Tradition -Transition -Transformation 
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 
Pics courtesy: Saila Sudha 

October 6, 2009 

Kuchipudi / Bharatanatyam dancer Sailaja's Saila Sudha conducted its annual seminar on Tradition-Transition-Transformation, for the second year on Sept 12 & 13, 2009 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. While last year's focus was on Kuchipudi, this year, three dance forms were in the spotlight.  

V Ramnarayan, Editor in Chief, Sruti magazine, who feels the dance community has been a greater supporter of the magazine than the musicians, said tradition is the handing down of information by word of mouth or practice. Transformational aspect of a traditional art can be seen in the new phenomenon of singing on platforms. Art is constantly in tradition but bringing transformation in art needs courage. All our arts have moved from temples to public arenas. Great art results in a subtle mind shift in the rasika and ultimate greatness of art is the elevation of one's spirits. He said that through art, let us humanize technology.  

M Balamuralikrishna, MA Baby, Sailaja, Narayana Viswanath, V Ramnarayan
In his inaugural address, Dr. M Balamuralikrishna, who has over 400 compositions to his credit, wondered what people mean when they say, "he sang very much according to tradition!" He said sruti is important for music - both the magazine and the form!  

MA Baby, Minister for Education & Culture, Govt. of Kerala, started his keynote address by saying that one can learn many things by participating in seminars, plus it's an opportunity to read literature and research work. Every human being has an innate faculty to appreciate, but in order to appreciate art forms, some initiation is important. One may not develop into an artiste, but one can develop into a rasika. Having accompanied his father to many music concerts of stalwarts of Carnatic music when he was young, MA Baby developed appreciation for music. "I reached dance through music." It was not until he saw The Dhananjayans perform at Kalamandalam, that he realized "dance is a deep and intense visual presentation of music." 

To him, M Balamuralikrishna himself personified tradition, transition and transformation. "Seeing the maestro give vocal accompaniment to dance, I could see that great artistes can indulge in such innovations. Dance is one of the earliest forms of human activity, even as far back as 9000 years. Lot of transition has taken place, like entry of women on to the stage and even the great culture of Koodiyattam has undergone transition. All great forms of art encourage through lots of efforts to consolidate its characteristics on one hand and in doing so, transformation takes place. Before trying to undertake serious transformation in a classical art form, first achieve total command over the art form. For instance, if Balamuralikrishna decides to sing without tanpura accompaniment, some traditionalists may protest but he can do the unconventional because he has mastered the conventional!"  

The first presenter of the morning, Malavika Sarukkai had many questions to ask. How does tradition adapt? Living in a world where novelty and change are aggressively demanded in arts, what is the direction tradition is taking? How do we cope with these challenges and take the beauty of the art in this consumerist scheme of things? What is the voice of classical art? As artistes and viewers, how can we support its continuity? Bharatanatyam is like a river in flow – how does one continue tradition? We have been given a priceless treasure – how do we get others to value, cherish and revere it? "For 25 years I have choreographed it, explored in nritta and abhinaya, pushing the boundaries, exploring tradition, finding spaces within tradition where I can contribute, yet retain the core – that is rasa. The final purpose is to create rasa in me as a dancer and in you as a viewer. We mould our body and mind to what tradition demands which is harmony, aesthetics, poetry – a lifetime journey. An appropriate vessel in which the waters of tradition collect, the dancer moulds her body and mind to be the receptacle." 

This language of dance holds continuity and changes as the core. Performance needs a keen sense of aesthetics as the dancer sings with her body. The dancer has to infuse energy force, physical and intellectual into every moment of dance to imbue it with deep vitality or it would be like dumb charades! Interpretation should emphasize poetic imagination or we miss out on the essence of tradition. Heighten the senses and bring dance to the fore – let the dance speak, not the dancer. It should be dance for the sake of dance, not for their own selves. It's not enough to think of only angashuddham, the dancer has to bring in the mind, intent and other qualities, beyond the movement and tala. "What does the mind do, how does the mind filter into the performance is what holds my interest." The excerpt from ‘Sthithi-Gati' with music by CV Chandrashekar, was a work with nritta, movement energies that explores the inbuilt energies of stillness and movement.  

