When Lakshmi Vishwanathan talked of the Adyar army on stage at the Purush Festival, referring to gurus C.V. Chandrashekar, Balagopal, Janardhanan, Adyar Lakshmanan and V.P. Dhananjayan she could have easily been making the case for Madras-20 postcode to be designated a UNESCO intangible cultural space!
Throw in the female Gurus that abound in a two-mile radius around Kalakshetra, and it is obvious Rukmini Devi’s tree had borne fruit well, and in close quarters. It was a stellar gathering on stage! It was unprecedented to have so many male gurus on one stage – Guru Lakshminarayanan, Guru Kalyanasundaram, Guru Herambanathan, Roja Kannan (representing Guru Adyar Lakshmanan), Guru C.V.Chandrashekaran, Guru Dhananjayan, Guru Balagopal, Guru Janardhanan, Guru Narasimhachari, Guru Ramli Ibrahim and writer Sunil Kothari. And for some of them to talk about the complex subject of style/tradition or bhani was a valuable bonus! This session was something we were very much looking forward to.
Myself and my sister, along with a small group of others trained at Abhinayasudha in Adyar, nrittha in the Kalakshetra style and Abhinaya by Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan. We were a unique bunch in that we had this split syllabus, which we simply grew up with. We owe our allegiance to Kalakshetra in nrittha and we are proud of that. But for the first time, I began to wonder what it would have been to have been exposed to other styles of BN and understood our style in historical and social context. Don’t get me wrong, we considered and still consider ourselves lucky to have learnt from dedicated and brilliant gurus, and to be in the vicinity of Kalakshetra, which pioneered such a beautiful, precise and crisp style of Bharathanatyam under the leadership of Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale. We also received the most comprehensive training at Abhinayasudha covering theory of dance, history, specialist nattuvangham training from Kamala Rani teacher, summer camps, yoga, even the occasional odissi and kalaripayattu sessions. All-in-all, Abhinayasudha was a progressive institution. Padma Bhushan Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan, the director of Abhinayasudha was visionary in her approach to learning and teaching. We regularly watched performances in the Vazhuvoor and Pandanallur style, especially as students of a number of other gurus came to mami for abhinaya. We even watched some contemporary stuff by Chandralekha and others. But these other styles, schools or ways weren’t something we thought very much about, they didn’t feature in our after-class street corner chats, where we discussed, dissected, gossiped and revelled in dance. We were smug in our training and sometimes quick to criticize other styles for their seeming flaws, drawbacks, and take-it-easy steps 🙂 Well, we were still students in our teens.
On the morning of the 21st of December, 2013, the Purush conference session on ‘Bharathanatayam and the male body: Technique and Questions of Embodiment’ [Panelists: B Herambanathan and H Hariharan (Tanjore), Dr. BM Sundaram & K Shanmugha Sundaram (Vazhuvoor), CV Chandrashekar & P Praveen Kumar (Kalakshetra)] kindled some great thoughts about bhanis, styles and tradition as I listened and watched the fascinating session. Interesting steps and variations brought out the richness and beauty of the Vazhuvoor and Tanjavur styles.
I realised my dance world (as well as that of a number of others, I am sure) had never really been beyond Adyar, in some ways we didn’t feel the need to go elsewhere. Not that I have plumbed the depths of Adyar Bharathanatyam but it seems like it would have been good to be exposed to other styles with an open mind! Not least because, as my sister put it, ‘Rukmini Devi had really gone for the cull’, an observation based on the absence in the Kalakshetra syllabus of a number of interesting steps that we watched in the Tanjore and Vazhuvoor teachers’ compositions. It was great to see so many other classical dances and styles hosted by the Purush festival. Anita Ratnam herself and her sister, having learnt with Adyar Lakshmanan, did well to introduce diversity into the programme.
What’s poignant for me in 2013-14, (as a heritage advocate – see my contributions to identity and heritage here) and thinking in retrospect, is how we had set in our minds, the ancientness and tradition in the Kalakshetra style, which was only perhaps rightfully attributable to the Tanjavur and Vazhuvoor styles! I now recall my learning before I got to Abhinayasudha – thinking about it in fresh light. A teacher I spent quite a bit of my childhood dance years with is from the Pandanallur tradition. Very recently, a lot of that came out when I was working with the Pushpanjali six at Kala Sangam where I was introduced to a number of new steps. It was awkward to begin with, still is, a bit, will take some getting used to, before it is assimilated and internalised.
The highlight of this session at Purush was the two gurus giving their thoughts on bhanis and styles. Gurus Herambanathan (Tanjavur) and C.V. Chandrashekhar (Kalakshetra) presented their thoughts candidly, in Tamil and English respectively. Accompanied by each of their talks was a demonstration by a student each.
What bhanis, what style? asked Guru Herambanathan, who was philosophical in his take on bhanis. We all belong to the Natraja paramparai, he said, drawing instant applause from the audience! Meaning, there is but one style, or in other words – there is dance and just dance. But he has a point. Ultimately his might be the only tenable statement that we might be able to defend. Speaking in Tamil, this traditional Guru from Tanjore probably made the most post-modern post structural statement of the conference, and this I would argue is not per chance or fluke. There is strength in our flexible tradition that makes it resilient. On a practical level, it was a fact for Guru Herambanathan as he was able to trace family connections with gurus from most Bharathanatyam dance styles! Based in the magnificent old city of Tanjavur, and still teaching and practising within a traditional set-up, his statement had the force of his belief in its truth.
