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Sangeetam in dance: Seeing sound
- Anita R Ratnam, Chennai

December 24, 2007

(A paper and dance demonstration for the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha's Natya Kala Conference, December 18, 2007)

Presenting thoughts about music to an audience so well versed in the many nuances of Bharatanatyam is a challenge. A dance conference that includes sounds and movement vocabularies from around India presents a plethora of musical riches to Chennai audiences and I often wonder what I, as a dancer chosen to speak from the Bharatanatyam genre can offer or share that could be an alternative vision to both dancers and dance makers.

Alongside Kathak, it is Bharatanatyam that has been the most adventurous with its form and content. So many experiments with mixing musical genres and movement experimentation have occurred during the past 25 years that it seems that almost every permutation and combination has already been tried. Rhythms, melodies, ragas, western and eastern instruments in consonance, new lyrics and pulses- new themes... you name it and Bharatanatyam has seen and done it.

I would like to begin with what I feel should be the patina of sound for a performance. Or should I say, BEFORE a performance. Even before the orchestra has struck their first note and the sounds of the violin, veena, flute and the singer begin in "raga nattai" and the words in homage to Ganesa, we have already entered as the audience into the auditorium and are waiting in anticipation. The music choice for the "house" as the space around is called should already be vibrating with the choice of music that is compatible with what the dancer/choreographer wishes to express through her performance which is to follow.

This pre-show music is normally followed by the prologue music which is not the same. Both choices are equally important as the melodic structure of the actual body of the dance performance. The pre-show music is played in a very low tone to allow the audience to gather and speak over it. The prologue music is then an extension or an introduction of the actual body of the musical text that is to accompany the performance.

For NEELAM, my presentation on Sri Vishnu, I had the simple sounds of OM NAMO NARAYANA repeated very, very softly for 30 minutes as the hall doors were opened to the crowds. Before the performance actually started, a traditional mallari on the nadaswaram played for 3 minutes to a closed curtain before the first item began. This helped establish the mood for the audience and set the stage for the meditative and ritual framework of NEELAM... drowning in bliss.

For 7 GRACES, inspired by the Buddhist Goddess Tara, the sounds of the Tibetan flute were played very softly as to create the mood that would later be transformed into the deeply guttural chants of Tibetan monks. In the noisy and often hurried atmosphere of urban India, there is little time to be contemplative and so it is even more imperative to think about setting the mood through music even before the dance performance actually begins. Paying attention to this aspect of the performance can also help the dancer with concentration for the performance that is to follow.

For FACES - Blessed Unrest, a new hour long showcase of several dances, I selected the music of Anil Srinivasan who, along with the violin of Amrita Murali, have played the raga Madhuvanti. Once this music has played for several minutes, a voice will begin very softly saying some lines of text that is suggestive of what is to follow. It is not important that the audience pay total attention to the words. It is enough that they begin to take note that the show has, in effect, started even before the curtain is drawn. This kind of a prologue becomes part of the sound design and a suggestion of the landscape of the work that will be revealed to them in sections.

Our definition of what constitutes music for dance has changed over the years. More than melodies and jathis in various moods, paces and combinations, newer sounds have been introduced with the gradual acceptance of recorded music scores for dance performances. I have moved towards using commissioned and recorded scores for all my productions for the past 6 years, not using the regular dance orchestra and thereby allowing myself to include more musical inputs than ever before possible.

In 1996, with the grant from the Department of Culture, Government of India, I began research on the sacred chants in several Vaishnav temples. Each temple, near and around my ancestral village of Tirukurungudi in the Tirunelveli district of Tamilnadu, had a unique way of chanting the Divya Prabandham, the sacred 4000 verses so central to the worship of Vishnu in Tamilnadu. The atonal chants were unusual and jarring to the ear trained to listen to the mellifluous notes of Carnatic ragas. Yet they also carried a pulse and a flow that was unique to the long meditative corridors of the temples they were chanted in. The study allowed me to enter into the spaces and interstices of the words and the silences that punctuated the hymns. Alongside my study of the Arayer Sevai hand gestures from Sudharani Raghupathy and later from the Arayer priests themselves in the temples of Sri Villiputtur and Alwar Tirunagari, came the discovery of the consonance that these chants and gestures contained within themselves - separate but not different from the intention of classical Bharatanatyam. Using the actual temple chants by a male priest layered with the female voice repeating the famous verses uttered by the 9th century Tamil poet Andal made for both an interesting slice of theatre and an aural depiction, more powerful than putting these same words to a melody. Adding to that was my own voice, making the dance more immediate and communicative.

