Art of composing music for dance

Padma Subrahmanyam and Narasimhachari discuss the intricacies.

 A report by Gowri Ramnarayan  in The Hindu

Listening to a song composed by Mysore Vasudevachar for the Kalakshetra dance drama ‘Sita Swayamvaram,’ choreographer Rukmini Devi said, “Marvellous, but not suitable for dancing.” He recast the piece in Ataana for a memorable opening scene.

Though it is not always recognised as a specialised genre, composing music for dance does demand specific qualifications. Not every musician can get it right.

Two seasoned dance artistes, themselves trained singers, meet to discuss this tricky subject. Scholar, researcher and dance guru Padma Subrahmanyam, Nrityodaya, has composed music for much of her innovative choreography of lakshya and lakshana works, whether ‘Minakshi Kalyanam,’ ‘Krishnaya Tubhyam Namah’ or the 108 karanas.

M.V.Narasimhachari, Kalasamarpana, dances, teaches and conducts with wife Vasanthalakshmi, besides being a concert singer, music composer (Meghasandesam, Subhashitam) and mridangam player.

“Bharatanatyam has a treasury of compositions,” Padma Subrahmanyam begins. “Everything from passion to humour, and ragas from Mohanam to Mukhari to express them,” exclaims Narasimhachari. “But mostly from a woman’s perspective,” laughs Padma. Both identify the repertoire needs of male dancers as one of the motivations for contemporary compositions.

Any guidelines for composing new pieces? “It has to come by itself, stimulated by the lyric or the context, not by worrying about right raga and tala,” explains Padma who keeps a tape recorder by her bedside to catch unpredictable late night flashes of inspiration.

Narasimhachari admits to being inspired on a scooter at a traffic junction. “Suddenly I thought why not a varnam on Rukmini Devi in the sooladi sapta talas?”

Padma mentions Gopalakrishna Bharati making Mukhari, associated with pathos, express anger in ‘Chidambara darisanama.’ With imagination and intelligence, any raga can be used in any context. “Bhava, pace, melody and rhythm must merge into the content. I must say that my late sister-in-law Syamala (Balakrishnan) gave life to my music,” she sighs.

Narasimhachari insists that the singer must empathise with the dance, watch the performer, be sensitive to minute shifts in bhava, not look into books, or sing with eyes closed. “Don’t I know! When I danced with Sanjukta Panigrahi she had to cry to her fabulous vocalist husband, “Open your eyes!” Padma chuckles.

But she also realises the difficulties of singers who accompany many dancers, having to render the same song in ten different ways. Narasimhachari does not excuse singers who mispronounce or split syllables wrong, which sometimes results in opposite meanings. Both agree that niraval in dance music is as vital as it is different from niraval in music concerts. Presence of mind must respond to on-the-spot sancharis.

With vast traditional repertoires why compose more, afresh? Narasimhachari argues, “There was enough music in Tyagaraja’s time too, why did he compose his own?” Padma agrees, “You can’t deny creativity. I don’t compose to be different. It just happens from within.”

Hasty experimenters Besides, artists want to contribute to the growth of their genre. Where is progress without change? Widening non-homogeneous audiences prompts some shifts, like Padma’s Bengali varnam to Salil Chowdhury’s lyric. “I see music, I hear dance,” muses Padma. Narasimhachari cautions hasty experimenters. “Musical phrases must accommodate the tempo inherent in each movement, not meander into unconnected tracks.”

Padma remarks that it is precisely this flow that makes M. Balamuralikrishna’s compositions easy to perform, yielding their complexities only in deliberate analysis. “My sukhalasyam too is based on this principle.”

Dance drama music has greater demands of variety in raga, tala, tempo and treatment. Everything has to be more defined and character ascendant.

“You must not be carried away by your vidwat as a composer, but know where, how, if at all, sangatis fit into the situation, and which word or syllable to stress,” says Narasimhachari. Padma mentions the need to regulate percussion, as this nadam has great potential for bhava. “Silence is very important in my dance. Pause is as essential as movement.”

Narasimhachari stipulates that composers of music for dancing must know the genre well. Adds Padma, “Every dancer can’t be a composer, or singer, but she must be able to guide her orchestra, and identify the music that suits her best.”

The veterans know that technically they can dance to anything. In fact, Padma plans to “see what I can do with nama sankirtanam.” Narasimhachari smiles, “But the joy of performing something finely and specifically composed for the dance is something else.”

After all, isn’t that why the Thanjavur Quartet’s music remains evergreen?


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