Tradition-Transition-Transformation III
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

October 14, 2010

For the third year in succession, Sailaja and her school Saila Sudha organised two mornings of lec-dems and evening performances titled Tradition-Transition-Transformation on September 18 and 19, at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. Since she herself has a thirst to know about dance forms other than Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi that she is trained in, Sailaja feels this seminar will act as a catalyst in exploring the huge canvas of art and serve as a resourceful forum for those in pursuit of the arts.

The inaugural address was by Minister Dr. S Jagathrakshakan, who has known Sailaja for the past 20 years. He confessed that he was only a rasika and knew nothing of dance. Among hundreds training to be a dancer, only a few really emerge as great artistes because dance, especially Bharatanatyam, is one of the toughest. One should dance such that the dancer should not cry but make the audience cry. "So many foreigners come here to learn our art and culture while our own children hardly take an interest. It is up to us to safeguard our tradition. When you are given the flowers, inhale the fragrance." His fluent quotes from the Thiruppavai and Divya Prabhandam had the audience in stunned admiration!

The presidential address was by mridangam maestro Dr. Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, who referred to the recent article on the Brihadeeswara temple by Dr. Nagaswamy, where he says the education of a king was not complete without learning the texts of music and dance. "I like the title T-T-T. If we cross all three, we reach the fourth T – tranquility. All things old are not great and all new are not bad. People with wisdom take the good from the old and new. The British tried to vanquish us by suppressing our arts. But after the end of colonial rule, our people went all out to serve our culture. Happily, our tradition and culture are still flourishing. Just like jugalbandis between north and south Indian artistes have helped spread the nuances of both music forms, seminars such as this are good for artistes as well as audience. One language, one feeling and one emotion, is the underlying principle."

The first speaker was Bharatanatyam Guru Sudharani Raghupathy, who has been in the field for 6 decades! She said that TTT is a beautiful topic, a very relevant theme today and in future too. Tradition is a vast ocean, a practice handed down to us from time immemorial. Each country has its own tradition regarding habits, society, family, rituals and so on. Tradition in art (dance, music, paintings, murals etc) comes from the oral and aural traditions. The unbroken link is like a thread, with all the beautiful cultures strung together. There is so much technical advancement now. Society accepts what it wants and rejects what it does not want. So, many art forms have gone into oblivion over the past hundreds of years. What is still preserved is what we see today from tradition. She said she belongs to the Tanjore school of dance, has learnt from Kittappa Pillai and each bani has slight differences. In 1955, Mylapore Gowri Amma taught her "Aasai mugam" comprising of a few movements but she herself would demonstrate the same lines for half an hour! "Whose aasai mugam? I saw her and learnt from that. That's tradition handed down! When we pass it on, it becomes transition. Transition has to be gradual, beautiful and accepted by everyone. What they develop out of it becomes transformation." Sudharani gave an enchanting demo of "aasai mugam" to thunderous applause. A short and sweet presentation.

Sudharani Raghupathy
Priya Murle
Since she was feeling none too well, her brief but charming lec-dem was continued by her senior disciple Priya Murle, who spoke about how classical traditional art was born in temples, was banned into near oblivion and then transformed for the modern proscenium. Her focus was on bhakti of different kinds, devotion to the lord, devotion for material gains, selfless devotion, bhakti of Saiva Nayanars and Vaishnava alwars in the south, how the bhakti movement had spread to all parts of India by the 12th to 15th centuries. Accompanied by a live orchestra (Vijayaraghavan on violin, Kannan on mridangam, Srikanth on vocal), the group of 6 dancers including Priya Murle went on to present navavidha bhakti: sravana bhakti, keertanam – singing of the Lord's glory, smaranam – remembrance of the Lord at all times, paada sevai –to serve at the feet of the Lord, archana – worship to relinquish ego, vandanam – prostrate before the Lord, daasyam – service to the Lord, sakhyam – true friendship with the Lord, and atma nivedanam – surrender to the Lord. Instead of just demonstrating a few of the nine segments, the group presented all segments, making it more of a performance than lec-dem, and exceeding the time limit by a good half hour. Dancers should know how to edit their presentation to keep within the time allotted to them.

