Some historical snippets of BN – Part 14 – Gamakas in BN?

After a loooong break, I am back to blogging another post on historical snippets series. In this post, we not only come across an interesting topic, we will see some photos as well.

In music there are embellishments, also known as ornamentation (List of embellishments in western classical music can be found here). One such embellishment in Carnatic music is Gamakas, without which I think the music would be bland. Since dance is known as visual music, can we find an equivalent of Gamakas in Bharatanatyam? Now, that needs some thinking and that’s what K. V. Ramachandran discusses in the paper titled “The Grace Notes of Dance” published in the Journal of Music Academy of Madras in 1954 [1].

According to another blogpost that I came across, K V Ramachandran was a music and dance critic [2, 3]. He is credited as the one who discovered Sangraha Chudamani. Read about him here and here. He was known for his strong views, which after reading this 1954 article, you would find some strongly worded sections.  Quoting an interesting note from the Guruguha blog, for the following photo (emphasis added).

Interestingly given perhaps the reluctance of dance artistes to model abhinaya for him, he himself along with his wife (in madisaar) performed some of the postures for camera, to serve as illustration for his articles!

This reminds E. Krishna Iyer’s similar way of popularizing the art form, where he put stree vesham (in lady attire) and performed and pictures exist in internet.

Image courtesy: Guruguha blog and Triveni

Disclaimer: I have attached the link to the pdf as part of this post. I am not really quite sure of the copyright, although the website had no mention of it anywhere. So, I will remove the document if anyone points to any copyright infringement.

Could the listener have a pleasant experience of a concert if there were no gamakas introduced at the right moment by the musician? The answer is “No”. So, the author starts the article with the question:

are there factors in Dance analogous to the Gamakas, the conscious and deliberate employment of which enriches and exals the art and the omission of which debases it?

The answer, in his view, lies in flexion of the body. Body flexion ranges from

subtle nuances, buoyant rise and dips, tender swaying of the head,

to movements like the

flame deflected by the breeze

The reason he mentions is the participation of the Upangas makes a rich impression of the dance, thereby making it more authentic than a drill.  Hmmm…could a flexion make a movement more aesthetic then the same without movement? Most probably, specifically in the context the author is explaining. But, again the demand and introduction of flexions must be strictly within the framework of the mood portrayed.

What about a subtle attami in a movement? Can we call that as an embellishment? While discussing this article with my friend Raj, he opined that

the many layers of abhinaya in a sanchari; nritta with expression can also be equivalent to gamakas.

Of course, not just flexion but there are so many other things that I think all can be considered as visual embellishments in dance. In fact, the tholthali or the shoulder-blade-jerk that is getting disappeared thesedays is an equivalent of gamaka in dance.

My good friend and (ballet and modern) dancer Lisa Thurell, says

musicality, individual interpretation, “line” and ‘form” phrasing and interesting creation of choreography

are probably the embellishments in ballet and modern dance. While first two are broad terms, the interesting creation of choreography is definitely one could say an embellishment. Something that comes to my mind, after reading interesting creation of choreography is ‘Lamentation’ by Martha Graham. Look at this video where she explains the choice of the costume and some background for the choreography. What I want you to look at is timestamp 3:06, the lifting of the right leg. In my opinion, that single movement just enhanced the message and was very effective.

Photo by Herta Moselsio “Lamentation,”ca. summer 1937 Silver gelatin prints
Image Courtesy:

In the article, K. V. Ramachandran has has a couple of photographs of a BN dancer called “Syamala Mahadevan of Shamnagar”. The article mentions her as the grand-disciple of Vidvan Chinnayya Pillai of Tanjore. Meaning that Syamala Mahadevan’s guru’s guru was Vidvan Chinnayya Pillai. Unfortunately, there is no mention of her guru in the article.

A little background about Chinnayya pillai might be needed here for some of us. He was the second son of Thanjavur Kuppuswamy Nattuvanaar, and was born in 1876. No, don’t confuse this Chinnayya pillai with the Chinnayya of the Tanjore Quartet. At this point, I need to point out that his father, Thanavur Kuppuswamy Nattuvanaar and his eldest son Vadivelu, were part of the dowry troupe of the Baroda palace. If you remember the earlier post on Devadasi video and audio, Baroda Gauri was part of the dowry troupe that accompanied Princess Chimna Bai of Thanjavur. Vidvan Chinnayya Pillai of Tanjore passed away in 1956.

