Sunday, 7 December 2014

Aesthetic principles do not age

Once upon a time, Padams and Javalis as well as Viruttams and Slokams were the most anticipated pieces during the second half of concerts. Following my Guru Kanjivaram Ellappa's style of singing, I was able to learn many classic pieces composed by masters and for forty years have included them as a highlight and not as fillers in the second half of my dance recitals. The exact tempo for a Padam in thisra triputa tala, composed by Kshetragna, is most vital for BHAVA in Abhinaya. My guru emphasised this aspect  to great effect. The next was proper pronunciation of the language of the padam. He always used to warn us that a small mispronunciation would change the whole meaning of the song. And then came the studied and subtle " Sangathis " which were permitted. Singing these nuances were tricky, and demanding. The BHAVA inherent in the small phrases have guided not only my movement but also my facial expressions. With a vast repertoire I have  been committed to sharing these old treasures with diverse audiences, here and abroad. With careful planning and with new additions to the repertoire an entire concert of Abhinaya has been my forte in recent times.

Similarly a Javali had to be handled with the correct tempo, often faster than a Padam, but very subtle in the rendering of Sangathis, with the correct pronunciation, in order to bring out the meaning both in song and dance.

As for Slokas and Viruttams, my Guru had a repertoire which was challenging to me as a dancer. A Thayumanavar viruttam with philosophical meaning needed a choice of ragas to enhance the core ideas. One was not free to make up a Ragamalika of random ragas. He chose, in the style of temple bards, ragas like Harikambodhi, Atana, Natabhairavi, Sahana and so on. When we performed Sanskrit verses from texts like the Krishnaleela Tarangini, the core ideas were enhanced by the way it was sung which in turn influenced the Abhinaya that brought the music to visual dimensions.

A considerable degree of scholarship is needed to gain a repertoire of the classic Padams, Javalis and Viruttams.The exploration of the true depth in their meaning takes years of dancing them or singing them. There are no short cuts to evolved and poignant Abhinaya.  The underlying aesthetic principles do not go out of fashion.  A taste for that kind of music first needs to be cultivated. The real work is in internalizing the meaning and then sharing both melody and mood through inspired song and dance. Such artistry would leave a lasting impression on a sensitive listener and viewer. After all, great artists have shown the way, and it is up to the present day Vidwans and mature dancers to study the deeper aspects more seriously. Aesthetic principles never go out of fashion.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Re-visiting a queen!

The most enigmatic character in Tamil history is the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the tenth century. I knew little about her until, at the suggestion of the great musician Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer whom we used to address and refer to as Semmangudi Mama, we visited the famous temple of Konerirajapuram. 

It is a small village, a beautiful Agraharam inhabited by the Brahmin community known as "Vathima". Mama belonged to this sect and was quite proud of his lineage. He told me to visit one of the largest Nataraja bronzes in this temple dedicated to Shiva as Uma Maheswara. To my utter delight and amazement the temple offered more than the big Nataraja to feast our eyes on. A gated corridor has the finest bronzes of Shiva as Kalyanasundara, Tripuranthaka, Bikshatana and so on. One can just stand there mesmerized by the sheer beauty of these images.

This temple is one of many built by the queen Sembiyan Mahadevi (925-1006). She was the wife of the Chola king Gandaraditya, was widowed in her teens and spent a life of piety, building temples, commissioning bronzes, donating enormously to various temples and putting the stamp of her "style" on all the artistic and architectural features. What a woman! She lived to the age of eighty-one and was the mother of Uttama Chola.

Inscriptions confirm the temples she built and renovated. They are many, with Konerirajapuram being the foremost, as also Aduturai, Kuttalam, Mayavaram, Tirukkodikaval, Vriddachalam, Tiruvarur Achaleswarar, and others. The temples are remarkable in architectural style for their simplicity. It is the bronzes which are said to have come from the Sthapathis and their Pattarais or ateliers which she patronised that bear the mark of  extraordinary skill in execution. Beyond the skill of the Sthapathi, one can see and feel beauty of a divine nature in these sacred images.

To commemorate her life, a later Chola king named a village Sembiyan Mahadevi after her, built a temple there and also created an image of her to be honoured and worshipped in the temple. An image exists today in this temple. But, it is not the original. The original Sembiyan Mahadevi statue is now in the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Many experts believe that what was labelled in the gallery as Devi or Parvathi from Sembiyan Mahadevi is actually the portrait statue of the queen.

I took time from my busy visit to Washington in mid September 2014 for the UTSAV dance event, and went to see the queen in the Freer Gallery. Spent a while just looking at the image and imagining her life more than a thousand years ago. Here are images captured in my iPhone. Do visit this queen. My friend Michael Wood thinks she may in fact have been responsible for popularising the Nataraja bronze image which became a cult thereafter. What an idea!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Nidish and Indu, trained in Kalakshetra have arrived!

Dancing duos are pretty much welcome. One, the stage is filled with the presence of two. Variety provides an interesting visual. And when it is a husband and wife team, the harmony is very attractive indeed.

Nidish and Indu, trained in Kalakshetra have arrived! They are perfect as a pair of dancers and bring delight to the stage in their well coordinated dance performance.

Dancing for an hour in a festival they themselves organised, this couple were a delight to watch. Perfect technique, good understanding, delicate movements, firm footwork and visible involvement made their show a fine performance of well regulated Kalakshetra style. That does not imply that they had no original moves. They did, and that is what made the performance enjoyable.

The invocation Alarippu set the pace. Papanasam Sivan's Varnam in Sriranjini was uncluttered in presentation. The Nrtta was precise and elegant. The alternate moves by the two dancers worked well. Addressing Muruga, they were both emissaries of the Nayika. In a controlled manner, they took turns to entreat the Lord to come to his beloved. What I like is that they did not stray from the main thrust of the lyrics and indulge in narratives.

A Padam of Sarangapani by Nidish was rather light in treatment. But it seemed to fit the idea of a playful Krishna....after all Krishna did play with the Gopis. Parulanamata by Indu was subdued. The two came together for the Thillana which was quite brilliant in movement, footwork and attractive pauses. Nidish and Indu are certainly worth watching. They have a sense of the beauty of movement and show their skills in a natural spontaneous manner.

Both were in subtle white and gold costumes. Well, with our stages and lighting, this is not the best option. A touch of colour could have been added even after the Varnam to provide a change. I know that Indu's mother makes up her costumes. Well, she would agree with me!

They had a good orchestra with Balakrishnan singing with depth and also handling the Nattuvangam. He is an asset to a dance performance indeed. Vijayaraghavan did a skillful accompaniment on the mridangam with Rijesh Gopalakirishnan providing good support on the violin.