The next presenter was Seraikella Chhau Guru Shashadhar Acharya from New Delhi. He learnt his art from 5 gurus and has worked on several research projects that were done with the help of fellowship grants awarded by the Department of Culture, Government of India. Having learnt basically from his father Lingaraj Acharya, he belongs to the fifth generation of artistes. He said, from about 1205AD, the dance has come down to us in all aspects including technique, music, rhythm, costumes and masks. When he was a child, he heard songs from his father. They were in Oriya as they hail from Orissa. He sang an Oriya song, much to the delight of the audience. After independence, the government partitioned the State of Orissa, and some parts went into Bihar and some into West Bengal, where Chhau flourished as Mayurbhanj Chhau and Purulia Chhau.

According to tradition, the first item is a musical interlude where the artistes pray to god through instruments as demonstrated by the musicians. There is Chhau before akhada, after akhada and now. The repertoire is inspired by nature, mythology and the culture of the region. The 4 sections of Chhau are chaali, ufli, khel and bhangima. It is basically angika abhinaya. The chaalis imitate the gait and movements of birds and animals. The students demonstrated the gait of the elephant, jump of a deer, flight of the crane, peacock, sarpagati (snake movement), prajapati (butterfly) and the walk of Radha. Uflis are jumps and extended leg movements and the boys demonstrated through leg movements, the chores of a housewife from early morning to noon: sweeping the floor, removing small stones from the floor, mixing cow dung with water and spreading on the floor, pounding the rice, removing the husk and so on. Khel is based on defense and attack movements from the martial arts tradition of pharikanda (shield and sword), and the basic techniques remain the same till the present day as demonstrated by two students.

Shashadhar Acharya
His students
The demo of bols that are used to show leg movements, footwork and different sentiments also included how the movement of a male differs from that of a female. Bhangimas are gestures and postures to convey through body language, since the faces are covered by masks. It is used to show items like Ardhanariswara and the popular item 'Ratri,' where just the body movements have to convey the story.

The present day Chhau has derived from the Paika and Gotipua traditions. Rhythm and melody in Seraikella Chhau has come from tradition, Oriya songs being most apt for Chhau. The influence of Hindustani ragas came in the 19th century, when musicians came from West Bengal, and the structure of music changed, so Chhau music became softer. Hindustani ragas are used to enhance the mood of the character and Shashadhar Acharya rendered some lines to teen matra. "We take only what we need for the dance. Other dances have slow, medium and fast. We move gradually from slow to fast. Swara and dance are not separate." Chhau used to be performed in wide open spaces, but now, apart from the annual Chaitra Parba festival, it's the proscenium, so the number of musicians had to be cut down. Previously, lots of folk instruments were used, but now, the instruments used are lesser and include nagada (a huge kettle drum), dhol (a cylindrical drum), dhimsa, bamboo flute and shehnai. Acharya feels all students should learn to play the dhol, only then can they understand the rhythm. It is easier to perform 2 hours of another dance form but to perform even half an hour of Chhau needs lots of stamina as it's a physically demanding dance form. "Women have started learning nowadays. Movements for men and women are same. My female students are strong because they have to imitate me. You need to have strong legs. When you wear the mask, the body has to speak. You have to control your breath as breath controls the movements. Purulia Chhau is more acrobatic but Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau are more towards strong traditions. Some ask if Chhau is a folk dance or classical. If the art form is still alive from the 1200s, it is tradition. We are continuing and it should continue. 15 years ago, only 2 or 3 families were practicing Chhau. Now it is good to see so many perform in India and abroad. I am grateful to Sangeet Natak Akademi for supporting Chhau for the past 18 years, which is why it is still surviving. There are about 80 students now. Tradition is that the student should be with you, so they can observe everything about you and preserve the tradition." After a few years of training, he would like his students to go out and perform, so he can take others in their place and train them! The students who assisted in the demo were Sushant Maharana, Omprakash Solanki, Phulkit Gupta and Govind Mahato. The accompanying orchestra had Sapan Acharya on dhol, Vikas Babu on the mellifluous shennai and Sitheswar Doraga on nagada.

By the time we returned home after the morning session, it was way past lunch time and closer to tea time! In less than 2 hours, we had to be back at the venue for the evening performances. There were 3 performances. Usha Kiran, a disciple of Swapnasundari, presented a neat recital of Vilasini Natyam, with Anupama Kylash on the nattuvangam, Sudharani on vocal, Sridar Acharya on mridangam and Ayappa on violin. The items included the invocatory number Vigna vinashakara Vinayaka and a javali Vagaladi bodhanalaku.

