I vividly remember a rehearsal day just a month before my arangetram more than fifteen years ago. Sarasama was sitting in front of me at our Rani Annadurai street dance class, supervising me rehearsing the varnam that I was to present for my arangetram. She whispered into the ears of our musician, Gowri akka “Look at her lovely araimandi, she is almost in a perfect half sit. She is really out there to impress Padma amma” I, the 12 year old who knew that a compliment from Sarasama was as rare as a perfect araimandi in rehearsal was surely peeking my ears to listen in even as I was dancing, and needless to say was ecstatic at my Guru’s observation. Of course, I was working hard to impress Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam, Paddu akka who was to be the chief guest at my arangetram. I don’t know if I managed to impress her with my arangetram but I was yet again so inspired by her. Her dazzling big jhumkas were also a great attraction. I pestered my parents soon after my arangetram to buy me such similar jhumkas. They did and the first day I wore those jhumkas, I felt truly like her fan! One, that wanted to follow her and imbibe her path.
Incidentally it was this araimandi that was to push me in the direction of a thought process that was to shape me into a researcher too. One day I was sitting with TSP mama (Sri.T.S.Parthasarathy, the musicologist) in his house for my classes with him. He spoke of the basic stance and suddenly asked to demonstrate it. I stood up and proudly showed off my half sit. He smiled and said “do you know what the texts describe the araimandi to be? It is the halving of the lower body starting from the torso in equal proportion to one’s own upper body. Therefore, it is the subjective calculation of each person’s height and torso length and it is the careful halving of that”. I was stumped. He further added with a chuckle “anything more than this proportion would look like you are sitting on a potty!” mortified, I sat through the next few hours with mama only half listening to him speak on concepts of aucityam (propriety), soundaryam (beauty) and much more. I came home that day and suddenly felt a rush of inadequacy in my understanding of a form, I until then believed I was introduced to in its entirety, at least as far as performance was concerned. I realized the need to look back at the grammer-s written down to codify what the mind, body and psyche produce. This intellectualization of dance, beckoned me.
I had to work at this process of understanding my Bharatanatyam, a deeply personal journey through its historic course when much of its theorization was penned. As a student of history and archaeology, I was and am even now, fascinated by the Cholas of the Tamil country (like many others). Rajaraja and his magnificent contribution that is the Rajarajeeswaram is truly the holy- grail. What did the Cholas dance? What repertoire? What compositions? How did they stitch the karanas into their choreographies? were some of the impetus questions. So, I headed to ground zero. When I looked up and saw the board “Thanjavur Saraswati mahal Library” I felt like fresh blood was being pumped into me. My first visit there was in May 2006 (first visit as a serious researcher).
With pen and papers I walked in and got introduced to the Administrative officer. After a very warm welcome he gently asked me if I would like a tour around the Library. I said “yes that would be great but I wish to speak to the Sanskrit and Telugu pandits regarding a few manuscripts (Mss)”. He looked completely taken aback. He quickly re-checked if I am in fact the “Actor/dancer” Swarnamalya. When I smiled and replied in the affirmative he asked me what I wanted to do in a library!
This is a general perception that people have. When doctors, lawyers and other professionals engage in research people take them seriously but when people in the entertainment world talk of research (especially younger women) it is brow raising! I am used to getting this a lot and hence I explained patiently to him that Dance is my passion and I am a Masters Degree holder in Bharatanatyam. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it and quietly guided me to the Telugu Mss section.
I was thrilled and I subjected the Telugu scholar to a long monologue of how I needed to understand the connection between the dances of the Chola times and that of the Tanjore Quartette (what we essentially practice and perform). He looked at me plainly, and told me that I can go through the catalogue of the Mss and see what I wanted to investigate.
I sat there at his spartan desk, under the tall tombed, lime-washed pillars, on a wooden chair and grabbed the first catalogue for Mss. That day passed. A tap on my shoulder from my driver/guardian/confidant Kumar reminded me that it was 5 pm and time for the library to close.
All day, every day for the next four days and such four/five days for the next three months, all that I did was pour over the catalogues religiously. I made detailed notes of every Mss I wanted to see, check, read. I went to the Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi sections and did the same.
After a few months, I recognized my first understanding of dance history. Much of contemporary dance history of the south is steered towards seeing its hoary past and links to Vedic and early historic extant like the Natya Sastra. While this link is undeniable, it is from the immediate cultural memory that the performing traditions of today have been culled out. Its copula to “Sadir-attam”, “dasi-attam” and also its close link to geographical and political structures are its rich traditions. It is from these numerous corpuses of dance repertoire that the Tanjore Quartette and others excogitated the margam. Therefore, to comprehend the Chola dances I must, find a tall ladder that will take me from the known (Bharatanatyam) to the unknown through its various immediate past memories. The association between art and political power shift is an important paradigm too. The study of dance in the context of a political, racial shift is the key to unlock this attic.
“From the attic” is a journey through the immediate past centuries which were the operational periods in creating the memories of modern Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. My seven years of research has helped me identify the context of the art forms we practice and also thereby find a personal identity. “From the attic” is a process of reverse engineering, I could say. It will reflect the various processes, the lives of people, stories and anecdotes from these eras.
This blog series is meant as a platform to share, in a semi-formal fashion my stories, my journey. Success, often is the ability to keep at it consistently, even when the going gets tough. “From the Attic” is receiving the love of people, where ever we are able to talk about it, showcase it. For example, we were invited to a city college where a group young dancers learnt the “Salamu Sabdam” most enthusiastically. We have also been invited by India International Center, Dancer Geetha Chandran to present FTA at Delhi, to a very receptive audience who greatly appreciated every composition presented. We have also travelled to other cities and places and continue to do so, with the grace of God.
I refuse to believe From The Attic as merely “my work”. It is the legacy of the art form every one of us practice. Everyone has the privilege to know it. I know how nationalist history building has made the academic world weary of the “past” but here is a key that opens a hidden door, long shut either by force of nature or because it threatened to blow legitimacy out of the divisive cultural legacies build over the last century or so.
I will write here, as my way of speaking to each of you, what has come to my understanding. I hope that at least some of you will engage with me in this process.
As I said, I still possess the jumkhas and therefore, I deem it a duty to be inspired and to continue in this path, which makes me a performer and a researcher turning the lights on the corners hidden in the attic!
FROM THE ATTIC- a performance, lecture, exhibition series that is life changing.
With a key to the attic