S Sarada: Many-Sided Talent

Srimati S Sarada is known al Kalakshetra as 'Peria' Sarada. The Tamil prefix means, literally, 'big' but in this case, it denotes the fact that she is the senior of the two Saradas at Kalakshetra. 'Big' is appropriate in another sense too, for Sarada's contribution to the renown that Kalakshetra's dance dramas have achieved can only be described as huge. In creating these dance dramas, Rukmini Devi has been assisted by various persons, but Sarada's contribution, significant and authoritative, stands apart. Sarada is self-effacing and unassuming. But this exterior conceals a depth of scholarship spanning many areas — a knowledge of languages, notably, Sanskrit and Tamil and of Carnatic music, and a profound understanding of the theory of dance.

Added to these qualifications is her capacity to sing and perform nattuvangani for dance and dance-drama performances, her ability to teach dance theory and conduct rehearsals, and her skill in editing musical works for publication. Pervading and binding all these talents is her good taste which adds a special sparkle to her contribution. Sarada was born in 1915 at Tanjavur in a family of Sanskrit scholars.  S. Sarada is head of research at Kalakshetra. (See separate article). In the dance arena for some thirty-five years, has given over 600 recitals of Bharatanatyam, trained fifteen others to become full-fledged dancers, introduced a number of innovations, produced a television series on dance, experimented with using dance in health therapy and written a number of articles on dance in particular and the arts in general.

Indicative of her versatility is also her training in S. Subramania Sastri. under whose aegis her intellectual and analytical abilities were nourished, was an acclaimed Sanskrit scholar. Her mother and grandmother were also well-versed in Sanskrit and Tamil Sarada's life at Tanjavur was a brahminic equivalent of the purdah existence and perhaps this facilitated an intense concentration on intellectual pursuits. Sarada studied at school up to the Third Form or the eighth standard and learnt to sing and play the veena at home but received her real education from her grandfather. He would requisition her help in editing manuscripts even when she was a school girl.

Proof reading exposed her mind to several different subjects and her horizons widened. Subramania Sastri did teach her the kavya-s and alankara sastra but soon he let her pursue education on her own, guiding and assisting only when and where necessary. The turning point in Sarada's life was her visit to Madras in 1935 with her grandfather to attend the diamond jubilee convention of the Theosophical Society. Her interest in Theosophy was nurtured by the lectures given at the Society, especially by Dr Arundale whom she hero-worshipped. Seeing Rukmini Devi dance filled her with wonder, for here she saw a practical depiction of all the theories that she had studied in Carnatic music (vocal) under violin maestro Mysore T. Chowdiah and modern dance of the West. She also learnt to play the veena and the piano.

Overcoming her extreme shyness, she became a member of the Theosophical Society. In 1939 Pandit Subramania Sastri moved to Madras to work for the ' Adyar Library and help the Arundales at Kalakshetra. Upon Rukmini Devi's invitation, Sarada began to go to Kalakshetra every day where she keenly observed every activity, especially Meenakshisundaram Pillai teaching Rukmini Devi.

She began to take down the songs in musical notation and, beneath them, the corresponding dances too in notation. This was the beginning of Sarada's contribution to the world of Bharatanatyam where, now, the recording of dance in notation is gaining in practice. Little by little, Sarada's involvement in all aspects of teaching and learning at Kalakshetra increased. She attended classes on voice production, elocution, dramatic art, language and music. In some classes, the student sometimes served the role of teacher. Soon she found herself singing for Rukniini Devi's recitals and in Kalakshetra's productions vocalising jati-s. When the nattuvanars left the institution, she became an important asset to Kalakshetra with her many-sided talents and her ability to fulfil many roles. 

