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Dance > Face-To-Face
S.Janaki Moving With the Times - The Environment of Bharatanatyam
21 September, 2012

- Vidya Saranyan

S. Janaki is a well-known art commentator and writer with a sprightly presence in the hub of the Chennai cultural scene for over two decades. A keen cultural enthusiast she is a member of prominent arts organizations like Natyarangam and currently holds office of Vice President of ABHAI. She is the executive editor of India’s premier magazine for promoting the classical arts: Sruti.

Her straightforward outlook that does not shy from calling a spade by its proper name is backed by her formal training in Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music and Painting. Her proactive involvement in the art can also be seen from her role as a speaker at topical seminars and compeering selected events. In a conversation she shared her keen perception of the contemporary developments in the Bharatanatyam scene.

What are the positive directions in which the art has flourished after Bharatanatyam left the traditional precincts and moved to the metropolitan setting?

Well, there has been a considerable change in the length and breadth of the art. The aesthetics of the dance form has undergone a change. There is greater awareness of correct bodylines and stances. Costumes, jewelry, lighting have all gained new dimensions; rasikas too are keen to know more about dance than simply watch a performance.

Over the past 25 years or so there has been greater interaction within the dance fraternity, and between students of different dance schools.

How has the content of the art evolved?

A significant development is the expansion of the repertoire in response to the times. Bharatanatyam is also used as a dance vocabulary which has led to the art form going global and becoming a prominent classical dance form. Thematic presentations - for example to convey social messages are now on the increase. All these are welcome as long as the core of Bharatanatyam is maintained with authenticity and dignity.

Can you shed light on some tendencies in the teaching scenario today?

It is well known that today Natyam is now taught by artists belonging to different communities and not only those hailing from hereditary clans. Though there are now hundreds of teachers I feel that not all of them can be called Gurus. The nattuvanars of the past as well as the present assembly of senior artistes received an in-depth and well-rounded legacy of knowledge. Today there are more cases of teaching only items which do not complete a student’s dance training. Young dancers who wish to take up Bharatanatyam as a profession should be given a holistic approach to dance and prepared in allied subjects too.

Additionally, I feel that the method of inculcating Bharatanatyam should be aimed at encouraging the originality of the student and not turn out an assembly line of performers who can only imitate but not create.

What is your observation on the myriad Bharatanatyam performances by groups of artists alongside the solo ones in the recent years?

The reason for this is the exponential growth in the number of learners of Bharatanatyam. In this context, group productions provide good platforms to different levels of talent, parents are happy that their children are given stage time and the teacher gains in standing for bringing the students to the performing level. Importantly, these presentations accommodate those who just want the performing experience but may not take to full time performing. Group dancing also helps dancers to understand the concepts of synchronization, performing space and sharing the spotlight with others.

Alongside these we can also find a growing attraction for another kind of group production based on fusion - where both the music as well as the dancing, are not strictly classical.

What is the focus on the academic side of the art now?

Interest in dance theory has grown steadily from the 1970s onwards. It is heartening to see that dance students are taught the theory and also about treatises like the Natya Sastra, Abhinaya Darpana, etc. Many dancers are taking up classical dance as a degree course and even pursuing it up to the doctorate level.

In what way has the rhythmic landscape thrived? Could you also elaborate on the negative features seen now?

Intelligently choreography of jatis to take a story forward, or even tailoring them to suit a theme is definitely praiseworthy. There is now an open atmosphere of incorporating jatis from different sources. But this has a flip side too. If the important fact of tonal uniformity is disregarded and the jatis do not belong to an analogous family of rhythmic passages we have a raw ‘cut and paste’ effect which causes dissonance in the aural quality of the performance.

Another negative is the inclusion of prolonged jatis that run into several avartanam. The focus here is not to display complexity of rhythm but more for garnering applause. So much so that such passages have now earned the funny sobriquet of ‘goods vandi theermanams’ among rasikas!

Have there been any shifts in the manner of executing nritta or pure dance?