Chandru anna on the other hand, an academic and dancer, having taught and performed in many parts of India and abroad, was pragmatic and brought his long experience in enquiry to the fore. He acknowledged the reality of dancers who move between styles and adapt their own. He presented a student who had come to him having learnt in a different style and said he didn’t correct him too much as there was beauty and rigour in different ways in that style. It was wonderful that he presented such a student on stage that day, when the topic was on style and bhanis. He also wonderfully illustrated the central theme of the debate in his talk that pieced together an understanding of the Kalakshetra style, which he seemed to indicate was a product of its times, mired in the Pandanallur style – Gurus Chockalingam Pillai and Muthkumara Pillai of the Pandanallur style were resident teachers at Kalakshetra during Rukmini Devi’s times. He said, he himself was beyond all bhanis, and unequivocally agreed with Guru Herambanathan at the outset. He traced the development of bhanis through examples from his own experience. Pointing to Guru Kalayanasundaram who sat in the front row of the audience, he said he has worked with a number of students of his. Over the years generations of students have passed through the portals of his Rajarajeswari School in Mumbai, every dancer doesn’t do the same. He has worked with students “who want to do something slightly different, meaning they want to think differently, but keeping the basis of what the masters taught them”. He also added “I don’t have much respect for anybody who says this is how I have learnt 40 years back and I want to do it like that – that means you have not grown”!. But amidst all this, one thing was unchangeable for Guru Chandrashekar – the alphabets. Among them, he counted the arai mandi, mulu mandi and natyaarambham. His talk was punctuated by nuggets of demonstrations of these alphabets and adavus.
It is only students who are insecure in themselves that hold steadfast to what they had learnt 40 years ago, he opined! As a child, in Kalakshetra, he was asked to hold his shikara mudra in a firm, rigid position, and this insistence on firmness and rigidity at Kalakshetra has often drawn damaging remarks like ‘Oh, Kalakshetra style-a? romba stiff-a irukkhum’ [ Kalakshetra dancers are stiff ] He countered that by saying this doesn’t account for how his training melded with his practice and experience, as years went by, his body worked with the mudra and made it it’s own, giving it that fluidity. And this he believes, was what Rukmini Devi wanted to happen. Another example, the nattu adavu, while doing the thei yum thath thath his teacher would say, “keela poonum, tharai thodra verikum poganum [ get down, get down till your fingers touch the floor]” “because if she didn’t say that, we would do like this [demonstrates] (taking it lightly, without that torso bend!) .. so what I am trying to say is that the understanding [of the body] for me comes when I take my hands down there [up to floor], not here [ waist level]… so when somebody teaches like that, that parampara continues”. Things can change as the parampara is built, and it changes. He doesn’t find it impossible to work with students, unless they have no control over their body – they have not understood the natyaarambham, aayatha mandalam or arai mandi. He couldn’t help himself when he said “I want to tell every dancer that you have to lift your heel as you do the jathi”. I understand that urge!
He very lucidly explained what the Kalakshetra style was – “It is only that Rukmini Devi felt at a time that the body becomes very important, every dancer should know the body, the importance of the shaushtavam, which is being told, in an academic institution, where these things are made important. So that is what I did, when I learnt. Kalakshetra I feel has taught me to understand the beauty of a movement, and Rukmini Devi was particular in using the eye movement, the torso movement, bends,.… I left Kalakshetra 65 years back! I still remember the way I learnt, in my own lifetime, movements have slightly changed. Maybe athai felt at some point it might be better, and changed it or maybe her students/teachers changed it according to what they felt at a particular time. The most important thing that Kalakshetra has given is to understand your body”.
And here is his bit of advice he gave to students who watch a dancer from a different style. In answer to a question from his own student who once asked him, “ Why is it that when I go to a performance, I always look for what is the mistake?” he said to her “That’s because you think you have learnt in a particular way, and anybody who is not doing that is wrong. You have to watch and look, go into a hall with an empty head and just watch, and wait for the moment which touches your heart.. that is more important..”
It was reassuring to listen to the Gurus grapple with the challenges that a number of Bharathanatyam teachers face, and speaking as someone based in the north of England, which brings with it its own challenges. Teachers move, students move, but an unanimous urge to learn and teach unites them in facing these pedagogical challenges – how, when, what and where. But mind, and this is a note to students, one style is not easier than the other. There is not much point in style shopping! Each style focusses on one aspect and develops it, find that and you will be on the road to mastering it. Perhaps as Chandru anna put it, these are minor things, what’s really important is to get your alphabets right.
Bharathanatyam should be studied in its context, it is continuously living and is an evolving heritage as students, parents, connoisseurs and arts organisations in this part of the world will well know. Each of these interest groups has a special responsibility in exploring these questions that are central to the development of Bharathanatyam in this region. And a parting note to my students, as I leave them with other teachers, what you have learnt from me was a means to understand your body, and yourself – that is the essence of the Kalakshetra style. Whether you continue learning the art form, or only carry its memory into your lives, know this.