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'Carnatic musicians and Naatya' by V P Dhananjayan: A response
- A Seshan, Mumbai

October 21, 2009

Dhananjayan's clarion call to musicians to attend classical dance programmes is timely. The prejudice of our musicians against dance is a historical relic. Over a period of time, the devadasi system resulted in vulgarity in sadir, as it was called earlier. It strayed away from its traditional spiritual and religious roots and began to entertain the playboys of society and the rich leading to an attitude that it was 'cheap' and infra dig for the orthodox musician to attend the programme. Perhaps it was justified when one thinks of some of the obscene javalis to which the devadasis danced or the notorious cabaret-like 'mookkutthi' (nose screw) dance of Mohiniattam that had to be bowdlerized by an artiste of the calibre of Kalyanikutty Amma. But now the situation has completely changed. We have more and more of contemporary and modern dance programmes by educationally well qualified artistes some of which have a multi-media approach. Thus, from both the technical and artistic viewpoints, today's Bharatanatyam scene is highly cerebral appealing to the cognoscenti, although one would still yearn for at least occasional dancing to margam by eminent dancers. The prejudice of the musician was well exemplified when there was an objection from a vainika to the award of the title of Sangita Kalanidhi by the Music Academy to Balasaraswati, a dancer and not a musician, in a public speech a few decades ago. He was then reminded immediately by a dancer of the stanza defining Sangeetam from Sangeeta Ratnakaram, cited by Dhananjayan. The vainika could only quit the auditorium in protest. The Music Academy has not given the title to a dancer since Balasaraswati perhaps on the ground that it was unique and a one-time award for a dancer. It is time that its general body and expert group debate the issue and undo the injustice to dancers not only of Bharatanatyam but also of other forms of classical dance of the South.

One more illustration of the antipathy to, or lack of regard for, classical dance is the way that javalis and padams are dealt with in music concerts. Ironically, as pointed out by this writer in his review of Alarmel Valli's programme at the NCPA, Mumbai, while they call for the highest skills in dance and hence considered 'heavy,' musicians treat them as 'light' items to be disposed of towards the end of the concert as 'tukkadas' (titbits) in three minutes flat like in the old 78 rpm record. ('See the music, hear the dance - Alarmel Valli's Synaesthetic Approach' - ) Still we know that padams and javalis test the skills not only of dancers but also of the accompanying vocalists in terms of their nuances like bhava, voice modulation, pronunciation and breath control. There are javalis with sangatis. Elongation of lines and the use of gamakas in padams could be a challenge to both the singer and the dancer. Thus they are not light items, musically speaking. I am not saying that a concert should start with a javali or a padam. But musicians should listen to the classic recordings of artistes like Brinda and Mukta and emulate them in singing the pieces with the appropriate stress, bhava, modulation, etc. Navarasa is the binding link between Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Tyagaraja mentioned rasa as an important element of a standard kriti in his Sriranjani piece ("Sogasuga"). Leading musicians like Semmangudi, MS and DKP did not hesitate to take lessons in padams and javalis from Brinda to ensure their proper rendition. Balasaraswati's fame rested on them to a large extent. For a start, can musicians occasionally start a concert with a pada varnam instead of a tana varnam? If I am not wrong, Alathur Brothers had done it singing Moolaiveedu Ramaswami Nattuvanar's pada varnam ("Chalamela") in Nattakurinji. Incidentally, the notes "ma ga sa" in avarohana are enough to identify Nattakurinji and the beautiful varnam "Chalamela" starts with those swaras.

The prejudice against dancing extends to the North also. One does not see eminent Hindustani musicians at Kathak concerts. In one of the lectures given by a famous sitarist, I heard the following reasons as to why Hindustani vocalists prefer the harmonium, even though it is much maligned for its limitations, to sarangi for accompaniment. One is that it is associated with dancing (Kathak) implying that it lacks dignity or musical status; the second is that it would cost heavily to engage a sarangi artiste given the fact that there are not many competent players on that instrument; and, third, there is the constant fear of one-upmanship of the sarangiya over the main artiste in music making. Perhaps the last one is the most important reason.

In Hindustani music ghazals, thumris, etc., are considered to be lower in the pecking order in importance and classicism and hence are left to a few enterprising souls to specialise in them and make a mark for themselves. The late lamented Gangubai Hangal sang only khayals with a solitary exception. She sang a bhajan on the occasion of Gandhiji's death anniversary at his samadhi a few decades ago. There were protests from connoisseurs as it did not sound like a bhajan! It only shows how the so-called light items like bhajans have their own 'heavy' technical aspects. The one exception of a classical vocalist giving equal importance to dance items as to khayal was Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan who raised thumri, associated with Kathak, from the semi-classical to classical status by singing it invariably in his concerts with elaborate ornamentation. He introduced sargams also therein, something unheard of till then. He was popular as much for his singing of thumris like "Aaye na balam" and "Prem ki maar katar" as for his exposition of Malkauns or Rageshwari. Thumri is now an important element of the Patiala gharana, as expounded by artistes like Ajoy Chakrabarti.

But all is not lost. There is some silver lining in the cloud. Till recently, top ranking musicians - vocalists or violinists or mridangists - thought it to be infra dig to accompany dancers. Of course, MS and MLV had sung in Bharatanatyam concerts but it was an exception because their children were the dancers. Now the trend is changing. At the Samyuktam programme in New Delhi early this year, leading musicians - vocalists and other accompanists - participated in the dance programmes of eminent dancers. The music and dance world should say a big “thank you” to them. I have seen other instances of outstanding vocalists accompanying Bharatanatyam dancers at the programmes at NCPA in Mumbai. It has become possible because a new generation of artistes that is not weighed down by the baggage of prejudices of the past has taken over the musical scene. May their tribe grow!


The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.

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