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It sounds best at home!

July 9, 2010

A sage was once confronted with a cynical guy. He said, "Why is it that all sages go off to Himalayas to do their penance? If you are really meditating, it shouldn't matter where you do it?"
The sage asked in reply, "Where do you sleep every night?"
CG: "My bedroom."
Sage: "Where is it that you cook?"
CG: "I don't, but my wife does in the kitchen"
Sage: "There is a concept of optimization. If you insist you can sleep in the kitchen by the food or cook by the bed. It's not against the law. But it wouldn't be the best experience, would it? "

Have you ever had that unsettling feeling of having had food with no salt or having had no sweet/water after having a meal when watching Bharatanatyam nritta being performed to western music, techno beats, tabla or even vocal (non-dance) Carnatic music? I am always left feeling not-quite-classical like unless I hear the accompaniment of mridangam for Bharatanatyam or pakhawaj for Odissi playing to accentuate with the dancer's movements. Even with a really graceful dancer as Padmini doing adavus to very classical old school Hindi film music vs. she dancing them to the accompaniment of mridangam in 'Tillana Mohanambal,' something quite doesn't touch base in the former case for me as a classicist. A first order attempt to address the debate of using Bharatanatyam as language of contemporary art forms, I wondered if there is an exclusive relationship between dance forms and percussion instruments and playing patterns, more so importantly in Indian classical art forms, Bharatanatyam in particular and its Nritta.

A different but a related question would be, do nritta styles subconsciously change when you choreograph to non-traditional percussion instruments. Can we explain why some choreographies, even when using hastas from Natya Shastra and in aramandi don't seem very classical or even when some classical dancers are dancing to mridangam, it looks more contemporary? What is it that a tatti mettu adavu brings what a sarukkal adavu does not? Why does Hrithik Roshan do a bouncy kudittu mettu and not a grounded tatti mettu or an ettadavu to Vande Mataram? Why is it that Michael Jackson can almost accompany an Odissi dancer? Can he match all Odissi movements or did that Odissi dancer subconsciously choose some footwork appropriate to his music, that overlapped with global dance styles which are either not Indian or not classical?

Definitions first. By nritta, I mean adavus that have been taught by all Sadir practitioners as the fundamental building blocks of Bharatanatyam. Those which every student of Bharatanatyam spends at least one year learning. If there were any other kind of building blocks in practice as some of us claim to be more 'authentic' than adavus, I am sure some temple devoted devadasi or Natya Shastra read nattuvanar would have definitely taught the last of the devadasi generations or the first of the Brahmin generations such an important chunk of information. As desi as Sadir may be, this article pertains to nrittas being defined as good old fashioned adavus.

Personal experiences first. I have performed to semi classical Hindi music and Hindustani music. Of course, this was when I was 17-21 and eager to please. I was intent on making Bharatanatyam and my dancing interesting to my college friends or North Indian audience back home. Very noble intentions indeed, much mirrored in many of the amateur youtube videos and professional stage production attempts today. Whenever I tried to dance Bharatanatyam to semi-classical Hindi music with the tabla or to techno beats, my natural instincts always tended to choreograph footwork with the least fraction of the adavu sequences which fundamentally involve hitting the floor with a flat foot (tattukkal). Hence would raise the need to fill the pure dance sequences with unusually higher number of poses, spins, and on-the-toe-moves (Kuchipudi like moves, jumps on the front balls of the foot), on-the-heel-moves (dhi ti tais or walking) or non linear movements of my torso, waist, hands and wrists. Body movements will not be delved into in this article. Let's concentrate on footwork here.

There is a fundamental distinction in footwork that I have noticed between the classical dance forms of south India that I choose to discuss Bharatanatyam and Odissi (for lack of knowledge on those, I don't discuss) and all other dance styles. Western Ballet, flamenco, tap dancing, Hip Hop, salsa, contemporary, Indian folk dances, and even Kathak, Manipuri, to some extent Kuchipudi moves (all moves that differentiate Kuchipudi from Bharatanatyam are either on the front balls of the foot/toes or on their heels). Bharatanatyam and Odissi have their nritta repertoire built upon the recurrent and dominant fundamental movement of hitting the floor with flat feet (and I mean hitting and not a fleeting touch). I conveniently work around the debate of how hard to hit the floor but everyone will agree that even if I take the average of the intensity of hitting across all baanis in Bharatanatyam (when they are in aramandi and doing adavus, which is so rare these days!) is much higher than any other dance form, to the extent of my knowledge. Note that I am well aware that Bharatanatyam and Odissi are not devoid of the kunchita stance (on your toes) and anchita stance (on your heels) and we make ample use of them but our recurring motif is hitting the floor with flat feet and I am trying to concentrate on the lack of this equilibrium motif in other dance forms, the thing that makes both these dance forms unique and gives them their share of masculinity in footwork as I will point out later.

