Posted in Culture, Traditions

On Bharatanatyam

The next time you enjoy a Bharatanatyam performance, and are enchanted by the elegant movements and expressions, make sure you thank Lord Brahma. “Why him?” you say. Good thing you asked! Listen to this story:

You see, after the four Vedas were written, Gods and Goddesses realized that the four Vedas were too difficult for the common man to comprehend. It was so highly philosophical, so serious, so austere and oh, so difficult to master. Man had a tough life then, constantly studying. The need for something easier on the mind was strongly felt, and so the Gods came to help. They went to Lord Brahma and appealed to him to create another Veda – one that could be understood by anybody. And Brahma, in all his wisdom, took the words from the Rigveda, the gestures from the Yajurveda, the music from the Samaveda, and the emotions from the Atharvaveda and combined them to form —- the Natyaveda! Lord Brahma gave this newly formed Veda to Sage Bharata, who used this knowledge to write the Natyashaastra, a comprehensive treatise on the science and technique of drama. It is from this venerable text that Bharatanatyam was formed.

While you’re in a mood to give thanks, why not give one to the Devadasi community, and the Chola and Pallava rulers who supported them? These are the people who developed and promoted the classical arts in South India for centuries. Devadasis were girls who were married to a God rather than an ordinary mortal. They were expected to spend their whole lives in the service of the temple and God. These girls grew into highly accomplished women, who knew how to sing, dance, play instruments, and speak Sanskrit—skills they used when they worshipped the Lord.

Bharatanatyam was their art form, and it thrived along with the community—and suffered along with it as well. As the British acquired more and more Indian territory in the 19th century, the rulers who had supported the Devadasis disappeared. These women did not fit in with the Victorian attitudes that came with British rule. A good Victorian woman was expected to stay at home and devote herself to her husband and family. The Devadasis were shocking—- they performed in public and — horror of horrors — took part in politics! They were labeled as little better than loose women, and they were shunned from ‘polite’ society. The community dwindled as it lost its income and its reputation, and the art of Bharatanatyam nearly died out.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “It is obvious that Bharatanatyam did not go the way of the dodo bird. Does this mean there is another person I should be thanking, too?”

You shouldn’t be thanking just one person; you should be thanking the many people who, at the beginning of the 20th century, realized that an important art form was about to die out. The four brothers who made up the Tanjore Quartet helped preserve the art by organizing the basic dance movements into a series of lessons. E. Krishna Iyer promoted Bharatanatyam through his performances. He was a lawyer by training and a dancer by passion, and he firmly believed in preserving the art form. In order to remove the stigma associated with Bharatanatyam dancers, he would dance in the costume of a female dancer! In 1928, he founded the Madras Music Academy in order to promote all the classical arts, and this august institution continues the work till today.

Then there is Rukmini Devi Arundale, who breathed fresh life into Bharathnatyam by improvising upon the existing Padanallur style. This turned into the Kalakshetra style, which in turn became the core curriculum of Kalakshetra, the institution, which she founded in 1936. Slowly, the art form revived and grew. The excellent reputation of Kalakshetra and popularity of Bharatanatyam today is a testament to all these people’s efforts.

The practice of Bharatanatyam today is not the same as it was in the days of the Pallava kingdom. Dancers now tell stories about social issues like addiction and AIDS alongside stories of gods and ancient kings. They are no longer compelled to master Bharatanatyam as Devadasis were, so students today are taught the importance of dedication and discipline as they learn the dance. But the essential aspects of the art form remain the same. Bharatanatyam today, just as it was in the past, gives worship as it tells stories. It is balanced between precise geometric forms and dramatic emotional content. There are now Bharatanatyam dancers performing in every continent, and almost every household in South India has a girl child learning the art form. From almost extinction to complete rejuvenation, Bharathnatyam has danced across the aeons, and lives again.


Posted in Traditions

Chennai’s Wonder-wear -The Saree

“While in Rome, do what the Romans do.” And when in Chennai, you cannot go wrong with a saree. Look around you and the ubiquitous saree is everywhere, carried with elan by women of all ages and hues. If you were to look for a place that would be a testimony to the resilience of this garment, Chennai would be at the forefront.