Moving further and further away from the regular dance repertoire, I realized that in order to carry through my ideas I needed to collaborate with musicians and composers to whom the world of sound was not relegated to music alone.

Here are a few examples of the experiments with sound and music that I was involved in.

In PAANCHAJANYAM (1993) - my first group production: The cyclical sound of the conch was used as the metaphor for the many moods of Krishna. This sound was the choric refrain through the scenes.

GAJAANANA - the god of good things (1996): It was the folk rhythms of Tappattam and Deverattam that became the signifier for the choreography. Drumming and vocal pneumonics served as the spine of the sound design. .

ADHIROHANA (1998): the nadaswaram and tavil interspersed a traditional Carnatic score and a single hymn from the Soundarya Lahiri about the serpent energy embedded in the body of the GODDESS. The sinous sounds of the nadaswaram echoed the choric refrain and the imagery of the winding serpent.

DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN (1999): The music was merely the backdrop whereas the choreography, on four dancers, worked sometimes with and often against the raga alapanas. As the sutradhar, I often bracketed the score with songs or chants.

NAACHIYAR (2000): I returned to the conch for the story of Andal and used her passionate monologue to the conch that inspired the work.

VAITHARANI - the crossing (2002), about the journey of the soul struggling to cross over the river of death, mridangist and composer KSR Aniruddha gave me a continuous jathi like the flowing river itself... never returning to the beginning and always flowing forward. Sound engineer Debashish Sinha made the famous chant of the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra in a continuous loop with the underlying harmonics that gave the familiar auspicious mantra a surreal sound.

For UTPALA (2004), about the Lotus, various water sounds were used, from small rivulets to gushing rivers, stones dropping into ponds and the ocean waves. I traveled to gather these various water sounds, not limiting myself to music and sound samplers. Contrasting these nature sounds, were the choric refrain of Egyptian, Chinese and Indian wind instruments, thus creating a soundscape of the soft and strong, like the enigma of the lotus itself.

For 7 GRACES (2005), a solo on Goddess TARA, authentic Tibetan chants were the base of the sound design with a recurring motif of the Sindhubhairavi raga and various other elements like tribal Thudumbu drums, Tibetan flute and western operatic arias making up this eclectic score.

NEELAM (2006): The sounds were traditional, not classical. In that I mean that the music had definite Carnatic references, but they were composed and imagined by concert singers and not musicians who accompany dance. What challenges does this combination provide to the dancer as choreographer?

An example from NEELAM is the structure of the Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi of Dikshitar's famous tune RANGA PURA VIHARA. Taking from the famous temple itself with its seven prakaras - there were seven layers to the melody - four different sangatis to the pallavi, and three different sangatis for the final charanam. The main idol of Ranganatha like the temple gopuram itself, rising serene, supernal, shorn of any clutter - and therefore shorn of any orchestration or instrumentation but the melody itself. The composition itself is the highlight, and the dance arises from and is contained by it.

Composed by Anil Srinivasan, who has been my collaborator for the past 3 productions, the idea was to use Carnatic music as they are sung and not specifically tailor made to suit either a set choreography or with stage directions. This frees the musical execution from shackles of "made to order" music. Lyric, meaning and harmony flow more freely, thus making them suitable to a larger template of colours.

The entire composition was imagined in the traditional ragam-tanam-pallavi structure. The composer shared his thoughts with me and we discussed the space for some rhythm structures to be included or inserted into the flow of the music. The ragam was to allow many shades of abhinaya to be explored. The tanam, would act as the sollukattu to the more elaborate delineation.

The idea of poetry in motion - or sound as motion - when we sing and play; we think of each idea and thought expressed by the lyric as dancing - at least both visually and spatially. This is executed in the music AND in the dance. As a dancer, these are simultaneous deliveries - not a chicken-and-egg situation.