Also notice that these two dance forms require a firm half sitting position. It is obvious to me that if you were to hit the floor flat, not bending the knees is not an option since it would directly impact your knee joint. Any yoga teacher and gym instructor will tell you why locking any kind of joints, including elbows (which is cleverly avoided in both natyarambham and the chowk position in Odissi) is not proper. Coming back to all other kinds of dances listed, they are all heavily based on the body weight being on the front balls of the feet/toes. The well known Ballet consists of dancers being on their toes and their jumps. Rajasthani folk dance spins, spins in Kathak, spins in Ballet, any kind of spin based dancing concentrates on either toes or heels. Flamenco and Tap dancing use half of their foot alternately to produce sound. Rajasthani/Bollywood one leg bouncing, Salsa, contemporary and even Ballroom dancing all involve footwork concentrated on the toes. That is mostly how they can manage to get away with wearing those heels and some of them require you to wear heels. When their body weight is not on the heel/toe hitting down, they are gliding but still on their heel/toe. Bharatanatyam and Odissi do not involve gliding movements or repetitive spins. (Remember those good old days when we used to dance in the temple sanctorum for the almighty. You cannot glide on the 4 by 4 granite floor in front of the garbha graham and more importantly, there was no need because you were not required to 'span-a-stage' or create a spectacle!) These dances are more grounded because our basic adavus have the fundamental first movement, last movement, first and last movement or the only movement as hitting the floor flat with your feet. I will come to those adavus which give us more freedom to stand up and walk, in a moment.

Having established that hitting the floor with flat feet is a unique and recurring motif in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, now I come to why does it feel weird doing them to any other percussion instrument other than mridangam and pakhawaj respectively. Nritta accompanied to proper percussion aids in visualizing the nadam produced by the instrument. Especially hitting the floor is usually accompanied by a strong fundamental from the accompanying instrument. It is also predominantly tandava based movement.

The body weight is usually symmetrically distributed in samabhanga, like in aramandi or chowk position. You will notice that most Karanas and Odissi movements which involve the more feminine tribhanga position, involve anchita or kunchita feet movements. Everyone trained in classical dance will agree with me that performing nritta in aramandi in the first speed requires a lot of strength. Your legs kill you and you want to quickly go to second speed and third speed. All traditional jathis in trikala start with tandava based adavus. Because hitting the floor with flat feet gives you the stability and impact and control over laya to carry on in the slow and dignified first speed. Nowadays you see the hardcore first speed in trikala jathi being performed to walking, sitting and standing postures with aramandi based movement thrown in for one akshara like an afterthought. That's like dancing the easy way out and that's why most Bharatanatyam today lacks the impact that only tandava based movements can provide or why most old-school Kalakshetra, Pandanallur and Tanjore gurus get so bored with the nrittas being churned out. You can see why Kalakshetra, Pandanallur and Tanjore students always complain of strenuous dance moves and their footwork seems always grounded with aramandi and they don't seem to be 'spanning the stage' with poses all the time. You can hear the floor resonate when they perform ancient trikala jathis all laden with ettadavus (tat tai ta ha) even in third speed. Ask one of the Gen-Next dancers to perform the ettadavus properly even in the first speed and they will cry out in pain!

Traditionally, lasya laden nrittas are hallmarks of baanis like Melattur and Vazhuvoor. They involve overemphasis on using adavus that do not involve hard hitting or hitting at all. Most jathis are accompanied with jumps, poses, walking and kudittu mettus and paraval adavus. Notice however that it is almost never seen that these adavus are performed at first speed. That's because all the heel hitting and jumping are transitionary movements. They provide momentum and energy at higher speeds. In the first speed, they would look really light and lack the character to carry the weight of silence in karvais. Imagine someone starting a trikala jathi with a sarakkal adavu or a paraval adavu. In these baanis, even their Nritta Karvais (or pauses) involve posing with anchita or kunchita, unlike karvais in the aforementioned styles which usually are in a more basic stance with foot flat with the floor and sometimes hands in natyarambham.

Natyarambham, by the way, is a very hard position to keep being overly replaced by diagonal hands in Gen-X choreographies, as rightly indicated by Alarmel Valli in the interview on Ask any Yoga teacher or practice some yoga to learn that holding your hands straight against gravity in a straight line engages all core muscles, biceps, triceps and shoulder muscles. Again natyarambham is a very tandava based hand position given its strength and symmetry and dolam or diagonal hand movements very feminine, requiring less stamina. Thus, when critics who are not dancers write, "The dancer seemed to perform very complicated jathis," they need to pay attention to the balance of the kind of adavus performed in the jathis and not just the teermanams wielded one after another in 3rd speed. Remember as a thumb rule, there is no comparison between a dancer who performs all three speeds in aramandi and a dancer whose choreography involves getting up and sitting down at every other akshara and walking and running across the stage in dhi ti tais standing up in faster speeds. It is like comparing apples and oranges. The latter adavus have a lot of showmanship as evident from their space-spanning character, more than frequent usage in film choreographies and nth speed tillanas, but performing the simple tattadavu in first speed in aramandi at one spot is every dancer's nightmare, especially when your stamina is not up to it.

