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Vol. XXXI No. 16, December 1-15, 2021

NATYARANGAM – A unique Sabha for Bharathanatyam

by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

“It is our principle to take money from the dancers to give them an opportunity at our December festival” blurted out the secretary of a sabha in Chennai.

The group of people around the table froze.

It was a meeting to draw the budget of the December festival of a Chennai sabha and to find sponsors for the same. The business magnate who had been invited to be the Chairman of the committee that year, magnanimously offered to underwrite the entire budget. I was elated and thanked him for making it possible for talented young dancers to perform without having to pay for the opportunity.

“ Pay to perform?” The Chairman was perplexed.

“Yes.” I explained, “This is the practice adopted by many of the sabhas in Chennai. Those who perform music concerts are paid a token amount by the sabhas, but the dancers are demanded to pay the sabha.”

“Is it so? But why?” queried the Chairman turning to the secretaries.

The opening statement of this article was the response.

Malavika Sarukkai peforms abhinaya at Dolotsavam at Thennangur 2013.

Malavika Sarukkai performs abhinaya at Dolotsavam at Thennangur 2013.

This pernicious practice had started sometime in the late eighties and had begun throttling the dance community. There were enough well-heeled dance aspirants, whose talent ranged from promising to poor. And they were cornering most of the slots in the sabhas. The flow of dollars into the pool made matters worse by hiking the rates. Inaugural evening performances were being auctioned for fifty thousand upwards.

Many of us interested in the art were alarmed at what this could do to the art and the young artists. And wanted to do something about it. I had done a group discussion in Sruti and spoke in the TV talk show Netru Indru Nalai anchored by writer Sivasankari and many of us were raising the issue through the media and other forums. No solution was in sight.

One day I was lamenting over the state of affairs to R.Krishnaswamy, secretary of Narada Gana Sabha. As he was the president of the Federation of City Sabhas I hoped he could do something about it. He quietly said, “I shall give you the mini hall. The sabha will pay a remuneration to the dancer. Will you take it up and organise concerts?”

Thennangur 2013. participants and faculty.

Thennangur 2013. participants and faculty.

I was speechless for a moment. The next day I met him with K.S. Subramanian and Viswanathan (writer Charukesi) who had launched a sabha to feature young talent in a periodic series of Bharathanatyam. Krishnaswamy offered the mini hall with lights and mike, advertisement and other incidental expenses. Our job was to find deserving dancers and organise concerts by them. He was making this offer for one year as an experiment.

The three of us were soon joined by Kannan of Aindu Karangal, a connoisseur of music, literature, dance and drama, Janaki, a dancer herself, writer and assistant to Pattabhiraman, editor – publisher of Sruti, Major General Balasubramaniam and his wife Kalpagam, parents of dancer Pushkala Gopal.

Natyarangam was launched in September 1995 as a dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha Trust, Chennai, with a twofold purpose:

(1) To provide a platform for talented young dancers of proven merit.

(2) To create awareness in the audience, regarding various aspects of dance appreciation.

Two dancers were featured every third Saturday and there was a lecture demonstration on a dance related topic by an eminent Guru on the following Sunday.

All the committee members had their antennae up to spot talent and tried to watch practically every dancer who performed in the city and on television and put our notes together to draw up a list of dancers to be featured. Since every one of us had a fairly sound knowledge of the art, each dancer could be evaluated on merits and shortlisted. The city sabhas had categorically refrained from featuring solo recitals by male dancers. Natyarangam decided to feature talented male dancers as and when we found them.

In 1997 Natyarangam launched its first thematic festival, Vandemataram to celebrate the golden jubilee of our Independence. Every day a senior dancer and a young dancer were featured. Each of them was required to present one patriotic song from the period of the freedom struggle and one pudu kavithai, (contemporary Thamizh poetry) relating to our country post-independence. We had sought the assistance of the members of YACM, Youth Association for Carnatic Music, that had brought in a renaissance in the music scene with a wave of exceptionally talented young musicians, rooted in tradition and rooting for tradition.

At the first meeting of the dancers, poets and musicians, all the three declared it was impossible to set pudu kavithai to Carnatic music. Some persuasion and an actual presentation of pudu kavithai set to Carnatic music, more or less convinced them of the feasibility.

Young musicians like Vijay Siva, T.M. Krishna, R.K. Sriramkumar, Sangeetha Sivakumar and others set the pudu kavithai by poets like Abdul Rahman, Vairamuthu, Vaideeswaran, Mu. Mehta, Nirmala Suresh and Gnanakoothan to Carnatic music and lent a helping hand to the pioneering effort. Soundaram Kailasam and Kannadasan represented marabu kavithai (traditional poetry) in the contemporary context. The festival was a resounding success and a landmark event where pudu kavithai entered the domain of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.

A highlight of the festival was the stage décor by artist Thota Tharani, who created an expansive space with tricolour buntings placed strategically. Thereafter it became the practice to design the stage décor to suit each year’s theme.

