An awakening of the senses... 
My experience at Natya Sangraham 2008  
- Kirti Ramgopal, Bangalore 
May 15, 2008 

There come times in the life curve of a dancer when, in a continuous struggle and search for 'the new,' 'the old' is eclipsed, the beauty of the 'basics' is overshadowed by a quest for the 'complex' and the awareness of and appreciation for simple nuances diminishes. At those times, we need an impetus; a kindling of our senses and finer sensibilities and the awareness to see beauty in basics and all inter-related arts. 

This humbling and rejuvenating experience comes when one is away from the mundane fast paced city life in an ambience of tranquility and in the revered presence of stalwarts in the field of art. Natya Sangraham was exactly that humbling and rejuvenating experience for me.... 

28th February 2008...filled with anticipation and trepidation I walked into the portals of Narada Gana Sabha, a Sabha that has stood strong promoting art and culture for over 3 decades. I had applied for the camp after I saw a mention of it on a website. A residential camp where I could learn from and interact with veterans in the arts field excited me. Slowly all participants began to assemble. A quick cup of coffee, a few introductions followed by an attendance call covering almost 30 dancers and we were all ready to set off for Thennangur. Driving away from the hustle-bustle of city life to tranquil, scenic and rustic India is the very start to this refreshing experience. We made our first halt at Uttiramerur, a small town that takes pride in its temple that has been declared a monument of national importance. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan explained to us how Uttiramerur, once known as Chaturvedhi Mangalam (meaning residential town of 1000 Vedic experts) followed a highly organized democratic system in various fields like the elections, treasury, educational committee and water tank maintenance. As we walked round the temple, the breeze, old and wise seemed to whisper stories of history creating an awareness of a rich glorious history while the inscriptions on the walls of the temple bolstered the same. 

Back in the bus and within an hour we arrived at the temple village of Thennangur. What strikes one about Thennangur is its serenity and innocence. Nestled amidst lush green fields, the naïve gaze of the native village folk, little stone walled and thatched roof houses, lambs bleating and frolicking, spirited children chasing cycle tyres with sticks... is a sight seen more in Tamil movies for urban folk like me. I smiled to myself... Yes, I was now in that very scene to live through it for three days. 

Enlightening and delightful as the sessions were, what personally struck me throughout the camp was the awareness of all my senses. Every session, I felt, roused one 'sense' from its state of mundane existence. However, in totality all senses were roused to bubbly heights. 

    'The next time you look into the mirror, just look at the way the ears rest next to the head; look at the way the hairline grows; think of all the little bones in your wrist. It is a miracle. And Dance is a celebration of that miracle.' 
    - Martha Graham
Anil Kumar's yoga sessions at the very start of the day made us aware of that 'miracle.' The essence of yoga is to integrate mind, body and soul. Although that integration probably takes total concentration and focus, at a very simple level we have to learn to feel every part of the body and accept the beauty of every sensation.  

Every morning at the crack of dawn, I'd enjoy the walk from my room to the temple and then to the Bhajan hall. The dark morning sky, tranquility in the ambience and a cool fresh breeze was the perfect prelude to the yoga sessions. From the chanting of 'Om' at the start of the session to the stretches and asanas that culminated in 'yoga nidra,' Anil Kumar emphasized the importance of breathing without pausing during exercise, the right way of breathing to enhance flexibility and the focus on the sensations in the body. On the following days, he was more than willing to start the sessions earlier than the scheduled time to help us by teaching stretches that would strengthen injured or weak muscles. Everyday as I awoke from 'yoga nidra,' I felt refreshed and looked forward to the day ahead. 

The sense of hearing – to listen 
(Music and poetry) 
An awareness of hearing, more so of listening comes from music – the very soul of dance. 

    'Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe...' 
    - Anonymous
Aruna Sairam's session was EXACTLY that – inspiring, emotional, moving and convincing music.  

