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South Asian Art History - In Memory Of Prashant H. Fadia

Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

Learning Bharata Natyam

Moms driving miles and miles on weekends to take their kids to classes in Indian music, dance, chanting, and languages is a phenomenon common to all the cities of US where there is an Indian population. In their eagerness to inculcate Indian culture in their offspring they spare no efforts. Whether the younger generation, which is born a US citizen, is equally motivated to imbibe the Indian culture thrust upon it, is a moot question.

In several cases the parents push the children against their wishes to learn something, which they cannot relate to. There are exceptions where the child shows a genuine interest and works hard to attain proficiency. Sometimes the family atmosphere is so charged with the arts and culture of the Indian soil that the children take to them naturally and without any persuasion.

Bharatanatyam, the form of dance native to the southern part of India, particularly Tamil Nadu is one of the most complete and holistic discipline of Indian culture and opens portals to several other disciplines. For someone serious about getting acquainted with Indian culture, learning Bharatanatyam is an attractive proposition. It is attractive because its visual aesthetics are highly refined with a matching aural complement. It is a stylized form of classical art.

On the downside we are faced with long years of arduous learning and practice. Hence it would be worthwhile for the parents and the kids to know what they are letting themselves in for, before they pursue this art, spending their time, energy, and money. The same holds good for the parents and their wards back home in India.

The very attractiveness of the art at the superficial level is the factor that lures the girls and their parents. Who would not like his child to be all dolled up in dazzling finery and go on stage? So would every little girl dream of dabbing make up and donning gorgeous outfits. The Arangetram is more a social function to show off the parent’s affluence than showcase the child’s proficiency in art. Very often, this alone is the motivation to pursue the art. Which is a sad thing for the pupil, the parent, and the art.

It is essential to know what the art holds for the pupil at various levels so that one may have a clear perspective of the goals ahead. This would help in deciding whether one would choose the art as a vocation, a career, a hobby, or a pastime. Not everyone need be a performer. Some can be teachers, choreographers, critics, scholars, research persons, or experimenters with new themes and forms. The syllabus of this art includes several disciplines and only an all-round proficiency in all of them would make a complete artist.

1. Bharatanatyam is a Yoga

It is a form of physical exercise that can keep the body young, active, pliant and expressive. Its basic adavus, namely physical movements are symmetrical, requiring the pupil to be ambidextrous and imparts energy to all parts of the body. Every moveable part of the body, such as the eyes, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, flanks, hips, knees and ankles have prescribed exercises .The sense of rhythm, which is an essential feature of the exercises, helps breath control and inculcates the ability to relax while performing complex and fast movements. The adavus on their own can make the learning of Bharatanatyam a rewarding experience. The joy of physical movements is built in the adavus as the face is trained to be expressive and joyful even when there is no mime.

One of the myths about bharatanatyam is that it is a slimming exercise. The teachers often advice obese pupils to lose weight before they pursue the art. Regular hours of practice and a disciplined diet can help to remain trim.

For children born and brought up in an alien land it would introduce a new body language. Whether it is a turn of the head or wave of the arm or a stately walk, the movement will bear the stamp of refinement and lissome grace .The healthy body and the sense of physical well-being are a bonus.

2. Bharatanatyam is Visual Music.

“The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved by concord of sweet sounds
Is fit for treason, stratagems and spoils”

said Shakespeare.

Plato advocated that the youth of a country should be trained in music and gymnastics, the first to refine the mind and the second to mould the body .He was of the view that children should be taught music first. Babies respond to music from the cradle stage and the toddler dances spontaneously whenever he hears music and rhythm. It is apparent that all of us are born with a sense of harmony and rhythm.

In Bharatanatyam every movement of the dancer expresses the music and the lyrics visually .It is important that the student of Bharatanatyam learns music as well, not in a casual manner, but as a serious student of music, learning the nuances, which should be reflected in the dance. Abhinaya Darpana calls the musical accompanists of the dancer, her Bahipraanan (life breath that is external). It is to say that the dancer and her musicians are to be in perfect sync so as to anticipate each other and reflect it in their art. Carnatic music, to which Bharatanatyam is performed, is known as Sangitha Yoga. This discipline trains not only the voice, but also the mind and helps concentration, which can lead to spiritual joy through self-realization.

