Performance par excellence 
- A Seshan, Mumbai 
Photo: NCPA archives 

March 8, 2010 

The last few months have seen substantial and welcome changes in the designing of programmes at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. In addition, its monthly guide ("On Stage") has evolved into a collector's item for lovers of music and dance instead of being a mere listing of programmes to be thrown away after the month. One hopes it will get another editor as imaginative and innovative as Farzana Contractor, who has left the desk. It contains many interesting articles and interviews with artistes like The Listener of BBC, which I used to see a half century ago. The results are visible. The auditoria of different sizes are getting filled up soon after the box office opens. More importantly for dance lovers, the bigger auditoria, viz., the Tata Theatre (1000 seats) and Jamshed Bhabha Theatre (1100 seats) are now the venues for classical Indian dances. To this resurgence in audience interest the heads of the music and dance sections, viz.,  Suvarnalata Rao and Arundhathi Subramanian, respectively, have contributed significantly under the inspiring and responsive leadership of the Chairman Khushroo N Suntook.  

A novel attempt and the first of its kind in Mumbai was the programme entitled 'Brindavani Venu: The Magic Flute' held in the Experimental Theatre (300 seats) on February 26. Its novelty was the song-and-dance combo featuring two outstanding artistes of Carnatic Music (CM) and Bharatanatyam (BN). Of course, we had seen Alarmel Valli accompanied by Savita Narasimhan as the vocalist earlier on September 16, 2009.  That programme based on javalis and padams was the idea of the dancer and was a great success. But there was no separate concert of the musician. There was yet another instance of leading musicians singing for dancers. On October 19, 2009, Gundecha Brothers (Umakant and Ramakant), the doyens of the Dhrupad tradition, provided vocal support to Shahji John and Tishani Doshi in a programme entitled 'Sharira,' choreographed by the late Chandralekha.  But in the latest case the  designing of  the programme into three parts with the first two  featuring Aruna Sairam, the Carnatic musician, and Priyadarsini Govind, the BN artiste, separately, and the third one bringing them together was conceived by Arundhathi. That the concept captured the rasikas' attention was evident from the board hanging outside the theatre saying "house full." One wondered whether it could have been arranged in the bigger Tata Theatre.    

Aruna Sairam 
Aruna started her concert with a verse from one of the patikams of saint Tirugnana Sambhandar, the youngest vaggeyakara the world has seen, according to Prof P Sambamurthy. If one were to believe it, he composed his first poem  ("Todudaiya Seviyan")  at the age of three spontaneously on being fed milk by goddess Parvati.  The verse sung by Aruna is a tribute to Lord Kapaleeswarar whose temple is situated in Mylapore, Chennai. After a very emotive sloka-like rendering of the verse, she launched "Kapali" in Mohanam, composed by the late Papanasam Sivan, considered to be the Tamil Tyagaraja. What amazed me was that this song, popularised by the late Madurai Mani Iyer, was rendered with several new sangatis that I had not heard before. It was an example of how the manodharma of an artiste  can further refine a kriti. In a duration of 20 minutes she included a long and complex swaraprastara rendered in a fast tempo reminding one of the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer that was appreciated by the cosmopolitan audience including a few Westerners and others who might have come out of curiosity. After the strenuous swara exercise she obviously needed a rest. Hence imaginatively she left it to  J Vaidyanathan (mridangam) and S V Ramani (ghatam) to engage in a simultaneously-performed rhythmic exercise (tani avarthanam) for a few minutes that was full of sparklers of sollus.   

The next song taken up was a kriti of Muthuswami Dikshitar ("Srirangapura Vihara") in Brindavana Saranga and Rupakam, popularised by the late M S Subbulakshmi through an LP record in the 1960s. This too had a Tamil verse "Pachchai mamalai pol" as an overture. It is from a Divya Prabhandam composed by Tondaradippodi Azhwar. He was one of the 12 Vaishnavite saints who were in the vanguard of the Bhakti Movement along with 63 Nayanmars (Saivite saints) that started in the 6th century AD in Tamil Nadu and spread to the North in course of time.  It was appropriate to sing the verse as an introduction because it is in praise of the deity of Srirangam (Ranganatha) in Tamil Nadu to which the Dikshitar kriti is dedicated.  The third item was the abhang "Tirtha Vittala, Kshetra Vittala" of Namdeo, which we used to hear invariably in the concerts of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Her childhood and school days spent in Mumbai and knowledge of Marathi could help her in giving an authentic rendition of the abhang. This part of the programme came to a close with the ever-popular tillana ("Tam Dhim Tarana Tham")  on Kalinga Nartana in Gambhira Nattai and Adi composed by Oothukkadu Venkatasubbier. It is a  unique tillana with a long sahitya besides vocalization at some places requiring a strong memory both for the sahitya and jati portions. She has embellished the song with appropriate pauses at important places. It is noteworthy that she is the only Carnatic musician, as far as this writer knows, who dares to sing this complex  piece. Many years ago Raja and Radha Reddy, the Kuchipudi artistes, danced to this tillana after which it went into oblivion until Aruna resurrected it. Subsequently I remember seeing it imaginatively choreographed as a group dance by Narendra Kumar at the 21st  Natya Kala Conference on December 21, 2001 in Chennai. One felt that the vaggeyakara composed the song for Aruna to sing. Kalinga Nartana is known to be part of the tillana repertoire of Priyadarsini. It would have been a double delight for the rasikas had it been shifted to the third part where both the artistes came together. 

