Tamrapatra Session 7
(Expert Comments by Performer-Educator Chitra Sundaram)
January 24, 2022
Dates: 8 & 9 January 2022
Choreographer: Geeta Chandran
Annamayya composition: Sarasuda... in ragam Lalita
Summary Comments by Chitra Sundaram
[From transcript of session - edited by CS for readability and supplied with additional notes by her in footnotes.]
A bouquet of kudos to Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant and Dr Anupama Kylash for devising this unusual series. Unusual because it showcases with a mindful pedagogy that is focused both on artistic process and its transmission - which latter is usually ignored, like an unglamorous cousin. Their research, rigour, generosity, inclusivity, direction and infectious enthusiasm have resulted in celebrated artists like Geeta Chandran, showing up as they have done, putting in thought and work, and giving of their artistry with an incredible honesty and magnanimity - and immense trust. To top it, I sense much hope for, and from the disciples of dance enrolled and attending. So I will be making my remarks with that in mind.
Anupama’s explanations have proven clearly foundational to the entire series and to our understanding of each choreographer’s work; and what a breathtaking range of command Anupama recruits to the purpose - from the classical languages of Sanskrit and Telugu to modern English, from songs and texts and tales to the intricacies of Vedanta in its triple tributaries of Dvaita, Advaitha and Visishtha Advaitha and deftly ties all the texts - pre-, meta-, sub text, et al - to the song at hand.
Being a dancer herself, and given to the infectious love and grasp of the subject, Anupama has virtually done the work of a dramaturg for the choreographer and that of a sutradhara for the viewer. And her savouring of not just the poetry of the song that is to be explored in dance but even each word, unpeeling layers, is a feat in itself. Yes, I too could just listen to her and taste all the rasa I need.
Sharing artistic process
It is rare for artists to be able to show young people - or anyone else - the way into their processes. This is often because as an artist, firstly, you are not [consciously] aware of your own processes, and secondly, it's only when people ask questions, that you may start to think about certain things. On the other hand, as a good teacher, you will have your pedagogy right, as it was here; and it was exceedingly well done.
Multi-dimensional early composers
This series of Annamacharya compositions has been an eye opener for me: familiar as I was with only the concert and bhakti compositions popularised by MS Amma, I never thought Annamayya had written works featuring šringāra, or even sankīrtana-s, which could be danced to.
Yet, we make a mistake in thinking artists of yore as unidimensional, and entirely unlike us today who have multiple portfolios and do a lot of different things: we dance; we choreograph; we also work in other sectors. These earlier artists too often worked in different genres - even of poetry itself, and with different sentiments. Thus, several 'serious' poets wrote what is called cātu (pronounced 'chaa-tu'). Cātu verses are even possibly mischievous, bawdy, like limericks, or so I've read! 1[Do see details in footnote.] In the 6th Ashtapadi Nibhruta nikunja or Sakhi hé kéśi, Jayadeva's Radha confesses to her sakhi that Krishna spoke 'cātu śataivanukūlam' (a hundred well-suited cātu-s) to her... before he, eventually, undid her garment!2 So, that's a whole different genre, cātu: it means not just clever but also 'conducive to love-making' or seduction!
And this weekend, I was completely seduced by what Geeta and Anupama had to show and tell. Still swirling in the round boat! I want to pick up from some of the things that were said by them this weekend and also in the earlier weekend's Tamrapatra Conversations #7.
Theatre, theatricality, and 'realism'
At the outset, Geeta observed that 'theatre' has become a part of how a dance narrative is portrayed. Yes, it has become a mainstay of the mode in which abhinaya is done.3 And, if we see abhinaya as anukarana, which means not 'mimicry', not mime, but 'doing it again', then it poses its own problems... when you come to sambhoga śringara. (We will get to this, in a bit.)
Bearing 'theatre' in mind, one of the first things that Geeta pointed out was how to 'set the scene' for this particular work. I want you to note how this theatrical mis-en-scène was set.4
Even in the 1970s, Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai often used scene-setting, a prologue before the actual bhajan or padam started.5 It is a valuable device, but it is now often overdone and we can take a pointer from how Geeta did it here.
When we talk of theatre and realism with respect to dance, there is a big difference. The point is not that the plate is put down on the ground or on the stool, and it is picked up again later exactly from the same place; or that the door is the exact size of the real door that would have been there; or that it is heavy or light. Here, the notion is of just 'a line drawing' to establish everything; it has to be done quickly, indicatively, because that is not the main story.6 You see it in the approach that Geeta took in this work - and its value in general.
