Music in and for Bharathanatyam-A survey report (Part2)

Continued from Part 1

Music for dance-Discussion

Everyone surveyed expected dance recitals to be accompanied by good music, but interestingly, even at the onset, Soumya Tilak adds that “good music“ as an accompaniment would go on to mean “one that matches and complements the dance”. The respondents from within India placed a slightly higher expectation on the standards of music accompanying dance.

Singing the Song flawlessly is just a Bare minimum!

While the dancers are slightly more tolerant to singers who can flawlessly render the recital songs (as in repeat the taught song perfectly), the rasikas and expectedly, the musicians feel that that would be a bare minimum, as expressed in Rama Varma’s words, “that would at least be something”.

How is dance singing different from vocal concert singing?

While being specifically asked if dance singing required a different set of techniques as compared to vocal concert singing, the respondents came up with a variety of responses. An attempt will be made to highlight the important ideas.

Differential techniques for Dance Singing

“All said and done, the structure of a dance recital is not (and cannot be) the same as the structure of a music concert.”(Rajendra Kumar) We may see that music specially for dance existed even during the period of the Tanjore Quartette. (Lakshmi Ramasamy) There is a general consensus and agreement that dance singing requires a different set of techniques as compared to vocal concert singing.”

Some special requirements pointed out as essentials for dance singing include:

  • Acknowledging that the dance is the prime subject of interest: Dance musicians should be good enough not to distract attention from dance, yet be a good compliment (Bhanumathi Krishnan, Aishwarya Ananth, Lakshmi Ramasamy, Padma Balakumar), and match their manodharmam to that of the dancers. (Manjari Rajendrakumar)
  • Being observant: At a dance concert there is so much to observe, says Shantha.S. A dance musician as opposed to having his/her own flow in a solo (vocal) concert, he/she has to take the cue from the dance and the dancer. (S. Srinivasan) The dancers are able to articulate on this “taking-of-cue” aspect a little more which is explained in the portion on improvisation for dance.
  • An understanding of the dance technique (nuances): in the singer facilitates perfect synchronization and apt accompaniment. (Manjari Rajendrakumar and Aishwarya Ananth)
  • Need For Expressive Singing: Dance requires bhava and musicians in general stick to technique of music than the meaning of sahitya, sometimes even distorting intended meaning. (Madhana Raghavan, Lakshmi Ramasamy) Musicians require an ability to emote along with the dancer (Eternal student of Dance) and in turn through their music help the dancer emote. (Madhana Raghavan)
  • Adapting to the kalapramanam for the dance recital: The kalapramanam that he has to follow for dance will be different from that of a vocal recital. (Kavitha Ramu) The need for more expressive singing as pointed out in the last point and the predominant use of pada varnams, padams and javalis require the singer to sing at speeds slower than they would at a music concert. The kalapramanam must facilitate an aesthetic use of angika and satvika abhinaya. For those musicians who accompany budding dancers there may arise occasions to subtly and imperceptibly alter kalapramanam.
  • Be adept at nadai variations:  A lot of mathematical/rhythmic variations in the nritta part/thattimetti parts will make it important for a dance musician to be talam and nadai perfect.(Anupriya)
  • I would probably add neat pronunciation to the list.

It should be noted that the respondents do not feel that these aspects are not necessary for concert singing, but are facets that specially go into making a dance singer successful.

Raga sketching for dance recitals

All respondents believe that it would definitely be ideal if the accompanying musician could appropriately sketch ragas before the song. One rasika points out that a raga outlining ahead of the songs, even if short, makes the presentation more complete and helps the rasika and the dancer shift easily into the mood of the next piece. Another rasika, points out that ready-made instant 2 line ragas (esp the beginning nattai) with the same repetitive phrases can be such a pain. Why don’t they experiment enough to create another 2-line pattern in nattai he asks.

Improvisation for dance

The topic of improvisation and creativity seems to invoke a lot of reflection. One rasika points out that “a musician who sings exactly the same way on any 2 given days is consistent alright, but boring and is not much better than a CD!” This is more important in the dance circuit as repetition of items is a regular feature. Putting up a similar idea in nice words Nrithya Pillai says “(they need to) know how to sing for sancharis- how to sing the same line differently several times without boring an audience.” This should definitely be a point to consider when the dancer is presenting a 30+ mins varnam built on sancharis. Sometimes the pallavi is repeated more than 20 times and it definitely requires some talent in the musician to keep away the auditory boredom that can easily step in if appropriate variation is not attempted. You definitely wouldn’t want somebody to say “padinathaye thenja record mathiri padinduirrukan” quips a rasika and that could in turn mean that all the hard work of the choreographer and dancer in building up the sanchari may get lost. Lakshmi Ramasamy feels that “while elaborating during the sancharis, the singer must be able to hit the right sthayi and retain it for as long as it is needed. Kavitha Ramu on a similar vein says “the singer has to understand to look at the dancer while singing which will help her/him decide where she/he has to provide an emphasis and where he/she has to be subtle.”

Hamsa Venkat also points out that the musician’s stance should be tailored to suit the particular program – (The need to sing just the song or elaborate on a raga and improvise) “depends on the needs of the dancer, if a dancer only wants to present readymade items then there may not be much need (for improvisation or singing a raga)” This situation may be associated with less traditional venues for performing.

