Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
Dancing to whose tune?
A discussion steered by Gowri Ramnarayan on music for dance.
Gowri Ramnarayan: A sound knowledge of Carnatic music is considered to be essential for excellence in a Bharatanatyam performer. Did you feel this when you began to learn Bharatanatyam? Did your dance gurus happen to be good musicians as well?
Chitra Visweshwaran: I grew up in Calcutta which did not have an ambience for Carnatic music. I was exposed more to Hindustani, Western and Rabindra Sangeet. Besides, I went to Bharatanatyam after learning other genres like Manipuri, Kathak, western ballet and contemporary dance. My guru Tiruvidaimarudur Rajalakshmi was not a good singer herself, but she stressed the importance of music in the traditional margam she taught, which made me take lessons from Calcutta Krishnamurti. I next went to Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai who taught music directly as he taught dance. Reacting to the nuances of music was a vital feature of his style.
My sensitivity to music blossomed fully with marriage to Visweshwaran. Now I am no longer able to interact with mediocre music, I need excellent music to do my best on the stage.
Lakshmi Viswanathan: My mother decided that I should be trained in Bharatanatyam only because I was dancing from age three whenever she sang and played the veena. I was also put through a regular course in Carnatic music. In fact, I enjoyed the dance because I knew the music well. My taste in music developed much faster than my knowledge of dance. I also had the advantage of the elders in my family selecting music appropriate for my dance. As a child, I was not subjected to sringara pada varnams but pasurams made into varnams for me. I learnt from my family that dance is an audio-visual art.
Eventually I went to Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai only because I heard him sing. He taught traditional compositions meant for dance. Even the use of a kirtanam was frowned upon, I did that much later. Ellappa's rule was that every song must be learnt perfectly before the dancing was taught. From him I learnt all over again the varnams that I had performed as a child without understanding their grandeur, because he sang them so beautifully! In my early years as a career artist I was greatly helped by my sister Charumati's singing.
G.R.: Valli, the legendary Minakshisundaram Pillai of your Pandanallur school was a great musician, but did your gurus Chockalingam Pillai and Subbaroya Pillai give as much importance to the melody as to the rigours of rhythm?
Alarmel Valli: True, they were never able to sing as beautifully as Minakshisundaram Pillai but my gurus were able to instil a total sense of music. I distinctly remember master saying, "Enjoy the music, absorb it so that raga and laya become a part of you. Your body must move in instinctive response to the swaras." They also insisted "Kaalil‚ chinnadu-perisu pesanum" (The feet must reflect the highs and lows of rhythm modulation). Once I heard Balasaraswati say that abhinaya cannot be taught, it had to flower spontaneously. I knew what she meant only after I started studying music with T. Mukta. Suddenly I found a new dimension. I was translating karvais, brikas and gamakas more and more through all my movements. I realised that the ideal is reached when you can see the music and hear the dance.
Shanta Dhananjayan: From age seven, I grew up with rich music which was part of the environment at Kalakshetra. Dance students had to take music as an ancillary subject. There were great musicians to learn from - Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, M. D. Ramanathan, Turaiyur Rajagopala Sharma, Ramaswamy Iyengar, D. Pasupathi, Vitthala Iyer the mridangist . . . Mysore Vasudevachar was an inspiring presence in the campus. He used to call out to us as we passed by his cottage, ask us what we had learnt that day, and teach us a song or two. Bhajan singing was an enjoyable activity. We also had good music in our classes and rehearsals.
When as a child, I was chosen to play Lava in Rukmini Devi's Ramayana, I was shocked to learn that I had to sing the song on stage! But Vasudevachar who had composed the music was himself there to correct and encourage. I didn't learn so much about the grammar of music but I grew up with a deep feeling for it. This has been an invaluable asset to me as a performer, teacher and choreographer.
G.R.: Can you provide this kind of musical ambience for your students today?
Chitra: In my dance school Chidambaram, the pupils get exposure to good music in the classes and at rehearsals. We see to it that they learn the music they dance to. But the children find it tough to decide whether to take a course in Carnatic music or in computers! But those who have succeeded have invariably been the ones who developed a sensitive feel for the music, they find the time for it.
Lakshmi: I think I have to give you a more realistic picture. It is not enough to respond to the concept of music. Such responses are superficial and you can see the difference between the dancer who knows her music thoroughly and the dancer who pretends to know it. Yes, I am aware of the time constraints for the younger generation. I teach only a few, and only those who are willing to learn the music.