In other words, incorporating theatre in dance does not mean realism in the sense of what we may know as straightforward drama. Perhaps, this idea of 'realism' is where we run into a problem with sambhoga śringara. So, how do we re-think 'realism' in order to properly evoke (the scene), without being pressured into thinking that everything has to be shown, and has to be done explicitly? 7
Doing, Showing Doing and Emotional Realism
(I) Theatrically, we can differentiate between 'doing' and 'showing doing' [and even 'showing "showing doing"'].8 Since we have a Sakhi here, it's much easier for us to pull back, and just indicate and leave some room (for the spectator's imagination).
There was immense scope in the composition to 'do it all' and Geeta talked about exactly this, during the earlier weekend.9 When the text is already so detailed and so filigreed, as Geeta put it, you really must pull back and allow the lyrics to speak. [See my detailed notes.]10
(II) Further, since this is a song that we are exploring, and since its text is poetry, metaphors and symbolism are part and parcel of it; likewise, the dance we use to do this exploration is a stylized language. So, when we talk 'realism' (or 'truth') we are not talking about fact but, rather we are talking about emotional truth in the abhinaya:
'Does it look like someone, even this sakhi, would say something like this to Vishnu himself, who has just finished a night of lovemaking with his wife? Does that ring true?'That is what we ask to get to the emotional truth of it.11 There was complete evidence here of how indicative and symbolic communication can be made to work because there was integrity in the approach and the action.
(III) If you think of śringara only as 'erotic love play', we forget something: that the basis of this is love. Although rati is the sthāyibhāva, (conventionally) we understand it as an expression of the all-encompassing love in this relationship of the hero and the heroine. Here, importantly, it is Vishnu and Alamelu Manga, and that needs to be kept in place, as it also impacts the actual sanchari-s.12
In this context, I want to touch on the word 'erotic'.
We start getting nervous that erotic is purely lascivious or is not something that is to be shown in public; yet we can differently understand the word by its root 'Eros'. It was in a psychotherapy course that I encountered Freud properly, and I learned that the word 'eros' (whence, 'erotic') is something so much more beautiful. I came to believe it is what we call śringara rasa in Sanskrit poetics. 13
I equate it with śringara because Eros is what Freud calls 'Life Instinct': you are in love with life, with all the beauty that life has. And the opposite of that is Thanatos, what Freud calls 'Death Instinct.14 And Thanatos has no place in love, just as we don't ever show death in love.15
So, it is the negative ['immoral'] associations that we need to remove from the word 'erotic'. We have, for example, the ritual and poetic conventions of solah śringar, and the idea around 'love play' in our dances is all about beauty, about being in this different space.16 If you can get there, it gets the expression to a place where it is about love, and the sexual play between the characters is an expression of that love.17
Drama and Dialogues
Geeta very correctly said that dialogues are associated with drama, and, yet, in Bharatanatyam it is even more so: padams and javalis are all conversations! Except, the difference is that the dialogues have all got to be in your head. If you don't have that stream of dialogue running in your head, the communication doesn't quite reach the audience with nuance and clarity. Sometimes, whilst watching, I say to myself, 'Oh my God, I can literally read what she is 'saying'!' That clarity comes because you are saying it - in your head! You don't have to say it each time but when you are creating and developing a work, I think students should really have the words up there; not just learn the hand gestures and the facial expressions.
Sanchāri and Sangatī - 'using' music and song
(In Tamrapatra Conversations) Geeta asked a very important question:
What is the role and place of sanchāri for a text that's heavy, that's already detailed, explicit, filigreed? And how is one to decide?And Geeta offered that she was going to be led by the music.18 We saw that yesterday and today, and in many ways, the sanchāri-s were 'led' by the sangatī-s; and then there was gati or pacing.
If you look at the word sanchāri and sangatī, we see how these two go together. (And here I want the students to understand that sanchāri is to do with movement, i.e action, and with its speed and acceleration as well - even in abhinaya.)19 We can understand the 'san' part of it as indicating 'togetherness', the symbiosis as well. Chari implies movement and gati, speed, the dynamic acceleration - all of which have to come together in a way that is appropriate for the narrative. There is enough evidence of such conjunction in what we saw this weekend and I'm saying this because you might want to go back and look at the video and try and see where you can find these elements, not just learn the movements, or say 'Ah, here the action slows down.' Instead, one must ask 'Why is it slowing? The music doesn't slow down, so why does it look like Geeta-ji has found more time?'
