Maths, structure and emotion: Manohar Balatchandirane and Geeta Chandran’s percussion workshop

As part of the World Dance Day activities at Natya Vriksha this year, mridangist Manohar Balatchandirane and Bharatanatyam guru Geeta Chandran took a percussion workshop. Many technicalities of beats and bols were discussed, but I am summing up some of the salient points below that were not purely technical.

Manohar Balatchandirane
Jaati and nadai

Manohar asked if the participating dancers could explain the difference between a jaati and a nadai. “For a kathak dancer, it would be tisra jaati and aadi-laya,” he said. The difference, as a dancer explained, was that of “bol jaati and laya jaati.” Manohar said, “Gati means speed and nadai means walk and both mean the same thing.”

Sneha Chakradhar then danced a jaati and Geeta ji sang a thillana. “This was an example of a jaati. A jaati is just a representation of the underlying meter, it does not change the rhythm. This was in chatusra nadai, but it is a representation of all the five jaatis. The order was 9, 5, 7, 3, 4. Aditalam is made up of 8 aksharas, and each akshara has four matras in it. If you want to make it into tisra nadai, then there will be 3 or 6 matras in one akshara. It does not change beats, I am not changing the microbeat, I am only changing the division of beats. Only the distribution changes,” Manohar explained.

He also talked about the history of the nomenclature. “Chatusram is the universal laya, like the heartbeat going tik tok. This is universal laya because it is the only laya which, upon successive divisions, gives you one. It becomes 4-2-1, 16-8-4-2-1. And we’ve also stopped at pancha nadai, at nine; there could have been something with 11 also and should have been perfectly valid. But we call it panch jaati or panch nadai because we are restricted by the number 10. And that is because we use a decimal system. Returning to the subject of how these jaatis came into existence, we started with 4. Tisra is used because the Indian tradition has an obsession with 3. Anything with mythology has the number 3, and it becomes a tihai. Then 3+4=7, which is misra or mixed. Khanda is when misram 7 and tisram 3 are mixed and broken, that is, 5. Sankeernam is a concoction of sorts. It means a collection.”

Divya Goswami mentioned a concept in Kathak that prime numbers 11 and 13 can be done as a jaati. Manohar replied, “This is feasible. In Carnatic music, people do it in a different fashion. We break it in a different manner. Most dancers prefer tisra nadai because it is most commonly thought of and it is very folksy. Misram and tisram existed much before chatusram. All classical music comes from folk music and most folk music is based on the meter of 3 and 7. The misram chapu talam and tisram chapu talam existed even before aditalam. It is possible to have a jaati of 11 or 13, but it is a question of tayyari. You have to be a genius to enter them.” And Geeta ji added, “And it is simple mathematics that multiples are easier.”

Metronome: help or hindrance?

Swarnmalya Ganesh commented, “The metronome, I think, is not very useful for dance and music. Maybe for recording of film music it is very useful. As a mridangam player, don’t you feel that the way we conduct our performances, it is the metronome that follows us, in the sense that it is disturbing? Secondly, you should touch upon the subject of the first half and second half of a varnam - the second half is not necessarily double the speed of the first.”.

Guru Geeta Chandran (Centre)
Geeta ji answered, “I agree that metronome is more of a hindrance to the rasa. (But) Sometimes, the metronome also provides the checks and balances. You realize this is how fast I am going, like in an alarippu. And track recordings cannot be done without a metronome. As far as the laya in the first half and the second half of the varnam are concerned, it is only with practice that you come to know the pace of the second half. The pace of the first half decides the pace of the second half. It as Swarna says: it is not necessarily of double pace. It is somewhere in between. And with practice, you arrive at a pace that suits everybody.”

Manohar added, “The metronome is good for mridangists since it is indicative to practice with, but of course, we have to adapt to the vocalists and the dancer. You cannot say this is what I will play, I will not move from this. No matter how good the mridangist is in the studio, on the stage, there are other factors that lend themselves to the performance.”

