Project Shabda
- Deepa Chakravarthy, Chennai

April 15, 2011

Shabda is a project aimed at creating an online archive of Indian Performing Arts. This brainwave project is conceived by T M Krishna, R K Shiramkumar, and H K Ventaram. On the 19th March 2011, the first event of lectures addressing specific topics was conducted at the Rukmini Arangam in Kalakshetra with the speakers being given a 20 minute slot each. The topics and speakers for this event were: Lakshmi Viswanathan (Music in Bharatanatyam), Prof. V V Subramaniam (Interpreting Sangita Bhava on the Violin), Bragha Bessell (Abinaya in a Padam), Guru Karaikudi R Mani (The Aesthetics of Tirsam), S Jayachandran (Architecture and Choreography), and R Vedavalli (Handling of Raga Atana).

Being a dancer means constantly updating oneself and being aware of the changes in the field and at the same time constantly increasing the knowledge base into the auxiliary fields like music and art. So when I came across this event on the net, I was totally excited about attending this. However, 19th March was Panguni Uthram, and I had actually committed myself long back to attending a Perumal Kalyanam and I couldn't skip that either. So, I planned my day such that I first attended the Perumal Thiru Kalyanam and taking off from there directly to Kalakshetra. I especially did not want to miss Bragha Bessell's lec-dem.

Should I be a little delayed, I didn't want to be seated far away in the back rows. So I called my friend to reserve a seat if she landed up earlier than I. It turned out to be a good thing as I did get delayed and my friend got us seats in the second row strategically positioned in the center. I reached the venue at the end of the first segment when Lakshmi Viswanathan was explaining the differences in the tempo of abhinaya sung for a Pada Varnam and a Padam. In the next segment, Prof. V V Subramaniam enthralled the audience with subtle movements in Ragam to show how it can create and add mood to music.

The third segment, abhinaya in a Padam was something that was of real interest to me as a performer trying to explore new avenues in choreography. Bragha Bessell says when dealing with abhinaya, it needs to be categorically divided into three parts lyrics, content and character building. Under lyrics, she advises that it is first important to understand the word to word meaning of the composition. And with that meaning, it is required to explore the interpretations of the poet. Under content, the choreographer needs to comprehend how the lyrics tell a story. And under character development, the choreographer has to analyze both the lyrics and contents together with a keener eye and pick up the subtle pointers that the poet uses in giving shades to the personality of his/her nayika. An example here would be, fixing your nayika to be either an utthama nayika or adama nayika. Moving forward in the choreography, once the understanding and interpretations are done, the first hand gesture of the dancer, she says needs to be in tune with the Padartham translation of the word meaning. Later, it may be repeated many times (depending on the emphasis that one wants to bring out) to add layers to the lyrics with respect to the story that is being told. Here, a simple pointer or technique that can be employed as a choreographer would be to make improvisations of hand gestures from the Padartham. At all times, it is important to keep the mood intact; only then the message can be conveyed to the audience. For the conclusion, she says, before the dancer exits from the stage, it is important to take the audience through the choreography to a certain point of climax by webbing a plot around the central character's mental state of being.

She demonstrated this lecture with the help of a Kshetrayya Padam vada raka pobe in Ragam Khamboji. All in all, every participant attending this event was found to be immersed in each segment as the experts dealt with their concerned topics. If at all interruptions came, it was in the form of TM Krishna who stepped in every now and then to remind the speakers of the time. When Bragha enquired how much time she had left, he promptly replied her time was up, whereas, we in the audience were looking forward to the demonstration of the climax that she had mentioned. A few of us requested TMK to allow Bragha akka to show us the climax, but he was ruthless and allowed her only 30 seconds to demonstrate. She rose to the challenge and in the 30 seconds, created the impact that she had mentioned on how to reach it to the audience. Before leaving the stage, she gave a word of advice from her book of experience; she said to the youngsters, "Do not be afraid or inhibited while performing abhinaya."

Guru Karaikudi Mani involved the audience by asking them to join hands literally by clapping in rhythm, while exploring the Tisra nada. He too found TMK to be a like a guillotine hanging over his head reminding him constantly of time, ironically an integral aspect of rhythm! In the segment on architecture and choreography, S Jayachandran, with the use of rituals, practices, symbolism and iconography, very beautifully explained how architecture and choreography go hand in hand. The minute facts and larger details were presented systematically to precision. I am actually looking forward to the release of the archive particularly for this segment as there was so much told in coherence and harmony in such little time.

After such a wonderful presentation by Jayachandran, it definitely required somebody with great knowledge and respect to conclude the event, and it couldn't have been by any other person than the musicologist R Vedavalli. Needless to say, she dwelt deep into the origin of the raga and how different it has evolved in its presentation nowadays.

Absorbed in thoughts by the presentations made by each speaker, I felt that perhaps half hour time slot for each of those maestros was very little. Considering that it was just a beginning, I made a suggestion to perhaps make it as a two-day activity should they consider including same number of speakers for the future. For this, TM Krishna responded by saying, "No, we plan to keep every segment to remain for 20-25 minutes with a purpose to try and remain centered on the subject in the given time limit. In fact, as a feedback, every speaker conveyed that it really gave them a way to remain focused and deliver only the topic content." He added, although there is always a lot that can be said for which even two days will not be enough, in order to get the essence he felt that the time given was just right and further inquiry is a process for every individual who wishes to seek.

Deepa Chakravarthy is a Mohiniattam dancer and a disciple of Gopika Varma.