The sights and sounds of the Jan season 
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 
January 26, 2007 

“Every time you visit a place, you have to learn something new,” said Prof. Ramanujam.  So, we took his advice, and met Dr. Perumal when we visited the Saraswati Mahal Library in Thanjavur, recently. It is one among a few medieval libraries existing in the world, housing about 65,000 books and 49,000 manuscripts among other treasures. Regaling us with a brief history of Thanjavur, Dr. Perumal showed us some of these treasures. The library is home to the earliest printed book of 1692, earliest dated manuscript of 1430, an undated one belonging to the 11th century, earliest paper manuscript dating to 1476 and the first available catalogue of palm leaf dating to 1801. Around 1981, the worth of the cloth wraps in which the manuscripts had been preserved, was discovered by a research scholar from overseas, after which the available cloth wraps were rescued from wherever they had been discarded out of sheer ignorance. Some were even being used as rags! The enemies of books and manuscripts are dust, light, heat and humidity. Dr. Perumal gave us a tip to keep away insects and mould. Just scatter bits of the herb vasambu (in Tamil) in your bookshelves and cupboards. Red is the dominant color used in the paper, cloth wrap and binding to repel insects and yellow serves as a disinfectant.  

In the little museum, what interested me most were the lithographic pictures by Charles Le Brun, a physiognomist and court artist at the time of the French King Louis XIV.  His Human Physiognomy Charts depicting human faces resembling relevant birds and beasts are outstanding.  

At the Brihadeeswara temple itself, it was interesting to explore the Buddhist connection and locate the Buddha reliefs with an old article from The Hindu as guide!  

Janaki Rangarajan
     Back in Chennai, the New Year heralded a fresh season of dance and music activities.  

Janaki Rangarajan, a senior disciple of Padma Subrahmanyam presented a Bharatanrityam recital for Numgambakkam Cultural Academy on Jan 2. A Balamuralikrishna composition in ragamalika and talamalika for Pushpanjali, Thirupugazh verses for alarippu, a composition of Venkatrama Sastri in ragam Husseini for varnam, “Krishna nee begane…” in raag Yamankalyan, a Jayadeva ashtapadi in raag Basant Bahar, and a thillana composed by the Tanjore Quartette were the items she presented for the evening’s recital. She was accompanied by Jayashree Ramanathan on nattuvangam, G Srikanth on vocal, SSR Krishnan on mridangam and S Vijayaraghavan on violin. On previous visits, Janaki has performed items choreographed by her guru, but this time she performed items that she has choreographed herself. It was a very small audience that she danced to, but for Janaki, “One of the most valuable things that I have learnt during these years is that every performance is extremely important and the performer’s enthusiasm or quality should not vary depending on the audience or the venue.” Dancing in Chennai makes Janaki feel completely satisfied, encouraged and creatively challenged.  Being a part of the Marghazhi Mahotsavam is truly invigorating and a dream come true for her.  

The Music Academy hosted its dance festival from Jan 1 to 9 where all the prominent artistes of Chennai were featured in 4 programs a day. Jan 5 started with a lec-dem and performance of ‘Neelam’ by Anita Ratnam. She spoke about her various teachers and what she imbibed from each one of them, about her training in Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and especially Kathakali, which strengthened her dance movement vocabulary. She reminisced about compositions that were done specially for her and her sister Pritha by vidwan Madurai N Krishnan as well as the famous Nandichollu that Trichur Ramanathan composed in her house! She quit dancing for 10 years to concentrate on her television work in the US, but when she returned to India in 1992 to start Arangham Trust, she was inspired by her mentor Sudharani Raghupathy’s research into Vaishnava traditions. Combined with impetus from Prof. Ramanujam, she did research on Arayar Sevai and worked hard to revive the Kaisiki Natakam ritual tradition of the Nambi temple in her ancestral town Thirukurungudi. With support of family, friends and well-wishers, she helps conduct the annual Kaisiki Natakam at Thirukurungudi every December, for the past 8 years. 

Anita Ratnam
Pics: Chella
The dance movements and music for ‘Neelam’ is inspired by her research. Anita pays special attention to costume, music, lighting and backdrop. For Neelam, she recorded the announcements along with the music, so there is no break in the continuity. In the first half of the program, she wears a startling androgynous yellow/pitambara costume designed by Rex. This against the beautiful stage design also by Rex with Vaishnavite symbols and suspended temple bells is an example of how she conceives a show in its totality. Thus, the meditative quality of watching a performance of Neelam is like being transported to the precincts of a Vaishnavite shrine.  

With the new administration in place at the Music Academy, changes are already being felt this past season, like giving more importance to dance. “Like all mainstream theatres around the world, I would like to see the Academy develop a year round series of programs where people can get to see the best of classical and contemporary performances in music, dance and theatre in frequent showcases,” says Anita, whose grandfather TS Rajam was a president of the Music Academy!  

Neeraja Srinivasan
     On Jan 9, Bharatanatyam dancer Neeraja Srinivasan presented Muthuswamy Dikshitar compositions for her recital for Brahma Gana Sabha. She presented Sri Mahaganapathi in Gaula and Misrachapu, Govardhana Girisham in Hindolam, Meenakshi Memudham in raag Purvikalyani and Adi talam, Ananda Natana Prakasham in raag Kedaram, Maye in Tarangini, and Mangala Ragamalika. She was accompanied by Renjith Babu on nattuvangam, Meera Ramesh on vocal, G Vijayaraghavan on mridangam, Ananthanarayanan on veena and PV Ramana on flute. The audience for her performance, the previous one and the following one were sparse. In general, those who attend such programs are mostly family and friends. This can be so disheartening for the young dancers who are given performance slots in January.  