Usha Kiran
This was followed by a scintillating Seraikella Chhau performance by Shashadhar Acharya and his troupe, supported by the excellent orchestra, the haunting notes of the shehnai and flute mixing with the strong bols and thundering drums. Starting with the invocatory music tribute to mark the beginning of a Seraikella Chhau performance, 'Ratri' based on the Ratri Suktam from the Rig Veda, featured the Guru as Ratri; he had explained during the morning lec-dem that the moon is the child and the night is the mother! After this piece, he joined the orchestra. Satish Kumar performed 'Sagar,' and Omprakash and Susanta presented 'Radha-Krishna.' In 'Nabik,' the boatman and his wife journey across to the other side. The beauty of the stately swan shone in 'Hamsa' and the finale was 'Garuda Basuki.' It was nice to see the vivacious performance with beautiful masks, attractive costumes and accessories, since in Chennai, we get to see a Chhau performance maybe once a year!

The third was a Kuchipudi performance by Sailaja. Even Kuchipudi programs are a rarity in Chennai with ultra concentration on Bharatanatyam! Clad in a pleasing light pink sari, Sailaja presented "Sri Vigna Rajam Bhaje (Gambira Nattai – Kandachapu, Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiya), Tarangam (Ragamalika – Adi, Narayana Teertha) that included dancing on the brass plate, an Annamacharya keertanai in ragam Aberi, and Mahishasuramardini (Revathi – Adi, Adi Sankaracharya). She was accompanied by Veeraraghavan on vocal, Srilatha on nattuvangam, Venkatasubramaniam on violin, Sakthivel on mridangam and PV Ramana on flute.

The second morning had three speakers, who all stuck to their time limit. Odissi dancer Aruna Mohanty from Bhubaneswar started with a vandanam to Lord Jagannath. Odissi is one of the earliest forms of dance as seen in the sculpture at Rani Gumpa dating to 2nd c BC and there is also evidence in historical monuments before 6th c AD. It is rooted in rituals and tradition. When the Puri Jagannath temple was built in 10th c by Anantavarman Chodaganga, there were 36 categories to serve the lord, one being the devadasi tradition. The Abhinaya Chandrika by Maheshvara Mahapatra is a detailed study of the various movements of Odissi and the dance repertoire. The Shilpaprakasa are illustrated manuscripts on Orissa architecture and sculpture, figures of dancers, poses of salabhanjikas and alasa kanyas carved on temple walls. These have inspired dance over the years. In the Jagannath temple, Maharis danced as part of the ritualistic services to the lord. Maharis flourished in the 13th c and they were highly respected. But there was a decline and by the 18th c, the Maharis were completely banned.

Dance gurus and scholars reconstructed Odissi in the 1940s with the help of palm leaf manuscripts, paintings, poetry and dance sculptures in temples like the Nata Mandapa at Konark and Raja Rani temple in Bhubaneswar, which were a rich source of information and inspiration. The Mahari dance tradition was highly expressive as it served a devotional purpose. She would sing for example, when the lord was on a swing. In devotional songs, the dancer praises the lord, his looks or accomplishments in a small 4' by 4' space available in the temple. Maharis danced to Odissi music and most of the traditional songs were in 7 beats or 4. After their decline, Maharis were replaced by Gotipuas to sustain the dance tradition. Boys aged between 7 to 10 were trained and dressed as girls to perform. This style was highly body intensive and entailed daily oil massages and vigorous exercises. It was less expressive than the Mahari style. The focus was more on movement since the boys were young. Maharis danced in front of the Lord, but Gotipuas accompanied the Lord in procession. Since they had to cover space, more footwork had to be used. That's when pure dance came into being and we owe the pure dance structure to Gotipua. Style and music of Odissi is a mix of northern and southern music traditions.

Aruna Mohanty
Ramesh Chandra Jena
"People say Odissi is soft, lyrical and sensuous but it needs balance, stamina and is difficult to perform." Stances of chauka and tribhanga were demonstrated, on the basis of which the entire structure of Odissi has been created. The grace of Odissi depends on the torso movements. Karanas have been taken from the Natya Shastra, nritta and nritya from the sculptures on the temple walls. Some slides of dance sculpture were screened.

The Odissi repertoire includes mangalacharan, pushpanjali, batu that has a rhythmic percussion structure challenging the dancer with different variations. Pallavi is also pure dance but is based more on music. Next is abhinaya and mokshya. "I have worked with 3 of the founding gurus – Deba Prasad Das, Pankaj Charan Das and Kelucharan Mohapatra. Das was the son of a Mahari but he was associated with Orissa theatre and his statements are dramatic. His group compositions are awesome! Kelucharan Mohaptra was a Gotipua dancer, dressed as a female and did Radha and Lalitha roles, rasa based on the Geeta Govinda. He was passionate about bhava and his abhinaya is very centric. The art of Deba Prasad Das originated from tribal dance and music and shows vigour and aggressive movements." Odissi movements were also influenced by allied dance forms like Chhau. Aruna demonstrated the peacock's movements and the pulling of the chariot during rath yatra choreographed by Kelucharan Mohapatra and Pankaj Charan Das, a piece in sankirtan played in mridanga and not pakhawaj that Pankaj Charan Das used in madhurashtaka.

