Nirupama Rajendra’s Desi Marga Adavu Project is designed as an easy-to-use guide for dance teachers and students alike
Sculptures and texts have captivated dancers and art historians alike, with a need to understand the moving body through the lens of the past. One of the most popular perspectives that scholars have utilised is the understanding of Indian art as Marga or Desi. The distinction between Marga and Desi can be described, primitively, as the distinction between canonical and regional, but in reality it is far more nuanced. The Natyashastra mentions 108 postures which are widely regarded as the canonical, Marga tradition. The Desi tradition, on the other hand, appears to be less codified, or more accurately, codified at a later historical date. This distinction is not delineated in the Indian arts before the 13th century text, the Sangita Ratnakara, which mentions 36 ‘desi karanas’.
While there are several more treatises that explore the differences and codification of Marga and Desi, it is largely understood that the classical forms we practise today, including the notions of bani or style, are considered variations of the Desi forms. In this way, the tradition of dance, specifically after the 1930s, prioritised the distinction between the Sanskritic tradition and the regional traditions as its main trope — a practice that continues till today.
One of the first dancers to embark on the endeavour to understand text, sculpture and movement was Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam in her doctoral work on the Natyashastra’s dancing postures. Today, her work informs that of several dancers, including Bangalore-based Kathak and Bharatha Nrityam practitioner, Nirupama Rajendra.
“I went through a 90-minute viva with Padhukka,” Nirupama says, over the phone, “and only after I explained my rationale was she convinced!”
The Desi Marga Adavu Project is Nirupama’s latest work of dance and scholarship. The objective behind the project is simple — combining 12 categories of existing Bharatanatyam movement patterns with 30 Nrittahastas mentioned in the Natyashastra. She uses a combination of these seemingly divergent codes that govern the upper and lower body as both a choreographic tool for dancers as well as a transition point to begin one’s journey with learning the Karanas. Tuned to a musical score by Praveen D. Rao, the project features 108 movement combinations with Sanskrit names that indicate their form and function, set by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh.
New look at tradition
When asked about the project, Nirupama is honest about her intentions. “There are several Bharatanatyam practitioners and students today. What tools can we give them to innovate within the form? We always seem to be hunting for something new.” Nirupama claims that her new movement system is an easy-to-use guide for teachers and students alike, serving as a “new look” at what already exists within the tradition.
When examining the ease of creation and innovation, she questioned why it was that Karanas lent themselves naturally to a wider application within dance. “The realisation was intuitive,” says Nirupama. “The natural weight-shifting and balancing of the Karana movements are circular, while the Desi movements of Bharatanatyam are linear and geometrical.” In many ways, it appears that the Desi Marga Adavu project is the marriage of square and circle — a negotiation within the dancing body of lines and curves.
The movements of the Desi Marga Adavu project serve both as technical movements and expressive interludes in choreography. Much like the purpose of Marga karanas, the premise of these movements is that “technical” dancing can be used as much as a communicative tool as expressions of the face and body. Nirupama provides examples of the incorporation of these movements into javalis and padams as well.
“I dedicate this research to the late Dr. Sundari Santhanam. She was the guru who introduced the pedagogy of Padma Subrahmanyam to me and opened my eyes to the world of Natyashastra.” Dr. Santhanam is best known for the reformulation of postures found in the temple sculpture of Karnataka into 72 Desi karanas.
The Desi Marga Adavu project premières on shaale.com on April 18.
The author is a performer
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