Apart from not frenetically gesturing for every word, Geeta 'found time' also by the way she used her gaze: she saw the person, fixed her gaze, and kept seeing the person as if he was right there: that kind of 'seeing' is our 'realism'. That unseen person has to be made to manifest. It has to manifest first for the dancer; then the audience can see: 'Yes, that person is there!' So, Geeta's eyes, focusing on that 'person', really slowed the pace and gave us time to relish what she was doing, and all the exchanges.20
I also found that the sanchāri-s focusing on the face, which came a little later in the piece, were like camera close-ups. It made us lean in towards the action. Now, if Geeta had done this very early on, we might not have noticed. We would still be examining her costume, still taking in the scenery, the musician's voice etc. But after some time, when Geeta started focusing on doing the sanchari just around the face, it literally felt like the camera was moving towards the face - and that is a useful technique for the students to take away.21
Text and Tune as vāchikābhinaya
For Geeta, I found that the sung song was really her vāchika abhinaya. Even if she didn't sing it out whilst dancing, it was not just a song accompaniment that Geeta danced to. The song and sangati were also right there, moving along with the dialogues. I think that that kind of parallel processing has to happen to be able to achieve the level of engagement that Geeta has been showing us.22
Geeta also mentioned 'being with the sahitya' and knowing when 'to move away from it'. Interestingly, the word for sanchāri bhāva in the Natyaśāstra is vyabhichāri bhava. We have come to use 'vyabhichari' for someone who is wayward; and it actually does mean 'deviation', 'going away from'; so sanchari is about going away from the literal meaning. But as Geeta said, it's a decision that each one has to make. How far do you go? If you are going on a safari in Kenya, you want to know that the driver can actually handle that whole dangerous situation when you go off the track and the cheetah comes and sits on the head of the vehicle... and then you lose the plot, you know? So, I think students should know where their limits are and where they can actually go, and, importantly, where the audience will be willing to trust and come with them, ie. the sanchari has to be fit for the characters that you play, so here you remember it is about Alamelu Manga and Vishnu!
Presence-ing: a technique of codified forms
Finally, I want the student-dancers here to have two notes for themselves personally:
(I) Geeta went from 'speaking/teaching mode' to 'dancing/performing mode', and each time we recognise that instantly. What changed? This is what I may refer to here, and in theatre, as 'Presence'-ing, qua Eugenio Barba. What did Geeta do? Her spine, of course. What else? What do dancers do to presence themselves?23 The natyarambha, for example, is geared to do that for you in nritta; but what do you do in abhinaya? It is something to ask, to find out for yourself.
(II) When you choose a piece to dance, you are casting yourself as an actor in that work, and so you must ask: What suits me? Can I play that role? Is it something that I can work into? And so on and so forth.
At the end of this evening, I want to quote Geeta: 'Many times I just want to read the poem and listen to Anupama rather than dance it!'
I say to all the students: Choose what to dance, carefully!
Thank you so much for listening/reading.
- Chitra Sundaram
Copyright asserted by this inclusion; and shared with Narthaki.com.
20 January 2022
1. Cātu verses are coaxing, flirtatious, pleasing, flattering, amorous poetry, for especial use between lovers.
2. Anukūlam means 'apt', 'appropriate', 'well-suited', and here especially 'advantageous' or 'geared for success'.
3. In addition to using āhārya props, we now inform viewers through our actions as to where and when, and sometimes, even why the main action will happen - although the padam doesn't say anything about it. In other words, we show the 'creatively imagined' vibhāva-s that cause and affect the anubhāva-s and sanchāri bhāva-s. That's part of dramaturgy!
4. Mis-en-scène comes from cinema and refers to 'all that was put in the camera's frame' when the scene commences including placement of actors and objects.
5. For example, with Mira bai playing the tanpura as the bhajan Hari Thum Haro begins, and briefly beseeching Krishna to rid the people of grief. Or, in Narayaneeyam, elaborately, as Narayana Bhattadiri, the author struggles with his ailment, falling at the idol's feet, hands shaking with disease, unable to write and he commences to dictate his inspired magnum opus; and the piece concludes with the miraculous recovery of the poet.
6. This does not call for realistic action; rather it indicates 'she puts the plate down'. How, where, is irrelevant and distracting. This is a performative and a choreographic choice to work through.
7.This is again a performative question.
8.I believe I have this from theatre-maker Eugenio Barba and have then extended it.
'Doing' is simply acting out 'picking a flower'
'Showing doing' is like expressing 'The other day, when I picked a flower....'