Twenty-four thematic festivals have been curated by Natyarangam till date with no repetitions, with many of them presented for the first time ever. And the festivals have brought together dancers with resource persons who were musicians, Harikatha artistes, poets, theatre persons, artists, historians and experts from many more disciplines. The synergy created by Natyarangam has educated, trained and empowered the young dancers to approach and assimilate Bharatanatyam as a holistic experience. The fallout of this has been the creation of awareness among the audience about the potential of the art.

Some of the themes presented so far are

Teertha Bharatham: Sacred Rivers of India

Bharatham Kathai Kathaiyaam: 20th Century Tamil Short Stories and parallels from Puranas, legends and history

Baandhava Bharatham: Relationships

Bhoopaala Bharatham: Kings as Protectors of the Land and People

Upanishad Bharatham: Upanishads

Thyaga Bharatham: Lives of Freedom Fighters

Chithra Bharatham: Paintings by Contemporary Indian Artists

As the committee got to know the younger dancers and their problems, the lacuna in their proficiency became more apparent. Bharathanatyam is an art that is a confluence of various allied arts, literature, philosophy and cultural inputs. Most of the dancers did not know any Indian language, including their mother tongue and were far removed from the treasures of literature and culture that came with the language. But for a handful, most of the dancers had no training in music. Nor were they aware of the rigours of training for physical fitness.

In the year 2000 Natyarangam launched its Natya Sangraham, a three-day immersion in Bharatanatyam at the camp in Thennangur, a village about two hours away from Chennai. Based broadly on the four abhinaya’s, namely Angika (physical), Vachika (Music and poetry), Aharya (Costumes and props), Satvika (expression) a team of faculty members from various disciplines with Professor C.V. Chandrasekhar as the convenor and co-ordinator, opened a window into other disciplines through lectures, demonstrations, assignment of tasks and evaluation, spot improvisation and much more. The day begins with yoga sessions at dawn and is followed by lectures and practical sessions. In the evening the Dolotsavam ritual at the temple of Pandurangan has the dancers rising to perform impromptu in front of the Utsava ­Murthy on the swing, while Aruna Sairam, T.M. Krishna, Ranjani and Gayatri, Jayanthi and Kumaresh or G.J.R. Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi sing and play for the Lord. The crowning glory is the dance for the Garuda Sevai at the temple where all the participants and some of the faculty lead the procession, dancing to the strains of the nagasvaram and the roll of the tavil ahead of the processional deity.

The names of the faculty members over the years would read like the who’s who of the art scene in Chennai. Dr. Sudha Seshayyan, Poet Vaideeswaran, Kalanidhi Narayanan, the Dhananjayans, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Chitra Visweswaran, Sudharani Raghupathi, Rhadha, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Bombay Jayashri, Trichy Sankaran, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Sikkil Gurucharan and many more have enriched the experience for the dancers in informal sessions.

The applicants for the camp are dancers from all over the globe and the numbers are restricted to around 30 participants each year. Every dancer has declared that it has been a life-changing experience. Which has been proved by the exponential growth in their perception and performance subsequently. Vidushi Vedavalli, who was the faculty member one year, decided that a similar camp needs to be be organised for students of music and the Nada Sangamam was spawned and is held at Thennangur every year by the Narada Gana Sabha Trust. The rural ambience and glorious temple of Pandurangan built by Guruji Haridasgiri Swamiji, and the inimitable hospitality of the Gnanananda Trust organised by R. Krishnaswamy and now by his son Harishankar, transform the camp into a dream experience.

Natyarangam’s mission to explore and introduce Thamizh literature in Bharathanatyam has been substantial, sustained and successful over the last twenty years. An endowment in the name of Dr. S. Ramanathan commissions a solo recital by a senior dancer every year on topics like Thevaram, Divya Prabhandam, Pillai Thamizh, Ula, Thoodhu, Siddhar Padalgal, Bharathidasan, Kavimani Desika Vinayakam Pillai and many more.

Every year since 2000 Natyarangam organises Bharathi Anjali and presents a thematic new production of Subramanya Bharathi’s poetry with four young dancers, three female and one male. Under the auspices of Vanavil Panbattu Maiyam it is performed at Bharathi Illam in Thiruvallikkeni, his last home. Some of the topics had never been tried before, like the Vachana Kavithai , the precursor to the pudu kavithai which is in prose and defies setting to music. The other was the mystic Kuyil Pattu, an allegorical poetic drama. We realised that some of the teams put together stayed together over the years and came out with their own productions. One of them set a record by staging their Bharathi theme more than fifty times in India and abroad.

While the thematic festivals and other special programmes set the stage for exploring new themes and innovative approaches, Natyarangam launched its new project of Poorna Margam. This was to enable the dancers to revisit the traditional items of the Margam as several items of the Margam like the jatisvaram and sabdam are becoming endangered species and are passing into oblivion. In this bi-annual event, a senior dancer with a high level of proficiency in nritta as well as abhinaya, is chosen to present an entire Margam lasting two hours. Old and rarely handled items are brought back into focus in these recitals.

