Vadivelu and Vazhuvurar Centenaries
- A Seshan, Mumbai
March 12, 2010
Bharatanatyam (BN) owes its present stature to the Thanjavur Quartet who systematised the existing Sadir and evolved the Margam (the Alarippu to Tillana format) paving the way for sound training and performance on the stage. They did to BN what later Ariyakudi did to Carnatic music. The brothers Chinnayya (1802-1856), Ponniah (1804-1864), Sivanandam (1808-1863) and Vadivelu (1810-1845) contributed richly not only to BN but also to Carnatic music. They composed a large number of varnams and kritis, including the Navaratnamala, a tribute to their guru. They were the direct disciples of no less a person than Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the Carnatic music trinity. Dikshitar called Vadivelu as an ekasandhagrahi - one who had the ability to reproduce a song after hearing it only once. He introduced and popularised violin in Carnatic music concerts along with Baluswami Dikshitar. He was also responsible, along with Swati Tirunal, for the popularisation of Mohiniattam providing opportunities to women dancers. Until then Kathakali, the male preserve, dominated the dance scene in Kerala. The bicentennial of his birth falls in this year. We have already missed the birth bicentennials of his three elder brothers. This is not surprising since Margam itself is being forgotten. The country should utilize the opportunity to observe this year in memory of all the members of the Quartet.
What is disturbing in the Bharatanatyam scene today is the slow death of Margam evolved by the Quartet in a structured manner introducing nritta and nritya, including abhinaya, to make the transition from one to the other easy and smooth for the artiste and the viewer alike. It was the standard fare offered by dancers till about the third quarter of the last century after its great revival in the earlier quarter. Its heyday was reached during the twenty five years after Independence when great gurus like Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Kattumannarkoil Muthukumaran Pillai, Tiruvidaimarudur Kuppaiah Pillai and Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai strode the field like giants and groomed many students who later became international stars. Think of the days when Vazhuvurar recited jatis in his leonine voice and Kittappa Pillai sang jatiswarams melodiously. The climax was reached when, under the nattuvangam of Vazhuvurar, Anandhi and Radha danced and M S Subbulakshmi joined the team to sing padams for abhinayam. As a sample of those glorious days, I give below the unbelievable contents of a BN performance by Anandhi and Radha at the Indian Gymkhana grounds on the then Brahmanwada Road, near King's Circle in Matunga, Bombay (as it was then called). It was in aid of the Gymkhana Building Fund held on April 4,1947. Vazhuvurar was the conductor and MS joined to sing padams for abhinayam.
All the seven songs between the two intervals are mentioned as padams in the programme brochure and were obviously sung by MS. (Note the absence of a javali.) The performance started at 8pm and one does not know when it ended. There were two intervals. What a sumptuous fare was offered to rasikas! Think also of the value one got for money in those days by paying what would look today as a small price for an admission ticket. It is unfortunate that in those days we did not have the facility of videographing the event. Not only the old timers but even the younger generation of dancers and rasikas will wonder whether those golden days will ever return
There were contemporaneously new trends also like the dance productions of Kalakshetra which, however, preserved the basic grammar of the format in spirit. There were thematic dances like the Kuravanjis and fusion, the latter attempted by Uday Shankar. However, all these attempts were on a limited scale. Margam continued to be the bread and butter of most of the topnotchers in the field. But in recent years, it has gone into the background with fewer and fewer dancers giving attention to it and the leading lights of the profession taking to thematic dancing, fusion and modern dance. (See the article on "Neo-Classical and Modern Dancing and Margam in Bharatanatyam" in https://narthaki.com/info/articles/art262.html). Aficionados of the dance form are not sure whether Margam would survive after a decade if the five star dancers cut themselves away from their roots. One reason given by the latter is that the audiences have no patience or time to go through a three-hour recital on traditional lines. This is, however, belied by the splendid response to Margam based programmes this writer has observed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai in recent times. Not only were the large halls (with 1000 seats) filled to the full, there were also cases of those without advance booking for the smaller auditoria (200-300 seats) being turned back. I feel the real reason for the decline may be that the average artiste does not have either the passion, or the patience, or the physical stamina to traverse the path of Margam. She (includes he also!) can no longer dance a varnam for an hour with dripping sweat and panting breath even in air-conditioned halls. This is because of the poor conditioning of the body. Reputed gurus and institutions teaching BN, Kathakali, etc., have always emphasised physical fitness as a prerequisite for a professional dancer and have incorporated exercises like yogasanas in their curricula.
I remember reading somewhere that Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai, nattuvanar nonpareil, was born in 1910. But I tried for several months without success accessing websites, dancers and others to get the authentic information on his date of birth. Eventually it was found to be December 24,1910. Thus this year marks the birth centenary of Vazhuvurar also. Arguably, according to some experts, it was he who gave the nattuvanar and the other accompanists a place of importance on the stage by seating them on the side of the stage. Till then they used to move behind the dancer in Sadir. He also introduced the practice of the dancer entering the stage from the side in a dramatic way, as exemplified best by Kamala, instead of walking casually to the centre to start the programme. These are, of course, minor details. He blazed a new trail making BN more popular through his own bani and the media of movies. His style may need another article to discuss. The sculptural poses in Tillana were conceived by him and they are now standard fare in all schools of BN. It is a happy coincidence that the Vadivelu bicentennial and the Vazhuvurar centenary fall in the same year, making it a double delight to celebrate
Sangeet Natak Akademi (Central and regional) and cultural institutions here and abroad should observe both the landmark occasions together. In particular, the Chennai sabhas should keep this in mind for this year's December music and dance festival. They should arrange for concerts of all the banis of BN, based on Margam. Besides providing a stimulus to its revival without any detriment to the other experiments currently going on, it would also restore the Nattuvanar to his rightful place of importance on the stage. (See "The Rise and Fall of the Nattuvanar" in https://narthaki.com/info/articles/art234.html). This year may be declared the year of Margam in the world of BN. In Tamil Nadu, which can take credit for the birth of BN, if the Chief Minister agrees to head the Celebration Committee despite his busy life, it would give a great boost to the occasion and emphasise its importance. The event may be called "Bharatanattiya Marabunerit Tiruvizha" in Tamil Nadu and "Margam Mahotsav" elsewhere. (Marabu = tradition or convention, Neri = path and Tiruvizha = great festival. The't' after Marabuneri provides the sandhi link required by grammar.) In Tamil Nadu, it should be celebrated with at least one programme based on Margam in every district headquarters with live orchestra (not recorded music) when local artistes besides the established ones may be given chances to perform. Opportunities may be given to the different schools of Bharatanatyam besides Vazhuvur. Ideally, the items in the programmes should be compositions of the Quartet and Vazhuvurar. It will be a unique and valuable opportunity to rediscover some of the forgotten gems of the BN repertoire. I remember how a few of Syama Sastri's rarely-heard kritis were found during the bicentennial celebration of his birth in 1962. D K Pattammal gave a concert on May 5, 1962 in Tiruvarur that was relayed in the National Programme of Akashvani. She sang such songs as "Dayanidhe" (a Begada varnam), "Devi Brova" (the only song in Chintamani) and "Tarunam Edamma" (in Gaulipantu, arguably the only Tamil song of the vaggeyakara). Subsequently they became popular on the concert circuit. The celebration of vaggeyakaras' days thus serves a useful purpose. Seminars may be organised to discuss the role of Margam, trends in BN, training (including physical exercises), dance therapy, choreography, etc., and future directions to draw a roadmap
The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.