Interview : Chandrabhanu - Bhakti & Bharatanatyam

Chandrabhanu, a Malaysia-born Australian dancer, is the founder-director of the Bharatalaya School of Indian Classical Dance, Melbourne. Australia. He trained in Bharatanatyam under Guru Adyar K. Lakshmanan and in • Odissi under Guru Vijayakumar Senapati of Puri (Orissa. He has just concluded a winter tour of India along with several of his students. The tour included recitals in Madras, Tiruchi, Coimbatore and Bombay. The following interview was conducted in Madras by our correspondent MURRAY TURNER, a former student of Chandrabhanu s now studying Bharatanatyam under Adyar Lakshmanan and Nirmala Rainachandran.  

Turner: Chandrabhanu, you divide your rime between Australia and India — any special reason?

Chandrabanu: There are many reasons. The main reason is I don't think I'd like to live anywhere else but in Australia, where a person has the freedom to think and the freedom to do the things he wants to do. Also, there is a certain creativity that is underway in Australia not found elsewhere.

Can't the same be said for America or Europe or some other places?

Compared to America where I spent one year, there is less happening, but there is a newness to the approach in Australia, a very fresh approach not tangled in sophistication or caught up in the glamour. There's a direct and sincere approach to getting something across and I think it's very exciting. I think it's also partly the reason why I've succeeded in Australia. Of course, I come to India for obvious reasons. Half of me is here. I've spent time working with Adyar Lakshmanan, and I've spent time just looking at things. A lot of what India is for me isn't what India is today but what it was 500 years ago. There are vestiges of that India remaining and that's what I'm after when I come here.  

And so Australian audiences are receptive to your performances of Bharatnatyam because they're open to new experiences....

I've played for ten consecutive nights to full houses. There was a rapport with the audiences that I do not often find here in India — I'm talking about professional Bharatanatyam, not something half-baked or a cultural relations programme. Speaking for myself, I feel I've been a success in Australia because I approach Bharatanatyam both as theatre and as bhakti, the latter of which is central to my approach.

Can Australian audiences understand this?

The most powerful impact I've had upon an audience and an audience has had on me was when the bhakti element came out. strongly, not necessarily the theatrical element, not necessarily the cultural element. What I'm saying is that bhakti is universal. I will have audiences who might know nothing about the Hindu gods or the mythologies and philosophies, but there is direct contact because we share a feeling. Bharatanatyam is a universal art form, but there again the problem of interpretation crops up. If one doesn't approach Bharatanatyam as a universal art form, it fails, it then becomes simply social frolic and show.

I would suggest that today's Indian audience is closed off from the more intuitive and spontaneous experience. Do you think so?

I have my doubts about that. Let's say you have an educated audience which has done its homework on Bharatanatyam. Whether they feel anything at all is a different matter. Bhakti is a very special thing, a very personal thing. One cannot talk about it on Levels of ritual or religion — bhakti cuts across everything. Even the art form doesn't matter anymore. And this raises a crucial point. Where is Bharatanatyam leading? Is it leading towards young ladies' finishing school or will it remember its sources in bhakti? Take the Alwar songs — how do we" approach them? Do we simply say that's the way the Alwars feel, or are we going to feel it ourselves? And given the experience, how do we interpret it on stage? I regard Bharatanatyam as a very strong, extremely powerful art form that is currently not sufficiently well understood. It has become kitsch.

Bharatanatyam is still felt to be a very personal form of expression by its practitioners, but some of the things you've mentioned are inaccessible — consequent^ the understanding of Bharatanatyam is shallow.

Bharatanatyam is not meant for everyone. I know that sounds snobbish but Bharatanatyam is a classical form. You need time to study it, you need to be fully involved with it, and you need to be well-versed in its rules and regulations, but first, you must be well-versed in music and the subject matter.

Bharatanatyam is changing, and its rules and regulations are changing as are those who exercise the rules. It's becoming available to people outside India who apply different rules and values.

Well of course it has always been changing — it has changed since the 1930's when it was revived — but how it has been changing is a different matter. 

Do you think dance critics are encouraging worthwhile change or are they just standing on the Fence slinging mud?

I think the critics are encouraging change but there's a certain amount of confusion as to what kind of change. What is meant by training in the purest style, for instance? Even within the Pandanallur style, say, there is controversy as to who is in fact practising the style correctly and who isn't. And then you have the other schools. Now if we say 'most pure', what do we mean? Do we mean that one school is right and the others are wrong? My way of getting around this problem is to forget about the style and focus on the content. And accept the dancer on her own merits. You have exactly the same problems in Western ballet. In Modern Dance also, in the sense that a dancer trained in the Graham or the Cunningham technique would not vouch for any other. Look at Australia. The rivalry between the two major Modern Dance companies is quiet. strong — it's a universal thing. We were in Java recently and one is aware of the difference between the style of classical Javanese as performed in the palace in Jogjakarta and that at the palace in Solo. Everyone has their own points of view. One can say that Odissi dancers trained in Orissa dance quite differently yet not better than Delhi-trained Odissi dancers. In that sense, style is not important.

Which style of Bharatanatyam is prevalent in Australia?

The main influence comes through Kalakshetra. I've been in Melbourne for twelve years. My guru Adyar Lakshmanan is Kalakshetra-trained. Teaching plus regular performance has meant that the style has received good exposure. Also, there is another Kalakshetra teacher in Melbourne and Susheela Craig in Sydney who is a graduate of Kalakshetra. Jayalakshmi Raman teaches Kalakshetra technique in Perth. There are one or two Vazhuvoor schools but they have as yet not risen to any prominence.  

Is Kalakshetra style more exportable, and better packaged?

I'll tell you something about myself. I was trained first in Vazhuvoor style, in Malaysia. But when I came to Adyar Lakshmanan, I had to change completely and I worked very hard at it. And I'm glad I made the change. Because I find that the Kalakshetra technique has given me a strength I didn't realize I had, though I always enjoy a first-class Vazhuvoor performance. I think the strength of the Kalakshetra technique lies in its uniformity. If I have a student who is travelling to Madras, to London, or to San Francisco, that student can continue with the same kind of training I'm giving. Wherever you go, Kalakshetra teachers will teach the same things. The approach across the board is very consistent. I don't believe the other styles have the same degree of technical uniformity. 

Have you found it necessary to revise the teaching methods you acquired in India?

I have to use a lot of insight. Take, for example, an Indian child raised in Australia. Although she may be a Tamil, she perhaps knows only a sprinkling of Tamil. The parents may have filled in some gaps, but she goes to an Australian school becoming half Australian and half-Indian. Now there lies her strength. She is an international figure, a universal person. Now my job is to make sure she understands that. I have to foster her growth without inducing schizophrenia. I emphasize that she is a world citizen, a human being first. And in this lies the difference between my teaching and that of teachers in Madras.

So you make clear what is implicit in the dance, that dance is open to everyone and dance is part of a learning process.

I'm not sure about the learning process part. I think it's a matter for personal experience. My main problem, for example, is: how do I communicate to my students the idea of bhakti? Right? How, for instance, do I communicate to my students the vastness of emotions? What I do in Melbourne is not only teach refinement and what might be called culture, but teach them what a human being is — teach them to be human.

You've developed your style of teaching over a number of years. Is the character of Bharatalaya much different to a school here?

Let's say that technically I'm very strict. Orthodox. If I take an adavu class, I stress that they must do better than Indian students. They must be even more precise. No compromise! But that's technique. With a push and assistance from the teacher, one can master the technique. 

Have you had any problems with students not bridging the cultural gap? Can I split this?

There are two levels on which I'd like to respond. Take the Australian student. Of my students, seventy-five per cent are Indians and twenty-five per cent Australians of other, non-Indian cultures. T h e latter come from diverse religious backgrounds. How do I communicate to them the bhakti element? Now I say that bhakti is a very simple thing; you either have it or you don't. If you don't have it there's no way you can be made to understand it. If a person has it, he will immediately understand. And there lies my satisfaction: if out of a hundred students, there is one who can feel bhakti, I'm happy. That's one aspect of teaching. To shift the argument to India, I find that one can't explain. There is no amount of culture, no amount of teaching, no amount of ritual, no amount of explanation that will bridge the bhakti gap. So I would say that you can train a student anywhere to be technically perfect, to be beautiful on stage, to have the right kind of bhava. But an audience knowing bhakti will determine straight away whether a student has this kind of understanding or not. My teaching method in Australia is different, and that is the only identifiable difference.