Sneha asked, “For a varnam, is it a norm to start only with trikala jaati? Can we start with any other jaati or beat? We start with the slow jaati and then the rest follows.”

Geeta ji replied, “In a varnam, you have to begin with the trikala jaati; that is the structure. (If) You want to break the code, that is your choice. In our times, the varnams were such that we began with trikala jaati. Today, varnams also have a different structure. For instance, ‘Vanajaakshi’ can be done at a different pace. But trikala jaati has a beauty which is typical of trikala; why do you want to do away with it? And it can be showcased only in a varnam. It cannot be done anywhere else. So why do you want to change the convention?”

This was followed by an exercise in trying to maintain rhythm and apply emphasis on various beats. Towards the end, Manohar commented in conversation, “As a mridangist, I feel that dancers preempt a certain beat. Filling is better than leaving a beat. It is easier to have an odd sequence following an odd one whereas if you have an even sequence following, then you tend to keep on pushing it by one each time.”

Geeta ji added, “Kathak is easier since one lehera keeps on going, but in Bharatnatyam, the counter-rhythm becomes easier since something is being said and something is being danced. What is said is the lehera and what is danced is the counter. In the counter, you get the feel and happiness of a jaati since it becomes challenging. That is the beauty of Indian classical dance, where the concepts are the same but the applications are different and varied.”

Radhika Kathal interjected, “Is there a pattern – which sequence comes before which?”

Manohar answered, “No, but you can take aditalam with 32 beats and make your own sequence. In fact, it is a very good mind exercise and it helps in composing also.” Geeta ji added, “In fact, you can have gaps and pauses in between. Gaps are important in mathematics. So particularly in the Dandayudhpani style, where there are poses between jaatis. And the karvais are also important. Karvais add up and take care of the balance.”

Speaking about the metronome again after a break, Manohar said, “In western music, there is a bass, drums, there are multiple inputs. In Hindustani music too, there is a theka for the tabla. But in Carnatic music, that does not happen at all. Everybody is improvising at the same time. The constant is the tala, which also contracts and expands according to the demands of the musician or the dancer. Which is why we cannot be depending on the metronome in a performance. Ayyapan said that some jaatis should be recited fast to come through.”

Geeta ji said, “He would say that the click is not fast. It is pulling me behind. He is old-school, from when the click did not exist.” Manohar added, “The old mridangists did not practise with a click. Karaikudi Mani sir, who is one of the great mridangists right now, did not practise with a click. He was recording in Germany and suddenly, the metronome stopped. After the metronome came back on after a minute or so, he was on the same beat. So the sense of rhythm comes through practice and repetition.”

Creative aspect of rhythm

Then they moved on to the next section, which was about the creative aspect or composition aspect of rhythm. “Here, we look at the typical structure of jaatis,” said Manohar. “It is very specific to Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and the south Indian styles, but it can be imported to Kathak and Odissi. The typical format is to establish a phrase, then bring a variation in it. For instance, the trikala jaati phrase. I can’t immediately go into the tihai after this. You can repeat the first phrase twice to establish it. Then the variation – do not deviate, but add something at, say, the end. Tihai can be anything but it should contain the first phrase, the motif.” Geeta ji added, “The first phrase is mandatory, according to (the late) Sivakumar sir.”

Manohar also said, “There is the possibility of doing the tisra nadai between the trikala jaati. The tihai can be in any place you want. Tisra can be fit between the third speed and the second speed – it’s nice because the audience sits up in attention. They won’t know the technicalities but they’ll feel something has changed. There are smaller jaatis where you can establish the phrase without going through this process and end it.”

Geeta ji continued the discussion: “You can do the end thrice, place it where you want to, and it’s also about the stamina of the dancer. It’s not about proving a point; what you do, you do well. Sometimes, you need to do a two-minute jaati. If that’s the criterion (for doing it), then it’s sad, because you see the dancers struggling towards the end. You see what is your comfort zone. What you do has to be crisp and good. It’s not about length, it has to be beautiful, have variety and range.”