In the excerpt of a pure dance item, Malavika said she worked with a very identifiable alphabet of Bharatanatyam adavu movements, traditional, energized adavus with silence and movement making a contrast. "It is important and a responsibility to carry forth tradition but we need to repossess, recover, renew tradition at this point in time. With time, things get forgotten. Classical arts that have come down to us are a great gift. We need to re-find the beauty and remove the dust that has gathered over the years. Mind conditions the approach to think of Bharatanatyam as a repertoire. Tradition changes but what should we need to hold on to? That's where discrimination, reverence and deeper value for classical arts come. To quote AK Ramanujam, ‘The past works through the present even as the present reworks the past.'"  

In the excerpt from Yudhishtra's Dream, sollukattus were refashioned to fit in with the masculine entrance of Yudhishtra. "Tradition has enriched and filled me with bhakti. I gravitate towards the spiritual. Our world is violent and horrific, spirituality is like a balm. It heals you. You don't need to go to a temple. If an artiste can bring out the feeling, we can immerse in the quality and share the spiritual feeling, that's a hallmark of tradition. Art ennobles man by the mere fact of its existence, said Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky." Malavika performed an excerpt of Bhakti Manjari of Swati Thirunal with music by Rajaram. "Every time I dance it, history lives, the dance tries to recreate movements of great beauty. Instead of meditating in isolation, share a prayer with the artiste's sadhana on stage," she urged.  

Malavika's last excerpt was a piece inspired by a woman planting trees in a village in Karnataka, "the fortitude of an unnoticed, unheard of frail woman. The activist in me prompted me to choreograph an item like this. It's based on nature and love of nature. Thimakka is a different type of nayika. Predominant emotion is vatsalyam she feels for the 247 trees she planted and reared as her own children." But when an audience member asked Malavika if she had ever invited Thimakka to watch the performance that she had inspired, the dancer could only say that they had met and spoken. One could see the incredulous looks on the faces of those present. After all, Thimakka does not live too far from Bangalore!  

Malavika concluded with how art requires a sensitive mind. "Celluloid gives enough noise and titillation. We are in parallel streams with Bollywood. Despite other distractions, we must stick to our river. When we touch moments of beauty, that's what keeps us going." The dancer was articulate, the accompanying orchestra was wonderful, but there was a general feeling of disappointment that Malavika had spoken about T-T-T pertaining not to the dance form but to only her own work, and even in that, there was nothing new that happened that morning.  

Malavika Sarukkai 
Aruna Bikshu, Leela Venkataraman, Bhagavatula Seetharama Sharma 
Next followed brief talks by Leela Venkataraman, Bhagavatula Seetharama Sharma and Aruna Bikshu.  Arts critic Leela Venkataraman chose to speak about Odissi since this seminar is about three dance forms and Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi were already represented. She gave a brief and illuminating talk on the history of Odissi as an art form that's about half a century old. Odissi revival began in the theatres where new dance items were introduced as curtain raisers in order to attract more people to the theatre. It so happened that the great stalwarts of later Odissi, Pankaj Charan Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Debaprasad Das were all at that time working coincidentally with Annapoorna B Theatre. From a Mahari family background, Pankaj Charan was influenced by the Mahari tradition though by the time he began to compose, the Mahari tradition had all but died - with only fringe remnants seen in some festive events. But the Gotipua dances were there though in a not very refined form and they provided the nritta foundation with much refinement and embellishment by the gurus who were all part of the Jayantika endeavour to revive Odissi. Many influences like Bols from the Dhrupad tradition which were adapted to the Mardala Odissi bani, abhinaya sancharis and codification brought in by Mayadhar Raut who with the help of a scholarship, along with Sanjukta Panigrahi, studied for five years in Kalakshetra and acquired the theory know-how about abhinaya which he gave to Odissi, and many other individual influences of the three main gurus were part of the new Odissi. Now changing themes sometimes are not given any encouragement by local audiences in Orissa. But that hardly matters. Ramli Ibrahim did a Christian theme in Orissa that first upset the traditionalists. Sonal Mansingh has been influenced by Orissa's Pala tradition and composed Su Kuntala and Su Nayana in Odissi form. Sharmila Biswas has been influenced by folk traditions from which she gets ideas - rhythmic and stylistic, which she adapts to fit into the Odissi grammar. The Nrityagram dancers have developed a distinct style of Odissi that's earning them accolades the world over. Odissi is also used to make political statements, some quite well done.  Whatever the influences, they have to be integrated into the main form and not made to look like sore thumbs in a composition.  