I have been a fan of hers from the time I watched her concert on television a few years ago. What I loved was the boldness in her voice...a voice that had the power to convince, an adherence to tradition with a beauty of the untraditional, a dance of gaiety in her voice and in her very being throughout her rendition and most of all, her eloquent style in explaining the what, why and how of her selection. 

What she said still echoes in my mind: "To sing, feel the song. Don't just hear yourself sing it. To dance, feel the dance. Don't just see yourself do it." 

In the virutham 'Vaarathirunthaal' which she sang in Panthuvarali, she explained how words can be strung together for accentuation e.g. – Vaarathirunthaal, Nee Vaarathirunthaal, Kanne Nee Vaarathirunthaal, etc. In the Abhangs that she sang with utmost ease and vitality, she elucidated the rhythm of these folkish numbers, which made the songs more enjoyable (as these were sung and danced to by devotees on their walks from the villages to the temple). In the Niraval session, the line "it is time to come to me, Oh Muruga. Who apart from you is my lifeline?" was chosen. Through her niraval, wherein she beautifully altered the tempo, sangathi variations and emphasis on swaras, Arunaji evoked so many emotions in us. This was lovely.  

On hearing the line, I visualized Muruga as the beloved and taking on the role of the heroine I went on to show, "Oh Muruga, it is spring time, the season of love, look at the love birds chirping, the creepers gracefully entwined around the trees, the bees hovering around the freshly blossomed fragrant flowers, the deer, peacocks and all of nature seem to unite in the beauty of spring. Come, it is time to come to me. Why this delay? Don't you know that you are the world to me?"  Ms. Sujatha threw light on the added possibilities for interpretation – "Are you deliberately turning a deaf ear to me"  (annoyance as the tempo rises), "Is your peacock not ready to bring you here" (questioning), or "Can't you hear the cry of this devotee, please show some mercy (devotion), etc.  

The session left me awestruck. The correlation between lyric, expression and rendition had so much depth that detailed time and thought have to be invested while working on sancharis. If we dancers got more time with the musicians to listen to the sangathis and see the emotions it evoked and the interpretations we could come up with, it would be wonderful, wouldn't it? 

What moved me most during my stay at Thennangur was Arunaji singing 'Bhaktha Jana Vatsale' during the Dolotsavam. I was so moved was magical. With the deity before my eyes and her soul stirring music the whole world seemed to relegate into oblivion... If there was something called divinity in music, I knew THIS was it. 

    'If there would be a recipe for a poem, these would be the ingredients: word sounds, rhythm, description, feeling, memory, rhyme and imagination. They can be put together a thousand different ways, a thousand thousand more....'  
    - Karla Kuskin
Dr. Sudha Seshayan's sessions on poetry not only kindled my hearing and listening sense but made me probe deeper into content and meaning. A doctor by profession, this scholar's passion for poetry was indeed infectious. First explaining the literal meaning, she urged us to explore the Padartha (meaning in a word), Vyakyartha (meaning in a sentence) and Dhwani (meaning in tone). While interpreting the composition 'Kaakai Chiraginile nandalala' which we were given for homework, she taught us the importance of appreciating everything around us. An 'appreciative eye,' I realized is a requisite for a dancer. A crow is normally not considered a beautiful bird. But look at its velvet-like black feathers. They can be beautiful when seen with an appreciative eye. Thus went 'Kaakai Chiraginile.' 

Another highlight of Dr. Sudha Seshayan's session was the introduction of the 'Kaikilai Nayika,' a Nayika probably lost in the pages of history while the other eight gained importance! Taking 'Theruvil Vaarano,' she explained the features of this Nayika. One who thinks (a) what wrong have I done? Why did he leave me? And /or (b) I'm not wrong but what do I do...I don't have anyone who will carry my message to him. This made me understand the heroine, the situation and the full piece better.  

Covering a wide spectrum ranging from Sangam literature to Thiruppavai to English poetry (even Ringa ringa roses!), these sessions nudged us to listen, visualize and probe deeper to gather more meaning for interpretation.  

