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


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


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.