in any part of the world.

But it is not as easy as that. These millennials who are online, are being simultaneously bombarded by a million brands and entertainment options out there, all vying for a slice of their interest. How does the classical artist grab the interest of their new virtual audience and make an impact? How does the artist give their virtual audience goosebumps and make time stand still, and their hearts feel like it has doubled in size?

The answer lies in the Natya Sastra - the holy grail of all Indian performing arts. According to the Natya Sastra, the goals of theatre are to empower aesthetic experience and deliver emotional rasa. This goal for the artist remains unchanged whether the performance is live at a sabha or virtual on social media - it is and always will be about establishing and deepening the connect with your audience. However, the means to achieve this end is different.

To be successful performers in the virtual world, the artist needs to reinvent their performance for the new online audience. Technology is going to be the biggest enabler to re-shape this online art experiences and evoke rasa in the virtual audience.

This is possible in many ways, and several artists are experimenting with many of these:

Reinvent Tradition - While building on the strengths of tradition, artists need to reinvent tradition and plan performances differently, away from the conventional repertoire. Shorter concerts with popular pieces, capella performances with multiple shots to create the orchestra effect and newer concert formats such as limited audience closed-room concerts are some options.

Personalize - Design the virtual performance based on audience interests by crowd sourcing suggestions. Try the participant-driven ‘Unconference’ approach and allow your audience to shape the flow of the performance on-the-fly.

Educate and Engage -  Your ‘newbie’ audience may not know enough to appreciate the performance in its entirety. Use this opportunity to educate them about your performance through comments and explanations running at the bottom. Live lec-dems and chats are another way to engage with the audience beyond comments, and build that connect.

Invest in audience experience - Performing art is sensory, and sound and light play a very important role in elevating the audience experience. Assuming that most of the online performances are going to be shot on the mobile phone, artists need to invest in modern lighting and sound technology that amplify their performance to the online audience.

Soon, lockdown will end, but virtual performances are here to stay. The new virtual audience, in reality, may not be as forgiving as they have been during the lockdown. If the performing artist wants to make the online format a financially viable one, where the audience is ready to pay to watch, the virtual experience needs to be worth it. It is now up to the artist to make the most of it!

The author is a digital marketing entrepreneur, today, performing bharatanatyam artist, yesterday& rasika of the performing arts, always.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Birth Centenary Tribute: Pandit Ravi Shankar


Meena Banerjee

Who could imagine that the 100th birthday of Pandit Ravi Shankar (7th April) would come and go so quietly! The sudden impact of the pandemic in late March this year caused cancellation of hundreds of events centered on the legend's birth centenary in Kolkata alone! The tune and tone of the present struggle for survival is not very different from the Bharat Ratna's boyhood days.   

Aamake keu bujhlo na (no one understood me)”, Pandit Ravi Shankar would often lament before tabla maestro Kumar Bose, a close associate of Panditji from 1980 to 1994. Ironically, Panditji’s shockingly candid confessions in his autobiography (My Life My Music) paint a clear picture of a strife-ridden life which scaled peaks of popularity and reverence under the shadows of controversies. “They are good! All greats are shadowed by controversy,” adds Ustad Shujaat Khan with conviction.   
Panditji’s father Shyam Sunder Chaudhuri, an intellectual gyan-margi and lawyer, was the Dewan of Jharwa State, Rajasthan. He left his family of four sons and a pregnant wife, while his eldest son Uday Shankar was already away at the Royal College of Arts, London. The distraught mother shifted base to Banares where Robu, her youngest son was born on 7 April in a small house in front of Til-Bhandeshwar. Little Robu, who clung on to his mother, saw and realised how much she sacrificed to make the ends meet.

Pandit Vijay Kichlu who knows the family since 1941-42 when his educationist father joined as the administrator of Uday Shankar Academy, Almora. He recalls, “Paris also exposed him to Western concept of music ensembles. His concept of Indian classical vadya-vrind perhaps was inspired by them. During my Allahabad University days, I came to know him closely through my friend Bindu Mukherjee who was close to Raviji. He had a remarkable sense of humour; laughter was his passion.  
A voracious reader, he always maintained physical fitness and practiced yoga. As an organizer, I found him very particular about each of his concerts. A stickler, he would plan the entry, order of sequences, lights, sound and keep the stage-hands on their toes! But, in extremely pleasant manner. His good looks, jovial character, winsome manners and venerable expertise won hearts in seconds. His professionalism ignited controversies on one side; and surged down to serious raagdari as well. Traditional to the core, he based his alapchari and baaj on typical dhrupad. Even his scores for several films vouch for this trait. When SRA happened in 1978, he accepted my request to be one of the founder trustees. He also helped include two of his world renowned friends Yehudi Menuhin and Satyajit Ray.”

Pandit Kumar Bose adds, “after the sudden demise of my father (tabla maestro Biswanath Bose) I met Panditji, he asked, “Babar smarane prog koro, ami bajabo (Do organize a memorial concert dedicated to your father, I will play) and you will play with me. Get in touch with Dubey for a date. I realized that he used to follow the track of all the musicians with a special purpose to get them in his varied productions. He preferred to utilize the new energy of youngsters. He was well aware of my career-graph. I was flabbergasted by this suggestion; because ‘Panditji’ meant a big event, beyond me; but it happened. The next day he offered me to join him, but with a caution that I will not get time to play elsewhere. I was already committed to Ustad Amjad Ali Khan who had helped me in a huge way after Baba’s death.



“Finally, after almost a year, I signed the contract and entered his world which was entirely different! Etiquette, punctuality, sophistication, gratitude – there was a lot to learn from him. Whenever he stayed in a person’s house he would ensure that his telephone and laundry bills will be borne by him. He never missed such little things like thanking his host soon after reaching the next concert spot. As a human and as an artist he was very professional but very informal at home. I was amazed by his elephantine memory. Once a young boy touched his feet and told his father’s name. Panditji rattled all the details dating back almost 50 years! On another occasion, he was scanning airport book-stalls to buy a new novel but couldn’t because all were read by him. A passionate film-buff, he could recollect all the details of films seen, along with the actors’ life history.

A fitness freak, he walked a lot at airports, hotels, house-gardens; without fail; but was an incorrigible foodie too; especially loved Indian and Bengali food. A riyaazi, he maintained a strict schedule; even for small talks and jokes!

“Controversies are good; that is the price of popularity!’ quips Ustad Shujaat Khan with his typical positivity. They prove that they were worth it. My father Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar were like elephants. None were wrong. They were walking different paths. And yet he spoke high of a youngster like me. I used to call him Robi-kaka. Once he told me, “Your father is a great master. I am so happy and proud that a person and musician like you are taking his music ahead. Whenever I met him he gave pointer in my career - very pleasantly, smilingly, while appreciating my point of view. These are the blessings one cannot forget.”



“My father never allowed anyone to badmouth him. They were rivals, competitors but not enemies! They had different ideologies of music and its presentation. I did admire his calm, cool presentations; but musical inspiration? I was under the huge umbrella of gayaki anga of Vilayat Khan and Amir Khan. I am their bhakt. Robikaka could translate that thrill in tantrakari with bol-tihai, which I enjoyed. Despite all, none is greater than music. It is their music which lives on.”