The young and the old sport it, each in their own style. The older women wear it with the nonchalance of long practice and the younger mince along in this attire they are experimenting with, giving it new twists and avataars that their fertile minds conjure up. But neither gives up on the saree. From boardrooms to treadmills to operation theatres, most Indian women wear it with Panache and find no discomfort in the process.

Ranging in length from six yards on to as much as ten yards, the fabric goes on a woman’s body, and stays in place without a stitch to hold things together. Perhaps this was why a top designer, when asked how the saree stayed in place, replied with a mischievous grin: “Meditation and sheer will power.” It does seem a mystery to the uninitiated, but to those in the know, a saree is comfortable attire, and one that whispers elegance and ethnicity.

And if you thought a garment couldn’t get any simpler, think again. There are over 20 commonly practiced ways of draping the saree. Depending on which region or community you belong to, you will drape your saree differently. And walk into a saree shop and you will first be hit by the sheer variety, that is even before you get down to the colours and the motifs.

Perhaps the best place to see all about sarees is in a wedding hall. Kanchipurams rule the roost, of course, and there can be no missing the quick assessing glances that go around the hall. Truly, a saree is a symbol, and each has many stories to tell. For instance, walk down the roads of Chennai, and the saree cognoscenti will tell you which nine yard clad lady is an Iyengar and which is an Iyer. Identifying Mangalagiris, Narayanpets and Pochampallis can be done with one hand tied behind the back, and the style of wearing is a dead give-away of your caste. Borders speak volumes. Large gold borders indicate rich upper class wearers, and a mango or peacock motif on the border is meant for a younger wearer. White has a lot of negative connotations in the South, and dark colours, specifically rich reds and maroons are considered auspicious. Black to some is inauspicious, and to some is very auspicious.

The origins of a saree go back far into the past, but this length of material seemed to have a way of adapting to changing circumstances and to every kind of material that was in fashion – cotton, silk, jute and a variety of synthetics. Innovations in weaving and printing techniques have given the saree a whole new vocabulary, but there are still dozens of places where the saree creating technique is the same as was done a couple of hundred years ago.

There is this fascinating story of the Kodali Karuppur saree. There is only one of its kind in India now. Apparently, it was woven for the Mahratta royalty in Tanjore and used techniques of weaving, painting and printing – all in one saree. So special were these sarees to the Mahratta kings of Tanjore that they stored it in the palaces and gave it as gifts to those who pleased them, and nobody else got to wear them.

And then there are the glorious Paithani sarees of Maharashtra. Woven of lustrous silk with rich jari borders, there is a romantic story attached to these sarees. Since the saree was so opulent, only kings and royalty could afford to wear it. The story goes that there were special families who alone had the right to grow their nails long and slit it lengthwise into thin sections, rather like a comb with very fine teeth. Gold from the royal treasure would be beaten into fine sheets, and these special people would run their nails through it, cutting the gold into thin wires, which would then be woven into the silks. Such families do not exist now, but the sarees are still available, and many of them are heirlooms, so sumptuous are they.

The Gharchola of Gujarati wedding fame is a red silken saree, with a checked pattern on it and each box has traditional motifs woven into it –mango, elephant, swastika, kalash or parrots. A person in the know would only need to look at the pallu of a traditional Kancheepuram to authenticate it – the pallu is woven separately and attached and the line is visible. So too would a Bengali be able to identify a handwoven Tangail – the interlocking design at the pallu being a dead give-away. There are Lucknavi sarees in cotton and silk, exquisitely embroidered, and all done by hand. There is the Gadhwal, a cotton saree with a silk border, woven separately and attached together. And there is the Bandhani, dotted to glory, each dot a work of intense labour. A simple bandhani can stop at a meager 2000 to 5000 knots, while a truly inspired bandhani can go up to three lakhs of dots. And if you remember that each dot is the result of the cloth being hand tied into a small packet, tightly, and then dyed, the saree transcends into the level of art. At the other end of the spectrum is the Kerala Kasavu, an off white and gold affair, exquisite in its simplicity.