In December 2003 Natyarangam launched its novel project, Jana Bharatham. It literally means “Bharathanatyam for the people”. Dance goes out to the people as against the sabha system, where people come in search of art and entertainment. The objective is to take dance to sections of the society which do not get to attend concerts in Sabhas. It is done through lecture – concerts of an hour’s duration. Small groups of dancers present the nuances of dance in an interesting combination of education and entertainment. Each programme is tailored to suit the target audience and the dancers make the presentations in English as well as Tamil.

The group normally consists of four or more dancers, who perform solo and group numbers. The presentation is informal and interactive. Stripped of the trappings of the conventional presentation, such as elaborate costumes, make up, orchestra, lights and even a stage, the art can be seen in its pristine beauty at close quarters. Jana Bharatham groups have performed at schools, colleges, orphanages, old age homes, villages and tsunami-hit communities.

A performance module of Jana Bharatham happened to develop almost on its own. A lady came all the way from Coimbatore to commission a programme on Andal to be performed at her daughter’s wedding. A group of young dancers was selected and given the subject to choose the lyrics, have it set to music and choreograph and perform. This proved to be a success and many more requests came up for thematic concerts at weddings. Significant was the invitation received from Kamban Kazhagam to present scenes from Kamba Ramayanam. Thamizh writer Sa Kandaswamy requested Love songs from the Sangam poetry Aga Nanooru to be performed in Bharathanatyam. Two dancers were chosen and their solo renderings were filmed for the Tamil Nadu Govt Archives.

Some of the other activities in the earlier years include quiz programmes, conducted by the dancers and competitions where the dancers were required to do on the spot improvisation for sancharis and depiction of episodes. The recent workshops on compering for Bharathanatyam are an attempt to develop communicative and presentational skills of the dancers. Compering sessions in English and Thamizh are conducted for dancers with faculty members comprising writers, TV anchors, theatre ­persons and experts in compering, who evaluate and give feedback.

Natyarangam has also turned its attention to the bridge between the artist and the viewer, namely the media. The print media in English has a regular column for reviews and articles. While the number of knowledgeable critics was rather low, the vernacular dailies and weeklies have had fewer critics and have tried to make do with anyone who could write. The nadir was reached when a critic wrote in a Tamil weekly that “even though the name Anup Jalota sounded odd, the dance performed by that beautiful peacock on the inaugural day was marvelous.” It was ludicrously obvious that the writer never attended the programme and was ignorant not only of dance, but of the fact that the artist was a famous male singer of Hindustani Bhajans.

A seminar and workshop for critics was held in 1997, where a panel of experts drawn from writers, dancers and connoisseurs spoke on the various aspects of reviewing. It was agreed that a critic of dance should possess a knowledge of the art and a good style of writing. When the question arose whether a person with knowledge of dance should be taught to write or a good writer should be coached about the fundamentals and nuances of the art, the panelists unanimously chose the latter option. They held that writing is an art in itself and that it is easier to teach a good writer about the subject to be reviewed.

Natyarangam acted upon this advice and invited nine leading Tamil writers to review dance programmes during the 1998 December music and dance festival. Each one had to watch a senior dancer and a younger dancer performing at various sabhas in the city. Writers like Sivasankari and Anandhi Ramachandran had been dancers. But writers like Asokamitran, Prapanchan, Thiruppur Krishnan had no acquaintance with the art. Each of them was accompanied by either a committee member or a young dancer to explain what the dancer was doing. Dinamani, the Tamil edition of Indian Express came forward to publish the reviews, which were superb examples of recreating the experience for the readers.

Natyarangam has come to be recognised for its vision and high-quality programmes. Sustained efforts over two decades have raised the benchmark for dancers. Their collaboration with musicians has helped raise the standards of dance music. Natyarangam can also rightfully take the credit for the growing acceptance and popularity of young male dancers, who have been regularly featured in its monthly, annual and special programmes.

The Natyarangam team is alert to the changing needs in the dance scene today and works towards answering them with action-oriented programmes. During the pandemic it kept the art alive by online presentation of its past performances and lecture demonstrations and a virtual Natya Sangraham on the web. A constant review of the goals and the level of achievement keeps the team busy all through the year in the promotion and propagation of Bharathanatyam and nurturing talent from the grassroots level.

The passing away of R. Krishnaswamy, the anchor of Natyarangam and some of the committee members was a setback. With K. Harishankar stepping in as the secretary and the induction of new members, the dedicated team is holding the banner aloft and is marching on.

The members of the committee at present are:

Sujatha Vijyaraghavan, K.S. Subramanian, S. Kannan, S. Janaki, K.S. Natarajan, Hyma Ramakrishna, P.C. Ramakrishna, Dharma Raman, S.B.S. Raman and Gayatri Srikant.

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