In the 1980s, gurus reinterpreted the texts after which the dance has been re-researched and reworked to its present form. When some school children asked her why the theme should always be mythological, Aruna told them that dance is an art form that can relate to anything. Orissa has rich cultural forms like Pala, so you can incorporate text by different poets. She presented an excerpt she has choreographed on a contemporary issue (not contemporary dance, she pointed out) depicting sorrow and suffering after devastation by cyclones. On the whole, it was a good presentation. She was assisted by Ramesh Chandra Jena. The orchestra had Vijay Kumar Barik on mardala, Rupak Kumar Parida on vocal, Jawahar Misra on flute and Agnimitra on violin.

Musicologist SAK Durga analyzed the music in Bharatanatyam in a musicological and socio-cultural perspective. Every tradition has a transition and without transition there can be no transformation. Change is inevitable. But the music of Bharatanatyam has not changed much. The term Bharatanatyam itself has come after transformation. We cannot separate music and dance (BN or 'Sadir' as it was called then). Almost all arts originated in temples. In temple rituals, there was geetam-vadyam-nrityam. The temple tradition changed into a court tradition. In temples, it was ritualistic music, whereas in the court tradition, the composers used sringara bhava. Folk dance uses folk music. Devotional or classical dance uses Carnatic music.

Music, dance and instrumental music go together. Dance of any kind has an orchestra and orchestral music was always there for Bharatanatyam. Earlier, voice, mukhaveena and clarinet were used and the nattuvanar used to move along with the dancer during the performance. There was more nritta than abhinaya. Music enhances and highlights the dance more. Nowadays we have the violin and veena for a Bharatanatyam performance. This is a transformation. During the Nayak period, Telugu compositions were in vogue. Bharatanatyam music was structured by the Tanjore Quartet. We have alarippu, compositions with solfa for nritta aspects and compositions for abhinaya aspects. Durga sang a jatiswaram, a composition of Ponniah Pillai, where there are no jatis but only solfa composition for which nritta is performed. No vivadi raga has been used in Bharatanatyam compositions, only bhava ragas and rakti ragas. Jatiswaram is meant to start with a verve, with energetic footwork. The second part of a Bharatanatyam recital has compositions for abhinaya and we come back to nritta with the Thillana.

In south India, we have musical forms meant specially for dance, and those specially for music. Music has thanavarnam, with more swara than sahitya. Padavarnam that gives scope for nritta as well as abhinaya has solfa, swara and sahitya. The padavarnam, padam and javali are in rakti ragas, full of bhava. In the transition phase, after the 1950s, thanavarnams replaced padavarnams. One reason is it is difficult for young children to show expressions throughout a composition. So, more of nritta is suitable for them.

The second half of a performance starts with an abhinaya centric piece, like a Kshetrayya padam done in a slow to medium tempo. She illustrated this by singing "payyada…" Sringara rasa used to be called the raja rasa and was performed in court. The sringara rasa of Kshetrayya was addressed to Muvva Gopala. But in present times, Kshetrayya padams are not performed by many dancers and in its place, songs of Thyagaraja or padams with philosophical content are more in use now. The javali is performed in medium tempo and light ragas are used. In Hindustani music, we have the thumri and dadra. These were sung those days for music as well as dance concerts. The musician has to learn to repeat lines – neraval – and repetition makes for boredom, so there has to be a creative part. In the thillana, you start with tempo, end with tempo, using jathi and solfa. There are thillanas for music and thillanas for dance. There are more theermanams in music thillanas, though modern composers don't use it much. Thillanas that have mohara pattern at the end are more suitable for dance. Codification for dance has not changed. Minor transition and transformation has gone into the music for Bharatanatyam. "The transition did not bother, so the transformation is fine," said SAK Durga at the end of her enlightening lecture, interspersed with beautiful vocal renderings to illustrate her points.