There is a greater precision of body lines that enhances the visual appeal of the dance. On the other hand, we can often see a craze for speed that is coupled with the pressure to cover the stage space. Invariably this results in unfinished adavus, as the dancer launches into a frenzy of movements to whip up excitement. The “ottam adavu” – running on the toes is very common now! No doubt, a mirror to what is happening in society all-round.

Unlike the samapada stance used in Kathak which is suitable for high speed dancing, Bharatanatyam is characterized by the araimandi and several grounded adavus. If the dancer loses sight of using the specific adavus to move around, the outcome is visually altered, if not downright jarring.

Could you comment on the progression of abhinaya over the years?

Now a greater diversity of themes apart from sringara have begun to be explored as the patronage moved away from royal courts, A number of new compositions on social and secular subjects have been adapted to dance. New hastas (hand gestures) have taken shape and new viniyogas (usages) for existing hastas have been devised. In the years of my experiencing the art form, I also find that the finer nuances are giving way to the dramatic mode of presentation as the dancers’ communication is tailored for audiences in a larger setting.

On a lighter note, there is the ‘Anglicization’ of abhinaya. With the globalization of natyam, there are more dancers who do not speak the vernacular. At some rehearsals I have observed that dancers practice the contextual dialogues in English for the abhinaya for Tamil songs. This does not affect the accuracy of the emotion but I find there is a change in its flavor.

What is the fallout of the increasing interest in the art?

An important fact to be faced here is that not everyone who learns the art can become a professional artist. There may be plenty of good talent but the dynamics of the performing scene is such that it can accommodate only a limited number. Unfortunately the growing demand for performing opportunities is exploited by some operators who promote the culture of ‘pay and perform’ a disease which adversely affects both the dancers and the audiences.

Some realities that will influence the quality of the art in the future?

In spite of the huge growth in the number of learners, we can see that merit will hold sway in the long run. There is an apprehension that greater number of learners will only lead to mediocrity and I think that these dancers may well have their day under the sun. But over a period of time they will fall by the way and only the very best will make it to the top through their perseverance and sustained commitment to the art. The rasikas are discerning enough. They will ensure that quality prevails in the long run and it is the most dedicated dancers who will carry forward the torch of Bharatanatyam in the future.

What direction will the art take in the years to come?

I think natyam will swing to smaller venues also and not depend on big auditoria or sabhas alone. Chamber concerts may become more popular as a measure to tackle dwindling audiences and rising costs. Such closeness between performers and rasikas would also nurture subtleties in natyam.

Bharatanatyam is a demanding art. In today’s context we see the artists juggling the roles of performer, coordinator, financier, manager all at once. Who were the managers in the past and what is the kind of help available to the dancers today in this regard?

Experts and art historians tell us that traditionally nattuvanars would manage the devadasis’ professional events. Today barring a few who acquire professional assistance, it is commonplace for the artist to don many hats and many artists manage on their own. Artists need time to mull over to and to nourish their creativity. But we do not have an organized structure in place for providing career - artists much needed managerial support.

A brief statement on the role of the government to further the arts…?

I wish our State government would play a more active role in highlighting artistes from Tamil Nadu for the national awards and Sammans. The government could also launch welfare schemes for artistes, covering areas of housing, health, insurance and pension for deserving artistes. Classical and folk artistes must be invited to perform at every official cultural function, tourism events to give due recognition and incentive to more artists.

You are an active member of Natyarangam committee; could you mention some of its functions?

The festivals conducted by Natyarangam provide an umbrella for artists to innovate within tradition. Novel themes backed by comprehensive research and inputs provided by scholars and musicians stimulate the dancers towards fresh inspiration in these specialized presentations and lecture demonstrations. That is why these are so sought after by the artist fraternity.

In conclusion, what more do you think should be done to nourish the arts?

Many events organized by cultural groups focus more on cinema-related dance and music. Why not bring in our folk arts into the loop? Metro audiences including the next generation will relish this facet of our heritage.

It is essential to remember that, as important it is to mold artistes, it is equally important to shape rasikas who will grow up with pride in our culture. For this to happen, the classical arts must be taught as an integral part of the curriculum by accredited teachers at schools. Talented artistes could be invited to give lecture demonstrations at all Corporation schools to provide these students a congenial experience of the arts.

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