Lec-dem by Monica Cooley on 'Taking Bharatanatyam abroad - Emphasizing the universal'
December 20, 2005 Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai
Text & Photos: Lalitha Venkat

December 26, 2005

"Unity of body, heart, motion, mind and spirit, is what attracted me to Bharatanatyam," says Monica Cooley.

Along with her husband Shankaran Mahadevan, Monica Cooley (a disciple of the Narasimhacharis) runs a dance school Kala Nivedanam in Nashville, TN. Monica is in love with the universal quality of Bharatanatyam, the geometry created by the body, the intersecting shapes that has universal appeal.

"When we look at extraordinarily beautiful buildings like the Taj Mahal, Pantheon or Temple of Heaven, we need not know anything about it in order to be awestruck by their beauty. The same is true of Bharatanatyam." Monica emphasizes on the nritta component of Bharatanatyam when she teaches non Indians. When the time slot allotted is short, she favors items like the Thillana to gain the interest of the audience, where attention is paid to the body architecture and angashuddha.

Narasimhachari, Vasanthalakshmi, Monica Cooley

Monica finds that while teaching the new generation, many don't have the mind and body technique. But it's a pleasure to teach trained American dancers for whom abhinaya is a little difficult. She has tried experimenting by choreographing Bharatanatyam to Kathak music and found that Carnatic music is best suited to Bharatanatyam. She showed a video excerpt of this Kathak and Bharatanatyam jugalbandhi to prove that each style, beautiful as it is, can also mingle beautifully.

How does she present her programs to a non-Indian audience? Monica took the example of watching a foreign language film. When there are no subtitles, one can vaguely understand what's going on. When subtitles are provided, one can get into the culture. It's the same with Bharatanatyam, where the challenge is to find a way for the audience to understand. So explanations are imperative. The American audience understands better when there are explanations in English, but it could be disturbing to the Indians in the audience. Monica decided to include the spoken synopsis into the sound track for American audiences. She demonstrated a Shiva item, where the explanation about Shiva and Chidambaram is followed by the dance music.

New choreography should be tried but strict classicism is exciting. Monica spoke about how when applying for a grant from the Arts Commission, communality of theme is important. For example, 'Meghasandesa' is a Sanskrit work with a relatively secular theme on love and separation, and not a religious work! She says, parents of some children she teaches, complain about a theme being religious, so she has to be careful about what she teaches and opts for tales from Jatakas and so on! Monica danced to a verse from the Thirukkural that says a friendship is not just a smile on the face, but has to come from the heart.

"Every innovation should have a genuine artistic impulse and need. The spiritual component of Bharatanatyam drew me to it. It touches the human spirit." Monica concluded with a piece on Ramakrishna Paramahamsa titled Ramakrishna Shabdam.

Then came the moment everyone looks forward to every year. The evaluation of the best lec-dem by scholar V A K Ranga Rao.

"A good critic should evaluate, not necessarily criticize. In the last 25 years, there have been many conveners and all of them have brought their own sensibilities. The Yakshagana by Shambu Hegde was a text book on how jalakrida should be done. It was not a lec-dem, but a performance that did not need words. So, this does not fall into the lec-dem category.

A good lec-dem is something that opens our eyes to something new and helps us become better dancers and viewers. V R Devika's exemplary presentation pointed out how much folk has influenced our classical dance. I request Yagnaraman to give the folk artistes a full evening performance opportunity at the sabha." The audience echoed the sentiment.

The 25th Natya Kala Conference concluded with the announcement that Bharati Shivaji would be the next convener.