What about its music? Shouldn't it be many-splendoured too?
All the qualities that make vocal music good, rich and pleasing should also be present in the musical accompaniment to dance. The voice should be pleasant, the tone of the individual instruments appropriate, all should be in key and keep impeccable rhythm. Yes, but what else should music for dance have?
Choice of Instruments
Before going into that, a many gullied, wide-channelled river system by itself, let me say a few things that need to be, about the instruments. Mridangam, violin and tambura are indispensable. Flute and veena can be accommodated, particularly when there is a reference in the items to Krishna (which sensible card can do without him?) and the triumvirate of devis—Sri, Sivaa and Vaak (goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswathi). All these instruments are present in most performances of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi today.
Conscripting more instruments creates problems of space and balance. It is only Padma Subrahmanyam who uses others—ela talam, chenda, mardalam—and gets away with it because, in her case, their usage is perfectly designed and controlled. Incidentally, it is only in her performances that I have noticed a trouble-shooter going through the auditorium in the first 20 minutes, to right any wrongs of sound and light. A practice that is employed by Kalanidhi Narayanan also. A practice that can be emulated by others.
Amongst the exalted gurus, it is only the Vazhuvoorars who use the clarinet. If I hear the opening bars of Kedaram played on it before curtain up, I am put in a pleasantly anticipatory mood. This could be a disposition in all those who have come by their Bharatanatyam through the handmaidens of God, in whose ritualistic performances the clarionet, or the similar but higher sounding mukhavina, was de riguer. Maybe it is a foreign instrument (isn't the present-day violin ?) but its sound gives a resonance, a richness that is full of Camatic flavour.
Others, slightly oriental, use tablas, sitar, harmonium, sarangi. No harm if any of them is needed and properly harnessed. Balamuralikrishna used a santoor as an accompaniment to his singularly beautiful rendition of Tana hitave, an autobiographical composition heard in the tv serial 'Swara Raga Sudha' and which can now be heard on a CBS cassette. Such inspired use of an instrument, any instrument, will only add another dimension of beauty to Bharatanatyam, not leach out its Carnatic quality.
While on the subject of instruments, I might suggest that, in varna-s, where longish stories are being told through sanchari-s, it would be less taxing on the voice if the multiple repetition of short phrases of the song would be taken up by the instruments. This might also relieve the audience from the tedium of listening to the same words being repeated ad nauseam by the singers.
Speciality of Dance Singing
Singing for dance is a specialised art. In the early days of Srividya's dance, when her mother M.L. Vasanthakumari would sing—not only the pada-s but also non-dance pieces like Meenakshi mey mudam to which the dancer had to adjust—it was clear that it was good music but not dance tuned music. Which was a lack. Result: Just an item of concert illustrated by mime.
Of course, in the latter part of Srividya's career and by the time MLV started singing for Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, it was thoroughly dance tuned. Balamuralikrishna too has sung for a rare ballet but most classical vocalists shy away as their vocalisation has to be totally cued by the requisites of Bharatanatyam, shorn of improvisations and sudden flights of fancy.
I believe such improvisations and flights of fancy were very much in evidence disturbingly in Meera Seshadri's singing for Malavika Sarukkai in the season just past.
Speaking about the once and future empress of the ghazal, Begum Akhtar, the current pretender Anup Jalota said: "Her greatness lay in communication. The minute she took up alap, we knew—no matter what the raga—whether she was going to sing a khayal, thumri or a ghazal."
It might not be articulated that way, or even so thought of, but there is and should be a difference in the way a Kambhoji is sung in a sabdam, varnam, padam and possibly a javali, viruttam and a tillana. Just recently I heard G.P. Kamala sing for Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai, for the dance of the disciple who currently holds the best mirror to his style, Meenakshi Chittaranjan (nee Sabanayagam). Her Kedaragowla for the second item, Natanam seyum, was angled differently from what she sang for the tillana. Its differing colours enabled the dancer to shine off in divergent directions, this in spite of the singing being strident.
In the season, at a recital by Chitra Visweswaran, I heard exceptional vocal music for the varnam rendered by Sethuraman and Rajasekaran and also by the fine double-edged instrumentalist, who plays the santoor as well as the veena, Visweswaran. Soothing and soporific it was but it wasn't music for varnam. At places it, and the dance, took the leisured hues of a padam. I did miss the spine, the definite rhythm-tucked outlines I expect of a varnam.
The late Dandayudhapani Pillai was an accomplished singer, apart from being a great dance master. His singing voice broke in the later years ; not many of the present day audiences have heard him. Anyway, even at the best, his voice wasn't the kind to do right by the pada-s and javali-s. This is a whole art by itself. In a recording career of half a century almost, how many pada-s, of Kshetrayya's or Sarangapani's, have been sung by the female icons of the day, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari ? Not one, if my memory serves me well. Between them, they have sung less than eight javali-s. (Yes M.S. too recorded javali- s when she was Veena Shanmugavadivu's daughter, a neophyte in the service of gods and gandharvas). Why? Because they knew it is best left to the specialists.
