A dancer’s dialogue with Thanjavur Brihadeshwara Temple Architecture

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

-BNandWWW was recently invited to the presentation and film screening of Smt. Sheila Sri Prakash, architect at Shilpa Architects on March 2, 2014.  A report by Aarabi Veeraraghavan-Swarna Rethas

Stepping into the the Veda gallery space on a Sunday morning, one felt like one walked into a very intimate family gathering. Smt Sheila Sri Prakash, was screening her film to a rather intimate gathering of family, friends and well wishers.

The Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur has captured the imagination and intellectual curiosity of generations of researchers, architects, dancers and scholars. It was evident from the beginning that Sheela was no exception and that her engagement with the temple was deep, well thought out and sincere. After an excellent filter coffee in davara tumbler, essential to any proposed activity on a Sunday morning in madras, the  silk clad audience spelled down.

The special guests for the morning were  Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai, under whom Sheila had her arangetram as a young girl and Guru Dr. Padma Subhramanyam who apart for being an authority on the aesthetics and dance inscriptions of the Thanjavur temple also happens to be a family friend of the film maker.

Guru Kalayanasundaram Pillai started by fondly reminiscing about his association with Smt Sheila Sri Prakash and her time as a student with him. He also made an interesting reference to the belief that the deity of any temple is said to grow stronger spiritually as generations of devotees worship at the shrine. It is perhaps this strength of hundreds of years of worship or the inherent mystical aura of the temple that attracts thousands to it everyday.

Dr. Padma Subhramanyam, fondly called as Padukka, also started her talk with personal recollections of the filmmaker as a young girl and of the family’s friendship with each other over the years. She soon moved on to talk about her self confessedly favorite topic, the big temple at Thanjavur. After briefly touching on the ability of an imposing temple structure to lend a sacred tangibility to what is otherwise intangible she also stressed on the fact that it is imperative to celebrate our own culture of worship and rituals with a sense of pride. According to her, the sastras define the term stapathi (architect) as one who can establish – stapathyam, one who has he ability to give form to the sacred principle. She spoke at length about her own spiritual connection to the temple which she believes is beyond her and quoted anecdotes form her first visit to the temple as a teenager to explain her point.

Padukka also mentioned the now famous tunnel inscriptions from temple which provide one with an exhaustive list of all the Devadasis employed by the temple and the ruler, their merit and the land, wealth and power accorded to each depending non their degree of artistic accomplishment. She tied all this information to the topic of the mornings film by talking about this deep tie between the dancer, art, the temple itself and he dancing Lord enshrined within. She also mentioned that she sees Shiela’s work as an offering, almost, and certainly belonging to this very to this line of thought and association that dancers seems to have had over the centuries with this temple. As for the architectural complexity of the Brihadeshwara temple, though much has been written about and published it, every re-telling has steadily been throwing up fresh aspects of architectural genius left unexplored by the one before.

Smt Sheila Sri Prakash introduced her film by saying that what she set out to do was explore through visuals, music and script the raga, bhava, and rhythm that the temple evoked in her as a dancer and as an architect.

The film began with the voice of the narrator (the film maker herself) declaring that the film is a ‘dialogue between the temple and the dancer in me’. The opening strains of a Raga Nalinakanthi alap in the voice of Dr Vijaylakshmi Subramaniam fills the space as we see beautiful black and white montages of the entrance to temple. The narrative voice explains that as the camera progresses from the main entrance to the imposing gate enclosure the melody of the alap is intercepted by a strong tisra beat played on a mridangam, shaking the mind out of the comfort induced by the alap. As one passes through the gate, the film proclaims that there is a return to a sense of comfort and belonging and the sound scape shifts to raga Hindolam in a comfortable chaturasram.

The grand Nandi in the prakara is redolent of a shankarabharanam to the narrator who sees him seated ‘proud and assured of his position’. This alap is layered with a jethi in chatusra nadai. There is the image of a pair of salangai wearing feet doing an adavu superimposed on the image of the prakara of the temple. As the two audio and two visual layers compete for attention, we move on to the increasingly formal space of the inner sanctum. The elaborate pillared wall and enclosure wall provide focus as one reaches southern wall and the entry to the inner sanctum.

As the camera proceeds to the shrine there is a change in rhythm and the ear perceives the opening notes of Raga Revati. The narrator says that as she looks up at the gopuram she literally ‘feels’ a brisk trisra nadai and the rhythmic complexity of the trisra nadai to her mirrors the layered complexity of the gopuram. The narrative explains that the eye is filled with a sense of wonder or vismaya at sight and the sound scape shifts to a Durbar raga alap as the camera moves to the  garbagriha or inner sanctum through the ardhamantapa. The film ends with a rendition of Brihadeshwara mahadeva in raga Kanada and the camera shifts to an image of the narrator doing mukha abhinaya to the song which the film maker feels comes closest to capturing the sense of immense bakthi that seeing Lord Brihadeshwara inspires in her.

In a surprising change, rather than becoming a a factual documentary style of film making, the strong element of subjectivity was key to this film. Though there was less information about the choice of ragas or even why a particular type of architectural space is evocative of a certain tala or nadai, this film certainly opens up an space for a dialogue engaging physical space and artistic experiences of the same space.

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