Tradition and Innovation: Bharatanatyam – Rama Vaidyanathan

A globally acclaimed Bharatanatyam performer, she is notable for her innovative productions that have played a pivotal role in popularizing the art on a global scale. Her profound expertise in the traditional Margam of Bharatanatyam has further contributed to her significance in the field.

Excerpts from the interview:

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?

In my opinion, the changes that occurred through innovations in classical dance took place on various fronts. First and foremost, there was a diversification of literary works and writings in different languages as part of the dance repertoire. In the early days, classical dance was primarily associated with Tamil and Telugu literary works. But flourishment of Bharatanatyam was not only in the state of Tamil Nadu, so it started incorporating works in languages like Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, and more. I, for instance, contributed to bringing literary works in the Bhriju language into the world of Bharatanatyam. The inclusion of Sufi literature and classical works in Sanskrit, among others, enriched Bharatanatyam’s literature and expanded its scope in terms of repertoire and artistry. There is no doubt that the art has flourished in terms of a wider cultural reach and a diverse set of practitioners from different linguistic, religious, and regional backgrounds, thanks to these changes. And thus Bharatanatyam became a global art form.

The second significant change that happened was the emergence of group presentations, where solo dancers transformed into ensemble performers. The context played a crucial role in this transformation. In the past, in a region, there were only five or ten dancers, whereas today there can be hundreds or even thousands. These changes have led to a shift in focus from individual dancers to group presentations. I personally love solo presentations more, but I am just telling about the context in which these group presentations are came to exist

The third change that took place was the introduction of thematic presentations. Earlier, a dance performance would primarily depict stories of gods and goddesses, such as Shiva and Parvati or Radha and Krishna. The activities portrayed in these performances were often similar. However, today, dancers explore different facets of the characters and delve into their emotional journeys, offering unique interpretations of the themes. This not only adds depth to the art but also allows dancers to engage with the social issues of the time. A skilled dancer uses the medium to express their thoughts and ideologies about the society, social issues and the anything they concern. Moreover, today’s dancers are not confined to the stage alone; they use the medium to engage with and address various social issues. They have realized the potential of dance as a powerful medium to raise awareness and express their views on issues of social inequality. Therefore, these three significant changes have played a crucial role in elevating Bharatanatyam to the status of a global art form.

The process of innovation itself needs to be natural and organic. It’s not about discarding the old in favour of the new but about evolving while respecting the tradition. The tradition remains essential, but it should be a living tradition that adapts and grows with the changing times.

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 made changes in various aspects, primarily introducing more movement possibilities, to my dance. I explored the potential of my body further, understanding the nuances of movement in Bharatanatyam styles. It came naturally but involved a lot of exploration. My body is my instrument for dance. Within this body, I discovered different movement tendencies, which transformed my dance style.

Another aspect is the new dimension I brought to the traditional path of Bharatanatyam. I often attempted something new. Experimented by altering the usual way of presentation, adding extra ‘chllus’, or Swarams in the place of Jathis etc. I never had an interest in repeating the same previously set items, instead I preferd new pieces that suits my tase of presentations. For instance, the Mayura Alarippu involved a transformation of regular Alarippu movements into Mayil-Nritya (peacock dance). It was about expanding the possibilities of bodily movement and presenting the diversity of dance styles. I truly believe that dance gives me the freedom to explore.

This freedom in Bharatanatyam often surprised me. I have used it always. The production named Mad and divine was such an experimentation in which I used dialogues and many aspects from theatre art. I used languages like Bhrigu Bhasha and Hindustani music along with dance. Sometimes, I used them as part of my dance, often portraying specific characters’ dialogues in the background. For that purpose, I explored the distinctiveness of each language in communication, and it was reflected in my presentations. My first priority was always to present the stories authentically. I experimented with each episode of the ‘Krishna May’ series, integrating them into my dance. I incorporated various contexts and situations into my dance, which made me communicate better. However, I don’t think this is the only way.

A different experiment was my attempt to Chitravali , based on the tradition of miniature painting during the Bhakti movement era. I used Hindustani music and instruments, departing from traditional conventions, and sometimes even borrowed elements from classical Hindustani music and instruments. I picked up those verses, embedded in the painting and incorporated Hindustani styles like Khayal, Thumri, and Drupad,  and tried to convey the specific context of the paintings. I adapted each dance segment to represent a particular painting context. For that, I had to use classical Hindustani music and instruments, however the dance style was pure Bharatanatyam.

When I undertake something new, I always try to make sure it should be labeling as ‘Bharatanatyam’ style.

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? 

We often need to satisfy various connoisseurs with different tastes from different places. Currently, I am exploring Hindi literature more in Delhi, but during the Chennai season festival, I engage more with traditional Tamil and Telugu literature. It’s impossible to always satisfy everyone. I have to perform for connoisseurs. First and foremost, I must understand my creations thoroughly. I must understand why I’m doing it, how I’m doing it, and have the answers to those questions first. Then, it’s possible to take it to the connoisseurs.

Good connoisseurs, critics, and evaluators are essential for the growth of both the art and the artist. Some people’s guidance and recommendations are often accepted. However, there will also be dissenting opinions. Everyone will have their own perspectives. You cannot start acting according to what most people say, that would limit the artist’s freedom.

Where do you find your identity and satisfaction, whether by adhering to established traditions or through your own creative expression?

Whenever I create something new, I feel satisfaction. Whether it’s representing old Tanjavur traditions, experimenting with Bhraju Bhasha Khayal, or introducing a new thematic interpretation, my language remains one– my Bharatanatyam. Each will offer different experiences. However, true joy for me comes from presenting my creations, or my idea of interpretation.  Now, some old pieces are being re-explored by me in a new way. That’s when the dancer in me is most content. I don’t believe in rules that dictate whether doing something a certain way is wrong based on specific beliefs. I find it impossible to adhere to such rigid notions. Furthermore, regarding an artist’s social responsibility, when my work helps rediscover such concepts, I experience great satisfaction and joy.

Bharatanatyam is a form of artistic expression that offers a dancer the freedom of creative exploration. Do you attempt to incorporate elements of nritta and natya aspects equally? Is such a balance necessary?

I’ve never followed any specific rule in choreography so far. I always integrate the dance with the literature and its concepts. I utilize my creative freedom from the intellectual understanding I’ve gained from the dance form. It’s only through this that I express myself through dance. If a particular piece only allows for expressions through dance, then that’s sufficient, no need to add additional ‘jatis’.

My art give the freedom to experiment. For instace, I’ve explored a new form combining Thillana with vesrus from one of my favourite Keertanam- Samaja Varagamana. I name it as “Tillanam,” which signifies a fusion of Tillana and Keerthana. Through this composition, I felt the dance in my and could express it. It’s an example of how I use my creative freedom in choreography.

As a Guru, what is your opinion on shaping a generation capable of innovation and excelling in their presentations?

In my opinion, it takes approximately 30 years of dedication for a dancer to truly become accomplished. The first ten years should be devoted to mastering the art of dance. In the following decade, the dancer should delve into the intellectual aspects of dance, focusing on learning with the mind after having prepared the body. It is during this period that they should begin to explore their creative freedom. Only after this stage will they be able to think outside the box and create wonders. This doesn’t mean they should refrain from performing during this time. They can certainly perform but should also dedicate themselves to a deep understanding of the art. Meanwhile, they should watch and appreciate other art forms, as this will also help nurture their thoughts.

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