thoughts about music to an audience so well versed in the many nuances
of Bharatanatyam is a challenge. A dance conference that includes
sounds and movement vocabularies from around India presents a plethora
of musical riches to Chennai audiences and I often wonder what I, as a
dancer chosen to speak from the Bharatanatyam genre can offer or share
that could be an alternative vision to both dancers and dance makers.
Alongside Kathak, it is Bharatanatyam
that has been the most adventurous with its form and content. So
many experiments with the mixing musical genres and movement experimentation
have occurred during the past 25 years that it seems that almost every
permutation and combination has already been tried. Rhythms, melodies,
ragas, western and eastern instruments in consonance, new lyrics and pulses
- new themes... you name it and Bharatanatyam has seen and done it.
And so I would like to begin with
what I feel should be the patina of sound for a performance. Or should
I say, BEFORE a performance. Even before the orchestra has struck
their first note and the sounds of the violin, veena, flute and the singer
begin in "raga nattai" and the words in homage to Ganesa, we have already
entered as the audience into auditorium and are waiting in anticipation.
The music choice for the "house" as the space is called around should already
be vibrating with the choice of music that is compatible with what the
dancer/choreographer wishes to express through her performance which is
This pre-show music is normally followed
by the prologue music which is not the same. Both choices are equally
important as the melodic structure of the actual body of the dance performance.
For NEELAM, my presentation on Sri Vishnu, I had the simple sounds of OM
NAMO NARAYANA sung very softly for 30 minutes as the hall doors were opened
to the crowds. Before the performance actually started a traditional
mallari on the nadaswaram played for 3 minutes to a closed curtain before
the first item began. This helped set the mood for the audience and
set the stage for the meditative and ritual framework of NEELAM.
For 7 GRACES, inspired by the Buddhist
Goddess Tara, the sounds of the Tibetan flute were played very softly as
to create the mood and not to disturb the flow of the audience, and yet
very gently lead the audience in the mood of what they were about to see.
In the noisy and often hurried atmosphere of the season performances, there
is no time to be contemplative and so it is even more imperative to think
about setting the mood before the dance performance actually begins.
For FACES, a new hour long showcase
of several dances, I have selected the music of Anil Srinivasan along with
the violin of Amrita Murali. Together they have played the raga Madhuvanti
alongside which I have included some phrases and poetic prose about the
idea and concept of FACES. This proloque is NOT a verbal introduction
of what exactly the audience will see but instead a suggestion of the landscape
of the work that will be revealed to them in sections.
So, Sangeetam in dance begins even
before the performance starts. Also, our definition of what constitutes
music for dance has changed over the years. More than melodies and
jathis in various moods, paces and combinations, newer sounds have been
introduced with the gradual acceptance of recorded music scores for dance
performances. I have moved towards using commissioned and recorded
scores for all my productions for the past 6 years, not using the regular
dance orchestra and thereby allowing myself to include more musical inputs
than ever before possible.
In 1996, with the grant from the
Department of CUlture, Government of India, I began research on the sacred
chants in several Vaishnav temples. Each temple, near and around
my ancestral village of Tirukurungudi in the Tirunelveli district of Tamilnadu,
had a unique way of chanting the Divya Prabandham, the sacred 4000 verses
so central to the worship of Vishnu in Tamilnadu. The atonal chants
were unusual and jarring to the ear trained to listen to the mellifluous
notes of Carnatic ragas. Yet they also carried a pulse and a flow
that was unique to the long meditative corridors of the temples they were
chanted in. The study allowed me to enter into the spaces and interstices
of the words and the silences that punctuated the hymns. Alongside
my study of the Arayer Sevai hand gestures from Sudharani Raghupahty and
later from the Arayer priests themselves in the temples of Sri Villiputtur
and Alwar Tirunagari, came the discovery of the consonance that these chants
and gestures contained within themselves - separate but not different from
the intention of classical Bharatanatyam. Using the actual temple
chants by a male priest layered with the female voice repeating the famous
verses uttered by the 9th century Tamil poet Andal made for both an interesting
slice of theatre and an aural depiction more powerful than putting these
same words to a melody. Adding to that was my own voice, making the
sound scape human and immediate.
Demonstration of ANDAL
Moving further and further away
from the regular dance repertoire, I realized that in order to flesh out
my ideas I needed to collaborate with musicians and composers to whom the
world of sound was not relegated to music alone.
Here are a few examples of the experiments
with sound and music that I was involved in.
In DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN, the music
was merely the backdrop whereas the choreography, on four dancers, worked
sometimes with and often against the raga alapanas. As the sutradhar,
I often bracketed the score with songs or chants.
For VAITHARANI, the dance about the
journey of the soul struggling to cross over the river of death.
Mridangist and composer KSR Aniruddha gave me a continuous jathi like the
flowing river itself... never returning to the beginning and always flowing
forward. Sound engineer Debashish Sinha made the famous chant of
the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra in a continuous loop with the underlying harmonics
that gave familiar auspicious mantra a surreal sound.