Sarees are constantly reinventing themselves and quirks in them come and go, while classics stay on for ever. If one saree shop in Chennai came up with a saree that had over fifty thousand colours on it in a mass of psychedelic checks. another came up with a built in cell phone pouch, in matching or toning shades. And recently, one shop has come up with a saree which has a quotation woven into it! Despite predictions of dying an unsung death, the saree continues to flourish in Chennai,

Did we say you cannot go wrong with a saree in Chennai? Well that is oversimplifying things a bit. To get it perfectly right, takes years of persistent effort. No, we are referring to the art of weaving sarees, we are only talking about picking the right saree for the right occasion. But we say once again, when in Chennai, go for the saree. Just pick a colour that pleases your eye, a material that feels comfortable, and a budget that suits your pocket, and you are ready to go!

Posted in Festivals, Food, Traditions

Sundal and suchlike

We’ve just seen the end of one festival. Kolu padis are being dismantled, dolls are getting packed away, fancy lights disconnected and friends and relatives will again be relegated to the background of busy daily life. The city is limping back to reality after a surfeit of sundal and holidays. Good food, renewed ties among the family and friends, and a time to thank a higher power – such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But ever asked yourself, why Navaratri and why a kolu?

Some believe that this festival commemorates the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura had somehow managed to get himself a boon; that he would be killed by no one. Not man, not God, not demon. And with that, he marched straight into heaven and threatened the Gods. The canny Gods did some quick thinking and found a loophole. The boon didn’t say any thing about not being killed by a woman!

So they created Goddess Durga, gave her their most powerful weapons and sent her off to kill the ruthless Demon. A terrible combat broke out and continued for nine long days. Finally, on the tenth day, Durga pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and cut off his head with her sword.

And today, this is celebrated all over the country in one way or another. Here in South India, this battle is recalled every year during the Navaratri. The Goddess comes down to fight and the Gods too come to Earth to cheer her on. And almost every house sets up an elaborate kolu, arranging colourful idols of Gods on each step, making sure they get a nice ringside seat in the battle.

Kolus have come a long way. They still tell stories, but not just of Gods and goddesses. They unabashedly show off the family’s travels, hint at their political affiliations, and end up being a commentary on everything from their financial status to their child’s latest class project. So sitting quietly in the midst of all the Gods, you may very well spot Thomas the train or the Incredible Hulk.

You will invariably spot a pair of crudely finished but beautifully decked up wooden dolls in a corner of the kolu. They are called the Marapachis. These were said to be gifts given by a girl’s father to his daughter, who, at the time of her marriage would typically have been a child herself. Today, many households take pride in the Marapachi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with Navaratri? Most customs begin with a very simple story. And one such story swears that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas or the nine planets, each of whom has a taste for a particular variety of grain. And it is these grains that were used in preparing the offering. One could prepare any dish using the grains -vada, payasam, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain elaborate cooking. Perhaps that’s how the humble sundal came to stay? Easy to make, easy on the pocket and easy to pack as a give away?

Come Ayudha Pooja, and it is difficult to miss the sandal paste adorning office equipment and machinery. Cars, autos and trucks are ‘dressed’ in their finest and do the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it started this way. One story says that the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga fervently prayed to the weapons which came in so handy in her battle against the demon. In today’s context, weapons have given way to the tools that help people in their daily lives. So everything, from the dosa grinder to the gaming console gets smeared with a dollop of sandal paste.

But like every other Indian festival, this one too means different things to people living in different parts of the country. In the North, Dusshera is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain in this story and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as wise, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, people celebrate the Goddess’ victory over Mahishasura. Many look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When it is time for her to go back, on the day of the visarjan, everyone turns out to bid farewell to her, and there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place. On the other hand, in Gujarat, they dance their way through the Navratri. It’s the time when you can spot men and women wearing their finest and boogying away to pulsating music.

Different names, different styles, different stories, even different Gods! Only the holidays coincide. Whichever story you subscribe to, and however you celebrate it, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. So …Viva Navaratri!