Aruna's open-throated singing and emphasis on akarams and karvais despite the speed are features worth mentioning. She had her initial training with the late Brinda. But in course of time she has absorbed the styles of many maestros, both male and female, and has evolved an eclectic expression that could be called the Aruna bani.  Her brighas, in particular, remind one of  GNB and the torrential taans of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. The singing was absolutely inspired conveying the bhakti bhava to the rasikas. She was well supported by H N Bhaskar (violin), J Vaidyanathan (mridangam) and S V Ramani (ghatam). Bhaskar's alapanas, though brief due to the limitation of time, brought out the essence of the ragas 

She had voice training in Saarbrucken in Germany from a coach in the late 1980s during one of her stays in that country in the course of her professional life. He helped her to understand her voice so she could make it more supple and expressive. When asked in an interview with Arundhathi Subramanian as to the hallmarks of her style, she replied: "The foremost feature is emotion. The second is energy. After that come the technical aspects, I think." All these came out well in the concert. Her breath control, obviously a result of voice training, was remarkable 

At a seminar organised in Mumbai in January by the Sangeet Research Academy (Western Region) of ITC, Kolkata, N Murali, President of the Music Academy, narrated an interesting episode during the recent December music festival in Chennai. Rasikas queued up for booking tickets for Aruna's evening concert at the Academy as early as 4.30am, unheard of even during the golden years of CM in the last century. Since there were many who could not get tickets, the Academy opened its mini concert hall with a capacity for seating 250 persons. It also got filled up in no time. All this augurs well for the future of CM as they indicate how discerning in their tastes the rasikas are. 

Priyadarsini started with a kautuvam in Shanmukhapriya and Adi tala in praise of Lord Muruga extolling his qualities.  Although it was indicated earlier that she would do a varnam she tendered an apology saying that the time available was not adequate for doing justice to it, which should normally take 45 to 60 minutes, to give full satisfaction to the cognoscenti. Instead she presented two items each with a short duration. One was a Jati Laya-oriented piece in Ragamalika (Ranjani, Sriranjani, Valaji and Vasanta that was sung in the reverse order also briefly at the end) and set to Adi. It was a composition of her guru Swamimalai Rajaratnam Pillai. Then followed "Siva Diksha" in Kurinji. It refers to the dilemma of the nayika who is a Saivite by birth but in love with the Vaishnavite god Lord Krishna.  It had both bhakti and rati sringara as sthayi bhavas.  Then came the javali "Samayamide ra ra" in Behag and Rupakam. It was humorous - a characteristic of this genre of music, in contrast to padams.  It portrayed a parakeeya nayika who is unfaithful to her husband and carrying on with another lover in secret. As soon as her husband goes out of the front door in the night she opens the back door and sees her lover standing outside. He is hesitant to enter, probably hit by the guilt complex. She encourages him to come in for dalliance as the time is right ("Samayamide") with the full moon in the sky.  She assures him that though her father-in-law is at home, he is old and won't be able to hear anything going on in the other rooms! This is rati sringara but portrayed in a delicate and chaste manner. Natyadharmi, the hallmark of the Vazhuvur style, prevailed.  There are artistes who do not like such javalis considering them to be vulgar. But purely in terms of artistic and aesthetic expression, there is nothing to object to in this song although there are others of a prurient kind suffering from what I call "the Sarangapani Syndrome" that dancers may well avoid like poison.  