If some changes are done with full conviction by a person who has made the particular form of expression his own language after years of training, then whether it is accepted and becomes part of the dance in future, or whether it is discarded, will be decided in time. At a point of time when something new is done, one can only react personally with approval or disapproval. An example is how the people of Orissa rebelled about the change in costumes made by Ramli's troupe and swore they would not allow him to set foot on Orissan soil. Later on after seeing a performance by the same group with a change of theme and the same costume, they felt that Ramli had contributed to Odissi.  
A dance form is the cultural expression of a place. As soon as you see it, you can identify it. The way some inspirations can be integrated into movements, make the changes part of our tradition. One example is how Kelucharan Mohapatra was inspired by the movements of the processional chariot of the Puri Jagannath temple. Some new elements energize the dance but the core remains the regional Odissi medium.  

Bhagavatula Seetharama Sharma hails from Kuchipudi village and has participated in dance dramas of outstanding Kuchipudi masters. According to tradition in Kuchipudi village, dance dramas would be performed from 9pm to 6am without mikes over 3 nights or so. Men used to don the female roles too. People from neighbouring villages used to sit through the whole performance but nowadays, people feel it is an overdose. The Kuchipudi sollukattu is different from the Bharatanatyam sollukattu. Kuchipudi was essentially a dance drama form and the thillana used to be a part of it, but Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry introduced the solo format and women also started performing. Aharya and singing has changed in Kuchipudi. If mistakes are made in Carnatic music, people will spot it immediately, but that is not so in dance.  

"Kuchipudi nattuvangam is different from Bharatanatyam nattuvangam. Nowadays just about everyone does nattuvangam without understanding that sollukattus have to go with the talams. You must know the correct calculation. Stick to tradition. Carnatic music has not changed. Kathakali is one tradition that has remained unchanged for the past 50 years. The chutti, the ragas remain the same. Since things are changing every day, we have forgotten what tradition really is!"  

Aruna Bikshu is a Kuchipudi performer. To show how traditional Kuchipudi is done, she first screened excerpts of traditional Bhama Kalapam and Prahlada Charitram yakshagana. Unfortunately, the excerpts shown were needlessly long, definitely not recommended when the audience numbered very few (the morning session had already been delayed by the late arrival of MA Baby). Telugu literary genre had a lot of influence on Kuchipudi, on performatory text in Andhra on prabhandas, kalapas and then yakshagana. Kuchipudi was a narrative dance and the great gurus kept tradition alive. Though he did many dance dramas, Vempatti Chinna Sathyam deleted the vachika abhinaya (dialogues) and made Kuchipudi more a dance form than a theatrical form. To make ritualistic art more suitable for the proscenium, put a different kind of thinking in the minds of the artistes. In 1959, Kuchipudi was recognized as a classical dance form of India. With change in content (like social issues), body kinetics have changed and so have the aesthetics. The character dancing has been lost, but there is scope for patra even in solo dancing.  

Aruna voiced concern for the hurry to learn classical dances quickly nowadays. "Gurus and teachers must address the issue. I had to learn Bhama Kalapam for 6 months and do it at every performance. Though at that time I was annoyed, it became a topic of research for me. It is important for us performers to treat Kuchipudi as a cultural artifact rather than a performance art alone."  

The evening performances were Kuchipudi by Priya Jayaraman who performed to compositions of Dr. M Balamuralikrishna, followed by Abhirami Andadi in Bharatanatyam style by Sailaja. Most of the audience felt it should have been the other way round with Kuchipudi by Sailaja and Bharatanatyam by Priya. The finale was Krishnakumari Narendran's Bharatanatyam dance drama 'Shiva Swaroopa Thandava Lahari' with dialogues in chaste Tamil and flashy costumes that went down well with the audience. The irritant of the day was the compere stating the names of artistes preceded by their titles every time she mentioned the artiste's name. We even started counting the number of times!  

Next day, Swapnasundari's wonderful, well thought out lec-dem on Kuchipudi then and Kuchipudi now and her vivacious performance in the evening was easily the highlight of the 2 day festival. She first started learning under Pasumarthy Seetha Ramaiah, a first generation male guru who started teaching female students. He taught whatever he had learnt and did not find occasion to improvise on what he had learnt years ago. Under Vempatti Chinna Sathyam, Kuchipudi got revitalized in a vibrant manner. What she had learnt under her first guru got transformed under Vempatti Chinna Sathyam.  