SAK Durga
Lakshmi Ramaswamy
The third presenter was Prof. S Raghuraman, who gave an informative lecture on music and lyrics in dance. He is described as a friend of BN dancers, open to guide any dancer on especially lyrics and research pertaining to Sangam era. In ancient Tamil literature, the original name for dance is koothu. Koothu is the dance where you express happiness. To express victory as in war dance, it is called 'Aattam.' The four sections of literature are those belonging to Sangam age (600 BC to 2nd c AD), Medieval (5th to 14th c AD), Bhakti and Modern. Language evolved from nature. Likewise, dance also evolved from nature. Sorrow or happiness was expressed through dance.

In ancient Sangam literature, the Tamil landscape was classified into five categories or thinais, based on the mood, season and the land. The different types of dance are described as kurinji (mountainous regions) - union, mullai (forests)-longing, neidhal (seashore)-lament, paalai (wasteland)-separation, marudham (agricultural lands)-fight between hero and heroine. Each of these thinai had an associated deity such as Mayavan, Velavan, etc. People sang in praise of the lord (Thirumal), sang in prayer to help with problems and so on. Vethiyal refers to classical dance in king's court for the elite, and poduviyal is dance for the common people. In Silappadikaram (5th c epic by Ilango Adigal), Madhavi performed her arangetram, once in court and once for the common people. It mentions Surya Kauthuvam that is performed in the morning and Nila Kauthuvam that is performed in the evening. Madhavi is said to have performed Nila Kauthuvam in her public performance. The lyrics for Nila Kauthuvam are given by Adiyarkunallar, a 12th century commentator on the epic.

During the bhakti movement that started after 4th c, many songs were composed. Kalambakam is a type of literature in praise of the lord. Depending on ragas, lyrics can take on a different dimension for the same lyrics. Khamas could depict internalized feeling while Anandabhairavi could be used to describe one's feelings to others. In madakku, the same phrase will be used again and again. When it is continuous, it could describe nature, but a break in sentence could change the meaning and instead describe a heroine's feeling for the hero! That means, for the same lyrics, there would be a literal meaning, but words split in different ways could give an entirely different meaning. Different ragas would be used accordingly. "Tradition is like the root of a tree. Transition is its branches and transformation is the flower," concluded Dr. Raghuraman. Dance demonstrations were aptly by Lakshmi Ramaswamy, who is involved with research on ancient Tamil works, and her students. The orchestra comprised of Vanathy Raghuraman on vocal, Lakshmi Ramaswamy on nattuvangam, Mayavaram J Shankar on mridangam.

From left: Ganesan, Nagarajan, Shashadhar Acharya, Rajkumar Barathi, Prof S Raghuraman,
SAK Durga, Sudharani Raghupathy, Seeta Ratnakar, Aruna Mohanty, Sailaja
The first part of the evening was devoted to honoring eminent personalities for their contribution to the arts: Shashadhar Acharya (Chhau), Aruna Mohanty (Odissi), SAK Durga (musicologist), Prof S Raghuraman (musicologist), Leela Samson (Bharatanatyam), Sudharani Raghupathy (Bharatanatyam), Anusuya Devi (folk music), Rajkumar Barathi (music composer), Ganesan (tambura) and Nagarajan (stage décor for Manohar dramas).

The evening performance started with a solo Odissi presentation by Aruna Mohanty. She performed Mangalacharan on Durga, Ragashri Pallavi composed by Ramhari Das and choreographed by Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, Pashyati dishi dishi, an item based on navarasa where each rasa was conveyed through an episode from the Ramayana, composed by Balchandra Pant and choreographed by Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. The beautiful music and elegant dance was much appreciated by the audience, especially the navarasa item. But I did wonder why Aruna changed costume in the one hour recital!

Aruna Mohanty
The finale of the fest was a group performance by the staff and senior students of Kalakshetra. It was done in a margam format and was full of energy and verve. The items included "Ananda nadamidum paadham" describing the ananda thandavam of Shiva at Chidambaram, the padam "Theliviyalum Mukham" sung soulfully by Hariprasad, and Kaliya nartanam.

Roja Kannan as Master of Ceremonies was an asset to the festival. The stage had too many banners and gave a cluttered look. Less can still convey the message and look aesthetic too! While the evening performances were well attended, the same could not be said of the morning sessions. The dancers of Chennai as well as most of Sailaja's own students were conspicuous by their absence. The dancers and scholars do all the hard work, research and compile an informative lecture with demos and all we have to do is sit back and soak in the knowledge handed to us. I have surprised my friends many a time, by coming up with some snippet of knowledge that I have gathered at these lec-dems. One never knows when all this will come in useful, even for the general audience!

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of