Vijayalakshmi is easily the best amongst the current dance singers in singing these exacting pieces which demand that one should have command over rhythm, impeccable sense of sruti and raga, and perfect diction. She falters occasionally in the last but she is quick to correct herself. Most of the credit for hammering out this mellow gold should go to her mentor Kalanidhi Narayanan.
An exceptional singer herself, Kalanidhi hardly ever sings in public but only when teaching hpr chosen students who are totally devoted to her idea of delving deep into the circumstances of a song to do 'abhinaya' justice to it She sits with a new javali or a padam, especially if it is in Telugu, like a neophyte before the scriptures, eager to know all about it and intuitive by long exposure to dance. Though she too starts some pada-s with 'anupallavi' which clearly could not have been the intent of the author.
A long time ago, maybe 15 years or more, I heard Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan and her daughter Sujatha Vijayaraghavan. I still remember the. awesome splendour, the thrall of Enna tavam seidanai and Ganamazhai pozhigindran. Songs oft-heard, but invested with an emotional intensity, identification unheard elsewhere. Then I thought how wonderful it would be if someone like Kamala could dance to such music. They do sing for dance these days, but the youngsters they do that for are not mature enough yet to match such singing.
Another very important point. The 'singing should never detract attention from dance. It should always remain subservient to interpretation by the dancer. I know at least two examples where the ethereal singing of the man (he's getting to be too involuted in the past decade, though) was not matched by the angularity of the woman's jerky, mannered and manly dancing (alas, today she has totally divorced grace to elope with thumping exactitude!).
A very well matched singer-dancer couple is Narasimhachari and Vasanthalakshmi. While a good part of their combined excellence can be put down to their constant rehearsals, it cannot be gainsaid that Narasimhachari is a very talented singer with an aptly mellow and malleable voice. Barring the five per cent of the time when he gets too light or too curlicued, his singing as needed matches a shouting demon, a stoic Rama, a sensuous nymph, or the God that calls for all-round jubilation, Krishna. His musical credentials are unquestionable and his pronunciation is perfect.
The singing for Bharatanatyam, or Kuchipudi for that matter, should be clear in enunciation, in conveying the emotion of the piece and in splitting the words at the proper junctures. Apart from all these, it should seem as though it is emanating from the dancer, not as though the dancer is performing to a sound from an alien source. The singing of two accomplished, knowledgeable singers—Shyamala Balakrishnan and Vijaya Natarajan—always seems an inseparable part of Padma Subrahmanyam's dance. It isn't better or it isn't worse than her dance but just another dimension of it. This is because Padma totally mistress-minds all aspects of her musical accompaniment and goes through endless rehearsals with the same people.
T. Lokanatha Sarma, a worthy disciple of Chittoor Subramania Pillai, and B. Gopalam, with a career in film composing, have also occasionally enriched dance by their diction and the direction they take from the sentiments of the lyric. But they have only sung for Vempati Chinna Satyam's Kuchipudi, whose repertoire as performed today, is not that extensive as Bharatanatyam's. Singing for the same set-up, Kanakadurga, too, registers by her attention to the same details.
Problem of Multiple Voices
When too many voices, however good they may be individually, sing together, the clarity is invariably lost. If the musicians take turns, and sing without jagged transitions, there is no quarrel at all.
K.P. Kittappa Pillai is a singer of the old kind, with the finest of musical impulses. I remember an occasion when he and Rajeswari, no small-timer herself where dance-singing is concerned, were on stage together, singing. Their sruti-s were at an octave's distance and Kittappa's entries and exits were so totally spontaneous that the effect was jagged no matter how accomodating Rajeswari tried to be.
Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, a fine singer among present-day nattuvanars, can and does have a supporting singer at times. When he and the other sing together, their singing is so finely meshed by rehearsal that they don't cut across each other abrasively.
Vazhuvoor Samraj used to sing so well that he was thought of as a fitting successor to his father in singing too; this was 20 years ago. Nowadays he hardly sings. This might be because his stentorian voice cannot be matched or mixed with the female voice who generally sings for him. I remember his Idadu padam, Palvadiyum and Ananda nadamidum paadam, so splendidly illustrated by L. Vijayalakshmi and Jyotilakshmi, who took off into films, and Kanaka who took a temporary deviation into Kathak.
Finally, I must say a word about mridangam accompaniment. The way Karaikudi R. Krishnamurthi would weave wonderful, tangential patterns of sound even for sloka-s without disturbing the dancers (he was fortunate in having Krishnaveni and Srividya) was a delightful experience. At a recent performance by a junior, Tamilselvi of Dhananjayans, Kannan did something similar and equally heartening. It goes without saying that the dancer should be at least imperturbable. Otherwise there would be chaos that could be well-avoided by less ambitious percussionism.