Sampradaya Bhajan

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sampradaya Bhajan in Bharatanatyam

"A unique experience where rasanubhava leads to bhava Samadhi"

Darpana Presents

Choreography: Mallika Sarabhai

Music:Jayan Nair
Lighting: Yadavan Chandran
Costumes: Mallika Sarabhai

Iqbal , Jayan Nair, Maheshwari Nagarajan, Manikandan, Rajesh, Saji, T Palanivelu, 

Dancers: Mallika Sarabhai with
Anahita Sarabhai, Charmy Modi, Hinal Patel, Khushboo Desai, Manoj Bagga, Pooja Purohit, Radhika Patel, Sonal Solanki

Bharatanatyam and Bhajana Sampradaya: Mallika Sarabhai Draws Links

Devesh Soneji

 In 1806, a Telugu Srivaishnava Brahmin writing a report on dance in English for the East India Company in Triplicane describes a performance by devadasis in Madras city in great detail. He notes the following:

“A prayer to Rama is then offered – “Victory be to the favorite of Janaky (Ramah’s affectionate Wife) or the Patron of Vibeeshana (the King of Lunka or Ceyloan), let happiness attend the Lotus footed and the merciful toward the distressed. Let the Preserver of the World, and Saviour of his followers be crowned with happiness…”

This text provides us with the first ever English translation of devadasi repertoire, and here the song being referenced is “jaya janaki ramana,” the first section of the todaya mangalam sung before the commencement of Smarta bhajana sampradaya. This is traditionally understood as a composition of Tallapaka Chinna Tirumalacharya (c. 1493-1553). The fact of the matter is that this same song was used in devadasi dance performances, and was sung regularly by the non-Brahmin men who accompanied the dance as vocalists (paduvars). In fact, artforms that are consistently represented as the preserve of “Brahmins only” such asbhajana sampradaya and bhagavata mela nataka have also traditionally been performed by other non-Brahmin communities. A fine example of this is the bhagavata mela tradition at Valangaiman (Tiruvarur district, near Kumbhakonam), which is still practiced by Kallars (Maruvars). The todaya mangalam that has become so popular today was first set to dance by K.P. Kittappa Pillai. Earlier, as we have noted, it was used as a vocal prelude prior to the commencement of devadasi dance performances. Indeed, the formal and generic connections between bhajana and dance are complex and nuanced.

On December 28, 2008, Dr. Mallika Sarabhai and the Darpana Performing Group premiered a refreshingly “new” interpretation of Bharatanatyam to the accompaniment of songs from bhajana sampradaya. EntitledSampradayam, the work included a range of Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit and Marathi songs, dedicated to Ganesha, Vishnu/Rama/Krishna, Shiva, Murugan, and Devi. Instead of drawing out long, endless passages of well-known myths of these deities as sancharis, Dr. Sarabhai focused on the poetic and lyrical dimensions of the poetry, taking the performance to a more abstract and highly evocative level.

From the group interpretation of the todaya mangalam to the solo (sancharad adhara sudha madhura dhvani) from the Gitagovinda to the Marathi abhang (deva hoyine bhikhari), every piece was captivating, but without the forceful melodrama and exaggeration that seems to have become the order of the day elsewhere. The presentation speaks volumes about Dr. Sarabhai’s integrity in the presentation of Bharatanatyam, and Darpana’s role in the preservation of a beautifully “vintage” technique of Bharatanatyam.

In fact, in the design of the adavu-korvais, one could see the influence of Dr. Sarabhai’s training withnattuvanars such as Kittappa Pillai, and the rare and beautiful improvisations on basic adavus from Kattumannarkoyil Muthukumara Pillai. Darpana has indeed preserved a different kind of Bharatanatyam – one that must, at all costs, be seen and supported. 

The piece has several distinct visual elements as well. Musicians are suspended high on a platform so that they are literally “centre stage,” and lead vocalist K. Jayan’s passionate renderings are echoed by a gosthi (chorus) of other musicians including Maheswari Nagarajan. The dancers are clad in straightforward pyjama-style costumes. Dr. Sarabhai has designed five sets of monochromatic costumes that mirror the five distinct sections of the work.

Sampradayam – the title itself a play on the “traditional” technique of Bharatanatyam one sees in the piece and the “tradition” of bhajana – is a brilliant example of innovation within the form. The innovative dimension – namely the use of bhajana sampradaya songs – seems to flow so effortlessly into Bharatanatyam itself. The songs themselves wove together a range of emotive textures and created a balanced, subtle presentation of Bharatanatyam. Dr. Sarabhai, one of the nation’s most intelligent dance professionals, is to be congratulated on producing a program of Bharatanatyam that is innovative, yet flows into the inherent poetic structures of the form with ease. It is certainly, as Kittappa Pillai would say, “easy on the eyes,” but also demonstrates how Sarabhai’s own understanding of form runs deep and wide. 


 Devesh Soneji is Professor of South Indian Religions at McGill University in MontrealCanada