Valli: Not that students should reproduce brikas and gamakas perfectly, but they must have an awareness of their musical values.
Shanta: And Valli, to some students this comes naturally, others have to make an extra effort. What can you do if your throat cannot reproduce what your mind understands? Rhythm can pose major problems for some, even maintaining sarvalaghu becomes difficult.
G.R.: Youngsters today often seem to respond to the raucous side of pop, jazz, rock, rap etc . . . . Does this addiction to noise desensitise them to classical Carnatic music?
Chitra: No. I think anybody who moves well should be able to respond to any aesthetically pleasing music from Bach to rap.
G.R.: Would you define what is telecast in MTV and Music Asia as aesthetically pleasing?
Chitra: We have a tendency to be claustrophobic about this, what I call the nine-yards syndrome. I tell my students, if you can't respond to Carnatic music, try and respond to any music! Then I can get them to open out into the discipline of the dance. This is what happened to me. I was an outsider who became an insider. All roads lead to Rome.
Lakshmi: I am more conservative about how teacher or parent influences the child's taste in music. If you are unused to continuous listening from the early years, chances of coming back to Carnatic music through other roads is slim. I do listen to A. R. Rahman. But we must know the difference between music that lasts and music of fads and trends.
Valli: I too like various kinds of music but I agree that an unadulterated diet of raucous music can blunt your sensibilities.
Shanta: This is due largely to peer pressure.
G.R.: Unlike in the past, most dancers today cannot have a permanent orchestra headed by their gurus with expertise in dance music. How does this change the quality of the music and how do you build a rapport with your musicians?
Chitra: With Ramiah Pillai you had to react to every ring and nuance of the nattuvangam. How much time and effort goes into building that kind of mutual understanding with the orchestra! That is why I get upset when musicians say they can give one rehearsal only. Tough on the youngsters. Nor can the experienced give their best. After all, with mature artists it is the norm to expect the unexpected, which happens only with mutual understanding between singer and dancer where one anticipates the other in creativity.
Shanta: All of us want trained musicians. The demand exceeds the supply. Bharata Kalanjali and Chidambaram have training programmes for youngsters in singing, nattuvangam and instrumental music for the dance. This involves effort and trouble but is essential for survival. Many concert musicians think it is below their dignity to accompany the dance. And when they do, they can overwhelm the dance by their elaborate singing. Moreover, even expert mridangists may not know how to choose the patterns and the tempo according to the capacity of the individual dancer.
Valli: Concert vocalists are also afraid of ruining their voices by repetitive singing as dance accompanists. But many who cannot make it as concert musicians do not know that dance can offer them opportunities. I have suggested to the 9th Plan Steering Committee that such an information bank be set up.
Lakshmi: In the past the guru was in absolute charge and got the musicians to play their appropriate parts. The music was not allowed to swamp the dance, the drummer was guided by the conductor. Now invariably you find the dancer controlling the orchestra.
G.R.: Students doing nattuvangam for their gurus will have no choice but to follow the dancer.
Lakshmi: I remember my guru Ellappa training a mridangist to play for the dance in techniques which are near forgotten today. The dancer, conductor and drummer would be working on co-ordinated but parallel tracks. I mean, there would be variations in the rhythm patterns produced by the feet, the sollukattu and the mridangam, all blending to produce a magical finish. The mridangist did not simply keep the beat but played different nadais to help body movements. You could anticipate firm anchoring when you did certain mudras, a blossoming lotus was defined by special rhythm effects.
I am trying now to persuade the government college of music to start a separate department for dance music.
Chitra: There are no easy solutions because there is no standardised procedure. Each style and repertoire is different, to which you must add the variations brought in by the individual dancer.
Shanta: I feel so sorry when I see singers "reading" hurriedly learnt music from the books in their hand during the performances of many young artists. How can they sing with feeling or inspire the dancers to express bhava with any depth?
Lakshmi: Nowadays I do not take on musicians who are not willing to put in that extra effort. Now the tide has turned. My musicians have started enjoying learning with me and I no longer have to make compromises on even the sangatis.
Shanta: Since we have trained many musicians who have started their careers with us, we have always had a good working relationship with them.
