When we follow our heart’s calling, all we need is given to us, says dancer Ramaa Bharadvaj
By Mallika Jayanti
Ramaa Bharadvaj is an acclaimed choreographer, performer, dance activist and a writer. She studied dance in Chennai, India, under legendary gurus Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and Kamala (Bharata Natyam) and Vempatti Chinna Satyam (Kuchipudi).
As the founder and Artistic Director of Angahara Dance Ensemble, she has won multiple Lester Horton Dance Awards in Los Angeles. In 2003, she was selected as a Master Artist of California by the Alliance for California Traditional Artists and was the only performing artist to be honored with California Arts Council’s Directors’ Award for exemplary contributions to the Arts in California. She is included as one of 21 exceptional South Asian women living in the United States whose lives and stories are presented in the book Spices in the Melting Pot released in 2005.
A thought-provoking writer, her dance commentaries have been published by the Congress on Research in Dance, New York Foundation for the Arts, National edition of Indian Express (India), Narthaki web magazine, among others. Ramaa is on the Dance Faculty at Orange Coast College and Pomona College and also teaches at yoga conferences, retreats and spiritual centres.
In July 2000, Ramaa and her daughter Swetha became the first Indian dancers in over 45 years to be featured on the cover of the prestigious Dance Magazine (July 2000). Their critically acclaimed choreography, JWALA-Flame, which depicts the story of the immigrant experience of search, discovery and returning to the roots, was telecast nationally on PBS (December 2007). In a free-wheeling interaction with Mallika Jayanti, she discusses very many topics related to these two great dance forms.
You have learnt both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. What fundamental differences do you find in these dance forms?
Answer: It’s mostly an energy shift that happens. It is necessary to tap into the male energy – almost as if the dancer is impersonating a man who is impersonating a woman. The speed is also much higher than the slightly relaxed pace of Bharatanatyam. As a dancer who was first trained in Bharatanatyam, I found Kuchipudi more intense. The variations in footwork, especially the traveling on the toes and the heels, are practically non-existent in Bharatanatyam, thus (as my daughter Swetha pointed out) requiring different groups of muscles in your legs to work. The foot positions such as knotting of the toes and crossing of the feet while creating pure dance rhythms also require attention. In contrast to the definitive crispness and sharp angles of Bharatanatyam, a Kuchipudi dancer creates more rounded and softer edges that are luscious to watch. The leans and lunges are deeper and farther. There is an up and down bobbing movement, which is also very unique to this style and which Dr. Sunil Kothari describes as “the playful jumping of a baby goat.” The movements flow with great deal of lyricism, in a continuous stream of sways and twirls, restraint and release, high leaps and bounces. Another important aspect is the outward hip thrust in certain lunges and poses. I often use the comparison of a Kuchipudi dancer’s movements to that of the sway of a bamboo tree.
It is also my opinion that some of the movements might have drawn their inspiration from everyday village activities. For example, the pure dance movement in which the dancer extends the arms in front with two Katakamukha gestures and pulls them back and forth over the shoulder while bobbing up and down with the feet might have been inspired by the rhythmic twist of the village women churning butter.
What is the difference in music for Bharatanatyam and music for Kuchipudi?
Answer: This is a complex subject and I am going to refer your readers to my guru Vempatti Chinna Sathyam’s website which has a thorough article by P. Sangeetha Rao, who was Vempatti master’s long-time music composer for many of his dance dramas. www.kuchipudi.com
Have you learnt them simultaneously? How difficult or easy do you find learning them?
Answer: My initial training was in Bharatanatyam. It was my guru the legendary Kamala who took me to Vempatti master when I was 14 years old and requested him to teach me Kuchipudi. Many years later, while traveling in a bus from Boston to New York City, Vempatti Chinna Satyam told me of the immense admiration and respect that he had for Kamala. He said that when he was young he would save the small allowance he received in order to buy a ticket for Kamala’s performance. The sculpturesque quality of her dance inspired him to later expand the vocabulary of Kuchipudi movements. The complete extensions of the arms, the frozen poses and full leaps found in Vempatti Chinna Satyam’s style of Kuchipudi are, to me, very reminiscent of Kamala’s dancing. In my performance of Kuchipudi I experience the helpful influence of Kamala’s Bharatanatyam technique – the perfect confluence of styles from two living legends flowing like liquid gold through my limbs.
Do you have any particular preference? Like Kuchipudi for certain items and Bharatanatyam for some?
Answer: Not really. When you get into each style, it has its own appeal.
What difference do you think it makes while learning from teachers like Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and some dance teachers and schools? What is their style of teaching? What thing you would want the dance teachers to learn from them?
Answer: When learning from the masters, a lot of focus and observation were necessary. There was no taping of songs or video taping the classes and things like that. They also did not kinesthetically break down the movements when they taught. These days dance teachers find it beneficial for students to learn when they can break down the movements in terms of space, weight, balance etc. This is also good in a way. But we never heard those words when we studied under the gurus. It was more a reverential surrender – not intellectual understanding.
Recently I was reading an article that makes me ask you this question- what do you think that differentiates a Nattuvanaar to a dance teacher?
