Saturday, 31 July 2021

FROM THE EDITOR


On 15 August  1947, we as a nation, made a tryst with destiny. On the eve of India’s Independence, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru—the first Prime Minister of Independent India—made a historic speech: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”   Freedom at that time meant independence from the shackles of British colonial rule. As the years have rolled by, the context of freedom too has undergone a change. Freedom can mean different things to different people: physical, emotional, and artistic; freedom from want and fear, from oppression, freedom of thought and expression, freedom to live life the way one wants to… the list is long!

For artists the freedom of thought and expression is paramount—the freedom to explore and experiment, to be spontaneous, to innovate within the boundaries of a tradition, can be challenging! In an attempt to get  various perspectives on  freedom, Sruti turns its spotlight this time on  “What freedom means to artists”. We bring to you thought provoking and interesting insights of renowned classical artists  who have shared their views about equality, the play of balance and freedom in life, the importance of freedom of choice and expression, how one strives to attain artistic freedom through introspection, and more.

Our cover stories this time focus on three artists. Ebrahim Alkazi was a visionary who was not afraid to explore uncharted territory in theatre and in the process, blazed a trail in modern Indian theatre. On the occasion of his first death anniversary, we are privileged to present a rare recollection of the pioneer by one of his old students Prof. Kamlakar Sontakke. He has enough material to write a book on his mentor, though we could but publish an interesting capsule of it.

B. Bhanumati, who passed away recently, was a Bharatanatyam exponent and teacher who thought out-of-the-box to dive deep into the vast ocean of the arts and emerge with glowing pearls of group choreographic works which made her and her troupe famous.

Carnatic vocalist and teacher, Shertallay Ranganatha Sharma, is a traditionalist who hails from a musical family in Kerala, and has equipped himself well musically to establish himself and gain recognition in the Carnatic music circuit.

In this issue, we also pay tribute to veteran Parassala Ponnammal who was also a  traditionalist in her music and demeanour, but a pioneer with many firsts to her credit.

As 22 August is Madras Day,  we bring to you this month, an interesting write-up on the songs of  Vallalar Ramalinga Swamigal on Chennai, by Sriram V.

As Sruti goes to print, we are saddened to hear about the passing away of D.R. Santhanam (91) in Pune. He was a connoisseur of music, a pillar of support to his wife—veteran Carnatic musician and scholar R. Vedavalli, and a father-figure to her students. He was a member of the executive committee of the Madras Music Academy for several years and a good friend of Sruti from its inception. “Santhanam Mama” had a remarkable memory  and was a fund  of information about  people and events of the past. He would also often draw our attention to young talented musicians and writers. Our heartfelt condolences to Sruti’s Senior Associate vidushi Vedavalli and her family.

And harking back to independence, we must remember that one’s freedom must not impinge on the freedom of another – that would be ‘footloose freedom’! On the occasion of the launch of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav by the Government of India to celebrate 75 years of India’s Independence, it is fitting that we re-dedicate our pledge to serve our state, our country and humanity with renewed vigour. Jai Hind!

S. JANAKI

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Efforts on to renovate Dikshitar's Mandapam in Tiruvarur

By Nandini Ramani


"Kamalalayil pirandaarkum Mukti” -- those born in Tiruvarur attain salvation”-- describes the greatness of the unique holy town of Tiruvarur, which is also known as Sripuram, Bhoopuram, Kamalalayam, Valmikapuram, Muchukundapuram and so on, glorifying its many-splendoured facets. 

The birth of the Carnatic music trinity in this auspicious place adds further dimensions to its greatness, with its presiding deity Sri Ajapaa Natana Tyagesa moorti and Devi Kamalamba, it’s pervading gnana  sakti. 

The initial establishment of a memorial for Muthuswami Dikshitar at his birth place in Tiruvarur happened in  1955, which involved the well-known local landlord, Bhikshandar Kovil G. Rajagopala Pillai and Tiruvarurite  Dr. V. Raghavan,  under the auspices of the Sangita Mummoortigal Sabha on  the instruction of the Paramacharya of the Kanchi Mutt, who visited the birthplace of Dikshitar and conducted pujas there for a period. 

