The dramatics of the Dhananjayans 
- A Seshan, Mumbai  
Photos: Bikash Dutta 

December 8, 2009 

The Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha, Mumbai, conducted a four-day dance festival from November 13 through 16, 2009. The third and fourth days of the festival saw V P Dhananjayan's Bharata Kalanjali present an interesting and mixed fare, some of which belonged to the traditional repertoire of a Bharatanatyam programme. It was a healthy amalgam of Margam and thematic dancing of modern times. The performance on November 15 commenced with "Vande Mataram" of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee as an obeisance to Mother India, probably as a substitute for Pushpanjali, and ended with a vigorous tillana. The second item was the Nritta Swaravali, a composition of TV Gopalakrishnan of 1978 vintage, which looked deceptively like a contemporary work. In his introductory remarks, Dhananjayan emphasised the three-fold aspects viz., physical, mental and spiritual, of the classical natyam. The item saw many interesting adavus, utplavanas, sarukkal, etc., with side glances (sacchi drishti) thrown in for a good measure making it a complete nritta experience for the artistes and the audience alike.  

Nritya Tarangani followed with the singing of "Sankara Srigiri" of Swati Tirunal in Hamsanandi. It was a tribute to Lord Nataraja providing opportunities for showing many of his poses with a dramatic finale complete with the subjugation of Muyalakan. The piece-de-resistance was the episode involving Manthara, Kaikeyi and Dasaratha from Ramayana when the die was cast for crowning Bharata and sending Rama to the forest. It was a masterpiece in angikabhinaya, or the language of mime, as the Westerner would call it. Although there was singing, considerable sections were done in absolute silence with the actors doing their conversation - pleading, rebutting, arguing - through the language of hasta mudras and body movements. Since the story was well known, there was no problem for the spectators to understand and appreciate what was happening on the stage. Shanta (Manthara), Dhananjayan (Dasaratha) and Divya Shivasundar (Kaikeyi) were superb in their roles. What is more, there were meaningful pauses bringing out their importance in tense moments in life. There was an appropriate mix of lokadharmi and natyadharmi in the enactment without any overkill of either. Ramayana was followed by the story of Bhagavatam with the song "En palli kondir ayya" (Mohanam) of Arunachala Kavi as the prefix followed by Bhajamana of Tulsidas. Dhananjayan's mukhajabhinaya in this as well as the earlier one in respect of such emotions as adbhuta was an object lesson for students in the audience on the process of the transformation of bhava into rasa. The programme finished with Nritta Angahara, a garland of nritta movements, which the artistes offered to the audience. It had a tillana of Balamurali (1968) as the base. Though long, the kaleidoscopic patterns woven with seven dancers were such as to grip the attention of viewers. The audience must have felt happy with a Sunday evening well spent as the entire team of dancers and the supporting orchestra exhibited high standards associated with Bharata Kalanjali with more than four decades of experience in the field.  

Sakti Prabhavam and Bhakti Pravaham  

Bharata Kalanjali's second day offer of Sakti Prabhavam and Bhakti Pravaham was eagerly looked forward to, particularly for the latter featuring the story of Nandanar, the untouchable, whose story has been immortalised by Gopalakrishna Bharati. Sakti Prabhavam celebrated the female energy, as symbolised by Sakti, and incorporated dances representing the five elements of nature, viz., earth, air, water, fire and ether. Bharatiyar's song on Sakthi provided the background. Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati were represented appropriately. The choreography was imaginative with a group of dancers surrounding one of the goddesses who was replaced by the other seamlessly almost unnoticed by the audience. Dhananjayan had a surprise announcement for the rasikas. Instead of the coffee break, he offered to do a piece with his wife. The audience endorsed the idea. He was already dressed like a Saivite in preparation for the subsequent item on Nandanar. He apologised to the audience for playing the role of Madhava (Vishnu) in a Saivite dress as there was no time for a change of costume since the decision to do Radha Madhavam was taken on the spur of the moment. It was an extract from Gita Govinda dealing with the bickering that Radha had with Krishna and how the latter settled the matter cleverly. In his introductory remarks, Dhananjayan referred to the Radhas and Madhavas in the audience and how they faced similar situations in their lives! It was a novel attempt at delineating an age-old story. After successfully cajoling Radha into forgiving him, Madhava exited the stage with her. While so doing, he looked over his shoulder at the audience and flashed an impish smile and a nod of the head that said "I have done it!" This mirthful gesture was appreciated by the audience.  