Dance and music together can discipline the body, mind and intellect of an individual and guide him towards spiritualism .The rasanubhuti which means the aesthetic bliss that unites the performer and the viewer is the ultimate experience that bharatanatyam promises.

Of course spiritualism is not exactly something that would tempt a kid to learn music or dance. It is enough to say that by learning Carnatic music the voice and the ear would be trained to sing and appreciate a variety of music and that it would help to develop the power of memory and concentration.

3. Bharatanatyam is Visual Poetry

The essence of poetry lies in its suggestiveness, the aspect that is known as Dhwani. Bharatanatyam is described as Drsya Kavyam (visual poetry) on account of the suggestive nature of the abhinaya .The sancharis, namely the elaboration of a line gives unlimited scope for imaginative interpretation. It is said of the great Bala that her “ Krishna nee begane baro” was different every time she performed it. Such was her fertile imagination. There could be allusions to legends, to events, to situations in daily life and so on, which her eloquent abhinaya would bring to life with a remarkable economy of gestures and expressions.

Through an intelligent approach to Bharatanatyam the pupil will learn to appreciate poetry and the beauties of life. The exercise would bring out the creative spirit in the pupil.

The corollary to this aspect is that the student will have to learn an Indian language such as Tamil, Telugu or Sanskrit in which most of the lyrics for Bharatanatyam have been composed. Learning of the language would acquaint the pupil with the culture of the people through the ages. The nuances of meanings of words and phrases can speak volumes about the people’s day-to-day life. There is no better way to hold on to ones roots than learning one’s mother tongue.

4. Bharatanatyam is a Fund of Stories.

The staple fare of the Bharatanatyam repertoire abounds in songs on the various deities of the Hindu Pantheon. A mere verbal interpretation could put off the pupil, particularly one born and brought up in an alien soil. But if the teacher can impart the beauty and the logic behind the symbolism and the stories, the learning experience can turn interesting .The student will also learn to respect the wisdom of our poets and sages who could clothe an abstract idea or an elevating concept in an interesting story, much more fascinating than fairy tales.

5. Bharatanatyam is History.

The songs trace the social history of the people through the centuries. Some of the situations and ideas may not be valid today. It would still be worthwhile to understand the attitudes and the value system of a bygone age. Since human emotions are the same all the world over, it would give an insight into the whys and wherefores of human behaviour in a particular milieu.

6. Bharatanatyam is Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

The principle of symmetry and balance and the harmony of colors and shapes and the dictates of visual aesthetics are reflected in Bharatanatyam, as in painting, sculpture and architecture. The added dimension is the movement, which makes the picture and the sculpture come alive on stage for scintillating moments.

7.Bharatanatyam is Behavioural Science

The respect shown to the Guru, to the accompanying artists, to the audience and the reverence shown to God and even to inanimate objects like the earth should instill a sense of humility and dedication to the dancer. Among the arts Bharatanatyam is teamwork. Working in a group and with a group teaches not only people skills and public relations, but also helps to promote the creative spirit in all the participants.

Like an actor, the dancer has to get into the skin of each character portrayed by him or her and this creates an empathy with all fellow human beings, the good, bad and the ugly. Like theatre, dance demands an extraordinary control over one’s emotions, so that the still center of the individual always stands spectator to the ups and downs of emotions portrayed by him. The dancer cannot afford to forget oneself in the emotions and has to be alert to snap back to equilibrium.

Bharatanatyam is much more than all these put together. It is an expression of joy of the human body and spirit. If the pupil can experience it and communicate it to the viewer the ultimate purpose of learning the art is achieved. Performance opportunities, fame, recognition and awards may seem unimportant at that point.

Courtesy: Souvenir released on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of  Vidhya  Subramanian’s Lasya School of Bharatanatyam in California

(Sujatha Vijayaraghavan is based in Chennai, India. )

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