Music in and For Bharathanatyam- A Survey report- Part 3

Continued from

Carnatic Music Aptitude and/or Knowldege for dancers

An overall agreement that an aptitude or knowledge of carnatic music in the dancer helps him/her excel in Bharathanatyam, is seen from the survey responses; with the scores from within India being slightly higher in this regard. Similarly the musicians placed a higher emphasis on the need for CM knowledge/aptitude in dancers.

On how exactly Carnatic Music helps dancers improve, the general feeling can be best expressed in the words of Manjari :-

“It certainly is a big plus if the dancer understands and appreciates music, it adds much more depth to their dancing”.

It is felt that an understanding of the thala, lyrics and the flavour of the raga improve the nritta and abinaya aspects of the dance .

“Attending concerts exposes them to a variety of songs which can be included in their repertoire.”- Hamsa Venkat

Music as a requirement for choreography

However, the open-end answers, reveal that the depth of knowledge acceptable/considered essential in itself is dictated by what the dance student/dancer aims to be. Lakshmi Ramasamy referring to those who want to be professional performers says “Dancer should have a good idea of music, if not professionally sing”. “Choreographing and composing call for a higher understanding of the ragas and rhythm structures. (Anupriya Krishnan and Kavitha Ramu) as the dance should reflect the flow of the music (Soumya Tilak)”

“I don’t want a dancer to be jumping around vigorously in a slow Neelambari composition. It just affects my sensibilities” says S. Srinivasan.

If the teacher/choreographer or the dancer also is the one who decides the item list, then an awareness of which ragas should and should not be placed in proximity will go a long way in making the total performance a success. For e.g.,  Keeravani Jathiswaram followed by Simendramadhyamam item is a strict no-no!

Singing abilities for the Teacher/Nattuvanar

Yesteryear nattuvanars were excellent musicians. If the teacher intends to choreograph items for her students, then as seen from above deliberations, would definitely need to be aware of the technical nuances of Carnatic music . Also if the teacher is the one singing during the class, an appropriate standard of singing will go a long way in developing an appreciation of music itself and transalate itself as spontaneous reaction to music at subconscious levels.

A rasika, who accompanied her niece to a few dance class sessions said that

“I really don’t understand how the teacher whose singing (that she heard from the verandah outside) didn’t confine the tune to one recognisable ragam could expect her students to attain a good standard! The music appreciation of the students should be inculcated way before it is practically possible for them to practise with musicians.”

Even if the musician has all the attributes necessary it may still call for precise communication of the necessities by the nattuvanar to elicit the perfect match for the choreography- it is his vision that is being presented after all. But to communicate perfectly to the musician, the nattuvanar/ teacher/ choreographer needs to have a musical vocabulary. Bombay Jayasri says that Leela Samson knew exactly what she needed and communicated it precisely to help her give her best.

In a nutshell as Anupriya says “Dancers in India grow up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to classical music and dance. Media plays a very vital role. Unfortunately, (in some places), other than class time and practice time, students rarely get to see or hear good music and dance. Learning CN music along with BN has its own perks. Ragam & Talam gyanam is far better for those who know CN music. As a dancer, I enjoy and relate much better to a dance because of my CN background. Choreography and teaching become a natural thing for a dancer who is well versed with CN music. So CN is imperative for BN.”

The stalwarts of Bharathanatym did and do find a  “Pakka balam*” in the “Pakka vadyam*” (*Soumya quoting Smt. Chitra Visweswaran) with their aptitude and appreciation of music. So there is no escaping the fact, that to be a complete dancer, one should work hard on developing an aptitude for carnatic music (if it isn’t there yet).

CD as a replacement for live orchestra.

This is one question to which the rasikas, musicians and the dancers varied predictably and widely in their response. The rasikas quite disagree with the trend (an avg score of 3.1) while the dancers seem to embrace the concept (an avg score of 7.1). Various articles have discussed the difficulties of dancers in putting together a good orchestra. The problems range from lack of availability, to lack of co-operation, high costs and fee of the members of the orchestra and practical problems in travelling with a orchestra. These probably are the reasons for dancers being more willing to use professional CDs today.  But most rasikas and a few dancers favour it ”only as a last resort”.Musician Rama varma says “Better to use a good CD than a bad live musician!”

A definite distinction is to be made at this juncture between the ready-made commercial one-size fits all CDs and the individualized CDs that are specially recorded in a studio for a particular dancer/ choreography. These sure are expensive.  Hamsa Venkat, a dancer carefully adds,” As long as the CD has been recorded professionally for you “(it may be alright).Echoing this sentiment Passionate Dancer says “For many, it’s a means of survival, when finding a good orchestra is not possible. As long as it is professionally recorded music and if the dancer is able to use the recording to her advantage and give a good presentation it is fine.The ones off the shelf may not suit your needs most of the time, is alright for beginners.”

Our cheeky rasika  narrates her woes-

“I am tired of hearing the same professional CD Natesa kavutuvam, I can even sing along with it now! Well many gurus where I live seem to have learnt the kavutuvam from the same VCD too, so all their students perform similarly to the same song. Nothing original about it, leave alone the surprise element! Thankfully the power never fails in our place!”

And dancer/teacher Anupriya Krishnan says “I will never be able to relate to a 2 hour recital if there is no live music. But if it is a 5 -10 min program, I guess I will survive :-)”

United we Stand a better Chance?

“Music is dance and dance is music. And the one without the other would never be complete.” (Rama Varma). Carnatic Music and Bharathanatyam are not mutually independent sets. If the quality of music in dance recitals is appreciable, probably more music rasikas would consider attending dance concerts.  Dance rasikas who begin to develop a taste for Carnatic Music aided by the good music that they get to hear from the dance orchestra, may actually consider attending music concerts!


