Thursday, 11 April 2013

Sync In

No performance in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi or Mohiniyattam can be executed without the Nattuvangam. What makes this instrument so special that a dance recital is never complete without this?

Aadith Seshadri

Nattuvangam (also called as Thaalam)- a pair of metal alloy cymbals with one being flat, hard and base, and the other being small, cupshaped and shrill, is a rhythm instrument which is played, basically, for maintaining the tempo (Kalapramanam) and for executing the rhythmic nuances incorporated in the dance recital. The three major roles of a Nattuvanar (the artiste, generally the guru, who yields the Nattuvangam) in an orchestra is to maintain the time cycle, play and recite rhythmic patterns known as Jathis or Korvais to which the dancer executes pure dance movements (Nritta sequences comprising of Adavus) and conduct the orchestra in harmony. This instrument has always been the forte of the Guru because it is the guru who, also takes the role of the choreographer, knows the nuances of music and dance and thus harmonizes the co-artistes to embellish the dancer’s portrayal. Thus this instrument gives the person yielding it, dignity and stature. In recent times however, dancers themselves choreograph their repertoire, and freelance Nattuvanars, with good rhythmic and time keeping competence, have come to be a part of the orchestra. Yet, it is undeniable that one who yields the cymbals has a great responsibility in knowing all aspects of the performance, such as the music orchestration, dance choreography and not just the rhythmic execution. 

My keen sense of rhythm was observed by my parents during my childhood. I remember, playing the imaginary Guru, and with a pair of Bhajan Jalras conducting an orchestra and correcting an imaginary student. Like all young students, I was trying to imitate my Gurus rehearsing an Arengetram! I am fortunate to have gurus, Koothambalam Sri Aravindan and Smt VasanathaAravindan, from whom I learnt Bharatanatyam, and late guru Dr Vempati Chinna Satyam – The Kuchipudi Arts Academy, where I learnt the art of Kuchipudi, who have inspired, influenced and motivated me in many ways in both my “center” stage and “side” stage performances. 

Learning is a journey. And, this journey can be walked on many paths. One path is learning from a teacher, and the other is learning from experience. I have been blessed to have been identified by Gurus Sri Narasimhachari and Smt Vasanthalakshmi, who, are known for their multifaceted excellence in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Carnatic music, and more popularly known for their prowess in rhythm and its complexities in Natyam, and to accompany them for Nattuvangam in their orchestra. That was when I was introduced to the dance fraternity as a Nattuvanar. What I knew then about rhythm was exiguous and what I was assigned to execute was prodigious. The on-the-job training I had with them initiated me in comprehending the rhythm structures in general, and its artistic incorporation and the complex execution in dance choreographies. Their forte being “cross rhythms” – where the Nattuvanar recites a particular (and generally a complex) rhythmic pattern and plays a totally opposite or even more complicated rhythmic pattern on the cymbal – was indeed a herculean task for me, considering the trivial knowledge I had then. Thus, I walked on the path of experience. 

My learning phase came with the guidance from Gurus Vasanthalakshmi and Narasimhachari to the veteran mridangist and Late Guru Sri Madurai T Srinivasan (Seena Kutty Sir). This phase of learning provided me a holistic understanding of rhythm, patterns, and its execution in Nattuvangam. My one-to-one classes with Sir were always interesting and challenging, as he taught me how rhythm is played in the percussions and made me work on them. I would always try to find ways in executing the rhythmic complexities played in the Mridangam into Nattuvangam. Though I know it is a juvenile imagination of interpreting a rhythmic structure played on an instrument with infinite tonal combinations into another instrument which had just TWO tones, it  helped me  to search for possibilities, and thus enhanced my understanding.

Every performance and every artiste whom I have accompanied for have given me abundant knowledge in enriching my understanding of this instrument. From day- to-day rehearsal routines to the on-stage performances, I cherish every moment of those invaluable experiences as I accompanied veterans like Smt. Vyjayanthi Mala Bali, Smt. Chitra Visveswaran and other performing gurus.  Being a dancer myself, added the ability in better understanding of the performer’s needs. This provided me a platform to conduct dance recitals with adeptness. I feel fortunate in having the opportunity to interact with these great artistes.

It has been an exhilarating journey for me so far, but as the poet says, “there are miles to go before I sleep’…… I await with humility for more elevating experiences in my artistic journey.

The writer is a Chennai-based dancer and nattuvannar