Poetry has indeed turned out to be far more thought provoking than I thought it to be. What is thrilling is that each question raised sometimes brings in a radically different dimension that excites and energizes the envisioning and interpreting process. I know that this will indeed help me rework pieces I have worked on and probe further while working on new items.  

With music and poetry rousing my hearing sense and kindling my mind a proverb comes to mind. 'The mind is for seeing. The heart is for hearing.' 

The sense of touch – to feel 
(Warm–up and workout) 

    Dance, an art form 
    The Body, an Instrument 
    Learn to play the Instrument 
    So you can master the Art Form 
    - Debbie Dee
Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi's session on 'warm up' was an eye-opener into the beauty of the 'Instrument' – our bodies. Some of the facts that he told us were very interesting: 
Capillaries of our body, if placed in one line would cover 16,000 miles – 'Warm up' is to stimulate 'Adrenalin' – viscoelasticity of muscles has to increase for the aerobic and an-aerobic activity i.e. Bharatanatyam. – What we dancers refer to as stamina is actually 'endurance' – the capacity to sustain prolonged exercise. 

Dr. Pugazhendi led us through an entire warm up beginning with the neck and going all the way down to the ankles and toes. Every exercise was simple yet the stretch felt in the muscle targeted was phenomenal! During some exercises, some of us felt the stretch on the right hand/leg more than that on the left or vice –versa. This, He explained, was because one muscle was used more than the other and that we had to exercise so that the weaker muscle grows stronger. He also corrected some of the exercises we did. For e.g. – the knee can take only a stretch and bend. It cannot take a circular movement with the weight of the body on it (an exercise many of us dancers did and have now corrected). The best of the lot was the exercise to stretch the calf muscles. Like I said before, the exercise looked simple, yet when we all did it, the room echoed with ooooooooooooohs and aaaaaaaaaahs!!!'  
For people like me who took a 'warm up' lightly, this session sure brought about a radical change. I have now realized the importance of it. 

    'What we hope ever to do with ease, we must first learn to do with diligence.' 
    - Samuel Johnson
Prof. CV Chandrashekar emphasized the above by throwing light upon several small nuances. Beginning with the single leg balance in standing position and then in aramandi, he guided us and advised us on purity of technique while executing adavus such as the 'thatt' adavu or the kudhithametai adavu. What was wonderful was how he stretched the framework for a single adavu, some of which we probably practice but not consciously. For eg – 'Dhidhithi' – he showed us 6 different ways of doing it – static and moving.  

Taking the line 'Enneramum undan sannithiyile...', He opened up possibilities for interpretation such as – I could stay here in your shrine making flower garlands or drawing water everyday for your abhishekam or in the role of cleaner or as the one who rings the bell, etc. In showing the Navarasa, CVC sir illustrated the importance of body language. It was remarkable how his body softened for shringara rasa, almost melted for karuna rasa, extended for veera rasa and tightened for roudra rasa. Stressing the importance of non-dilution of tradition, he taught us a jathi with over 15 variations of "dhalangu" (jump). It made me realize that the simplest steps can be strung together to produce numerous permutations and combinations.  

A rigorous adavu workout is something I have always enjoyed. The feeling of sweating it out and challenging my own limits of endurance gives me a thrill. If only we had more time with CVC sir to do a full-fledged adavus workout, I would have been mighty thrilled. However, what I thoroughly enjoyed was the exercise of doing an entire Allarippu with only eye movements. It was a fantastic experience and something that will help us dancers to strengthen our focus.  

The sense of sight – to see the divine... 
Blessed were we to see the resplendent Lord Panduranga and his consort Rukmayi at any time we wanted. All it took was a hop, skip and jump from our hall! On my first visit to the temple, I was awestruck to see the beautiful temple gopuram. The moment I stepped into the temple hall I was mesmerized by the sheer magnificence of the place- the walls bright red with exquisite golden designs and paintings that told stories of Lord Krishna such as Poothana Samharam, lifting of Mount Govardhan and the Ras-Leela (on the ceiling).  

