Tradition and Innovation: Bharatanatyam – Padma Subramanyam

One of India’s renowned Bharatanatyam exponents. Her studies rooted in Natyasastra and South Asian arts have gained global acclaim. She serves as the Director of Nrityodaya in Chennai and is also the Managing Trustee of the Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture.

What were the changes brought about by innovations in Bharatanatyam over the past few decades? Did these changes lead to a loss of the uniqueness of the art form or contribute to its growth towards greater beauty?

Believing that only the old is valuable is meaningless in today’s context. At the same time, it is not necessary to always embrace only the new. Great creative artists have always existed throughout different eras. Not all of them were creators; many followed the traditions they acquired from their gurus. For instance, MS Amma (M S Subbalakshmi) did not compose a single ‘kriti,’ but can we say she was not a great artist? She excelled in the art of performance through her distinct vocal abilities. In this manner, inheritors of tradition, including dancers, have always been present. They expanded upon the tradition through further exploration after mastering its foundations. This is how they grew, and the art forms flourished.

If we examine the history of dance, there was a time when it was prohibited for us to watch. Prior to that period, every street was filled with dancers. Today, dance is widely accepted in society. Now, you might be surprised, my sister, Lalitha, began her dance training before me, but she had to stop due to strong opposition from our mother. My father’s interest in dance eventually led me to pursue it, and social attitudes began to change by then.

Kalanidhi Narayanan was Lalita’s classmate, who had to stay away from the field for approximately thirty years. I played a role in bringing her back to dance during one of my theory sessions. I encouraged her to recall the lessons, and she did so, later becoming a well-respected guru in the Bharatanatyam world. It was truly a rebirth of an artist. How did she achieve this? Because she had a strong foundation in the art. From there, she was able to elevate her art even after a long hiatus. That’s the power of tradition. What we see today in Bharatanatyam is something that has been passed down through a tradition spanning around two centuries.

What were the changes and innovations that have occurred as your contribution in this art? Similarly, what further improvements are expected to continue in this art, without losing its essence?

I have been involved in creating new choreographies while adhering to the traditional ‘margam’ and incorporating many elements. I began to systematize various traditions that were scattered. I learned adavus from different schools and integrated them into my performance style. I have always had a strong affinity for tradition. I reintroduced some forgotten traditions to Bharatanatyam, such as the ‘Pushpanjali’ as an invocatory piece and ‘Kuravanji’ dance dramas, among others.

“Krishnaya Tubhyam Namah” was my first solo dance production in Bharatanatyam. It portrayed the various facets of Lord Krishna in different segments. There was the youthful Krishna, the singing Krishna, the butter-thief Krishna, the lover of the gopis, the husband of Rukmini, the protector of Draupadi, and so on. Various elements were woven together through this production. Similarly, there was another one, “Rāmaya Tubhyam Namah.”

I firmly believe that we should not force excessive change upon ourselves; instead, it should evolve naturally. Today, Bharatanatyam is flourishing, and I am content with its progress, but it doesn’t mean it is complete. It should continue to evolve over time. Creativity is essential; it’s a powerful force, but it should arise when the time demands it, rather than being forced intentionally.

Have the connoisseurs embrace change and novelty always or are they demand for the traditional elements (which was there already). To what extent are you worked according to the tastes of connoisseurs and audience? 

Certainly, there are good Rasikas. It is not possible to accept all the preferences of connoisseurs. Performers should not leave the performance to the audience, but instead, Audince should be brought to the performance’s level of standard. My first solo production, “Krishnaya Tubhyam Namah,” was conceived as per the requirement of a close friend. I remember another incident;

“Rāmāya Tubhyam Namah” was performed in Eranakulam, Kerala, once. Great ‘Koodiyattam’ artiste Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was present there with G. Venu.  After seeing a part of Sita’s mental contemplation during the Agni Pravesham (entering the fire), they asked where the idea for the direction came from, it’s the same style they follow in ‘Koodiyattam’ Nirvahanam. But until then, I had never watched a koodiyattam performance. Why did he find similarities in me? Because there are connections between all arts. That was an insight for me. I always keep such incidents from the audience very precious.

In the other way I have noticed there are audience get influence by our art. I have seen some of the ‘pindis’ and ‘karanas’ I formed were portrayed in modern media and advertisements. These are good examples of people accepting art and various medium.

Your studies and researches were based on Natyashastra. How did you make use of your study results in your choreographies?

Natyashastra is a comprehensive text, encompassing all aspects of performance or ‘Natyam’ found across the entire continent. What follows this text is referred to as ‘Margi,’ while the traditions influenced by regional factors are called ‘Desi.’ I endeavored to bring this ancient knowledge into the spotlight. However, it was only later that regions such as Kerala began to display a greater interest in Natya Shastra and an effort to understand and appreciate it. Previously, even the people of Kerala believed that ‘Natyashastra’ was not meant for them and was not applicable to their art forms.

I undertook a complete documentation of these ideas with the assistance of Doordarshan. However, I found that this alone was not sufficient. Therefore, I applied the insights I gained from this endeavor to my choreographies as well.

You have mentioned that you gathered all the scattered styles of adavus. How was that effort?

I started my dance training in Vazhavur bani. As part of my research, I initially began collecting adavus from various ‘banis’ and notated them. This endeavor involved assigning specific names to distinct movements, thus making them more easily comprehensible. For example, I categorized adavus and named them based on movement patterns, which were previously referred to as ‘chollus.’

Through these efforts, my goal was to contribute to the preservation and development of Bharatanatyam, ensuring it maintains relevance and adaptability for contemporary audiences while still honoring its rich traditions.

What do you consider essential for the younger generation to develop a strong creative ability while also adhering to tradition?

I advise students to learn culture along with practice. During my early days, I used to conduct classes for dancers and critics alike, aiming to integrate a field that must grow alongside art. A study method that combines theory and practice is essential for the analysis of dance. Currently, under the Bharatanatyam department of the Shatra university, I am conducting BFA, MFA, and Ph.D. courses. They cover subjects like history, Indian philosophy, temple architecture, art criticism, and others, which are crucial components of the curriculum. Comprehensive knowledge in all these areas is essential. Tradition may not be documented everywhere. It is essential to explore and understand them in practice, and that is what is required.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *