Suddha Nrittam: A Mangudi Speciality

Within the four corners of the formal format designed and developed by the renowned Tanjavur Quartet, the erstwhile Sadir and present-day Bharatanatyam seem to have lost freshness and flexibility. The repertoire of most recitals tends to be routine, repetitive and sometimes redundant. While sticking to the format and presenting the items in the usual order, if a dancer can make the seasoned but jaded dance-watcher sit up and take special notice, as well as sit through, it is certainly an admirable achievement. Revathi Ramachandran (nee Venkatraman) in her recent recital for Nritya Ranga Trust (Rasika Ranjani Sabha on 9 January) did just that.

Revathi did not deviate from the format till the penultimate number of the programme. Pushpanjali. Ganesa 'stuti, alarippu, varnam, two pada-s with a sloka in between and a javali were the items she presented till then. She concluded her recital not with the usual tillana but with Suddha Nrittam, her tour de force. Even though this number was allotted only twenty minutes out of the programme-time of some 120 minutes, it was refreshing and captured the hearts of the connoisseurs. This and the preceding items (except the javali) were selected with care and choreographed by Revathi's guru Bharata Natya Kala Bhushanam, Natya Sastra Virppanar, the late Mangudi R. Durairaja Iyer (1900-80). Suddha Nrittam. a pure rhythmic number; is one of his contributions to contemporary classical dance.

What is Suddha Nrittam? Is it ancient and approved by the sastras? Or is it recent and reminiscent of Kathak? Can these questions be answered satisfactorily with authoritative evidence?

His Holiness the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam has proclaimed the meaning of Suddha Nrittam and its antiquity. His wise words (as reported in Kalki 22 August 1982) are worth citing: When an undefinable grace is produced merely with footwork and hand and hip movements, it is called Suddha Nrittam. The Jagatguru was evidently alluding to several chapters and verses of Nritta Ratnavali, the standard authority on nritta and/or to the 'sarva vadya' tradition of Cheyyur. A similar definition can be inferred from the fourth chapter of Bharata's Natya Sastra.

Over the last four centuries, in the Sundareswara temple at Cheyyur (Chengalpattu district), a ritual homage called 'sarva vadyam' has been offered to the deity during the annual Brahmotsavam. It is worship through the four-fold channels of gita, vadya, nritya and kavita. All four categories of string, wind, solid and percussion instruments (vadya-s) are used and hence the name 'sarva vadya' is given to this offering. More than seventy-two items are performed in this programme which lasts about four hours. Suddha . Nrittam. along with Perani (also referred to as Perini). Is one of the items of the sarva vadya puja.

Marpeddi Chengalvaraya Sastrulu (1810-1900). a Telugu scholar and a poet-composer well versed in music and dance, migrated to Cheyyur and lived his eventful life there He wrote a Telugu dance-drama called Sundareswara Vilasam and some of its contents were incorporated into the 'sarva vadyam' offering. He modified and modernised the all instrumental musical homage. Those belonging to the sishya parampara of Chengalvaraya Sastrulu were till recently dancing in the Cheyyur temple. One such dancer was Srimati Sarada who danced even when very old. Dr. Nataraja Ramakrishna in his book Ddshinatyula Natya Kala Chahtra has recorded that he witnessed 'sarva vadyam' at Cheyyur and enjoyed the artistic abhinaya of Sarada. Till recently, therefore, Suddha Nrittam has been a living tradition in South India.

Professor P. Sambamoorthy, the relentless researcher of the science of music, was once interested in reviving the unique 'sarva vadyam' offering and wanted to present it in other temples. His ambitious programme included thirty-six items and seventy-two musical instruments. The professor approached Mangudi Durairaja Iyer and requested him to take the responsibility of presenting all the dance numbers of the offering. The latter readily accepted the challenging task and researched the various dance items to be performed on that occasion. After selecting the songs, he choreographed dances from them, coached his disciples and was ready with the usual items of the programme. Suddha Nrittam and Perani were very demanding subjects, but he made an in-depth study and perfected them. A 'sarva vadya nigazehi' (event) was offered by Professor Sambamoorthy at the Subrahmanya temple at Tiruchendur on 2 September 1967 and all the dance items were performed by Kanchana and Gowri, the principal disciples of the master from Mangudi. Suddha Nrittam was reborn on that day.

Nrittam, as defined by Jaayapa (also called Jaayana), the commander of the elephant forces of the Kakateeya Empire, in his work called Nritta Ratnavali [N.R.] composed in 1253-54 A.D., should mainly aim at the body's 'vikshepana'. The act of moving about to and fro, walking, shaking and tossing is called vikshepana. (N.R. 1-51). Nrittam is a mixture of gita (song) and vadya (instrumental music). It is dependent on laya (rhythm) alone. In nrittam, the moving of the various limbs of the body should be devoid of abhinaya or mimetic expression.

If nrittam is devoid of abhinaya, Suddha Nrittam avoids the gita also, but retains all the basic requirements of nrittam, namely sthana-s, nritta- hastha-s, chari-s, karana-s and so on. It is performed without song, instrumental music, jati utterances, the sound of nattuvangam cymbals or even the measurement of time with the hand. The only sounds of Suddha Nrittam are of the mridangam and the paada-paata-s (the rhythms sounded by the ankle-bells).

Durairaja Iyer revived Suddha Nrittam incorporating all the fundamental tenets of the art of pure dance. He was fully equipped to do so, with more than fifty years of experience. Born in the village of Mangudi, near the seats of sacred music and devoted dance, as the son of Mangudi Ramanatha Bhagavatar, a prominent Carnatic music performer and a popular Kalakshepam exponent, Durairajan was exposed to a healthy cultural atmosphere from his childhood. He learnt classical music from his father and, since he was not content to join the ranks of vocalists as just another singer, he learnt mrjdangam, first from Anganna Naicker of Tanjavur and then from Vaidyanatha Iyer of the same place. Very soon he mastered me technique and evolved a meetu and chapu of his own style. He accompanied many a prominent musician including Flute Mali. He then studied classical dance from Melattur Natesa Iyer and improved his skill in this art with exhaustive study of books on natya.

Like most of the young men in the first quarter of this century, Durairajan was enamoured of stage plays and photography. He went to Calcutta, impressed film director Raja Sandow and joined the films there. Eventually, he landed in the music and dance departments of Gemini Studios, Madras.

Art in cinema is a commercial commodity—or casualty?—guided as it is by a sort of consumer ideology. The maestro from Mangudi was dissatisfied with the bondage of the business-oriented art. He was also keen to contribute to the classical arts. A virtually selftaught and self-made man. he wanted others to benefit from his experience. He'wrote two "teach yourself books: Mridanga Swabodhini (1939) and Swabodha Bharata Navaneetam (1957) and they were published by two friends. Knowing fully well that many youngsters cannot learn by themselves without a guru, he started giving dance lessons to deserving students. He believed in 'catching them young' and started training his principal disciples, the sisters Kanchana (at the age of eight) and Gowri (at ten).

Meena, an aunt of Revathi who came to be known later as Sringaralahari Meenambal because of her expertise in dancing to the Nilambari kriti of that name, came under the tutelage of the master at the age of seven. Dissatisfied with the dancing styles in vogue, Durairaja Iyer made innovations which however were rooted in the truly traditional school of Melattur dance form. Akin to Kuchipudi, the Melattur bani retains the rhythmic rhetoric and graceful grammer of Andhra Natyam as expounded by Nritta Ratnavali and Abhinaya Darpanam. At one time, both Kuchipudi and Melattur styles were treated as rough and rustic dances. Mangudiyar was not ashamed of his heritage and delved deep into the people's art to come with fresh dimensions. He studied and found mythological fossils in each and every folk dance form. He proudly discovered the dance on inverted mud pots and named it as 'Panda-aranga-k-koothu', now popularly known as Perani. (This interesting dance form has a history of its own and deserves to be discussed separately).

The master taught the intricacies of this art to Kanchana and Gowri and took a vow that he would not teach the potdance to any other dancer, since he had a strong conviction that the innovated or renovated art forms should be spread by serious students who specialised in them and dedicated their lives to their propogation. Because he earmarked Perani to the sisters, he reserved Suddha Nrittam for Revathi and composed complicated vadyaprabandha for her dance. For imparting training in the other items of the format of his outstanding and original style of dancing, Durairaja Iyer founded 'Sri Chidananda Natyamandalf and in that schoolcoached many students. He taught some selected items to senior dancers like Roshan Vajifdar, Pushpa Bhuyan and Yamini Krishnamurti.

Usually, the gurus conducted the nattuvangam of the recitals of their disciples but this guru insisted on playing mridangam too from the arangetram onwards. In 1980, when he was certain that his end was nearing, Durairaja Iyer, who was a spiritual guide as well to many, bequeathed 'Suddha Nrittam in five gati-s' to Revathi along with his personal mridangam and cymbals, thus making her the only exponent of pure dance. After the demise of the guru, Revathi has been performing not only the Suddha Nrittam in five gati-s but many other numbers in four vritti-s or styles, namely Bharathi (verbal style), Satwati (sensitive but subdued sentimental style), Kaisiki (graceful style) and Arabhati (energetic and grand style). Her repertoire is rich and refined. She has miles to go and promises to keep. Even though she will be identified with Suddha Nrittam, she distributes the fruits of the uncommon Mangudiyar style. While enjoying the fruits, only a few will think of the roots.