As per available print sources, in  1976, V. Raghavan, T. Sadasivam and local landlord V.S. Tyagaraja Mudaliar, worked on  building a new mandapam at the same venue. As they were mobilising funds for this project, a munificent donation of 1,40,000 rupees came from a native of Tanjavur, Pillaali Govindasamy Pillai, who travelled to Singapore as a youth and became a leading textile businessman there. That generous offer helped to complete the mandapam which was inaugurated  on 3 March 1977, in the presence of Govindasamy Pillai who was then 90 years old.

It is a nostalgic experience for me to recall as I was present at the morning inauguration and sang two gems of compositions of  Dikshitar, that too in the presence of M.S. Subbulakshmi, who offered a scintillating musical homage that evening. 

After more than four decades, on the instruction of Sri Vijayendra Saraswati Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, the renovation of  the mandapam  has been undertaken and the work has been assigned to a managing committee, under the chairmanship of Sri Karyam of the mutt and other eminent members of the city.   

This noble project to commemorate one of the Carnatic music trinity has been budgeted at rupees one crore and fifty lakhs. Lovers of Carnatic music, musicians and rasikas of Dikshitar kritis, are welcome to contribute generously towards this memorial for the versatile “vainika gayaka"  Muthuswami Dikshitar, and pay their homage to the musical genius on the banks of the Cauvery.

(More details can be obtained from R. Kalidas, Treasurer, Phone: 8754579280)

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

“Time has been a major influence”

 By Shrinkhla Sahai


Astad Deboo is a maverick dancer. His 67th birthday falls on 13 July 2014. Over the years he has dodged neat categories and continues to explore new frontiers with his individualistic style. Minimalism, restraint and innovation have emerged as signature features of his choreography. Having worked extensively with different groups of performers, he was in Delhi recently with Rhythm Divine a performance with Thang-ta performers from Manipur. In this freewheeling conversation he reflects on his journey through the various rhythms of life and performance.

 What was the inspiration for Rhythm Divine? How did the concept originate and how did you go about creating it?

I have been working with performers in Manipur for the past ten years. We started working with their living traditions and techniques and introducing layers of playfulness and interaction. I would respond to their rhythm, they would follow my movement, and so on. We keep changing the choreography, developing new works and revisiting earlier ones.

Astad Deboo
in conversation with
Shrinkhla Sahai

Are the volatile political conditions of Manipur expressed in the bodies and movements of the dancers? Was there any engagement with that during the creation of the piece?

Maybe not directly in terms of theme and content, but it is part of their experience. We worked a lot with rhythm – there are different levels of hostility, suspiciousness in their silences, their cries. They usually perform in a completely different context, mostly as ritual, in temple environs, but not on stage. So the work takes on a different meaning when it is taken into a new context.

What made you break away from your initial training in Kathak and Kathakali, to explore something different?

I wanted to find my own expression, to explore and express my individuality. I think it is very important for dancers today as well to gain greater exposure and  pursue higher education in dance.

How has your style evolved over the years?

While I was in London, I discovered that my body is an ‘Indian body’. For instance, in Indian dance the body is mostly grounded — there are bends; it is never straight. The rasas are very important, the face and eyes are integral aspects. There are many such qualities and of course these are ingrained in my body. It comes through in my style. I assimilated into my body a variety of techniques and experiences which have influenced my dance. Over time I have realised that minimalism is beautiful. It is much more difficult. As you grow older, you discover something different, sometimes even in the same movement. At the same time your own approach becomes more and more internalised. Time has been a major influence.

Astad Deboo with the Thang-ta performers

What was your experience of working with Pina Bausch?

Pina Bausch mentored me. It was very intense. It was a wonderful experience to be in the company of so many different styles and to observe how she worked with them. While creating a work she would ask us questions, give us situations, we would think and express ourselves in different ways.

