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Composing for dance
- GS Rajan

May 21, 2011

While listening to a 'dance-drama' score on YouTube, these thoughts came to my mind. Composing music for dance is an art totally different from other compositions. The composer should read the selected lyrics carefully, understand its meaning, then understand the choreographer's visual interpretation. Every choreographer can interpret the selected lyrics differently.

It is also desirable that the music composer keep the concept of raga-ragini in mind while composing for dance. Raga - Male and Ragini - Female. The raga also has a feminine form called a Ragini. A Ragini is usually a condensation of the main theme of the melody. The place occupied by the Ragini becomes much more complex when we deconstruct the classification of ragas.

The way Indians expressed the musical and mathematical principles of the construct of the raga in the ancient treatises is through the mythological analogy. Each of these ancient principal ragas, as taught and expounded in the ancient universities and schools of India, are visualised as joined 'to, or, married' to six Ragini(s) or nymphs. The result of this joining is the equation of 6x6=36. The creation of three or more Ragini(s) who are born as a result of the union. These three daughters are Bhava, Rasa, and Svara and they in turn give all the special qualities of Bhava, Rasa and Svara to their parents.

It is easy to compose using a raga and its specified ascending and descending notes - arohana and avarohana - to create a melody. But the uniqueness comes in when we try to use the raga according to the emotion (the dancer trying to show) and perhaps try out 'swara moorchana' technique to give a unique identity to the melody instead of sounding it like many other existing compositions.

Another point to remember while composing for dance is to avoid regular gamakas as much as possible. Importance should be given to lyrics so that it is easy for the dancer to emote a particular emotion. We should attempt perfect 'swara sudhi' (perfect placement of notes) rather than 'sruti sudham' (perfectness in pitch). While composing swara patterns for dance, leave out lots of spaces and try not to make mathematical swara pattern. Leave that job to the dancer or nattuvanar. When leaving spaces in between swara patterns, not only the beauty of silence is highlighted but also it gives ample space for the dancer or nattuvanar to fill them with rhythmic patterns. This will result in the perfect marriage of melody and rhythm = Laya.

G S Rajan is a flautist, composer and editor of

What a an intuitive, thoughtful note....and a genuine effort as a composer and musician to bring forth the dancer into the the space and silence in the create that beauty of harmony between dance and music. I as a rasika is allowed to enjoy the beauty of such moments...just want to say, we are truly blessed to hear your music too.
- Katya Yini

Well written! Very true that to compose music for dance the composer requires a different level of understanding and visualisation. The silence, the rhythm patterns, the gamakas and underplaying the gamakas, apt use of instruments, voice selection, genre use, everything have a lasting impression on the dance production.
- Kavitha Ramu

Beauty of silence is highlighted. That's beautiful. I was just imagining the scope for abhinaya during that beautiful silence! Melts the heart.
- Priya Lasya

Music is the soul of have music with soul to dance to.....what more could one want? But of the music I have heard you pour forth since 1984....nothing has ever struck me as jarring or are naturally blessed, Rajan. God has a special window open for your creativity! God Bless!
- Swagata Sen Pillai

Very well written.
- Janaki Rangarajan

Very well articulated. I'll be passing this note along for sure. Thank you for writing this!
- Rasika Kumar

Interesting, as Subbudu mama would say. Those musicians who compose for dance also need to take care of the swaras in accordance with their footwork alongside taking care of their throats.......with this synergy it is possible to marry both the art forms as prescribed in the Natya Shastra. Why dance, even theatre, to some part (musicals/ folk, etc) require this sort of synergy that the musician has to make. It is this extra effort that helps in coordination of these art forms. Otherwise, like we see often these days in many dance recitals, the musician and his band are busy making their own music, while the confused dancer is trying hard to jump to that music and an even more confused audience is bored to death with all the chaos happening on stage. Of course, no one has gotten any great experience from such kind of events, but yes, well written, Rajan....a greater topic of discuss for this is certainly needed.
- Veejay Sai

The music composer and the choreographer have to guide each other through the journey of a new creation. That is true team work and Rajan believes in that.
- Rama Vaidyanathan

I wish people who actually compose music for dance dramas get to see this... some dance dramas this season had pathetic music/lyrics.
- Madhana Raghavan Nitiyananda Rahavan

It is quite an in depth analysis and enunciation. Laya has always been a twin sister of swara. Nice food for thought. We will be witnessing future dance programmes with a better acumen and critical mind.
- Krishnamurthy Srinath

How truly said...
Composing music for dance is totally a different thing. Recently, I had a conversation with a musician who told me that usually a singer is never happy singing for dance as it does not leave them space to improvise. I was shocked and sad. How can it be like that... if there is good rapport and liking between the dancer and accompanist and if they truly believe in giving life and emotion to what they are doing, won't that be interesting? I always thought it's a real challenge to sing for dance... to enjoy the lyrics, the music, the rhythm, the waves of emotion and also feel secure about your art form. It could be definitely a give and take...
As you said, this thought came to you listening to music of a dance drama. I am always amazed about the composition of Bhama Kalapam in Kuchipudi. No gimmicks, right raga and music at right scenes... travel of gathis...the flavor of Kuchipudi... wow!!!
Thank you for the note. It's informative and thought provoking.
- Sreelakshmy Govardhanan

I agree fully.
- Shobha Deepak Singh

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