Dhananjayan's rendition of Nandanar, based on Gopalakrishna Bharati's opera, reminded one of the fact that the Natya Sastra of Bharata is a treatise on dramaturgy with nritta and nritya combining to make natya. The dramatic aspect was predominant with appropriate incorporation of the other two elements. In the West, there were two movements in the approach to drama in the last century and they were characterised by diametrically opposite views on the histrionics of actors. I have dealt with this subject in great detail elsewhere. ("Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi", Nartanam, Vol IV, No. 1, January-March 2004). The observations therein are extracted here.  

In the early years of the 20th century there was in the USA, a theatre movement for realism in the portrayal of characters. It was started by Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), a well-known Russian actor, director and producer. It was called "The Stanislavsky Method" or simply "The Method." He said: "…. let us learn once and for all that the word 'action' is not the same as 'miming'; it is not anything the actor is pretending to present, not something external, but rather something internal, non-physical, a spiritual activity... There is only one thing that can lure our creative will and draw it to us and that is an attractive aim, a creative objective… The best creative objective is the unconscious one which, immediately, emotionally, takes possession of an actor's feelings, and carries him intuitively along to the basic goal of the play. The power of this type of objective lies in its immediacy (the Hindus call such objectives the highest kind of superconsciousness), which acts as a magnet to creative will and arouses irresistible aspirations" (Twentieth Century Theatre - A Source Book, Edited by Richard Drain). Basically the technique requires the actor to live his part in order to be realistic. He is asked to look into himself to find the basis for emoting on the stage - a process of internalisation. To produce the maximum impact on the spectators, they should be made to believe that the actor really feels the emotions he is displaying. Although all this appears to be commonplace now, it was revolutionary at the time Stanislavsky said it because the prevailing idea in USA then was that actors and actresses should mimic characters in a play effectively to be successful. Stanislavsky had great following among Directors like Elia Kazan, Robert Louis and Lee Strasberg. The Actors Studio in New York, founded in 1947 by Kazan and his colleagues and headed by Strasberg from 1948 to 1982, produced such eminent actors as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and Robert DeNiro. The Method gained popularity especially after Brandon's memorable performance in the film A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Kazan, which won many awards.  

Another equally powerful movement inspired by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German dramatist and theatre director, espoused a different idea. His purpose was "to persuade the audience to forego the usual theatrical pleasure of empathy with the protagonists; and to enjoy instead an all-round view of them, seeing their interaction from new angles and relishing ironies. In this way, the audience is enlisted as engaged critical observer rather than as the object of emotional or spectacular bombardment…. The message implicit in it for his audience is the message he gave his actors: don't get carried away." (Ibid.) Two keys to the technique are the notion of "theatricalism" and the concept of the "distancing" or "alienation" effect. The first, theatricalism, simply means members of the audience being made aware that they are in a theatre watching a play. Brecht believed that seducing the audience into believing they were watching "real life" led to an uncritical acceptance of society's values. He was a Marxist with leftist leanings and wanted to reform society through theatre, exposing the iniquities of the time in terms of social injustice. The second key to his theatre was the "distancing" or "alienation" effect in acting style with the same goal as the first one. He wanted actors to strike a balance between "being" their character onstage and "showing the audience that the character is being performed."  

The Method in Indian Dance  
Centuries before Stanislavsky, Indian classical dances had developed the concept of bhava and navarasa. As stated earlier, Stanislavsky himself referred to the "superconsciousness of the Hindus" in the context of his technique. Chapter 27 of Natya Sastra deals elaborately with the requirements of a successful drama. (Natya Siddhi). One is the convincing portrayal of the characters by the dramatis personae. Texts on Indian classical dance make a distinction between stayibhava (psychological state) and rasa (sentiment). The former is experienced by the dancer and communicated to the spectator who realises the latter. For every stayibhava there is a corresponding rasa. For example, for shoka (sadness) there is karuna (pathos). Critics, particularly those from the West, wrongly refer to abhinayam as miming. If it is so, it is the fault of the dancer, not of the concept. We have heard of how the actor playing the role of Lord Narasimha in the drama on Prahalada in Melattur Bhagavata Mela had to be physically restrained by others when he really got into the act and wanted to tear off the entrails of the person playing the role of Hiranyakashipu. It was realism at its most dangerous best.  