What was the search that drove you to explore a new dance vocabulary for yourself and to start Choreographing?

I wanted to create and show my own work. When I returned to India, I found there was no openness, hardly any receptivity. So I started working on my own. My earlier work was very fast-paced, sometimes very dark. A lot of it expressed the frustration I was facing in terms of finding adequate support and platforms for my work. In the earlier days there was also the pressure to prove myself, sometimes to justify the funding. I think it is also important to cultivate and educate audiences so that performers can have spaces for exploration and trying out new things. There weren’t many opportunities at the time I was starting out with my choreographies.

A scene from Rhythm Divine

What are the major challenges you face as a dancerchoreographer today?

Funding and support! Even today I have to create my own platforms and generate resources.

The kind of style you have developed over time is unique. In terms of pedagogy, how do you plan to pass it on to the next generation of dancers?

I don’t take classes. I work with groups of people and mentor them. In their work you may notice phrases and techniques they have picked up from me and integrated with their expression. But basically, mine is a very individualistic style which will probably die with me. And that’s all right. I don’t think there is any need to be possessive. If you want to branch out, it is important to share, it is nice to let people go.

What are your reflections on the ‘contemporary’ in the context of dance in India?

The word ‘contemporary’ is so blasphemously used. There is lack of process, hardly any institutions for this. Often the training provided arms the body but real meaningful work takes time to evolve. I notice there are performers trained in classical dance who are doing interesting work. What is required is more exposure and education.

What are your upcoming projects?

For the next few years I want to focus on my ongoing work of mentoring hearing impaired performers. I would also like to continue working in Manipur with a group of eight to 14 performers and create more works with them.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Six Yards of Hope

By Tejeswini Chakraborty


2020 was the year the world turned upside down. The busiest roads were deserted, vibrant faces were masked and the joy of sharing became limited to sharing online. It made the world digital and suddenly meeting your loved ones face to face became a crime. All this had a huge impact on the community of artists. Even though we were quick enough to notice the empty movie theatres, isolated stages and the lack of concerts, few people like dancer Christopher Gurusamy and art administrator Shreya Nagarajan Singh could see beyond the obvious. They saw the pain and helplessness of the underprivileged folk artists of India. The pandemic hit them like a hurricane which caused them to lose their means of income. They lost their gigs, the events got cancelled and so did the temple festivals. Even now, it is a very grim time for them as most of them are daily wage workers. This duo came up with an idea which would not only provide folk artists with moral support but also help them financially. They organised an online fundraising auction called '6 Yards of Hope'. 

For this auction, 18 well-known and sought after musicians and dancers were approached with the idea to auction one of their sarees; they agreed readily and were more than happy to extend their support. The artists were requested to donate a Kanjivaram saree which would represent their aesthetic.  Artists who donated their sarees include Rama Vaidyanathan, Leela Samson, Priyadarsini Govind, Geetha Chandran, Malavika Sarrukai, Chitra Visweswaran and Bragha Bessel .


Christopher Gurusamy and Shreya Nagarajan Singh collaborated with Panjavarnam Silks and the auction was held on their Instagram page @panjavarnamsilks and the bidding was done in the comments section. Shreya says that Christopher Gurusamy's involvement and support for this initiative was extremely crucial. His keen eye for details, love for the saree and dance, strategic mindset and a deep desire to raise funds for disadvantaged artists truly inspired them to work hard on every aspect.

The plan was a success when it became clear that all the beautiful sarees were very much in demand,  and the highest bid of Rs. 25,500 was for a saree owned by Bombay Jayashri. The buyers were from all over the world -- Australia, countries in Europe, America, and of course India. A total amount of Rs. 2,54,000 lakhs was raised. Part of it would be given to the Funds for Folk initiative which is the brainchild of Shreya Nagarajan Singh, Tenma and Gana Muthu, where funds are raised for the folk artists of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Such initiatives in times of difficulty are a proof of unity; and for folk artists, '6 Yards of Hope' is not only a great initiative but a form of blessing in disguise.