Answer: The same difference as between a cook and a chef. A cook (Nattuvanar) simply follows a recipe given to him/her to create a meal. But a chef (dance teacher) is also the creator of the recipe.
You have achieved a certain position in the field of dance now. How difficult or easy has been the journey. What did you learn that you would like to pass on?
Answer: I wish I could tell stories of how I walked 5 miles in bare feet over mountains to get to where I am. But actually it was nothing like that. There is something called the Law of Attraction on which the Universe operates. When we follow our heart’s calling, all that we need is given to us. All lessons (both pleasant and painful) are taught to us so that we may accomplish our soul’s purpose. One of my colleagues, who was an actor, used to quote an African saying “Blessing is next to the wound.” My journey has been full of many blessings to be grateful for. As the Sufi saying goes, “all experiences are but preparations for something else”. So the idea of disappointment and difficulty does not arise.The formula for success in art (and life) is this:
* Practice equanimity and be neutral to both praise and criticism. Otherwise, it will be a long, tedious roller-coaster ride of elation and depression.
* Do not get attached to your work or let it define who you are. You define your work not vice versa. That way, your work will be able to change and grow as you do.
* Be objective about your work and invite constructive criticism but at the same time listen to YOUR heart and what inspires YOU. Many trend-setters have all been pooh-poohed away in the beginning by the public and the critics.
* Invite every experience into life with gratitude and surrender to the Divine Will.
* Feel free to make mistakes but once a lesson has been learnt never make the same mistake twice.
* It is not enough to simply present your work. You must also represent it both artistically and politically. So get involved and don’t shy away from writing and speaking and expressing yourself in other arenas.
Why did you choose the U.S. and not India?
Answer: That was destiny, not choice. It was the typical arranged marriage story. But it is the freedom (financial, artistic and personal) that this country has gifted me that is responsible for my growth as an artiste and a woman. I am grateful for that and wouldn’t change a thing.
How different is the audience perception towards these art forms in India and the U.S.?
Answer: To the western audience, these dances are international experiences (like travel) through which they see colors, sound, stories and movements that are different from their own – whether it is Kuchipudi or Bharatanatyam or Odissi or Kathak really is not discernible to them. It is Indian. And to them, Indian is mystical, Indian is spiritual, Indian is ancient and so on. They don’t really bother about the micro details such as there are 22 official languages in India, that Vaishnavism influenced Kuchipudi, that Tabla is different from a Mrdangam and is different from a Pakhwaj, that Hindustani music and Carnatic music do have their differences. They seek the “authentic” and so I have had presenters even asking me if all members of my dance company are of Indian origin. This is not to say that there are not successful Indian dance companies that have multi-cultural dancers in them. But this has been my experience.
In India when you perform within the cultural realm where the dance comes from (eg, Bharatanatyam for Chennai or for a Tamil audience) the nuances are understood and appreciated.
What changes do you want to see in Bharatanatayam and Kuchipudi- be it in the margam structure, costume, jewellery, music, length of items etc.?
Answer: The one thing that I have been bringing up is the role of certain javalis in a traditional margam structure, especially while teaching it to children or performing it to an uninitiated audience. I would refer your readers to my article in Indian Express about this and would invite their response. www.newindpress.com
I was the brain behind www.onlinebharathanatyamacademy.wordpress.com. Now I moved out and am building www.bharatadance.wordpress.com. What is your take on so many online teachers these days? While you are at it, please also tell us your opinion on DVD teaching.
Answer: DVDs can serve as references and inspiration. But you cannot learn dance from an inanimate source like that. Baba Ramdev said this in one of his yoga camps recently about Yoga learning from a guru versus electronic medium and I am going to quote him here. “You can meet your partner on line – but can you make babies on line?” We are talking about human bodies here and the watchful eye of an expert teacher is required to make corrections on alignment and posture not to mention facial expressions. Moreover, there is direct energy transmission that happens between teacher and student when they are face to face.
On the DVDs, it is clearly stated that it is legally wrong to reproduce it in any form- your comments please.
Answer: Copyright! In the U.S., it is taken seriously. And I am all for it.
How do you find Bollywood Bharatanatyam? Bharatanatyam on Mozart’s compositions or shall I say the English Bharatantaym?
Answer: There is no such thing as Bollywood Bharatanatyam. That is a misnomer. Holding a few gestures and imitating footwork does not make it Bharatanatyam. It has a definite structure of its own and it is also a spiritual (I don’t mean religious) dance form. That means it can make you feel connected in a deep way with what you are seeing beyond the sensual physical aspect. We don’t have to necessarily tell the story of Hindu Gods and deities. I am reminded of Dhananjayan’s breathtaking choreography of a pregnant deer in a forest. My choreography Jwala-Flame about the struggles and discoveries of the immigrant experience and dedicated to the Statue of Liberty elicits that kind of deeply spiritual response from the audience every time we have performed it. Now tell me, what is spiritual about Bollywood dance? It is entertainment, that’s all.