After establishing your school in Melbourne, how many years is it been since you've been returning to Madras?

I think it's ten years. And each year you've performed, have you? Not each year. It's only been in the past four or five years.  

I believe this season is the first time you've made a considerable impact on Sabha secretaries. Why has it taken these four or five years?

I think it's a matter of exposure. Again it comes down to the personal nature of Bharatanatyam. As a child, I knew I had to do it and with my father's encouragement learnt to dance and have not stopped. I still get people saying to me, oh, you're a foreigner, how did you get involved in Bharatanatyam. And I have to go through my whole theatrical and family history. Many people, some even close to me, feel they have to explain Indian "culture" to me. In much the same way people in India regard me as a foreigner, something which I don't feel because, in outlook and ancestry, India is my motherland. The tardy acceptance of the FO-called foreign dancer is comparable to the barriers thrown up against the male Bharatanatyam dancer.

Can the foreign dancer of Bharatanatyam contribute anything new to the form? Can I ask you what you mean by foreign?

There are a lot of Indians living in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malaysia who feel they are more Indian than Indians living here. V.S. Naipaul has written of his family in the West Indies preserving rituals and customs that are no longer alive in India. They regard their culture as more authentic, as being the real India. But that could be beside the point, though I think ifs a very important point. Do you mean by a foreigner, a westernized Indian, to whom old India is foreign, or a Westerner?

I'm thinking more of a Western influence on Indian Dance.

I think it's a matter of approach, of how a Western person approaches the art form and whether or not that approach is total. One has to look at not only the foreign student but at the teacher, and the teacher's approach. Suppose you have somebody coming to Madras f*-om Europe to study dance for three or four years. Now that person must be very serious to consider remaining here for that length of time. People can do all sorts of things apart from learning Bharatanatyam — why choose Bharatanatyam? There must be a very strong motivation already there. The foreign dancer isn't going to return to European d make lots of money. Even teaching is not really an economic proposition. Obviously, the foreign dancer is coming to Madras because of her great love for the art form. Because she feels that it is a life calling. In other words, she is sacrificing a lot of things and this is something many people don't realize — the foreign dancer is making a greater sacrifice than many students here. It is a well-known fact that Bharatanatyam in India is today essentially a middle-class phenomenon and Indian students are commonly well-supported by families. Now the foreign dancer has typically been working as a waitress to finance her overseas studies. An incredible amount of dedication goes into that. Of love, of devotion, of sense of purpose. Why this dedication? Why? These people are coming here because of the universal message of bhakti. That is all I can say. Many don't understand that these students have been researching these concepts for years before coming to India. I don't deny of course that many are attracted to the superficial form, but I'm certain that the majority are involved on mystical levels. Bharatanatyam — Odissi too — is nothing if not love.

Do they intend to perform Bharatanatyam?

Yes, of course. One has to realize that theatre is one of the strongest forms of bhakti. And the essence of theatre is catharsis. Together audience and performer feel the same thing. According to the Advaita concept of nonduality the dancer operates with the audience whereby there is no audience and no dancer. Unfortunately the alienation of audience and performer is very strong in India. Despite the long existence of transcendental techniques, Indian artists are still grappling with catharsis and emerging with mere theatricality. I don't think there's enough emphasis given to the aesthetic.

What do you intend to perform in Australia when you return?

The students who have accompanied me and I will begin rehearsals straightaway. We're working on a complete Krishna Programme titled The Cosmic Play of the Blue God. Last year I performed a complete programme on Siva which lasted for two weeks. I was quite satisfied with the way it went. We're hoping that the Krishna programme will be equally successful. Following that, either later this year or at the beginning of next year, we'll do a whole Devi programme which would be the last in the series. It will fulfil one of my gr^at ambitions, which has been to produce a programme based on Sakti.