Soaking in the ambience of the hall, I slowly traced my footsteps to the inner sanctum. In an instant my eyes were transfixed for there they stood – the Supreme Lord and his beautiful consort. To see beauty of this magnitude - the sense of sight was indeed roused to glorious heights. 

Many images have been photographed in my mind. Prominent amongst these was the 'Gho-Pooja' that is carried out at dawn. Before the yoga session, I would go to the temple. In complete silence, the first sight of the deity when the curtains were drawn was an incredible experience. There was so much positive energy. Through the Dolotsavam, all I could do was stand riveted as the Lord and his Consort were carried to the courtyard. Gracefully swinging to soul stirring music, the bejeweled deity dazzled. It was strange that although my eyes would feel like they hadn't feasted enough, every few moments I'd close my eyes almost transported to a different world with the image of the deity in my mind and the emotive music.   

Dance took the form of 'seva' – an offering to the Supreme One who has blessed us with this art. Many of us would get up to dance to different songs. Yes, dancing before the deity was a very humbling experience, yet for the most part, I sat down soaking in this wonderful setting.  

The Garuda seva was a treat of a different kind. While the Dolotsavam was graceful, the Garuda seva was majestic. Garuda, broad and full of pride carrying Lord Vishnu who stood regal with his leg resting on Garuda's shoulder. The Mallari played by the nadaswaram and tavil with dancers dancing on either side seemed like the picture perfect procession. It was fun as women and children of the village joined us in the dances. And the Kalyanotsavam was simply elegant.  

My only disappointment at Thennangur was that we did not get to meet Dr. Vyjayanthimala Bali who was supposed to take the Aharya session. As if to compensate for this loss and bless us fourfold was the spectacular sight of Lord Panduranga in the 'Raja attire.' Clad in striking pink with his fish shaped ear rings, the prominent thilaka on his forehead, the grand turban and crown and the shining sword, his form was breathtaking. His consort Rukmayi stood petite and graceful in the same pleated pink attire. It was indeed Aharya at its glory! 

The senses of smell and taste 
Mr. Krishnaswami pampered us with the wonderful arrangements. Anyone who has had the Natya Sangraham experience will undoubtedly mention the excellent food. All three meals were treats with elaborate spreads without repetition. What made the food even more enjoyable were the little bhajans/chants we'd all sing before the meal and the warmth with which the cooks and attenders would serve us.  

As if the sumptuous meals were not enough, we had the juice breaks before noon everyday and the hot samosas and sweet on our return journey and if still not enough, the "Masala Paal" (masala milk) and "Coffee! Tea!" served at our rooms every night and morning respectively. (These were akin to 'goodnight' and 'good morning' calls for me!) 

Apart from these, there were a few things that made the whole experience even more memorable – guru Jayalakshmi's talk on the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale, playing with the lambs during some free time (jackpot worth memories!), the performances every evening and the humility of towering personalities like guru CV Chandrashekar and Aruna Sairam to sit and dine with us.  

So with all senses awakened and artistically rejuvenated, we were back on the bus heading for Chennai. A fun filled drive with a spirited anthakshari was the grand finale to Natya Sangraham. While everyone joined in, the stars of the evening were Priya Murle (who, to my amazement, brought to life stars like MGR, Shivaji Ganesan, Savithri, Padmini and a wave of new actors through every animated song she sang and the inseparable four! (Gayathri Balagurunathan's students). From the classics to the discos to the folk songs and Carnatic krithis and varnams, we had quite a medley! 

Saying goodbye is never easy, yet, with a hope to meet again at Natya Sangraham 2009, I bid farewell to all on board and got off at the first stop in Chennai.  

Ann Halprin, the famous choreographer once said,  

    "I'm very excited about dance and love it with a deep passion. I also struggle, tire and become discouraged. But what has always revived me has been the rebirth of energy each time the creative process is awakened and artistic activity beings to unfold even in some infinitesimal measure."
Hmmmm.... I smiled to myself as I waved out to an auto...Natya Sangraham was definitely that reviving force for me... 

Kirti Ramgopal is a Bangalore based Bharatanatyam dancer.