Manohar added, “There are two aspects of a jaati – the technical correctness and the aesthetics. A jaati has to be done format-wise, with some technical correctness. I have come across some jaatis where the first phrase is not used towards the end. But if that is the tradition (to do so), then yes, it must be followed. If there is such a thing, it must be followed. Technical correctness is the base, you must have your structures right. This is where the concept of jaatis plays an important role.”

Geeta ji qualified that, saying, “The distribution and the mathematics have to be correct. If some mridangist gives you a jaati, you must have the understanding and sense to say this is wrong, I will not take it. The illiteracy of the dancers is so great today that whatever the mridangist is doling out is being taken. Correct, not correct – the dancer doesn’t know the grammar. When you demand something of the mridangist, you have to have the knowledge to say I will use this or I will not use this. That’s the whole idea of this workshop.”

Manohar continued, “The adavus also have to be correct – again, this has to be correct on the basis of a pattern and second, you’re trying to match the sollu of the jaati. There are certain places where you might shift from technical correctness in the sense of structure and try and bring about maths which matches the phrases of the jaati. Or a swaram in the varnam – you don’t always have to make sure that there are three sevens, three fives and three threes. It is possible that there is a certain swaram which requires you to… your taste suggests you want the kanakam to match with that swaram, you can do that. That is also important. You can’t always expect to be all format.”

Geeta ji added, “Many times, the reinforcement is nice. It’s not that you show your creativity all the time. Sometimes, reinforcement of the same thing is very effective. You have to see what works where… It’s not always only maths – it has to match the jaati and you have to go with the music. Music is predominant. In a varnam etc., the music always guides you. Sivakumar always used to – because I could sing, when he set the percussion in my house, I must have sung it a thousand times. ‘Thirupi pad,’ he would keep saying – you want to get into the music, where it is finishing, where it is starting, then you see the kanaka and where it matches; it should not clash with the music. (That is why) The musician always sits in when a kanaka is put. When you put the maths, it must be seamless.”

Manohar continued the subject of composition. “For composing, the first step that I feel is important for any dancer or rhythmic composer is to know the structure of – the basic structure, you can break it later – of a tihai. The formula that can be used is 3a+2b, because it is a tihai. a is the motif, b is the gap and the general rule is that b can be zero also and b should ideally not exceed a. The length of the motif should be longer than the gap,” he said. He explained further using aditalam as an example.

Geeta ji added a word of caution: “Here, you have to be very watchful as dancers. Sometimes mridangists give you these fast speeds. You have to be very careful because in dance it will be like ‘bedam’ (breathless). It sounds very nice in vocals, but when you translate it into dance, you will look for a quick fix, like a turn. A turn is not really a thing in Bharatnatyam. It can be in a gap or something like that but it’s not really a tirmana adavu. There are certain speeds that you can do – it’s very important that the maths is correct but you have to be able to say this is not good for dance. This might be very good to play in your tirmanam for your mridangam. It’s not what can be danced. Clarity of adavu and geometry of the dance is what guides us - always keep in mind, it’s not all about dazzle.”

A dancer asked her, “How do we fit emotion in this geometry?” Geeta ji replied, “You have to find the emotion in every bol - that will be different for different people. That’s why they say you have to find yourself in every jaati. The same jaati taught to five people need not be the same. Everybody has a different take on the same jaati, even the same adavu done by different bodies looks different. It’s not just a bit of rigorous physical movement. It has an emotive quality, aesthetics, beyond that there is also a feeling that the dancer gives. For instance, when you come to a chatusram after doing a lot of counter-rhythm, automatically the dancer feels wow, I’m in a space I love. You have to bring a quality and a certain emotive spirit to each bol and that cannot be taught. As you do each piece over and over, you start enjoying it, you feel an ease, you give it an accent and that cannot be taught. If the accent is cloned, then it looks imposed. It will not be the same for different people. That’s very important.”

Pics: Anoop Arora