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Margazhi Musings – A fascinating dance performance by Guru Roja Kannan & students

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

For one who is culturally challenged, in critiquing a Bharathanatyam performance, it was actually easy pickings to enjoy the dance-drama like celebration, on stage at the Dance Festival put together by Karthik Fine Arts, at Bharathiya  Vidya  Bhavan, Mylapore, Chennai, on 15th December, 2019 at 19.00 hrs. Yes, Margazhi is designated as Music season. Music concerts do take the pride of place. Rasikas throng them, from morning to night. But, the UNESCO designation of Chennai in 2017, as part of the Creative City Network, was for its ‘Culture and Arts’. And that includes all dance forms too, and among them, Bharathanatyam takes its rightful top slot.

It was Thyaga Rahasyam, celebrating Thyagarajaswamy, the presiding deity  of Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu. In the language of the presenter, “The production narrates the journey of a Soul, personified as Manonmani, in search of Nilotpalam, the Blue Lotus.” The theme being Manonmani, depicting the soul, is yearning for the love of the lord Tyagesar or paramatman. Stringing together Sambandar’s Thevaram, on the grandeur of the temple and wading  through a  lilting  song of Muthuswamy Dikshithar et al, culminating with Thirumoolar’s Thirumandirams. (A candid confession due, these details were obtained from a student in the group, to maintain authenticity). It was performed by the group, christened as Bharatha Natyalaya, a three decade old dance school run by Smt. Roja Kannan, a senior citizen now.

She still has more than a spring in her sprightly step, that her far younger students, would do well to emulate. Listen to her perceptive observation, “The stamina of the younger generation is less than ours. I can easily keep up with the fittest of them without strain! As a result we find that now there is a shift towards those actions which make fewer demands on the knee, the back or the heel over a period of time.” Some commentary this on the millenials who boast of jogging and gym culture. She is now the President of Association of Bharathanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI), a well deserved position they say, and her infectious enthusiasm, must be godsend for the dance form, considering her long years on stage, undeniable dexterity in the art form, and not least, her networking skills, the well informed muse.

Glimpse of the performance

To those in the know of things, her home productions are literally a family affair. Her students are her family and reciprocity is loving and passionate and that is reflected when the students perform her bidding on stage. She has trained a host of seniors who have their own schools as well, and come  this season and other shows, home in  together as one. The joi de vivre and bonhomie in the dance group a.k.a. family, does not come without a school masterly discipline and training, which is enjoyed, not endured by her students. The result is the gay abandon with which the performers reveal their skill set, in harmony. Where does it come from?

Here is her take of 10th Jan, 2013 vintage, on the completion of 25 years in Sept 2012, of her dance school.  “Another change is the dwindling number of practitioners who have a holistic approach to the Bharathanatyam. There are many teachers but few gurus. This has a direct impact on the way lyrics are presented. Outstanding artistes are those who persevere to realise the sublime and not settle for anything less. Under the stewardship of my gurus – Arvindakshan Sir or Adyar Lakshmanan Sir or Smt. Kalanidhi Narayan,- I learnt different aspects of the art such as music, nattuvangam, composing, theory and abhinaya. I train my students on the same line and they are successful performers and an integral part of my team”. The students’ effortless ease revealed they had a Guru and not a teacher.

One near cynical comment may be in order. Hope it is not misplaced. Be it an ‘All Are Welcome’ or ticketed performances, the family and friends of her own students, past and present and possible future too, those aspiring to  come under her tutelage, for her dedication and devotion to her divine attachment, make a good number, to fill the hall, as captive audience, and let it not seem so empty otherwise. And there are always belligerent student colleagues and family in tandem, to robustly applaud their colleagues and wards, which add to the musical glitter of the evening. Well, this day, it appeared that a good section of ordinary rasikas too joined in (as mischievous enquiries at the ticket table revealed). Good for the dancers to have a hall full of people than mere chairs.

The running commentary on stage was easy to keep tab with the flow. The recorded background music in the vernacular, seamlessly fit the dancing belles. The girls and ladies too were in colourful costumes (available on lease that makes Chennai season its own?) in dazzling colours which added lustre to the dimly lit stage and darkened hall. The facial expressions (which is at the core of any Bharathanatyam exposition) not bemused contortions, made fascinating viewing to follow, to capture the words and story, for the rasikas to keep in step and tune.

Let’s give it to these dance gurus and their schools. It is their love and passion that keeps alive the art form. They devote their time, space and lives, as it were, for they like and love what they are engaged in. Yes, the parents too, who spare time and lucre, but then without the teachers’ devotion, it would mean little, right. It was the celebrated Robin Marlar, a cricket writer, who said, “Mine is the only profession where I am paid to watch what I love”.

Well, the Bharathanatyam dance artistes may not get ‘paid’, as well as they may deserve. Sangitha Kalanidhi designate (at the Music Academy) in her acceptance speech on 15th Dec, 2018, pointedly observed (not lamented) that “We as rasikas (including myself) owe it to ourselves and society at large, to keep these centuries old art forms going, by willingly paying and patronising them, and not necessarily seek always ‘All are Welcome’ shows or expect sponsors to take the tab”. She was quite blunt and it was not uttered a day soon. We owe it to our cultural moorings to  support these art forms, if we have any sense of pride and proportion, in the rich heritage of this oldest civilisation. Are we game?

Notwithstanding the Chennai Music Season attaining international recognition and exposure, there are several programmes, be it music or dance, being performed to empty halls. Sabhas continue to ‘compete’ during the Margazhi season rather than putting their heads together for spreading the season over a longer duration and affording opportunity to  rasikas to attend more of such shows. But the requests have fallen on deaf ears with the response that the feverish enthusiasm during the month long season  is margazhi specific and would not last longer. This means that the dance festivals in the midst of the music season, struggle to sport a full house all the time.

(Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan-Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court
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