Bharathanatyam, the ancient dance art form of South India, is known to Sydneysiders since the 1980’s, when a sizeable population of South Indians made Sydney their chosen home. While it has metamorphised, as of today, into the present level of elegance, beauty, colour and sophistication, many may not know that its origin dates back to the 2nd century BC, when all the existing knowledge on this art form was compiled into a treatise”NATYASHASTRA” by Bharatha Muni. But many from South India(includes me), may not be aware that the word Bharatha denotes not only the celebrated author, but also the essential content of this art; bha stands for bhava(feelings, emotions), ra stands for raga (melody, framework for musical notes), and ta stands for tala (rhythm). The compound word Bharatanatyam thus connotes a dance that harmoniously expresses emotions, melody and rhythm.
While the 10th Anniversary presentation of Silambam – Sydney, at the Sydney Bahai Centre on 16th November 2019, was but one of many Bharathanatyam events that regularly happens in Sydney, it was quite unique in many respects and that is the reason for this coverage. As an ignoramus to the technical intricacies of this art, even I was truly impressed and thrilled with the step by step progression in the process of learning this art, the importance of the theory of this art that forms an integral part of it, the all inclusive participation of every student of Silambam in this event and most importantly the glorification of the Australian continent with its very rich indegenous culture, which would have undoubtedly pleased the legendary indigenous icon DAVID UNAIPON.
THE SEQUENCE (MARGAM)
The traditional Bharatanatyam learning process begins with a rigorous training in Adavus or the basic dance-units. Following the adavu training is the Margam, starting from alarippu, involving basic movements to varnam the most complicated sanctum sanctorum – core of the performance, followed by padams, javali and thillana. ARUNA GANDHI, the director and guru of Silambam, took us masterfully thru the sequence of the learning process demonstrating each stage with performances by the students of the academy.
The beginners with few months to few years of training showcased different varieties of adavus – the basic dance steps. This was followed by Alarippu, an opening piece with basic rhythmic movements that essentially serves as a warmup for loosening the body and helps move towards a single-minded focus. The next stage in the process is adding melody to the dance movements, called Jatiswaram. The students in this level performed a sequence that demonstrated the unity of music, rhythm and movements. In the Jatiswaram, a variety of adavus are strung together to form beautiful sequences that create various geometric patterns on stage.
We then saw a short snippet from the varnam, the most complicated part to master in this art. The traditional varnam – Sami ninne, set in a variety of ragas or Ragamalika, a composition of the Tanjore Quartet, was themed on Lord Brihadeeshwara of the Thanjavur temple. Here the nayika or heroine expresses her love and devotion to the Lord and describes His greatness and dynamic beauty. The dancers at this advanced stage of training, presented the main composition with vibrant movements and abhinaya effectively communicating the message or story thru codified gestures(mudras) and footwork, in harmony with the music, rhythmically punctuated with the beats of the percussionist.
These stages in the learning process were brilliantly explained by Guru Aruna in simple but eloquent words that even novices like me could understand and be educated. Her direction (nattuvangam) was perfect and spotless, while the students performed to her call faultlessly.
In these days of self-aggrandisement and assumed self-importance, it is rare to find someone who is talented but humble. That Guru Aruna involved each and every one of her students(from very beginners to advanced) in her presentation at this event, demonstrates her humility and her thoughtful desire to embrace her wards with inclusiveness.
In many art schools, the theory part is not normally given much importance and often ignored. On the other hand, the students of Silambam recited the appropriate theory part of their respective presentation, emphasizing the importance of learning the WHAT & WHY of their lessons. This is commendable.
AUSTRALIA, THE GOLDEN COUNTRY (HIRANMAYA KANDAM)
The crowning piece of the evening was the presentation of ‘An ode to GOLDEN AUSTRALIA’ (HIRANMAYA KANDAM), performed by Aruna along with the advanced students of the academy at the end of the event. Composed in the ancient language of Sanskrit by Dr Meenakshi Srinivasan and choreographed by Guru Aruna, Vande Hiranmaya Kandam speaks about this great country, Australia, where varieties of
pearls, minerals, opals and other precious stones are abundant; where about sixty rivers flow thru and where a large species of animals including unique and rare marsupials such as kangaroos, wallabies and koalas roam. There is a rich exuberance of colours; red Uluru at the centre, white on the peaks of Snowy mountains, blue on the Blue mountains and a colourful extravagance of the reef at the top end and bordered by green oceans all around. All of this makes this land an abode of peace and serenity. Most importantly, this composition glorifies the indigenous inhabitants of this land, who revere the five elements of nature and venerate fire, understanding its importance to mankind. It celebrates their depiction of various states of mind thru dot paintings that are spiritual representations of mother Earth on a higher plane. It speaks of their unique musical instruments including Didgeridoo which reverberates OMKARA ( a primeval and sacred sound of Hinduism) and their use of a special weapon Boomerang. Uluru is also a sacred spiritual icon of this land. Wow ! What more can one add to this tribute to and crisp depiction of Australia? All this message(Padam) was set to melodious music and brilliantly portrayed by Silambam group in an undoubtedly dazzling performance, that still remains etched in my memory. I have no doubt one of the greatest icons of indigenous Australians, DAVID UNAIPON, will be mightily pleased…..