Kathak dancers, you would have noticed, usually start their first speed around the second speed of Bharatanatyam such that their 3rd speed is really fast somewhere ranging around our 4th speed. At those speeds, it is impossible to sit in aramandi, leave alone hit the floor flat. I even see Bharatanatyam dancers struggling to keep up aramandi in our 3rd speed. Kathak footwork has no problem keeping up because they mostly use their spins or footwork with alternating heels and toes, striking only at theermanas (tihayis) to the culmination of sama (the first akashara of the tala). Their first speed also seldom involves a static movement. They are constantly transitioning with their hands, taking poses and their gliding and heel movements provide an ideal visualization to their ultra fast speeds. I will comment more on their tabla accompaniment in a moment.

With no percussion, dancing Bharatanatyam to western classical music is the weirdest thing on earth. The only kinds of movements that seem natural in this situation are jumps, body movements and poses. Why do you need anklets for music that only has tunes? Anytime you hit the floor or attempt to do any adavu, your ankle bells make a sound completely out of character with the tones being produced by the music. There is a reason Sudhdha Nrittam is done to accompaniment of the mridangam and not to the veena. Have you ever seen a Ballet dancer hit her feet? No! They glide. That is the nature of western music without percussion. It is synthesizers and violins producing melody patterns to which you can respond by moving your body but not impacting with a hit on the floor. You can only glide or take a pose in or walk or even do a Karana. Then how can we expect adavus to have the same impact they have with the accompaniment of mridangam, without nadam being produced when that divine instrument is fingered? It's like trying to do adavus without nattuvanar hitting the stick, to a raaga alapanai. Disconnected. Thus when Jatayu was killed, I am sure there was a mridangam playing somewhere. The scene cannot be devoid of percussion because it is an adrenaline pumped action. Masculine. Tandava. Definitely not symphony.

Techno beats are repetitive, completely lacking character, variety and tonal variations or completely random and a drummer is hitting off in 4th speed where again, you cannot perform adavus. So I will refrain from even elaborating here. It is a testing monotone and that's why even hip hop dancers who perform locking and popping add in so many external beats and 'remix' a song before they perform it. Ditto with folk dances and the repetitive beat of dhol to which Bhangra and Rajasthani/ Bollywood can be done involving mostly jumping or bouncy footwork.

Disconcertment when performing Bharatanatyam to the accompaniment of tabla was the most interesting to think about because it kind of did not make intuitive sense. Although I knew for a fact that it did not feel the same to me. Tabla is a North Indian classical instrument unlike all others mentioned and although the argument of it being played too fast suited to explain Kathak footwork, I did not initially know how to describe the x-factor mismatch when trying to dance Bharatanatyam to tabla beats, even slow ones. Even though I have seen dancers trying to dance to some Hindustani musicians' nritta pieces, I am left as impressed with the outcome as in other cases.

Then I stumbled on this article by David Courtney which had originally appeared in the French Publication Percussions: Cahier Bimensiel d' Etudes et d'infrmations sur les Arts de la Percussoin. March/April 1993. Its original title was 'Mrdangam et Tabla: un Constrante' (Mridangam and Tabla: A contrast). I am giving the link to the original article in my signature but here are the relevant highlights.

Differences between Tabla and Mridangam/Pakhawaj
1. Brief origin of the instruments (from another source)
Mridangam and Pakhawaj are Classical and Post Classical period instruments dating 600-500 B.C.E. Tabla is a very recent hybridization of Pakhawaj and Puskara (first temple records exist around 6th century AD of Puskara: an instrument consisting of 3 drums). According to most believable myth, the name Tabla is derived from Pagan Arabian Tabl Daff (long before Islam was found). The Muslim invaders did have a considerable influence on the hybridization of their Daff with more sophisticated and well-developed Indian percussion instruments and eventual shaping of Tabla. My point being not the Muslim influence but that the Tabla by all standards is a very recent instrument, it originated in the 18th century as we know it today although in principle, it can be said to have had its roots from Puskara.

2. Pitched stroke tonal differences between Tabla and Mridangam
There is some obvious tonal difference between the two Instruments due to difference in construction, as indicated in the link to the original article. I have no knowledge to comment on any of those frequency charts or fingering technique (see comparisons for right hand rim stroke, left hand open stroke and right hand open stroke), I will leave masters of the instrument to look into the details and draw the readers' attention to more interesting differences pointed out by the author.

