Geeta Chandran's tribute to her guru, Swarna Saraswathy

This evening was a deeply nostalgic one – Padma Shri winner, Bharatnatyam guru Geeta Chandran presented ‘Swarna’, a solo performance on the 19th of November at Kamani Auditorium. The performance was a tribute to her first guru, Swarna Saraswathy amma.

Swarna Saraswathy Amma 

The introduction of Swarnamma that Rajiv Chandran provided that evening was:
“Swarna Saraswathi hailed from an illustrious family of musicians and dancers. She was the daughter of the well-known singer Rajamani Ammal and the granddaughter of distinguished dancer Amritha Ethiraja Ammal, a disciple of Kutralam Narayanasami Pillai and Pandanallur Arunachalam Pillai.
She had her early training in dance under her grandmother and under Kanchipuram Thiruvengada Nattuvanar. ‘Visry’ Chinnaiah Naidu taught her the theory of Bharatanatyam and she learnt the art of abhinaya from Mylapore Gowriammal. She was also trained in music by Tiger Varadachari, Namakal Sesha Iyengar and Satur Krishna Iyengar. From the age of seven, she regularly accompanied her mother in music recitals. She was also a concert-level veena artist.

At the age of ten, in 1931, Swarna Saraswathy made her Bharatanatyam debut, her arangetram, following which she was launched on a hectic performing career, which lasted for over four decades. She danced all over south India and was widely appreciated for her skill and talent. In 1952, she went on a world tour presenting Bharatnatyam to audiences in Europe, and was praised for ‘her eloquence in interpretative dance exposition.’

The highest accolade available in our country to an artist, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, which is a recognition of merit by peers, was conferred on her in 1967, followed much later by the Ministry of Culture’s Fellowship in 1978. In 1954, she launched her Bharatanatya Akademi in Madras and shifted base to Delhi in 1962, from where her Akademi continued its functioning in the Channa Market of Karol Bagh.”

Before she began, Geetaji took the opportunity to highlight the issue of toilet hygiene in India. As a dancer, she has travelled all over India, and the slogan she espouses is that the person after you also has an equal right to a clean toilet. As a classical dancer, it was a very big effort on her part to make a statement about public manners, which are totally absent in India. Any such effort is to be saluted.
On the stage was a large portrait of Guru Swarna Saraswathy, and Rajiv Chandran and Geeta Chandran, in their eloquent manner, with a slideshow, narrated the profile of the guru. On the stage was a huge Odiya applique work hanging. Geetaji began the performance by singing a traditional thiruppuvai. She is an equally good singer, a talent she has imbibed from her guru. She wore purple aharyam for the performance. After a pranam to her guru, she presented a short medley of Thanjavur quartet compositions, which were her guru’s favourite.

Next was a shabdam or shapdam, ‘Sarasijakshulu’, where Krishna comes to the banks of the river Yamuna with his flute on his lips. At finding the gopis bathing, he quietly steals their clothes and sits on the tree with the clothes, waiting for the gopis to come out. Then she did part of a varnam by the Thanjavur quartet in raag Hussaini, where Krishna appears at Radha’s door after a night’s dalliance with another gopi.

The final padam was a parakiya padam. This was about the nayika who is leaving her Krishna idol behind after she is married off and leaving her parents’ house with her husband. As she packs to leave, she promises Krishna that this separation will only increase her love for him, like the distance of the sun and the lotus enhances the love in their relationship. She wipes a tear as she leaves.
The entire medley curated by Geetaji had a few short interludes of nritta. They were mostly abhinaya pieces in which you actually got the feel of a devadasi dancing in the sacred space of a temple in front of the idol of the Lord. She does not look elsewhere, does not move too much out of her space, and then the entire dance sequence becomes like a conversation.

This was also more apparent in the full-length varnam that she did, Mohamana, which was also very dear to her guru. The composition was in raag Bhairavi, roopak talam, a cycle of six beats. The nayika is besotted with Shiva and questions his indifference to her. She wants to be united with him and in the second part, she speaks of her being struck by Cupid’s arrows, which makes her burn with desire for Shiva. She partly sang along to the varnam. The choreography of jatis was by the late P. Shivakumar. The varnam began with the notes of the violin. The jatis in the varnam had footwork, stretches, leg lifts and hastas. The jatis were very appropriate to the varnam, and they were rhythmic. The movements were very graceful and effortless. The movements of the hands and feet had a lot of fluidity and subtlety to them. As Dr. Sonal Mansingh later put it, there was a lot of saukhyam in this dance.

In the depiction in this varnam, the nayika expressively looks at the Lord and draws the metaphor of the lotus and the bee. The face of Shiva is like the lotus, and her eyes like a bee hovering over it. Geetaji’s eyes were very expressive. The nayika strings a garland for Shiva, very meticulously, knotting each flower. She puts the garland around his neck but he discards it. To draw his attention to her, she throws a flower at him. She dresses up and does shringar, wears payal and kangan. She makes her kangans clink and yet, he is indifferent. When the huge doors of the temple open with impressive grandeur, the Lord appears. His face, eyes, tilak, jata, Ganga, ardhachandra, his kundal shining and blinding, are all a picture of beauty. The drums are playing. The nayika imagines Shiva’s embrace, his scent in proximity, their kiss and at close quarters, their hearts beating together and their union. Adhar sudhaaras – the exchange of the nectar of their lips – was depicted. Manmatha’s arrows are hurting the nayika. He showers her with flowers from his arrows, the arrows hit their target, and as the cuckoo sings, the arrows hurt even more, piercing her. In the full moon night, it is difficult to stay away. The misery and the pain of the nayika and her tremors were shown through abhinaya. At the end, Geetaji performed a formal pranam to the musicians and the instruments as a ritual.