Back to Chinnayya pillai of Tanjore, he accompanied dancers for their performances as a percussionist (mridangam). At the insistence of Vazhuvoor Manickam Pillai (the same from whom Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai learnt nattuvangam) and others he learnt the nuances of BN and started teaching dance. He had many disciples, one of them must be Syamala Mahadevan’s guru.

Without further ado, here are the photographs of the dancer Syamala Mahadevan. In the article, the legend for these photographs are not numbered and connecting the dots is a tad difficult. I have tried my level best to match the photograph with the supposed legend. Correct me if I have missed something. Click on the images for a bigger sized image.

Thayyamthatha Adavu Variation 1

Thayyamthatha Adavu Variation 2

Thayyamthatha Adavu Variation 3


It is interesting to note that a single photo is described as Thillana.

Dhit dhit tai Adavu

Dhit dhit tai Adavu

Angahara movement

This movement is mentioned in the article as a calssical Angahara reconstructed from the Natya shastra, to emphasize the point that “traditional dance permits new creations”.

Ta Tai Tam adavu – a new version

This the “sword” adavu for being razor sharp hand movement. Some variations the author suggests are to have the adavu preceed by a side or front jump.

The hidden gem in the article is the following sentence (emphasis added)

Whether in music or dance the standard is the Vilamba-kala, slow tempo…What an unpardonable offence then is the modern (in 1954!) craze for speed? Not only speed has driven out all aesthetic qualities, but it has reduced all systems-even the genuine ones-to a dead level. Lack of knowledge, of course, is at the bottom of this state of affairs.

In fact, the very next paragraph talks about how some dancers are ignorant of how to portray Nataraja accurately. He goes to say in an effort to depict Nataraja a “travesty” is done in translation of the sculpture to dance, and it ends being a “clumsy and inelegant”

Wonder what his views would be with the changes that have happened in BN since 1954.



  1. “Grace Notes of Dance” – The Journal of the Music Academy 1954, pp. 93-100

2 responses to “Some historical snippets of BN – Part 14 – Gamakas in BN?

  1. My name is Padma Chittampalli. I am not a computer savvy person. I find your site very interesting. Your article on Gamaka in Dance caught my attention. This is something my Guru Nala Najan taught all his students in each movement in each dance and to suite the ability of each student. He was my Guru for 18 years in New York and taught me over 300 dances. Each dance displaying variety of Gamakas in movement involving eyes, Rachakas involving all Angas and Pratyangas. The concept of Gamakas was difficult to comprehend by American students. Simple explanation he would give was first to master the very fundamental principle of Shasthra (BN) Yatohasthsa….and add to it as he choreographed. Flexion as opposed without flexion you have shown in your pictures has simply vanished from BN training. All his Adavus (500 +) were executed with flexion! Gamakas as he interpreted are possible only if dances are executed in Vilambakala or at least tempered Mdhyamakala. He was very particular about application of Gamakas in Abhinaya in general and Padams (Kshetrajnya) in particular This aspect can only be seen to recognize and appreciate rather than expressed in words or even talked about it. I sincerely hope this unique feature of Tanjavur Sampradaya will be reinvented.
    Incidentally, I was also browsing about your comments on dancing Thyagaraja’s compositions. His Adiguru Madam La Meri had danced Rarasita as Shurpanakha in love during 1940s. Nala “dared” to perform (several times) Evarikai in Madras in 1963 sung by Adeyar Lakshman and Sarojini Pattabhi. Bhagavatamela Gurus Bharatham Narayanaswami Iyer of Nallur taught him all Pancharatnas, Nadatanumanisham and more. Balu Bhagavatar taught him very rare Kritis like Sarasasamadana and some. He passed on to me all of that and taught me 30+ Thyagaraja’s compositions. I had showcased almost all on many occasions at various venues in NY and in Mysore.

  2. Dear Ms. Padma Chittampalli,
    Thanks for stopping by and for the wonderful comment. I agree with you that flexion of some adavus in the first speed makes the dance more appreciable. I wish Nala Najan was amongst us today. The closest I have been to Nala Najan is while browsing his collection at NYPL, Lincoln center. Someday I will blog about him. 🙂

    Also, thanks for the insightful source on dance compositions on Saint Thygaraja’s kritis by Nala Najan. I think this makes him one of the pioneers who performed to Saint Thyagaraja’s kritis.

    Again, thanks a bunch for stopping by and reading the blogposts. Please subscribe to get alerts about newly published articles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s