'Showing "showing doing'"' is like saying to the Sakhi about a third person or even the Sakhi herself, 'Look at her/you, picking the flower with such a fuss!'
9.Geeta the 'filigree'
10. Not each and every word was gestured or 'performed', neither was every actionable word treated to any prescribed śabdārtha, vākhyārtha, vyangārtha (or 'word', 'sentence', 'suggestion/implication') exploration; rather, indicating the overall the bhāvārtha became the objective when things got too hot! Again, this text is a conversation between two people - or rather, the Sakhi's monologue addressed to Krishna - and it is about something that has already happened. So, dramatically, in the here-and-now of the staged performance, notwithstanding that abhinaya is anukarana, the dancer can also not indulge in performing the full 'actual' experience of it during the 'conversation with Krishna', except perhaps fleetingly to communicate complexity, say, of the Sakhi's own desires, for example.
11. Whereas other genres of fiction or memoir writing may be about observable actualities, poetry's necessary quality is the emotional truth/communication of it. It is what which lends poetry validity even in the 'real' world and creates the 'rasa' experience in dance.
12. Sanchari-s that are considered 'appropriate' by a spectator are important for the spectator's rasa experience. The Natyaśāstra even cautions how well-known people are to be acted out judiciously, if the acting/story is to be 'believed' by an audience.
13.This was the subject of my thesis at The School of Psychotherapy and Psychology at Regent's University.
14. For Freud, it includes a range of negative, life-denying or life-threatening behavior as rage, aggression, death-defying risk-taking.
15. We may show the threat of 'she will die' or 'she is dying', but never 'she is dead' because of being in love.
16. Solah Śringār refers to the sixteen adornments for a woman including henna and clothing. The 'different' space is of love as romance, of imagination ie not realistic, but rather idealistic.
17. I wish to add something more here that I did not have the opportunity or need to say during my spoken comments: If we, as actors/dancers performing and portraying conventional heroes/heroines or deities, we seek inspiration and 'truth' in ourselves alone, thinking, 'This is how I would be or how I would show if I were in love or making love' then, we fall afoul of a primary dictum of acting or abhinaya in the NŚ, namely, there is no place for the actor's ego. In other words, good abhinaya is not about you but about the character and making the portrayal plausible (not possible or probable) - even if it is an abstracted nayika. That should put some brake on any self-indulgence. (The NŚ and rasa theorists also say there's no rasa experience for the person who goes to watch drama but fails to check his ego in at the cloak room counter, to be collected after the show!)
18. In saying she would allow the music to lead her, Geeta also meant she was looking at the text for cues and opportunities, its overall sense and mood, its musical and poetic structure, including sameness and repetitions which needed to be made visually varied through the abhinaya structure, and so on. Also, the song, with its sangati-s and pacing were all set to the dance that Geeta choreographed, not vice versa. And this is generally true in music-setting for Bharatanatyam and classical other forms too. So 'led by the music' is what appears to the spectator during the performance, and 'led' appears here in a different sense.
19. Facial expression is also action, movement. If we want to get really nuanced, everything that is done and not done in performance 'expresses' even if only because a spectator reads meaning or purpose into it.
20. Again, the idea is not that the absent but 'seen' person stays in the same place, or that we track their movement. Just like the plate or flowers in the prologue, the 'realism' here is only that the Sakhi's/Geeta's eyes 'see' the person wherever she chooses to place him at that moment. And once that person is established, the conversation establishes, and we get drawn into it. When we get engaged, things seem to slow down so we can follow and relish. This is how time flies when you are having fun, because we are not following, tracking the markers of the passage of time.
21. At a dinner at an artist's home, I once asked Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Saheb how come, when I had come late from college and was at the back of the auditorium, after not being able to see his face for a while at a show, I could actually see his eyes although nothing had changed? 'Yog-dhrishti!' he declared. 'It is your attention and concentration that makes the things come closer!' Performers must also heed this as they device a piece or evening, as our mārgam does! Just look closely at its progression, with this idea in mind.
22. Clearly proficiency in music or at least a deep, learned familiarity with the song at hand will help parallel process the repeated text of the song, the new sangati and the new sanchari for good effect.
23. What shifts when the performer is ready to start or is on stage? What shifts the energy that is registered by the spectator? What holds our attention to one dancer versus another when both are doing the same thing? Barba's understanding of these principles is masterful and very valuable.
24. Bharata and his commentators have a thing or two to say about appropriate 'casting'. Here it is finding a fit for oneself at all levels, especially the emotional.