I would like to mention here the expressions that she brought out in this piece, which were totally beyond words. It was like a new bashful bride is made to stand in front of her lover. She forgets all and looks at him with great sensuousness, but immediately realises the presence of others and lowers her eyes. And as she withdraws her glance, she keeps stealing looks at him.

This performance was memorable for other reasons as well. Geetaji’s mother got very emotional afterwards, when she remembered the days when they would go to Swarnamma, for veena classes for herself and dance classes for her daughter. Swarnamma would tell her that her daughter was very good, but tell her not to mention it in front of the young girl, since it would go to her head! And all of Geetaji’s disciples came to hug her and congratulate her at the end. A guru who has acquired so much love and respect from her disciples would obviously have that same love and respect for her own guru when she would pay a tribute to her.

Geetaji’s strong attachment to her guru was obvious when she introduced the evening’s programme and later, when she spoke to me about the pieces:

A young Geeta Chandran
“It’s been so many years since I wanted to do this, and I can’t believe it’s happening. At age 5, I went to a small first floor flat in Karol Bagh, and there was this lady sitting there in a Kanjeevaram sari, diamonds in both nostrils – that was my first impression of amma. I did not know what I was getting into. It’s not as if my parents wanted me to become a dancer, as I come from a family which is all working class – doctors, scientists, CAs. But my mother was very keen that I had very serious, good training in music and dance, so she took me to Amma. And that’s when the journey began. Amma was already past her performance prime – she would only do padams, not perform pure dance pieces. But she used to sit and teach us, and the moment she started singing, that was when I was drawn to her completely, because no class was the same. Today, when we hear the record player playing the same thing, the dance’s quality cannot be different. When you have a live musician accompanying you in every class, she never sings the same thing. She always sings something different, the cadence and nuance is different each time. That was the hallmark of her style – it was full of manodharma, it was never the same. You could never structure a piece. Every piece was always a work in progress. We would go up prepared completely with what she had taught in the previous class and the next day she would do something completely different. We’d say oh my god, all the preparation went down the drain. She would feed us so much, and she’d say take it all in, and some day it will come out in a beautiful bouquet. She was concert-level adept at the veena, she could sing a full ragam-tanam-pallavi concert, and she could dance. That was the level of depth that dance required. And we all thought that unless you could do all this, you would never become a dancer. The learning was complete. She didn’t really wait for a piece to completely finish, though, or achieve the perfection that we look at today. She would go on teaching, so you know the depth and vastness of the art form.

So at eight or nine I had four or five varnams – Mohamana, Dhanike, all these varnams. First, she aimed to show the vastness, to know what is possible in the arts, and then to get into perfection, mould it and then get into the performing arts. This whole technique of teaching was very different. Subsequent teachers taught me various things, but I think that even when she was out of the temple, she had that small temple space in mind when she danced, because she used to always draw a circle and say you please do all the thatti-metti in the circle. That intensity of dancing not in a large space, but in a small space, was her hallmark. That also stays with me – I still have problems covering the stage and throwing myself out because what you begin with defines you and stays you. The bhakti she brought to the dance, I shall always be grateful to her for giving me that gift.

I have today prepared a small medley of the Thanjavur pieces she taught me. I sat and closed my eyes and imagined I was in her class in that small room. There was a time to go to class, but never a time to come back. We’d see Uttara, Jayanti Pani, Shanta, all of them dance because it was important to watch the seniors dance. She’d say it will show you where you’re going. We used to do our own class and watch them, and then teach movements to the little ones, and felt very great that we could also teach. That kind of learning, where you never looked at the watch, was unique for that time.
This medley I begin with is very small – it might seem simplistic to today’s dancers, who are extremely accomplished, who are well-trained and well-practised. Her style was very simple but extremely artistic. Even a simple movement walk back had that aesthetic artistic quality that doesn’t come from practice. It comes from the soil, the smell, I don’t know what – the intangible quality of the arts. That is what I’m trying to convey in these pieces, which I myself had forgotten. I hope, Amma, wherever you are, I will do justice to whatever you’ve taught me.” The qualities Geetaji spoke about, her humility and dedication to the dance, were reflected in Swarna Amma's eyes in the photograph on stage.

She also narrated how Amma would bribe her with a tikki to make her go to the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya with her and dance in front of Madhavi Mudgal, another disciple of Amma – Geetaji was only seven or eight at the time. “Since I started working on Swarna, I have recreated a style which I myself had forgotten a little bit, and I have gone back to her style, elements which I feel were not in vogue, but which were in my head, which I plan to teach my students also, in the same way, recreated with Amma’s philosophy. It’s the philosophy you keep in mind, not the exact movements, because they were for that time. Today, dance and its audiences have changed, but I have to retain the philosophy of Amma, the reposefulness, the connection to music, the humility of the body. They danced in the temple, there was no way they could flaunt the body, which is what you see so much in dance today. With them, it was always the dance, not the dancer.

“Most dear to me is her philosophy. She used to tell us, you shouldn’t even show your back to the audience, even when you exit. I think in the whole thing of democratisation of dance, so many of these things that devadasis believed in and lived have gone out. It became a proscenium art, which is nice and has its place, but we also can’t forget this. When she danced, I never felt it was something outside the body. It was her life. To reach that level is very difficult. It was full surrender to the art form, putting your personality behind and putting the art form ahead. That’s a philosophy I would like to bring back.”

That evening saw S Venkateswaran on vocals, Manohar Balatchandirane on mridangam, Rajat Prasanna on flute, Raghavendra Prasath on violin and Brij Mohan Gupta on makeup.

Pics: Anoop Arora