Valli: I often say that I want to be an accompanist in my next birth because the dancer goes through the blood, sweat and tears of all the organising. And the job of the accompanist is more paying than the dancer's.
Chitra: That's true. I will add that though a good orchestra can be expensive, there are times when our musicians have helped out with students from poor families.
G.R.: People from different racial, linguistic backgrounds, - without a thorough grasp of Carnatic music - practise the art today. How do you rate them?
Chitra: They respond to Carnatic music just as we respond to Hindustani and Western music!
Shanta: Many foreign students are far more persevering than our own. They make it a point to acquire an all round knowledge of the subject.
Lakshmi: A non-Tamil may respond intuitively to Carnatic music even without a thorough knowledge of it. Such people can be cleverly taught to do justice to carefully chosen items. An inner response to music is not response only to the sounds but to the whole ethos of that music, which is quite indefinable.
Valli: By and large, we may have an advantage over people coming from backgrounds wholly alien to Carnatic music but there are always exceptions.
G.R.: But you yourselves are no longer content with Carnatic music. In fact, experimenting with other kinds of music is the norm for Bharatanatyam dancers today. How satisfied are you with such attempts?
Shanta: Recently, our students did a show with recorded Western instrumental music. They listened to it and worked out movements to reflect its moods. We have done lots of experimental work, like choreographing Vairamuthu's poems, in tunes suitable to those modern lyrics. All this is exciting, fulfilling, creative, but I do think that only with music traditionally its own can you have hundred per cent Bharatanatyam. With other kinds of music some aspect or the other gets missed out.
Chitra: I do not agree. I was not less fulfilled when I did Mira to Hindustani music and Andal to Carnatic in my "Dwarakanatham Bhaje". The language of the dance transcends this barrier.
Lakshmi: To bring soul into alien music Hindustani, Western or fusion requires a greater effort. I would like to do thumri bhav one day, but before that I'd like to learn the thumri.
Valli: That's the point!
Chitra: I think I respond to Hindustani music because I grew up in Calcutta.
Lakshmi: I can respond fantastically to Bach or Begum Akhtar but I want to internalise it before I can choreograph it with credibility and express it as well as Birju Maharaj does.
G.R.: I may love thumri as much as I love padam. But I might still prefer to see Birju Maharaj do a thumri rather than a Bharatanatyam artist.
Chitra: When I portrayed Mira with the grandeur of Rajasthan -
G.R.: - You must have changed your vocabulary and movements to convey a different ethos.
Chitra: Yes. The pressure on my body will be different to flow with a different type of music. Strictly traditional Bharatanatyam adavus and mudras will not work with a bhajan or thumri.
Shanta: The way you move to the same "Yahi madhava" when sung in a Carnatic ragam and in a Hindustani tune will differ drastically. It also changes the entire mood of the piece.
G.R.: Why do you do it when Odissi and Kathak artists do not do the kritis of Tyagaraja or the pasurams of Andal?
Chitra: It is their limitation!
G.R.: Do you dance to other kinds of music - to which you cannot do the Bharatanatyam that you learnt from your gurus - in order to offer novelty to bored audiences?
Chitra: No. This is an extension of the repertoire. A need to create something new.
Shanta: Balasaraswati did not do in "Krishna nee begane" what she did for a Surutti javali. Firstly, you have to enjoy whatever you are doing. And let's be practical, next we do have to think of conveying that enjoyment to the audience. Certainly there is pressure from people saying, "She is doing the same thing." You also see others experimenting and you want to try something different.
Lakshmi: We have been extending our repertoire all the time. Today tillana means a Lalgudi tillana. You have to choreograph it differently and without the meyyadavus of the Bilahari and Kanada tillanas of our childhood. We adapted the grammar to suit the melody and rhythm variations here. Also, an element of North Indian music has always been part of Carnatic music, the romance of Behag and Khamas have entered our system. Our ears are therefore trained to appreciate Hindustani music, unlike the north Indian's lack of such training vis a vis our music.
Shanta: What we know as traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire itself is not all that old! And time alone can tell whether our innovations and adaptations will last.
Lakshmi: With the proliferation of students and schools any judicious control of the repertoire is impossible. Ultimately the dancer will do what she believes in.
Valli: Sorry to sound pompous, but this is what I say all the time, "To thine own self be true." Today, despite the pressures from many sides, the real pressure for the artist must come from within.
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