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Guru Smt. Vinitha Subramanian, the Director of Natyalaya School of Dance in Austin, has been teaching in the Central Texas area for over 35 years. She has scores of arangetrams to her credit and has staged several dance dramas and thematic presentations such as Jungle Book – Seonee, Ganga- A River’s story, Nouka Charitram, Navahavarna, Roopa Viroopa, Ek, and Agasthya, just to name a few. I interview Vinitha Subramanian, in what was a fabulous exploration into the connections between Indian poetry and classical dance.
UA: Bharatanatyam is performed to the accompaniment of poetry in Sanskrit and other South Indian languages. Can you trace the relationship between the two genres historically?
VS: Sanskrit was the preeminent literary language in India for many centuries. The poets and playwrights wrote in Sanskrit in the various courts of India’s rulers. In addition, poets also wrote in local languages: example Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamizh. There has been a profusion of composers in local languages in more recent times as the support for artists moved away from the Kingly courts. Tamizh poetry is very old, dating up to 4000 years.
UA: Who/What are these classical poetry forms that are foundational to the practice of Bharatanatyam?
VS: There are so many forms – starting from very old Tamil poetry which are over 3-4000 years old.
Sangam Literature and poetry: contains 2381 poems in Tamil composed by 473 poets, some 102 anonymous, of these Kapilar is the most prolific poet. These poems vary between 3 and 782 lines long. The bardic poetry of the Sangam era is largely about love (akam) and war (puram), with the exception of the shorter poems such as in paripaatal, which is more religious and praises Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and Murugan. The most acceptable time range for the Sangam literature is 100 BCE to 250 CE
The history of Tamil literature follows the history of Tamil Nadu, closely following the social, political and cultural trends of various periods. The early Sangam literature, dated before 300 BCE, contain anthologies of various poets dealing with many aspects of life, including love, war, social values and religion. This was followed by the early epics and moral literature, authored by Hindu, Jain and Buddhist authors, lasting up to the 5th century CE. From the 6th to 12th century CE, the Tamil devotional poems written by Nayanmars (sages of Shaivism) and Alvars (sages of Vaishnavism), heralded the great Bhakti movement which later engulfed the entire Indian subcontinent. It is during this era that some of the grandest of Tamil literary classics like Kambaramayanam (very famous poet Kamban) and Periya Puranam (lives of the 63 saiva saints complied by Sekkizhar) were authored and many poets were patronized by the imperial Chola and Pandya empires. The later medieval period saw many assorted minor literary works and also contributions by a few Muslim and European authors.
In modern Bharatanatyam, it is hard to use Sangam poetry (though we use some selected verses), as it is very hard to understand the ancient language.
We do use Christian poems in Bharatanatyam – several poets in Kerala (including a priest) have written songs for Bharatanatyam.
Generally medieval Tamil and Sanskrit poetry is extensively used: Poets like Kalidasa and Adi Shankara from (1st– 2nd centuries), Andal and Alwars (5th-10th century), Kannada Dasa poets like Purandaradasa (15-17 century), Annamayya and Telugu poets( 12th century- 20th century), Sanskrit poets like Jayadeva (12th century) Most modern Bharatanatyam songs are, however, derived from compositions of relatively modern composers like the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Sama Trinity) and the Tanjore Quartet (Chinnaswamy, Ponniah, Vadivelu and Sadanandam) considered the fathers of modern Bharatanatyam. Other popular modern composers include Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Papanasam Sivan, Poochi Sreenivasa Iyengar, Ravikiran. These poets composed in a variety of south Indian languages. With Bharatanatyam spilling beyond south India, poetry in many North Indian languages are also being used: Hindi (Tulsidas, Kabir), Marathi (Tukaram and other Abhang composers), Gujrati, Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore).
UA: Mostly, what are the kinds of poetry and poetry forms used in poetry accompanying classical Bharatanatyam?
VS: Poetry had religious and devotional themes, and romantic-mystical poetry was prevalent as it was felt that people would comprehend the texts better. Independence-based themes, social reform-based poetry, religious tolerance and moral teachings emerged over time. Indian poetry is generally classified in accordance to the language in which it is written, or the region from which it hails. However, in general, Indian poetry is generally classified into the following types: epics, couplets (dohas), ghazals, bhajans, folk poetry and others.
UA: Indian music and dance is based on raga, bhava and tala. Please help us understand each of the terms with a special emphasis on tala.
VS: Bhava – Facial expressions that help in storytelling. Raga – Melody to which dance-song is set. Tala – The intrinsic beat of the poem as reflected in the music which is set to the measures defined in Carnatic music.
UA: What are the dominant stanzaic forms and meter used in the poetry?
VS: In terms of meter – 2 line poems (haiku like) called Dohas/Shairis are popular, such as those by Kabir. This is also found in Thirukkural, an anthology in Tamil by Tiruvalluvar. Examples of other meters used are Gayathri meter poems from the Vedic literature, the octet poems of Jayadeva and Adi Shankara, longer sonnets are very popular among older and modern poets and have all found a home in bharatanatyam.
Sanskrit prosody or Chandas (meter) is the study of poetic meters and verse in Sanskrit. This field of study was central to the composition of the Vedas. The Chandas, as developed by the Vedic schools, were organized around seven major meters, and each had its own rhythm, movements and aesthetics. Sanskrit meters include those based on a fixed number of syllables per verse, and those based on fixed number of morae per verses as expounded in Pingala’s Chandasutra.
UA: Nattuvangam- it’s practice, definition and importance to classical dance?
VS: Nattuvangam (pertaining to dance) and Konnakol (pertaining to vocal- instrumental music) is the practice of reciting rhythmic syllables that emulate the drumbeats that allow the elaboration of the inherent beat of the music in various permutations to display the dancers virtuosity in pure dance movements.
UA: The relationship between nattuvangam and beats in classical Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit poetry?
VS: When a poem is set to music, its inherent meter (determined by the poet) is interpreted in the structure of the Carnatic music tala structure. This Tala is elaborated in the nattuvangam, providing opportunity to the dancer to explore various ways of presenting it. The basic tala measure is combined in various permutations and combinations to provide a rich diversity of pure dance movements and footwork.
UA: What are some of the more modern poetic expressions to which you composed your own choreography successfully (that are not strictly laid out in meter, yet were transferred beautifully)?
VS: The rigidity is only in the time measure of each avartana of the tala (8 beats, 11 beats etc.) in which each line of the song /poem fits. By calculating the number of beats in one avartana or combining the avartanas or splitting them we are able to derive infinite combinations of footwork arrangement. The same song with the same rhythm (drum) can be arranged very differently by different choreographers using the hand gestures (hastas and Nrtta hastas) and adavus (choreographed steps) to provide a refreshing look at the inherent meter of the poem every time. Hence every song can be renewed each time it is performed.
We have set Bharatanatyam movements to songs from various faiths, composed in different languages, even English/western music or Tejano music. When there is no meter but just a song or chorus without beat, Bharatanatyam allows its expression in graceful twirls and striking poses.