Why did Neeraja particularly choose to do Dikshitar compositions? “I believe that every artist, why, every living being strives to reach its greatest potential during its life span. Personally, I have for several years and still am trying to reach out for that goal of completion through my dance. I have danced to several compositions, old and new; contemporary and traditional; of different hues and moods, to discover that energy which will take me beyond my very existence. I found this elevation in Muthuswamy Dikshitar's sublime compositions. For someone who is not much into prayer or rituals, I found my self and my god in his words. In fact, I need to consciously and quite reluctantly pull myself back on stage when I dance to his compositions as my mind tends to become one with his music and float away. Hence I wanted to dedicate one of my recitals to Dikshitar, who was gifted to us so long ago and who still reigns in our hearts.”  

What does this Chennai season mean for young dancers like Neeraja? “Every season we have dancers and musicians complaining about the commercialization of art and opportunities not being given to talented artists. Indeed, dancers do have to spend a lot in order to perform. It's tough, yes, but Chennai's Margazhi season is special, unique and wonderful. It gives me a thrill to read the season's first Sabha schedule, make a mark against my favorite artists and decide what to wear! It is a month long party in Chennai when the city and especially Mylapore, my home turf, becomes obsessed and fanatical about music, dance, lec-dems, harikathas! The season is great education for artists.” 
About performing to a sparse audience after all the hard work, Neeraja says, “Dance itself is its greatest reward. A good responsive crowd, of course is a great motivator. A kutcheri is, after all, an interaction of energy between the dancer and her/his audience.  I always believe that good work will get good response. I have seen it happen. The better my work, the better the audience and their feedback.” Incidentally, she holds a regular job to support her dance career! 

Aishwarya Nityananda, Parshwanath Upadhya and Padmini Upadhya
Anuradha Vikranth
The festival scene shifted to Bangalore for the second edition of the Drishti Festival at the Chowdiah Hall on Jan 12 organised by the Drishti Art Foundation. The hall overflowed with people eventually standing on the sides, sitting in the aisle space or even watching from the wings! The program commenced with young talents Aishwarya Nityananda, Padmini Upadhya and Parshwanath Upadhya performing Pushpanjali, Ganapathi sthuthi and Eesham Sarvesham choreographed by Anuradha Vikranth. Anuradha then presented Nrithonnathey (one who is engrossed in dance). One of the most accomplished male dancers of India, Sathyanarayana Raju gave a memorable presentation of the lengthy varnam Devadideva Nataraja, a composition of Veenai Sesha Iyer.  He got wonderful accompaniment with guru Narmada on nattuvangam, Gurumurthy on mridangam, Srivatsan on vocal and Mahesh Swamy on flute. The Drishti Trio of Anuradha, Shama and Sanjay presented Rhythms in a blend of classical, contemporary and folk beats that did not quite take off. The Kirans presented slokams on Devi, Nataraja and a thillana composition of Lalgudi Jayaraman. While the other dancers had covered the stage space very well, the Kirans were a bit too static and the orchestra too loud. The final performance was an energetic whirl of movements by Madhu Nataraj and the gifted dancers of Stem Dance Kampni, starting with Ushas that had a dramatic fire background. The Sports Sequence created specially for Suvarna Karnataka with music by Praveen Rao, was a big hit with the audience. As people started to leave and the felicitation ceremony also was due, Madhu Nataraj had to cut short an item and the group finished with a Tarana. Excellent lighting by Sai Venkatesh was a plus point of the festival. 
Sathyanarayana Raju
Stem Dance Kampni
Drishti honored Kathak guru Maya Rao and Bharatanatyam guru/scholar Leela Ramanathan for their contribution to the dance field. “There are so many associations for critics, writers, actors and so on, but no association for dancers. Envy could be one reason. We hope to see a dancers association in the future. It is nice to see youngsters presenting other youngsters, something Leela and I never had in our younger days. Awards are not important. It’s a greater reward that young dancers recognize our contribution,” said guru Maya Rao. Leela Ramanathan agreed with that, adding, “Getting other young dancers to share a platform without envy is commendable. Maya and I felt the desire to dance, so we danced, not for any rewards.” Guru Narmada was specially felicitated with the happy announcement that she has been nominated for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. 
Gurus Maya Rao, Narmada and Leela Ramanathan
After seeing so many near empty halls in Chennai, it was heartening to see full house at Chowdiah, a cheerful sight for any performer. However, the program sequence and artiste lineup could have been made more compact, with the hosts performing in the end, if at all they must perform. After all, the main idea is to give a platform to other young talent of Bangalore. Also, the felicitation function should have been conducted earlier in the evening and not when half the hall was empty. As Anuradha Vikranth admits, conducting a festival is not an easy task and she hopes to do better in forthcoming festivals. She feels the atmosphere for dance in Bangalore is good, with fairly good performance opportunities in general. Anuradha plans to present artistes from Karnataka for the next two festivals before venturing into inviting artistes from outside Karnataka.