Natya Kala Conference 2010
Dec 26: Bharatanatyam
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
Photo courtesy:

December 30, 2010

The 30th Natya Kala Conference on Abhyasa Sampradayam got off to a flying start with a large audience, indeed a sight for sore eyes. For Shanta Dhananjayan, convening the conference is a milestone in her life, and her main aim is to bring back the focus on natya as she feels some conferences tend to deviate away from natya in the name of innovation. After a brief welcome address by her, the stage was handed over to the first presenter Leela Samson, the director of Kalakshetra, who along with her students took the audience through the teaching methodology in Kalakshetra, how the format evolved and how art is more important than the bani itself.

Kalakshetra was the first to teach Abhinaya Darpanam. Since gurus Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Muthukumara Pillai were the first gurus to teach there, the Kalakshetra style is often referred to as Kalakshetra / Pandanallur style. Rukmini Devi's first guru was Meenakshisundaram Pillai. She worked on the movements she had learnt by refining and streamlining them. The insistence on every akshara being perfect, the placement of shoulders, hands and legs, breath, everything plays an important role in training in Kalakshetra. Rukmini Devi brought precision to every movement. She respected the body and every creation of the body and believed in adakkam, propriety.

"Rukmini Devi renewed, changed, added, composed and created movements till then not seen on the stage in such dimension, so that today the young dancer has a vocabulary far richer than her predecessor, the guidelines of a system of learning, and an awareness of the extent, scope and challenge of Bharatanatyam, far greater than seventy years ago."

After learning the regular Sadir repertoire from her Gurus, Rukmini Devi modified them in her own aesthetic conception. She eliminated certain unwanted elements which she might have thought are not suitable for a proscenium stage or general uninitiated audience. So whatever she learned from the old masters did not form the basic syllabus for Kalakshetra repertoire. Rukmini Devi composed certain Bhakti oriented songs, eschewed some of the colloquial Tamizh lyrics with mundane superficial meaning. Even though she learned and performed those for the sake of her masters and intellectual connoisseurs, she did not encourage young minds to learn that repertoire, but the beautiful and simple Nritta compositions of old masters are still a part of Kalakshetra basic syllabus. One of the earliest compositions "ananda natana prakasam" by Muthusamy Dikshitar shows the simplicity and gravity that exists in these old compositions and the beauty of adavus is shown without any fuss. Rukmini Devi's abhinaya teacher Mylapore Gowri Ammal was invited to teach at Kalakshetra. Excerpts of a padam and a thillana in praise of Rukmini Devi composed by Veenai Krishnamachariar were demonstrated.

Rukmini Devi created kuravanji, upakyana, charitra and kavya natakams. She choreographed in the natya mela tradition because of her reverence for the bhagavata mela tradition. There are several highlights in a dance drama. Just like a soloist has to do a lot of research and give thought to characterization, more research has to be done for individual characters in a dance drama. A sequence may be only for 3 or 4 minutes, but it still requires good, strong dancers and hence the way they are trained is of paramount importance. While some dancers got to be on stage only because they were part of dance dramas, others did not want to be in dance dramas as they felt it was too competitive and a pressure to work with senior dancers.

Some interesting excerpts were presented by the students. The patra pravesham in Rukmini Kalyanam shows the nayika's love for Krishna in a simple depiction but loaded with laya guna. In an excerpt from Paduka Pattabhishekam composed by Mysore Vasudevachariar, Rukmini Devi used a judicious mix of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali for Rama's movements. In the sethubandanam scene where vanaras build the bridge, for the monkey's movements, Rukmini Devi used jumps that are not part of the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Veterans like Janardhanan, Balagopal and Krishnaveni Lakshman to name a few, also contributed so much in their own way after Rukmini Devi's demise. Rajaram gave so much of his knowledge to Kalakshetra, so too did many musicians outside of Kalakshetra. Leela Samson herself choreographed 'Dasaru kanda Krishna' from the manuscripts given to her by Rajaram, and seven male dancers demonstrated a brisk thillana from that production.

The Kalakshetra archives have a rich collection of folk and tribal songs from all over India. Apart from classical, students were taught to sing and dance these numbers. Rukmini Devi knew that if artistes were not nurtured, these art forms would die out. She wanted to promote not only dance and creativity but to create national integrity. "I believe that if we have served our country, we have served the world."

Theoretical research plays an important part of training in Kalakshetra and is conducted on various aspects related to dance, on Rukmini Devi's life and work, her contributions in choreography and dance dramas. Study of temple architecture, Tamil literature and temple rituals are given importance. Each dancer has to do at least 2 dissertations, and topics chosen include any temple, a drama of Rukmini Devi, her costumes, choice of music etc. Field trips are made to various temple towns with visiting faculty. This new direction to education is good for the growth of art. The writers of the 3 best dissertations of the year presented brief outlines of their research. This was a welcome inclusion and showed how much thought and work had gone into their theses. Aparna S spoke on the healing properties of hastas and mudras. Nritya Seshadri spoke on the history and evolution of the performance tradition of transgenders in India. Katyana was eloquent on the history of dance in connection with Nataraja.

The excellent orchestra comprised of Saishanker and Hariprasad on vocal, Srinivasan on violin, Sashidar on flute, Anil Kumar on mridangam, Jyolsna Menon on nattuvangam and Anantharaman on veena. For the alumni of Kalaskhetra present in the audience, the morning program was a walk down memory lane and one could hear them reminisce outside happily!