The most valuable contribution was yet to be made. When Rukmini Devi began to produce dance dramas, Sarada's main job became the choosing of lyrics and perfecting of the script, meticulously maintaining authenticity and propriety at every stage. There were scholars to help in the task, such as Pandits Venkatachala Sastri and Adinarayana Sarma (Sanskrit) and Professor Viswanatha Iyer (Tamil). They were the experts in die linguistic and literary aspects but they did not fully comprehend the needs and subtilities of music and dance. Suitability of musical settings demands an absence of verbosity and the beauty of vowel and consonantal sounds in the lyrics. That is, the proportion of the melody should be greater than the words in each line. Suitability for dance demands many more things besides the beauty of sense. The meaning should have the depth for sanchari expression, it should be balanced between the abstract and the concrete. If the idea is too abstract the abhinava would fall flat. If it is literal and simplistic. the abhinava would be a superficial gesturing. Apart from this general rule, the dance-drama demands dramatic impact, continuity of plot structure, and delineating of characters and situations. Sarada. with her knowledge of music and dance, helped the pandits with her suggestions.

Then she sat with the musicians (Krishnaniachariar. Tiger Varadachariar or Papanasam Sivan. depending on the case). While they composed the tunes. she recorded their creation in musical notation, including; the brika-s, gamaka-s and the minute anuswara-s. She would sometimes suggest raga-s appropriate for the moods to be evoked and the tempos in which the melody should be set. At the next stage she would invariably be present during dance composition, explaining the meaning of the sahitya (the literal and the latent) to Rukmini Devi. After that, she would help the selected performers to learn and practise the piece thoroughly In the case of a play like Sakuntalam, Kumarasambliavam, the task of preparing a workable script is comparatively easy, because the die problem is only that of elimination. But what about the stories of Andal, the Tamil saint, and the Buddha, which were also produced at Kalakshetra? Sarada explains the difficulties: "Andal and her father Periyazhvar do not tell us their own stories. So I scoured all available texts for a story structure.

The one I found was written in a language too simple to bear the grandeur of the music and dance. I was getting desperate when I came across a few quotations from Vadivazhagiva Nanibidasar's Andal Charitram. An intensive search at the Madras Moore Market brought to light another book by the same author, but it was useless for our purpose. In the meanwhile, I had round a manuscript called Guruparampara Prabandham in the Oriental Manuscript Library which was then being edited for publication. We persuaded the librarian to lend us the manuscript and chose some songs." Thus, it was with great difficulty and from various sources, songs were chosen to present the elevating story of Andal in a coherent manner. Buddhavataram presented an even greater challenge involving tremendous research work. Rukmini Devi wanted a story based on the framework of Edwin Arnold's poem. The Light of Asia. But many of the episodes in the poem wore not to be found in the ancient texts; Arnold's sources might well have been his own creative imagination. It was Sarada's greatest triumph to have succeeded in preparing a script which follows Arnold's storyline without going against authentic traditional sources. And to achieve this, she had to consult many different texts.

Although right from her childhood days, Sarada's first love has been Vedanta, she has been involved mostly with the fine arts, which is too knee-deep in the practical aspects of training students for dance programmes. She has been working at Kalakshetra since 1939, first as the head of the Dance Department and later as the head of the Research Department. Knowledge of the sastras and of sampradaya have led her to the conclusion that aesthetics at its highest level is very much like a metaphysical endeavour. "Dance being a form of yoga generates spiritual force akin to that which arises due to the performance of sacred rituals," says she. The understanding has given rise to her belief that the source of abhinaya is the Yajur Veda. Mudra-s as used in rituals as well as dance gestures. correctly formed, have spiritual value because "form has power, a How of force or energy." She adds: "That is when we speak of God as the Great Geometrizer. Reading Abhinavagupta has convinced me that the geometrical formations of dance do generate sakti or vital power.

Every mudra and adavu has a spiritual field. When these are performed in correct geometrical formation, a particular flow of energy is the result. For example. the vertical line generates the masculine force that causes heaven and earth to become one. The horizontal force of feminine energy spreads compassion towards all. The circle denotes the principle of creation and the point stands for the supreme power beyond manifestation. All these angles and lines are included in the dance. So whenever we dance, whether consciously or unconsciously, we generate some energy. If we do it consciously, we generate more spiritual force. And through dance. The highest abstraction can become, for the moment, a tangible and experiential concretion.