3. Differences in playing technique
"The fingering technique is a very important consideration in our discussion. Tabla has a distinct leaning toward the delicate fingering while the mridangam has a balance between the powerful and delicate techniques. A brief look at the history of the instruments shows why.

The evolution of both the tabla and mridangam may be traced to an archetypical mridang. This instrument had a close association to the ancient mythological dramas. This association meant that the drums would sometimes have to support both masculine and feminine characters. The delicate movements of the dance are known as lasya while the more powerful masculine movements are known as tandava. Powerful techniques were developed to accentuate the masculine roles while delicate techniques were developed to support the feminine roles.

In the last several centuries, the drumming technique in north Indian music has bifurcated. The more powerful and aggressive techniques have been relegated to the pakhawaj while the delicate techniques have been relegated to tabla.

Yet there was no bifurcation of technique in the South. The powerful and aggressive techniques exist alongside the delicate."

This is interestingly consistent with my previous observation that Kathak moves do consist of a lot of momentous footwork not involving the flat hit on the floor but relying more on heel, toe and transient strikes on the floor. Their stances are also rarely symmetric as marked by masculine poses. Footwork include more feminine movements involving touching the heel and the toe of the foot or fleeting touches with the ground.

4 . Difference in philosophy:
"There is another area of difference between the tabla and the mridangam. This reflects a basic philosophic difference between North and South Indian music.

The tabla provides the rhythmic base for the entire performance. Since the main performer will constantly refer to the tabla, it is essential that there be a conventionally established pattern that may be universally understood. This pattern is called theka. Too much variation from the established theka may lead to a breakdown in communication and thus compromise the entire performance. In the old days, vocalists and instrumentalists would not allow their tabla players to play anything except theka. Today there is much greater freedom, still the basic responsibility remains.

The role of the mridangam is much different. The mridangam does not have to provide the rhythmic base for the performance. Such a base is provided by a conventionally established pattern of claps and waves. Half of the audience in a south Indian performance may be clapping along with the performers. With so many people providing the base there is a greater freedom given to the mridangam player. The consequence of not having to provide a base means that there is no such thing as a theka, therefore different accompanying rhythms may be used according to the artistic discretion of the performers."

This almost forms a convincing explanation for why Bharatanatyam sometimes seems out of synch with tabla. Kathak dancers frequently come back to their basic tala (If performing in teentaal, they will do a bol and come back to reciting the tala and striking their feet onto the thekas or sams). There is no such coming back to hit aadi-taala's-basic-8akshara-structure at the end of Bharatanatyam jathis. They seamlessly flow from one korvai to another in Tillanas and jathiswarams. The hitting of feet before we start a jathi in Varnams can be considered similar but serve the purpose to giving a layapramanam to the dancer before that jathi rather than running through the composition as a backbone. We do not return to it but instead flow into a sahityam where the basic rhythm is not necessarily kept at equally spaced beats.

At this point, I want to point out that performing for Carnatic music that is not dance based (meaning padams and other abhinaya based items on Krithi recordings) also misses the point because the mridangam variations have nothing to do with the kalapramanams of your abhinaya. It dilutes the effect and leads to the auditory and visual senses sensing unmatched stimuli. This in total builds an incoherent picture and leads to a total dilution of the rasanubhava.

Bharatanatyam and Odissi, according to me enjoy a special place, as no other dance form can be as masculine and feminine at the same time. They are embodiment of the ever-sought perfect balance of tandava and lasya which is incidentally also resonated on the percussion that the dance forms visualize their fundamental sound from. If someone with more knowledge, time and energy can dig deeper and find the shollus/bols, the stresses, the enunciations and sequence involved with the mridangam and pakahwaj and the deeper connection that they have with footwork of Bharatanatyam and Odissi, it could throw more surprises and benefit everybody. But, the bottom line is, I don't believe Bharatanatyam retains its soul when performed to alien music and instruments. It is a classical art that can only be enjoyed to its wholesome beauty by use of its custom music, singing, poetry, fabric, stories and percussion. Taking mridangam beats out of Bharatanatyam is like taking the heartbeat out of the human body and replacing it with say elephants'. It does not work.

So, you can have all the fun, experiment and outreach you want trying to portray the universality of this language called Bharatanatyam, but it sounds best at home!

This is KSL's second article for She read about the article 'Mridangam and Tabla, a contrast' by David Courtney. Suggestions and corrections are welcome. She urges not to consider this as an article establishing supremacy of Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Pakhawaj and Mridangam over other dance forms and Tabla. She hopes people observe the art they so love and make up their own minds about the dominant flavor each percussion instrument and its accompanying dance form provides. For art lovers everywhere, here is a Mridangam -Tabla duet by Palghat Mani Iyer and Ustad Zakhir Hussain from youtube

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