January 07, 2009

Exploring Storytelling through Dance in Tamil Nadu

During our cultural tour of Tamil Nadu, on two occasions we got to meet with and learn from two practioners of bharatanatyam, South Indian classical dance. Two afternoons is certainly not enough time to learn the history, cultural context, and range of this art form, even from master teachers, but we were willing students.

After lecture/demonstrations earlier in the week on other oral traditions of Tamil Nadu, we were ready for some hands-on, feet-on learning.

Thanks to YouTube, I can show you what bharatanatyam looks like:

Professional dancer Uma Ramesh had us up on our feet, stamping out talas on the floor. Clearly, her dexterity, stamina, and grace (not to mention her three decades of training), put our hilarious attempts at coordinated rhythm to shame. But after demonstrating for us the pure dance movements of bharatanatyam, she then led us in an exploration of the narrative aspects of the art form. In addition to its devotional and kinetic aesthetics, the standard presentation of bharatanatyam includes a story, brought to life through a specific gestural vocabulary of the hands and the face.

Explaining this in writing will be needlessly confusing, so luckily YouTube can show you what I mean. Here are some bharatanatyam workshop performances that focus solely on abhinaya, or the gestural storytelling. Take a look and see how specific the choreography is-- it's practically as literal as sign language.


With plenty of hands-on exercises, Ms. Ramesh had us practice mudras (that's the religious term. I forget what the bharatanatyam term is for iconic gestures) and helped us explore a gestural vocabulary for telling a story. We broke into small groups and began choreographing ensemble renditions of "The Talkative Turtle," an animal fable familiar to most of us, even if we didn't know its Indian origins from the Panchatantra.

Hilarity ensued—eventually. First we had to create a reader's theatre outline on the spot, then choreograph it, all the while navigating small group dynamics (only our 3rd day together, this the first collaborative task we were assigned, and clearly our group had at least two different styles of learners (talk it out first vs. do something, anything, and shape on our feet). My group never made it far enough along to rehearse the whole story and thus our first time on our feet was in front of our colleagues.

Our hosts graciously served us tea and cookies, but our limited time in the workshop and our need to "get it right" led us to corner Ms. Ramesh in the kitchen for more coaching and finessing of form.

We were pleased to learn that bharatanatyam's gestural vocabulary was expansive enough to include specific mudras for such words as: tree, water, bird, turtle. (And I learned my ring fingers are not coordinated enough to correctly form the mudra for "tree")

Later, our host Jeeva Raghunath would tell this very story as an interactive tale, reminding us of the gestures first, then falling silent during the story at those gestures, allowing the audience to jump in with the correct word, demonstrating for us an extremely practical use of our newfound technique.

But for me, the practical takeaway was this: specific, defined gestures can be an effective tool to tell a story. When used thoughtfully, gestures help the audience co-create the story in their imagination, by giving them a visual (and possibly kinesthetic) suggestion from which they can expand upon.

That should be obvious (coaches have commented on my lack of specific gestures for years), but for me, seeing a master artist who specialized in this, at a level so far beyond what I could even conceive, was necessary to really have it sink in.

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