Challenges posed to the dance Musician

“(In) concert singing, the musician can have a vision, and let his/her creativity present this vision, for dance singing it is the dancer’s vision and the singer gives shape to this vision with their musical creativity”, opines Hamsa Venkat. In a way, the singer is restricted to an extent by the arrangement of the dance ponders Sumi Krishnan. “(Though) they (dance musicians) are part of the support staff and their first duty is to ensure that the dance programme is a success … singing for dance is in no way inferior”, declares Rajendra Kumar. Passionate Dancer (assumed pseudonym) and Lakshmi Ramasamy see that dance singing can be a challenge to the musicians, just as Asha Ramesh opined. “The vocalist has to follow the dancer, adapt the singing according to the expressions and stories told by the dancer and enable the dancer to react to the music as well… yes, it is very challenging!”(Passionate Dancer). Staying with technique, simultaneously complimenting the dance and the dancer, keeping track of the required number of repetitions, patching flaws of dancer and other musicians, yet proving their skill is the challenge to the dance musician says Lakshmi Ramasamy.

Jayakamala Pandian, daughter of Guru Sri. Swamimalai Rajaratnam Pillai, sums it up saying “singing for dance and concert singing are two different areas and one can specialize in both, like how [the] same dancer can perform two different forms of classical dance forms like Bharathanatyam and Odissi or Kuchipudi and Bharathanatyam. Concert singing needs expertise in Alapana, kalpana swaram, niraval, Ragam Thanam Pallavi and so on. Singing for dance needs expertise in sanchari singing, which can be compared with niraval and perfect coordination with the dancer and the nattuvanar. Also the dance singer should know to control his creativity, follow the dancer with restriction besides proving his artistry.” And above all the musician needs to carve a niche to establish himself/herself in the field. Seems like asking for quite a lot from the dance musician!

Dance For Musicians

  • Professional Musicians averse to accompanying Dance Recitals!

The general response among the respondents conveys a fair degree of agreement with the statement (an average agreement score of 7.8), the rasikas strongly agreeing with the statement compared to musicians or dancers. Lakshmi Ramasamy says “it depends on the individual musician”. This perception is also higher among Indian respondents. Elsewhere, the lack of opportunities, make musicians more open to collaborations and exploring other venues.

 “Unfortunately, most of the popular musicians today do not consider dance musicians as part of their clan. This attitude must change,” says Rajendra Kumar, an informed rasika. While it may be ego issues that play a role in a few cases, it may be a realization that they may not justify the manodharma of dance in most cases. Restricting their creativity may be impossible to few musicians (all from anonymous rasikas).A concert musician feels uncertain (while accompanying a dance recital) because he/she is not in control, (while) the dancer is. If they understand the two different roles as a dance musician and concert musician they can’t be matched.” says Hamsa Venkat.

  • Attending dance recitals improves abilities of a musician?

Lakshmi Ramasamy suggests that for those carnatic musicians wanting to attempt singing for dance, it may be helpful to attend dance concerts “to learn to bridge the gaps”. Respondents quite agree that attending dance concerts will improve the musician’s artistic sensibilities. Predictably the dancers agree very strongly with this opinion. Rajendra Kumar agrees with Sri VPD and points out that not many musicians can be seen attending dance concerts. A prominent vocalist in an interview responded that it was not the lyrics of Krishna Nee Begane Baro that helped her bring the vision of Krishna to the audience, but it was rather the gift of the raga. I might have to disagree with that to an extent. Though it could have been her personal experience I would like to recall the words of Mr. N. Pattabhiraman (as quoted in Sruthi, Jan 2009) “Each Kriti contains the genetic code, the DNA imprint… of the particular image of the raga in which it has been created… It is not correct to say that a raga has only one image; in numerous cases, the great vaggeyakars have shown us that a raga has more images than one within its scalar framework, that it has different images when looked at from different angles. The composition, with its sahitya bhava, its basic mood(sthyai bhava) acts as a medium of refraction… I would appreciate it better if the performer presented just one image of the raga, the image that is in conformity with the sahitya bhava of the selected krithi”. This delicate balance of kalpita and kalpana elements may be visualized easily by students of music if they attended, once in a while, good dance recitals, where the emphasis is on the intended bhava and rasas of the compositions presented.

I have two related links to those who are interested in this area.

‘Carnatic musicians and Naatya’ by V. P. Dhananjayan: A response-

Making music for dance –

 PS: Most, if not all, of the responses used the masculinine pronoun “he” ( I reduced the gender bias by adding in the he/she in the above report) while referring to the singer. I am not reading or concluding anything here!!! 

    • Is an aptitude or knowledge of carnatic music essential to dancers?
    • Can CD replace live music accompaniment?

 The responses to these questions will be discussed in part 3 of the series.

 * data from 27 survey forms used and quotes from a few personal conversations have been used

4 responses to “Music in and for Bharathanatyam-A survey report (Part2)

  1. The musicians today hardly ever look at the dancer, and many are busy looking at their notes because they don’t even remember what to play next!

    The real point that the musicians will not always tell you frankly is they wonder why they should look at a boring dance if the musicians are not paid well.

  2. Hmm! Looks like there are underpaid and overpaid musicians.
    I am wondering what decides their being underpaid or overpaid!


  3. Their “status”, and also their professionalism as dance accompanists. E.g. if the musician’s status is lower than the dancer’s, the dancer gets paid more. An indication of the musician’s status can be seen in what dancer he plays for (Alarmel Valli?) and how busy his schedule is.

    It’s amusing that dancers (or rather, their gurus who may get kick-backs from the musicians!) are unwilling to do a bit more hunting for not-so-famous young musicians who play or sing even better than the “established” ones!

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