The somewhat extended discussion of the theoretical approaches to drama has been done with a view to keeping Dhananjayan's performance as Nandanar in proper perspective. He literally lived the role. One even wondered whether he was born as a dancer to play that role. This is no exaggeration. Through a good mix of lokadharmi and natyadharmi, he captured the spirit of the times he was portraying. All the humility and the obsequiousness that he displayed as one belonging to the lowest step in the caste ladder were reflecting the ethos of the distant past. That this master of mukhajabhinaya successfully carried his role was evident from the tremendous applause received spontaneously from the audience when the high-caste Brahmin touched his feet and embraced him after realising what a great Siva bhakta he was - a successful transmission of the bhava of the two actors to the rasa of the spectators. One literally lived those days.  

The mukhajabhinaya and body language of Dhananjayan carried a strong accent of Kathakali. It was natural given the fact that he has had formal training in Kathakali besides in Bharatanatyam. He being a Keralite, it is second nature to him. There is nothing wrong about it as it was seamless and merged beautifully with the rest of the Bharatanatyam format. Seeing Nandanar, one saw the importance of the study of body language, or, Kinesics, as it is called in the West, which was pioneered by Rudolf von Laban, the Hungarian choreographer and dance teacher, in 1926. Long before Laban, one of the schools of Kathakali, viz., Kalluvazhi Chitta, emphasised the elements of cuzhippu - the coordinated movements of hands, eyes and body by which the entire structure of dance became more beautiful. Rukmini Devi had an eclectic approach to music and dance and had an in-house Kathakali master at Kalakshetra, of which the Dhananjayans are the alumni. For example, she introduced Kalaripayattu, a martial art of Kerala, in Meenakshi Kalyanam at a time when no one talked about fusion in Indian classical dance. The story of Nandanar, enacted by Dhananjayan, with emphasis on gestural language had a strong Kathakali touch. An authoritative text on Kathakali says: "While the dialogue is being rendered by the vocalist singing the text, the actor interprets each word through hand gestures, body movement and facial expressions. The vocalist repeats the line for completing the hand gestures. There are dialogues without vocal music between the characters. In some scenes, there is only angikabhinaya or body movement without vocal support for hours, in a traditional performance. Here the actor has ample scope to lend wings to his imagination and elaborate the text." (Kathakali, S Balakrishnan, Wisdom Tree). In fact, as a long-standing rasika, and not as a choreologist, I would like to define the Kalakshetra style as follows.  

Pandanallur style + Elements of Kerala dances - erotic rati sringara of Sadir = Kalakshetra style  

This is, of course, debatable.  

The drama ended with "Kanakasabhai tiru natanam" in Surati probably because it is a mangala or auspicious raga appropriate for rounding off a concert. However, I would have loved to see and hear the Abhogi kriti "Sabhapatikku veru deivam samanamakuma?" ("Is there any other god equal to Sabhapati?"). In the charanam of this song by Gopalakrishna Bharati, there is a reference to "Ariya pulaiyar moovar" ("The rare threesome of pulaiyars or dalits"). According to U V Swaminatha Iyer's biography of Bharati, the threesome are Tillaivettiyan, Petran Sambhan and Nandan Sambhan - or Nandanar (Sangeeta Mummanikal, Mahamahopadhyaya U V Swaminatha Iyer Library). Abhogi is preferred by musicians to be sung early in their concerts to impart tempo, not at the end, but there are always exceptions to rules. There is a story associated with the kriti under reference. When Bharati visited Tyagaraja, his disciples were singing his Abhogi composition "Sri Ramaseeta alankara swarupa." Tyagaraja asked the visitor whether he had composed any kriti in that raga. Bharati said "no." Overnight he composed "Sabhapatikku" and sang it before him on the next day. Tyagaraja appreciated his musical acumen. (Ibid.) Thanks to him, we know about Nandanar. But there is little known about the other two Siva bhaktas 

Gopu Kiran was the ideal choice for the role of the Brahmin (Vediyar). He looked and essayed his part very well with his costume, demeanour and haughty looks and behaviour towards Nandanar. M Venkatakrishnan wowed the audience with his sculpture-like stance without any movement or tremors in his body for quite some time when he played the role of the Nataraja idol in one of his nartana poses during the song "Vazhi maraittirukkude." It was an endurance test that he passed with distinction!  

As on the previous day, the orchestral support contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the programme. Shanta Dhananjayan wielded the cymbals with élan. Dhananjayan was gracious enough to mention the good support received from, among others, Raghu, the in-house tambura vidwan and staff member of the Sabha. The two-day programme of Bharata Kalanjali was yet another illustration of the success of synergy - the total effect being more than the sum of the individual ones due to excellent teamwork. Dhananjayan, a septuagenarian, and his wife are in trim shape physically and are role models for youngsters. One wishes them many more years of outstanding contributions to the world of art and culture. 

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.