Shailaja Khanna | Timeless ebullience and other musical secrets

This is the fascinating story of the origins of dance; a story that was preserved in stone and text over the centuries

When one enjoys a Bharatnatyam or Odissi dance performance, one is not really concerned about the origins of the form, or how they were preserved over the centuries, or even their evolution. At the recent Thanjavur Utsavam organised by IGNCA, dances by Narthaki Natraj, Priyadarshini Govind, Sucheta Bhide and Harikrishna (son of Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai) amongst others enthralled the audiences.

This is the fascinating story of the origins of dance; a story that was preserved in stone and text over the centuries.

A total of 108 movements or postures, called “karanas” were preserved in stone sculptures, and written about in Sanskrit texts, primarily Bharata’s Natya Shastra (2nd century BC-AD 3rd century). A commentary on the Natya Shastra by Abhinavgupta of Kashmir, some 1,100 years later reinforces their importance.
As Dr Padma Subrahmanyam said, “The ‘karanas’ do not represent only Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu, they represent a common dance code of all classical dances in India and Indonesia.”

In the early years of her dancing when she tried to incorporate the postures in her Bharatnatyam repertoire, she was accused by critics of copying Odissi (though, Odissi was a dance form she had then not even seen, far less copied).

The aforesaid sculptures adorn temple walls in Tamil Nadu, in the eleventh century Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, the Chidambaram temple outside Chennai, and Sarangpani temple in Kumbhakonam amongst others. Their relevance and application to present day classical dance forms was slowly pieced together by dancer scholar Padma Subrahmanyam some 40 years earlier.

It was not easy, Padma explained during a recent interaction in the Brihadeeswara temple from where her research started. The sculptures are frozen in stone; each sculpture only depicts the middle or end of the movement; one needs to decode what came before and what movement will follow; and only an intuitive dancer could have deciphered this! Shiva is depicted with four arms, but usually only the secondary arms depict the movement. The idea was then substantiated by studying the accompanying descriptive text in the scriptures.

The stone slabs with Shiva depicted in different poses adorn the inner wall of the first floor of the magnificent Brihadeeswara temple, hidden from the public eye. There are 81 completed stone slabs, after that the slabs are blank. The work was left incomplete, perhaps because the king Raja Raja Chola passed away. These are no longer open to the public for viewing.

In 1956, however, when they were first discovered, access to studying them was permitted and Dr Padma Subrahmanyam spent months examining them. In her words, “The temple was quite isolated those days, and in the evening one was scared of coming across snakes inside its precincts.”

It was a surreal experience, therefore, to see the stone carved immobile images, some two feet tall, brought to life by Dr Subrahmanyam’s disciples more than 2,000 years later!

Another story on the origins of a great art form connected with Thanjavur pertains to Maharashtrian “abhang” singing. Who can forget such immortal compositions as “Maajhe Maaher Pandhari” sung by Pt Bhimsen Joshi, or “Om Namoji Aadya” by Lata Mangeshwar. Devotional songs, attributed to various singer saints are sung in praise of Lord Vishnu, in his form of Vitthala; the tradition was originally pioneered by Saint Jnaneshwar in the 13th century. But even before this, the Harikatha tradition existed between AD 5th and 6th centuries in the south, and moved to Maharashtra, where it took on the exuberant and highly popular form in which it is known today.

During less than 200 years of Maratha rule in Thanjavur, this tradition was popularised in the region, gradually being incorporated into the Dakshin Bharata Naamsankeerthanam. The repertoire today includes compositions from Karnataka (Purandaradas), Odisha (Jayadeva) and West Bengal (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu), in addition to those by the Maharashtrian“abhang” saints. Interestingly, every offering traditionally ends by invoking Hanuman, the ultimate “bhakta”.

Today, the “abhang” singing tradition is as accepted in a traditional Carnatic concert as it is in a north Indian classical vocal concert, with practitioners as diverse as the Chennai based “Bombay” Jayashri and Kolkata based Kaushiki Chakraborty rendering their performances. Without doubt, diverse cultures of different regions of our country are woven together by a common thread of devotion.

At the recently concluded Thanjavur Utsavam, one was entranced by hearing the story of how women were allowed entry into this exclusively male bastion. Chennai resident Saraswati Bai was the first, in the 1920s, despite rigid opposition. Banni Bai, born later in 1912, was another popular singer. Her disciple Prof. Premeela Gurumurthy, who presented a beautiful recital of Rukmini Kalyanam, shared the touching story of how her Guru, who had no daughter of her own, had presented her with her own “chipalya” (khartal) used throughout her own singing life. “I have no daughter, so let’s see who these go to now,” said Prof. Premeela wryly!

The Thanjavur Utsavam, which was as much about the rendition of the musical forms as their origins, got one pondering!

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