"Madumeikkum Kanne" (Is it not "Kanna"?) in Tamil is a folksy melody portraying child Krishna wanting to go out and mother Yashoda trying to dissuade him by pointing out the dangers lurking outside like animals in the nearby forest. Her real intent is to avoid hearing further complaints from gopis about her son's mischievous activities. Eventually Krishna wins in the battle of wits that was well portrayed by Priyadarsini dashing across the stage to the door before mother changed her mind! This was a song popularised by Aruna in her concerts in the past. The ever-popular tillana of Balamurali Krishna in Kathanakutuhalam with complex jatis was the last item in this segment of the programme executed with neck, eye and foot movements in the classic style. The shimmering golden-hued sari contributed to the total aesthetic effect of aharya throughout the performance. Her introductory remarks  before the items were helpful to the audience to understand the performance.  

Priyadarsini has had the advantage of training in the Vazhuvur style of nritta under Ramaiah Pillai's prime disciple S K Rajaratnam Pillai and in abhinayam under Kalanidhi Narayanan, who occupies in the BN world today, a position adorned by the late Balasaraswati till a few decades ago.  

Priyadarsini said in an interview with Arundhati: "The influence of Kalanidhi-mami's abhinaya is present in whatever I perform. From her I learnt that the poet's instinct is sacred. I learnt that the sthayi or the mood of the piece has to be brought out visually and a single line has limitless possibilities. Vadhyar's (Rajaratnam Pillai's) approach to dance was dreamy, soft, very poetic. Music was his first love and quality music even for everyday classes was something we took for granted." The Vazhuvur training was clear in her statuesque poses. The body lines were clear and there were no jerky movements with each adavu flowing smoothly into the next in a seamless fashion.  Classicism prevailed in the execution of mudras and footwork.  The lasya element is dominant in the bani. The movements are free without any exhibition of tension. The abundance of araimandis is another characteristic. 

I saw Priyadarsini for the first time at a lecture-demonstration at the 21st Natya Kala Conference in Chennai on December 15, 2001 and was impressed by her performance. Then she talked, inter alia, on the importance of eye movements. There is a saying that their absence would mean the dance of a headless body ("Kabandha Nrittam"). As I said in my review then in, her large eyes are fluid enough to convey the emotions without anyone looking at her body movements. This writer saw such beautiful netrabhinaya (abhinaya through eyes), a strong point of Vazhuvur style,  after many years since the time of the legendary Kamala. Incidentally, he was then also struck at the commonality of many basics in the dances of different cultures. For example, the idea that eyes should follow the hand is a cardinal principle in the Hawaiian hula dance also; it is a principle to be followed not only by the dancer but by the audience too! In the latest performance also, Priyadarsini exploited her expressive eyes to convey various rasas.   On the second occasion, she gave a scintillating performance at Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha in Mumbai a few years ago.  I could see from her  presentation at the NCPA, the third I have attended,  how she is growing as an artiste with new ideas without stagnating in the traditional pool and adding new elements of refinement in her charis.   

Orchestral support was of a high standard with Prithi Mahesh (vocal), Balakrishnan (nattuvangam), Shikhamani (violin) and Sakthivel (mridangam) on the side wing. Prithi's mellifluous singing was matched by her full emotional involvement in the sahitya bhava. The violin interludes were good as also the recital of jatis. The mridangist got into the spirit of the concert right from the beginning.  Priyadarsini would do well to keep the orchestra group intact as they work well as a team which has a synergistic effect on the performance.  

Aruna and Priyadarsini 
"Brindavani Venu," an abhang, was based on a composition of Bhanudasa.  It was rendered in Ragamalika (Hamir Kalyani, Dwijavanti and Subhapantuvarali). It was followed by "Sayamkale" in Abheri. According to Priyadarsini, "the sloka describes dusk where all the birds and animals gather around the feet of Krishna. The scene is set in Vrindavan.  The abhang is about the effect of Krishna's footsteps on nature. So listening to the sound of his feet, cattle and tigers forget their enmity and sit side by side." In singing for the dancer Aruna did not make any compromise with her usual style. The brighas and karvais were there which got reflected in Priyadarsini's movements.  It was a good example of the dictum "See the music, hear the dance" propounded by the Balasaraswati school of BN.  

The song  provided scope to the dancer for doing brahmaris and utplavanas. In this and the earlier phase, Priyadarsini showed some variation, sometimes dancing only to violin and sometimes only to mridangam, sustaining the audience interest. The total impact was such that one wondered whether the singer was accompanying the dancer or vice versa! I had the same feeling when the Gundecha Brothers sang for the disciples of Chandralekha, referred to earlier. Such an impact on the audience is to the credit of both the singer and the dancer.  There is a view that singing for a dancer requires a skill different from doing it in a music concert. My impression after this programme is that it is not really so in the case of a veteran musician. In fact the singer, who is a musician per se in his or her own right, has an advantage in that he or she can repeat many lines in the course of sanchari bhavas using different sangatis, which a normal accompanying artiste may not do leading to some monotony. 

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