Dancing to Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky is a completely different category. These were great classical composers who were divinely inspired. The choreographers who attempt such dances have put a lot of thought into it. They do not sacrifice the structure of the dance form. Only the music changes. It is beautiful when two classical art forms from two different worlds can merge like that, transcending linguistic, cultural and geographical limitations. I have seen Padma Subrahmanyam’s stunning portrayal of an episode from Ramayana and so I know how effective it can be.
If we can use Hindustani music and Bhajans (which do not belong to the Carnatic music system) in Bharatanatyam, why should Mozart be a problem?
There have been many talks on different forum for all the dancers to come together and help each other so that there could be some good classical dance and some funds. I personally have faced such situations where I had to perform without any money; respect is something I rather not comment on. But as an artist you would understand the importance for one to perform on stage. Do you believe in forming a group/team to help one another?
Answer: Yes. Union power always helps. We do not and cannot live in a vacuum. In Chennai, they started something like that called ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artists of India), although I don’t know much about it. There is a disproportion in the rate which musicians charge in relation to what dancers get paid (or do they even get paid anymore?). This kind of greed has to stop. Dancers, musicians, lighting designers and set designers must all be part of this team.
As for performing without money, I think it is a sad state of affairs. The art must be self sustainable otherwise very few will take it up seriously. It will become the prerogative of the rich and that is wrong. Five years ago when I received my Lester Horton Dance Award in Los Angeles, I spoke about this on stage – about the need for economic stability for concert dancers. Here is a direct quote from my speech which should answer you.
“How many of you have heard presenters say to us, “we cannot pay you but we can give you great exposure? My answer to them is this: “Darling, if I want exposure I will strip naked and run on the beach. California is full of them.”
And that’s my take on that!!!
Since you have achieved such great heights in this field, how do you help other struggling artists? Is there a way one can approach you?
Answer: I give a lot of my time to the dance community in an advisory capacity. Making your presence felt in the community is as important as spending time in your studio. What drives me is a desire to create a wider audience, a wider family that can provide a nurturing environment for Indian dance. I look at it as creating a family around myself, sharing my knowledge and contacts and connecting people with one another. Then people look up to you as a link, a conduit that brings the community together, as someone they can trust and turn to. That’s how you grow and succeed. Otherwise you are just a leech and nobody likes leeches.
What do you want to say about old and out of shape dancers who are not even graceful and flexible but are adamant on giving performances based on their one time great image?
Answer: There are two separate aspects in this question. Old as in chronological aging is never a deterrent for there are so many nuances in classical dance that can be touched upon at each stage of a dancer’s performing life. Dancers like Vyjayanthimala, Dhananjayan and C.V. Chandrasekhar look good doing it because they know how to choreograph to their mature bodies and yet bring out the strengths of Bharatanatyam. They are not caught up in a time warp trying to re-create what they looked like or danced like in their younger days.
But being out of shape is an entirely different matter altogether. One can be out of shape at any age in which case one shouldn’t be dancing at all. As for dancers who are both old and out of shape, they do seem to have an audience! Otherwise why would they continue to dance? So are we to question the audience who go to see them or the dancers? It is better not to get into those discussions.
As dancers we carefully plan and choreograph entries and exits on and off the stage all our lives. But when it comes to that final exit off the performing arena, can we “exit” gracefully? This is a choice that we all have to make at some point. It is more important to focus on what we will do when we reach that point rather than worry about what somebody else is doing. As long as they have an audience, let them dance.
Please also quote on how Vazhuvoor style is different from other styles
Answer: It was said to be known for its superb grace. I was watching Kamala’s old videos when she represented the Vazhuvoor style at the height of its glory. But I also notice that no one dances like that anymore. That style is pretty much extinct. With each passing generation, each dancer brings something of herself/himself to the style and what I notice is that this “style” or “pani” is getting crisper and more streamlined not just in the Vazhuvoor tradition but other traditions as well.
So it seems like there are actually two styles now – the old Vazhuvoor style and the new Vazhuvoor style. The performing artist who is the most well known in that style seems to define the style for her/his generation. Let’s remember that dancing is a body thing and no two bodies move the same way – if they did we would all turn into robots.
Your final word to our readers.
Answer: I will end with a beautiful story of conviction and confidence and an advice – both from a very wise and dear friend Nala Najan, who was a great Indian dancer.
The story: Once Tiruvarur Gnanam, a great Devadasi, was performing a padam (a lyrical dance) to the song “Manchi Dhinamu” which was a composition of the poet Kshetrayya. She portrayed astrological charts through gestures, to denote the idea of auspicious time. The Brahmin priests, who witnessed the dance, were highly offended by it. They felt that it was inauspicious and against the sastras for a woman to use these symbols and questioned her, to which, she is said to have replied, “when you see Kshetrayya, invite him over for tea, and I will discuss my improvisation technique with him.” Then pointing to the sacred rudraksha bead that she wore around her neck, she is supposed to have said, “Do you see this? I AM the sastra. I AM Siva.”
The Advice: On our final meeting before his death Nala said to me, “Don’t let anyone quote the Natya Sastra to you or tell you how you should dance or what you should dance about. It is you, the dancer, who creates dance. The Gods might have inspired it, but you are the living tradition. Without the human body, there would be no dance, no sastra. You are the Natya Sastra. Remember that always.”