For UTPALA, the production about
the Lotus, various water sounds were used, from small rivulets to gushing
rivers, stones dropping into ponds and the ocean waves. We traveled
to gather these various water sounds, not limiting ourselves to music and
sound samplers. Contrasting these nature sounds were the choric refrain
of the tavil and ghatam - thus creating a soundscape of the soft and strong,
like the enigma of the lotus itself.
For 7 GRACES, a solo on Goddess Tara,
authentic Tibetan chants were the base of the sound design with a recurring
motif of the Sindhubhairavi raga and various other elements like tribal
Thudumbu drums, Tibetan flute and western operatic arias making up this
For NEELAM, the sounds were traditional,
not classical. In that I mean that the music had definite Carnatic
references, but they were composed and imagined by concert singers and
musicians who accompany dance. What challenges does this combination
provide to the dancer as choreographer?
An example from NEELAM is the structure
of the Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi of Dikshitar's famous tune RANGA PURA VIHARA.
Taking from the famous temple itself with its seven prakaras - there were
seven layers to the melody - four different sangatis to the pallavi, and
three different sangatis for the final charanam. The main idol of
Ranganatha like the temple gopuram itself, rising serene supernal, shorn
of any clutter (and therefore shorn of any orchestration or instrumentation
but the melody itself). The composition itself is the highlight,
and the dance arises from and is contained by it.
Composed by Anil Srinivasan, who
has been my collaborator for the past 3 productions, the idea was to use
Carnatic music as they are sung and not specifically tailor made to suit
either a set choreography or with stage directions. This frees the
musical execution from shackles of "made to order" music. Lyric,
meaning and harmony flow more freely, thus making them suitable to a larger
template of colours.
Demonstration from NEELAM
The entire composition was imagined
in the traditional ragam-tanam-pallavi structure. The composer shared
his thoughts with me and we discussed the space for some rhythm structures
to be included or inserted into the flow of the music. The ragam
was to allow many shades of abhinaya to be explored - the tanam would act
as the sollukattu to the more elaborate delineation.
The idea of poetry in motion - or
sound as motion - when we sing and play; we think of each idea and thought
expressed by the lyric as dancing - at least both visually and spatially.
This is executed in the music AND in the dance. As a dancer, these
are simultaneous deliveries - not a chicken and egg situation.
For FACES, the composer Anil Srinivasan
has used the talents of concert singers but also created a new short score
with the embellishments of Japanese KODO drums, the traditional Devi chant
of "AYIGIRI NANDINI" and the layered sound of Muthuswami Dikshitar's "Kanaka
Shaila Viharini". Layering the evening from prologue to the conclusion
is his evocative piano. Using a non Indian percussion / melodic instrument
like the piano for Bharatanatyam could be considered dabbling with modernity.
However, it is the harmony that I seek. The sensitive treatment of
melody with different layers of sound which equals different moods and
expressions allows me as the creator/dancer to respond through body movement.
What if we had no music but the pulse
of our own voices in silence and the gentle sounds of water? What
if the words themselves are the music and the dancer did NOT respond to
each word with a gesture or abhinaya? I have attempted this in one
section of FACES in which a poem relating the many phases of the waxing
moon is compared to the features on Devi's face. This section, coming
after some very vigorous and expressive dancing, is the 'face' in the dance
space. The poem is read more than once to allow the words to dance/paint
the images into our minds. In the silence that comes after, the dance
begins and continues.
Demonstration of spoken poem from
Since I have entered into collaborative
works with artistes from various disciplines, I have had to address the
musical structure of each of these venture/adventures. The idea of
the 'sacred' in music and dance has been a constant preoccupation - besides
the continuing metaphors of Goddess, woman and water. What makes
a song special and the voice of some singers take us closer to the sacred
source? Not only in our music and traditions are found deep sources
of the divine. There are moments around the world where both architecture
and sound take us closer to that infinite source.
I would like to now share the voice
of the legendary opera singer Maria Callas. Her classical renderings
in the western operatic style made her a goddess in her country, Italy
and around the world. In this section, her gentle voice is the final
path that I take as the journey towards the sacred horizon in completed.
This is the final section of 7 GRACES, in which the dancer as devotee is
traveling with confidence and later exuberance towards the 'mother' who
created her. The voice echoes, follows, supports but also releases
the dancer beyond the expected framework.
Demonstration from 7 GRACES
I stand here today representing
the style of Bharatanatyam and have shared the journey that one dancer,
trained rigorously in this style, can make. The best known vocabulary
my body knows is Bharatanatyam but as with my music choices, my dance itself
echoes this classical source while continuously exploring other forms.
To continue my artistic journey while retaining the same style of compositions
that I performed to as a teenager would not serve either the dance or the
music. It is Bharatanatyam that has allowed me to dream and to fly.
This great style is the bedrock of my body's response to the universe.
Dance ultimately lies in the rasanubhuti
of silence. This is what so many of my productions over the past
10 years have explored. This silence allows the mind to ponder, and
form a coherent thought before being rushed into the next face/movement.
These silences punctuate the music without puncturing it. Using the
voice and the face of each source, voice, percussion, nature, life - music
for dance can be as rich and varied as life itself.