Rama - A compleat dancer 
- A Seshan, Mumbai  
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com 
Photos courtesy: NCPA 

January 22, 2010 

Rama Vaidyanathan is a name to reckon with in the world of Bharatanatyam (BN). Trained by Yamini Krishnamurti and Saroja Vaidyanathan, though young, she has attained a pre-eminent position in her field by virtue of her artistry and two decades of experience in the profession. She gave a powerful performance at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, on January 14, 2010.  Of particular interest to me was the fact that she was going to do Margam, ignored by many top-notchers in the field. Due to the limited time, she could present only a few items of the traditional repertoire but it was sumptuous enough to satisfy the rasikas. 

She began with a Mayura Alarippu in the evocative Valaji raga set to 5.5 beats. It was a mix of Anjali and Alarippu. The recitation of jatis and the dancing reflected the staccato or jerky movements of the peacock and were imaginatively choreographed. It was allegorical referring to the graces of womanhood.  There was a dramatic static pose of the peacock at the end inviting the approbation of the audience. Then came the massive varnam on Tyagesa of Tiruvarur – Mohamana Enmeedil  in Bhairavi and Rupakam - composed by the Thanjavur Quartette, more specifically Ponniah (1804-1863).  This pada varnam is to BN what Viriboni, the tana varnam in the same raga, is to Carnatic music. It has a unique place in the repertoire of BN dancers so much so a two-day seminar was conducted  in Chennai a few years ago and a Dutch scholar wrote a Ph.D thesis thereon! Old timers would recall that it was one of the favourites of the late Balasaraswati and became popular thanks to her. There has been a controversy on its contents, some purists feeling that it is too explicit in a pornographic sense. It is really not so. I wish such critics take a look at some of the padams and javalis of Kshetragnya and Sarangapani, respectively, or, for that matter,  Jayadeva’s Geet Govind. Then they would find the sringara of Mohamana to be stale! Reading the lyrics, one is amused by such a criticism living in an age when everything is explicit in art! The feelings of the nayika for a union with her Lord are expressed in simple but aesthetic language. In particular, the words in anupallavi, viz., "bhoga tyagesa anubhogam seyya va kitta" has attracted much attention in interpretation.  (It is altogether a different matter that the lyric is pure poison to the alumni and artistes of Kalakshetra!)  

The varnam lasted for about 45 minutes. Rama did full justice to all aspects of the varnam. There was no place for vulgarity. I liked her sancharis at "Modi Seyyalamo" and "Maran Kanaikal." They were sensuous but sedate. Soft utplavanas and subdued sringara marked her rendition. A combo of more than one rasa characterises this piece – virahotkantitha and sringara – both bhakti and rati, in the latter case.  The pose of Vishnu meditating in the sanctum sanctorum on Tyagesa was portrayed to the accompaniment of tanam on flute and  was impressive. One highlight was her occasional dancing to flute and mridangam without the accompaniment of the singer and to swarams only. They all showed how much the traditional format provides scope for the blossoming of manodharma on the part of the artiste within the framework of sastraic injunctions.  Endowed with a mobile face and attractive stage presence she could display quicksilver changes of expressions of the nayika besotted with the Lord of Tiruvarur. The stayibhava was well conveyed. 

Then followed the Swati Tirunal song in Hindi in Kapi and Adi. It told the story of young Krishna telling his mother that he would not go to Yamuna because of his inability to cope with the adoration of the gopis. The vatsalya bhakti bhava of the mother was brought out when she enquired of Krishna as to why he did not want to go to Yamuna. There was a playful mood characterising the rendition. Rama's interpretation of the song was imaginative. She said that it was indicative of Krishna's decision to leave Brindavan once and for all and proceed to Dwaraka. Probably he felt that enough was enough! The last movement of the dancer's exit from the stage portrayed the parting of Krishna from gopis very effectively in a poignant manner.  

"The Lament to Birds" was based on a 3rd century Tamil poem. The artiste portrayed the nayika talking to the cuckoo, the parakeet and other birds about her love for Lord Krishna and trying to send a message to him through them. It was in Ragamalika including Valaji, Kapi and Nattai. I felt that the first two ragas could have been different having been done earlier. This and the other items in the programme provided opportunities for Rama to do talukkus and kulukkus besides statuesque poses. The programme ended with a tillana in Varamu raga and Adi tala. The sahitya contained a tribute to womanhood by Subrahmanya Bharati through the portrayals of Saraswati and Durga. 

The accompanying artistes did an excellent job and contributed in no small measure to the success of the programme. Ramya Sundaresan was mellifluous. In particular, her brief alap in Bhairavi and handling of the varnam testified to her high professional standard in vocal music. Arun Kumar on the mridangam was the right percussionist with his subdued strokes and strict adherence to kalapramana. Sivakumar's recitation of jatis was vibrant. Last, but not least, was the tuneful melodies of the flute player GS Rajan, who had also composed the music. His choice of a long bass flute was appropriate completing the sedate and tranquil picture of the programme. His mimicking of the bird calls was well done.  

How does one assess the performance of a veteran dancer? It should be obvious that with all the practice and experience acquired over the years and especially  being in the prime of youth, he or she would not be faulting on the technical aspects, be it sthanaka, chari, hastakshetra or nritta hasta, the elements that constitute anga suddha and the yardstick by which one measures the standard of adavus. The nattadavu, kudittamettadavu, kitatakatarikitatom, etc., interspersed with abundant araimandis were all done well in the classic manner prescribed in the sastras and were object lessons to BN students in the audience. The conveyance of stayibhava and its resolution into rasanubhava in abhinaya is another successful element in dancers of high calibre. Rama is a compleat dancer in the sense of one who has mastered skills in all the departments of BN.  In this connection, I can cite a statement of the late mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer in referring to great musicians. He said (not exactly quoted) that the test of a great vidwan was that he should present his performance in such a manner that it looks easy to do. In other words, it looks like second nature to the artiste without any strain or special effort so much so the viewer or the listener thinks: "Oh, is this so easy? I can also do it." This is what came to my mind when I saw Rama's performance.  (In fact, I felt like taking to BN after seeing the programme, although it may sound funny and ridiculous at my age!) But we all know the tremendous training, practice and experience that go to make a professional outstanding in his or her field. Right from the word "go" she exhibited a certain feeling of a free or effortless flow of movements with a joie de vivre without any flamboyance. 

The response to the programme once again demonstrated that there is an audience for Margam notwithstanding the contrary statements made by some eminent dancers. The Experimental Theatre was full despite the tickets costing Rs. 200 and Rs. 100. And the viewers sat till the end to cheer the dancer and her orchestra. 

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