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October - December 2023

Food for Thought by Naatyaachaarya V.P. Dhananjayan

Why Naatya, not Dance?

Many of our performing artistes wonder and ask me why I keep harping on the word ‘Naatya’ to be used for our kind of performing arts like Bharatanatyam and other classical performing arts. That periodical changes have taken place in every field and the present Bharatanatyam repertoire names got in vogue only during and after Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Vadivelu, Sivanandam (Tanjavur Brothers who codified the Sadir Margam). Before them there were some other names. Also, the name  Bharatanatyam  itself  was reintroduced in late 1930s. While Madras Music academy passed the resolution, Kalakshetra took it up more seriously to popularise the new name.

A very simple explanation, ‘Dance,’ a common word for all kinds of movement in rhythm is not a true translation of our performing arts. When we have specific names for each form of performing arts, why not we use these instead of a common word which does not specify any form. If one says, “Please come for my dance,” naturally one may ask which dance or what dance. So if one specifies the style of one’s performing art, it simplifies the matter.

Secondly, “naatya” is a comprehensive word or name for Bharateeya theatrical art forms (Bhaarata naatya). This name has been in vogue from time immemorial or from Vedic period. Bhaarata is the name of our country which has profound meaning.

The invaders of our country conveniently changed the name of the nation to “India” (which has no meaning). Along with that the invaders inducted a common term for all our performing arts and we blindly followed them forgetting the original names of our art forms. My humble request to the practitioners of these performing art forms is to specify one style of dancing, whether it is Bharatanaatyam, Kuchipudi Naatyam, Kathak Nritya, Utkal Naatya or Odisha Nritya or such kinds.

According to Saastra, Naatya includes nritta (pure dance), nritya (communicative body language), naataka (drama-stories). So Naatya can be the right word we should use and make foreigners familiar with this word. Like we call their classical dance tradition as ‘Ballet.’ Westerners generally do not refer to ‘ballet’ as mere ‘dance’, they emphasise that term for their classical dance as ‘ballet’ only. So why should we compromise to demean our classical tradition to mere ‘dance’? As we are familiar with the term ‘ballet’ let non-Indians also get familiar with our indigenous names, be it Samskritam or other regional languages.

New Names for Bharatanatyam Repertoire

Since founding our institution Bharata Kalanjali in 1968 and composing innovative repertoire for our novel presentations, I coined a few meaningful names in Samskritam. These new names are quite prevalent now since our disciples around the globe have started using these new names, slowly popularising them among contemporary connoisseurs.

Varnam or Nrityopahaaram (an offering of dance and mime) is the judicious combination of nritta, nritya and naatya, expounding the deep-rooted technique of physical, mental and spiritual background of Bharatanatyam. This can be termed as the quintessence or epitome of a technique that has withstood the test of time. The construction of the present day ‘Varnam’ format in a solo Bharatanatyam performance has the time and space for a dancer to exploit her or his technical virtuosity and keep the attentive interest of the audience, irrespective of the length of delineation, whether it is for 30 minutes or 60 minutes or more. The success and failure of a Bharatanatyam artiste depend on how well one could perform a ‘Nrityopahaaram’ to the fullest satisfaction of a discerning audience.

The term ‘Varnam’ has been in vogue for long as a throat warming up exercise in Carnatic system of music. It has never been a main item in the Carnatic singing paddhathi. Usually a ‘Taana Varnam’ with ‘gamaka’ exercise is sung as an opening song and then followed by a song on Vighneswara. But in a Bharatanaatyam repertoire, usually a ‘Pada Varnam’ occupies the central space and the word varnam is loosely explained as colourful item. So I coined the word ‘Nrityopahaaram’ [nrithya (dance combined with expressions) + upahaaram (offering)]. Actually the function of this unique piece is of expressive musical raga construction with good lyrics and meaningful communicative contents. This elaboration may be construed as “colourful or various hues of expressions” (justification).

But when artistes take up compositions like Pancharatnam of Thyagaraja or Bhavayami Raghuramam of SwathiThirunal as the main or centre piece in place of the Pada varnam, it may not be appropriate to call them Varnam, as such songs are not in the musical format of a Taana Varnam or Pada Varnam. So to suit the content and functioning of such compositions in a Bharatanatyam solo performance, I deliberately coined this Samskritam word ‘Nritya-upahaaram’ or ‘Nrityopahaaram’. I have consulted several Samskritam scholars before launching this in 1968, when I started composing innovative items for the centre piece in a Bharatanatyam repertoire. Later I thought why not we stick to that name – an appropriate name in Naatya presentation rather than using a musical term that is ‘Varnam’. Sometimes, I announce it as Nrithyopahaaram based on the so and so Pada Varnam of so and so composer.

The same way I coined the word “Nrittaangahaaram” (garland of body movements) for ‘Tillana’. (This name is found in the Natya Sastra for the composition of two or more nritta karanas in a chain of sequences). The word ‘Tillana’ might have been derived from the Hindustani music ‘Taraana’ and later on changed to ‘Tillana’. Or, Dr. Raghuraman says it could have been a Tamizh word ‘Tiralaana’ meaning fast movement. ‘Nritta angahaaram’ suits the finale of a Bharatanaatyam performance which literally is a garland of body movements.

I have also coined a new name for the present day ‘jathiswaram’ unlike the original ones with jathis sung in swaraas. So what we do today is ‘Nritta-swaraavali’ – nritta compositions for ‘swaraavali’ (composition of musical notes). Except a small jathi teermaanam in the beginning, rest of the compositions or korvais are set only to musical notes. In Kuchipudi naatya tradition, actual “jathiswarams’ are performed There is one real ‘Todi Jathiswaram’ composition of the Tanjavur Quartet.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam has unearthed this and taught it to her grand niece Mahathi Kannan who performs it exquisitely.

It is not a big sacrilege finding new names for new items. Periodically changes have taken place not only in Bharatanaatyam repertoire, the other performing art forms have also introduced new nomenclature.

Anyone who thinks these names are relevant to Naatya presentations is welcome to use them.