The quality of ubukku or effervescence is a hallmark of Kuchipudi. Swapnasundari demonstrated various adavus as it was earlier and how they have been transformed now, with regard to hand positions and leg movements. Earlier, the upper and lower worked as a single frame. In natyarambha, the arms stretched further and further. "I have been able to imbibe and hold what has been taught by my two great masters. Earlier, I had to jump in such a way that my foot had to hit the back of the opposite upper thigh. It has been transformed now that you don't need to hit your upper thigh." Swapna demonstrated how a character enters and exits the stage in the earlier and later style that has more feminine grace. Additions and transformations have taken place in the hands of gurus, exponents and students. Should the dancer not have the chance to sing or render dialogues herself? Swapna's personal view is that the next best representation should be through powerful abhinaya and not lip synch.  

The transition happened from yakshagana to natakams to nritta natakams. All 3 are different. Yakshagana is a literary genre. History and development of swarajathis has got relevance to the dance tradition. Swapna is doing research on this with other musicians.  
Kuchipudi left Andhra, gurus started choreographing to poetry and dancers have also added their inputs. Swapna did an enthralling abhinaya piece "koi kahiyo re" sung impromptu by Manikuntala Bhowmick, vocalist of Madhavi Mudgal.  

Vilasini Natyam (Sani Aatta) was done by hereditary dancers in temples and courts. Male roles were played by Bhagavatulus who were invited on contract. There are supposed to be 120 adavus in Vilasini Natyam that are not used in Kuchipudi.  

"No tradition has started from point zero. No tradition has remained unaffected by individual gurus and artistes. Bani is something that has been transformed from tradition by the guru. Tradition is a state of transition. Tradition is constant change. Whether we recognize it or not, no tradition has remained untouched. Only mediocre and get rich artistes repeat what is taught by a guru even if that has flaws. The responsible artiste has to address that and not blame it on the guru's tradition. To me there is nothing more sacred than tradition and a tradition that accommodates transition," concluded Swapnasundari.  

Madhavi Mudgal 
Madhavi Mudgal gave a neat morning presentation, following it up with an elegant evening recital. She focused on her guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's bani. A parampara lives only if it changes with the times. Basics like swara, taal and laya remain constant. With each successive generation, some cultural inputs bring on changes. Madhavi presented a mangalacharan as an example of how Tradition-Transition-Transformation takes place. The text was chosen by Sanskrit scholar Dr. Mukund Lat and music was composed by Kelubabu with Madhavi's father. At that time, there were only 3 mangalacharans in Odissi style in her guru's bani. 

From the 6th to 14th centuries, a rich dance tradition must have existed as the beautiful sculptures show. In the 16th century, gotipuas were trained as dancers in akhadas.  Gurus Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das and Kelucharan Mohapatra are the Odissi Trinity and their prominent disciples have brought Odissi to the notice of the public. Kelubabu and Sanjukta Panigrahi brought life to the form that's like a flowing river, sometimes flowing, sometimes stagnant.  

In 1970s, an Odissi dancer had to do a Batu after the mangalacharan, but that's not being done any more. The dancer also had to be in chowka position throughout, but that's not in vogue anymore because it's difficult. Pallavi is an abstract nritta piece, a musical structure visualized through body movements. It's a composition in a particular raga which you can see visually represented. In 1950s, no pallavis existed. Kelucharan Mohapatra worked with Pt Bhubaneswar Misra and they worked out many compositions. Since Pt Balkrishna Das, Pt Bhubaneswar Misra and Raghunath Panigrahi knew both Hindustani and Carnatic styles, many compositions are influenced by the Carnatic style.  For ex: Arabhi Pallavi, Saveri Pallavi etc.  

In classical dance, there must be body, foot positions according to certain grammar. Odissi is different from Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam since body positions come from Shilpasastra. Gotipua elements have been incorporated in Odissi but the movements are more refined. Madhavi demonstrated a bit of Arabhi Pallavi to show visualisation of  patterns with the music, and a demo on how Kelubabu visualized ashtapadis. In the 15th century, Pratap Rudra Deva decreed that only Jayadeva's ashtapadis should be danced at temples. For Maharis and Devadasis, music and dance was one of the means of achieving salvation. Even now every night, appointed Maharis sing an ashtapadi at the Jagannath temple.  

In royal marriages between south and Orissa, Telengana Devadasis were present. Their presence in Jagananth temple could have brought in influences. Scholar VAK Ranga Rao commented that the feet that made Jayadeva write his magnum opus was of a Telugu dancer. Madhavi feels Bharatanatyam was already flourishing, so Odissi could have been influenced by it, but the great gurus used it in such a way as to make it totally Odissi. When revival of the dance form happened, all influences from the south were purposefully removed!