For FACES - Blessed Unrest (2007), Anil Srinivasan has used the talents of concert singer Subhiksha Rangarajan but has worked with other Asian instruments and Carnatic melodies. One of the pieces carries the embellishments of Japanese Kodo drums, the traditional goddess chant of "AYIGIRI NANDINI" and the layered sound of Shyama Sastri's "Kanaka Shaila Viharini." Linking the entire evening of FACES is the evocative piano.

Using a non Indian percussion/ melodic instrument like the piano for Bharatanatyam could be considered stepping out of the 'lakshman rekha' of Bharatanatyam's traditional sound. While various earlier experiments have been made with western classical scores, particularly those of Bach and Tchaikovsky, here Anil has played and composed on the piano with the cultural sensitivity of a Carnatic musician. For me, it is a universal harmony I seek through sounds from ancient sources- recordings made from the crypt of Mary Magdalene in Southern France, to the guttural droning of Tibetan monks in the icy Himalayas. The sensitive treatment of melody with different layers of sound which equals different moods and expressions allows me as the creator/dancer to respond. For me, Anil's piano contains the extreme pain and beauty of life itself. As his spirit touches the ebony and ivory keys, I realize through movement what it means to love life and simultaneously experience acute agony. Great music can move you to opposites.

What if we had no music but the pulse of our own voices in silence and the gentle sounds of water? What if the words themselves are the music and the dancer did NOT respond to each word with a gesture or abhinaya? I have attempted this in one section of FACES in which a poem relating the many phases of the waxing moon is compared to the features on Devi's face. This section, coming after some very vigorous and expressive dancing, is the ‘face' in the dance space. The poem is read more than once to allow the words to dance/paint the images into our minds. In the silence that comes after, the dance begins and continues.

Since I have entered into collaborative works with artistes from various disciplines, I have had to address the musical structure of each of these ventures/adventures. The idea of the ‘sacred' in music and dance has been a constant preoccupation - besides the continuing metaphors of Goddess, woman and water. What makes a song special and the voice of some singers take us closer to the sacred source? Not only in our music and traditions are found deep sources of the divine. There are moments around the world where both architecture and sound take us closer to that infinite source.

I would like to now share the voice of the legendary opera singer Maria Callas. Her classical renderings in the western operatic style made her a goddess in her country, Italy, and around the world. In this section, her gentle voice is the final path that I take as the journey towards the sacred horizon is completed. This is the final section of 7 GRACES, in which the dancer as devotee is traveling with confidence and later exuberance towards the ‘mother' who created her. The voice echoes, follows, supports but also releases the dancer beyond the expected framework.

Of all the sounds that make music, the most pregnant for me is silence. That moment before the musician strikes the first note or the singer opens his mouth and the larynx vibrates with the first syllable. It is that same moment when a giant eagle is poised with wings outstretched to take flight from atop a mountain. The very same moment that the storyteller dwells in before her first word or a dancer inhabits before making her first gesture.

To fully realize the potential and colours of music through movement, the body has to be respected as a divine instrument. Unless it is finely tuned and in fine mettle, no amount of superb 'sangeetam' can be visualized or appreciated. Being such a physical and sensory experience, the dancing body is like a 'tambura' - every muscle responding to the microtone of sound and silence. The best dance performances are those that echo the ‘bodiless' metaphor of “seeing sound” and “hearing dance.” When the sound and visual seem interchangeable and equally in sync. At that moment, it becomes neither music for dance, nor dance to music. Both exist simultaneously in each other.

Dance ultimately lies in the rasanubhuti of silence. This is what so many of my productions over the past 10 years have explored. This silence allows the mind to ponder, and form a coherent thought before being rushed into the next face/movement. These silences punctuate the music without puncturing it. Using the voice and the face of each source, voice, percussion, nature, life - music for dance can be as rich and varied as life itself.

Anita Ratnam is a dancer/choreographer, myth teller, and arts activist. A global voice for Indian dance, she is the pioneering editor of, the web portal for Indian dance and the co-creator of the path breaking THE OTHER FESTIVAL (1998-2006) that encouraged alternative and contemporary expressions in dance, music and theatre. An award winning performer, Anita is currently preparing her Phd. dissertation in Women's Studies on the challenges of revival and restoration of temple arts and the role of women in these traditional forms.

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