I wish to express my gratitude to Aishwarya Anantha, Anupriya Krishnan, Bhanu Krishnan, Binal Vyas, Devi Ravi, Hamsa venkat, Jayakamala Pandian, Kavitha Ramu, Lakshmi Ramasamy, Madhana Raghavan, Manjari Rajendrakumar (nee Chandrasekar), Navia Natarajan Menon, Nrithya Pillai, Padma Balakumar, Rama Varma, R. Rajendrakumar, Santosh Kumar Menon, Shantha Somasundaram, S. Srinivasan,  Soumya Tilak, Suganthi.P, Sumi Krishnan, Umaa Sathyanarayanan and those who came up with interesting pseudonyms (Passionate dancer, Music of Hearts, Eternal student of the art of Bharatanatyam) and a few others who wished to remain anonymous who took the time to fill in their survey questionnaire and/or discuss their opinion on this topic with me. I am grateful to the 3 of you who proof read the questionnaire. I am also thankful to Sumi Krishnan of for helping me with the data collection. I also absolutely am indepted to Madhana Raghavan, Sowmya Tilak and Rajendra Kumar for graciously accepting to proof (and to have) read this mess!


3 responses to “Music in and For Bharathanatyam- A Survey report- Part 3

  1. I think first what ‘Carnatic Music’ means for dancers and musicians needs to be clarified. It is not uncommon for a Carnatic musician to get lost in details of singing the raaga and use the lyrics as a tool for projection of his abilities to paint different aspects and composition of the raga. I have heard the same Bombay Jayashree say in margazhi mahotsava that lyrics are not even in the picture when she thinks of rasanubhava in a particular raaga. THough she says that knowing the meaning of the lyrics definitely helps the musician. But that statement is practically useless for most musicians. Carnatic Music in its most creative form does not include coming up with your own lyrics. Singers are taught that creativity lies in swarakalpana and not saaahityakalapana. And it is pretty understandable that CMusicians get lost in the depth of raagabhaavaas and use the kriti as a stepping stone to start exploring the given raaga. Thus if a CMusician is attending a concert (dance/music) he is looking for what he can gain insight in terms of raaga aalapanai’s and taalabhedas accompanying singing. As most dance concerts do not have excellent singers for the reasons including those stated above, musicians have very little to learn from a dance concert. If at all they happen to be interested in different saahityakalpanas of the krithis they sing or even bother to know the meaning, rasa and sthayi bhava of a krithi, they would attend a dance concert.

    For a dancer on the other hand, saahityakalpanas are more important. If she/he attends a concert (music/dance) they happen to concentrate on the manodharmam of presenting a set of lyrics or the meaning/bhava conveyed in creative ways. All sabdams are performed majorly in Kambodhi. But the presentation of sarasi jakshulu documenting krishna’s mischiefs warrants a very different treatment from say teh pallavi of tillai ambalam about Shiva where the heroine is pining for him. In a good dance concert, the focus is entirely on the visual poetry created by the dancer for the 4 lines of sahityam she is performing for or better, the sanchari for 20 minutes she performs for the same vaakhya or even just music. In a music concert, if i am an informed dancer, i would go into imagining the bhava the composer composed the lyrics for. Bhava without lyrics is very abstract. Lyrics give them a form. Interpretation of both the raaga and the saahitya are subjective but the latter is definitely much more definite than the former. Playing shankarabharam can conjure any number of images, but having sung manavi chekona evokes a central theme of pleading. Similarly nattai can be sung sober and vigourously but a mallari gives it a definite scenario of a procession of a deity. So a dancer can sit in a music concert and get lost in his imagination. But its harder for a musician to get lost in the repertoire of a dance concert given, they are not groomed to appreciate any saahitya kalpana. And most dance singers, for not being famous musicians, dont attract other famous musicians for their technical ability.

    Another factor is the length of history in dance and music fields. Dance has become mainstream in barely a 100 years. The continuing of the art form in strictly devadasi families and temple dedications of the art form prevented several established musicians from getting themselves involved in it. The ego and traditions of musicians evolved far mroe longer than dancers who have sprung into sabha action at the least over the last 30 years will take a long long time to recognise the taste of sahityakalpana and to acknowledge and learn rasa and bhava in a composition giving due respect to vaageyakaras imaginations. Prince Rama Varma having learnt from BMK who happens to give enough consideration to lyrics and pronunciation, being a vaageyakara himself, is a marked exception to the 100s of musicians who still do not care about what they are singing about. As long as it involves some deities name and a handful terms they recognise with, they are completely clueless.

    A dancer is by default listening to music. And thus is capable of appreciating it and in recent times, even learning and performing it. A musician is not by default seeing dance or even taught the intricacies of rasas and bhavabhivaykti. They are taught the intricacies of ragas which by their virtue of the swaras alone are supposed to invoke rasas. It takes a musician a lifetime to master swarakalpana of all the raagas. They are not going to dive into a new ocean of rasakalpana and sahityakalpana just because of dancers’ outcry.

    Sangeetha: I so thoroughly enjoyed reading your discussion. Thanks

  2. Found this discussion steered by Gowri Ramnarayanan with Chitra Visweswaran, Lakshmi Viswanathan, Alarmel Valli and Shantha Dhananjayan participating published in the Hindu archives (1999)
    Dancing to Whose Tunes…
    The discussion touches upon various aspects of music for dance. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. It is interetsing to see the representatives of the Vazhuvoor, Kanjeevaram, Pandanallur and Kalakshetra styles interact.

  3. This is a very relevant point you have put forward…since ancient times, music and dance have been intrinsically linked together, and yes, a good and clear understanding of music helps a dancer a lot, as in my case.

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