Does the posture that defines Bharatanatyam cause injury or does it prepare the body for performance?
The dance world is obsessed with araimandi — from teachers and students to critics. But this is not really a new obsession. The ardhamandali or the araimandi stance, with bent knees turned out and body lowered, central to most Indian dance styles, has been around for centuries. And there’s evidence of it in sculptures and texts across India. The question is how much is enough.
According to scholar Dr. V. Raghavan, texts have provided specifications regarding the mandala, in which the feet form a rhombus. ‘The Sanskrit text Nrttaratnaavali (1253 AD) calls this Kharvataa and mentions 12 inches for this lowering; the Tamil text of Aram Valarthu Nadhanaar (Bharata Siddhaantam) says that if you measure the distance from the nose to the naval and measure the inside distance between the two knees bent in mandala, the two should be equal.’
As any practitioner will tell you, the dance style causes heel, knee and back pain. There is a study published in Indian Anthropologist (1998) by Joyce Paul and Satwanti Kapoor that says 35% of the Bharatanatyam dancers surveyed (a small sample of 70) seem to have had injuries caused by dancing, the knee being the most affected. They blame the araimandi, equating it to the demi-plie of ballet, which is known to cause injury. They observe that the dancers with limited external rotation at the hip are the ones most affected. Kuttanam, the forceful stamps, and the cement or stone practice floors are the other culprits.
Dance or dancer?
Who is at fault? The dancers or the dance style? The authors of the study argue that since the dance tradition goes back 1,500 years, the principles of yoga would have been taken into consideration, but not the principles of anatomy and modern-day physiology. They also say that the structure, ‘rather than being based on functional anatomy, lays its foundation on the aesthetic beauty of lines and angles formed by the varied positioning of angas or the different parts of the body.’
A similar opinion is expressed by scholar Kapila Vatsyayan in her book, Indian Classical Dance, “The Indian dance is not concerned with the musculature of the human form, but rather, like the sculptor, takes the joints and fundamental anatomical bone-structure of the human form as its basis.”
Dancers who have had the privilege of working with nattuvanars, the traditional repositories of Bharatanatyam, disagree that the dance style may be flawed. Vyjayanthimala Bali (disciple of Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, K.P.Kittappa Pillai and K.N.Dhandayuthapani Pillai), Nandini Ramani (disciple of Kandappa Pillai, T. Balasaraswati and K. Ganesan) and Alarmel Valli (disciple of Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai) emphasise the hours of practice that prepare the body. Lakshmi Viswanathan (disciple of Kanjeevaram Ellappa Pillai) says that though the nattuvanars ruled with an iron rod, they had a knack of teaching each dancer according to her ability. Nritta was not given the importance it is given now, varnam korvais were measured and brief, and the jatiswaram was slow and perfect.
Slow and steady
In the Kandappa Pillai-Balasaraswati style, the basic course was three-four years long. Nandini says, “Araimandi was very important. The focus was first on nritta. We had more than 100 adavus, and we used to practise them in three speeds, from Monday to Saturday for two hours or more. It started with footwork. It took more than a year for arm movements, kai, to be allowed. We considered it an achievement. It was a gradual way of training; we were never overfed or spoon-fed. Unless you have gone through this kind of training, the shaping of the body will not happen. I feel heel or back pain is mainly due to inappropriate or wrong posture from the beginning.”
Vyjayanthimala echoes the importance of training. “We didn’t leave out a single detail,” she says. In the Thaiyya Thai set, we practised all 10. We had 72 adavus. The adavu foundation with araimandi, the muzhumandi to araimandi movement, straight elbows without sagging, all were important. I was a good student and Guru Kittappa was happy with me. I would not sit down or drink water during practice. I would dance in front of the mirror to get it right. Adavu sutham and anga sutham were most important. Laya also — the salangai and the talam had to go together, the mridangam would follow the feet.’
Alarmel Valli has additional learnings from her gurus. “Guru Chokkalingam taught us the contrast between force and lightness and power and grace. For the Paichal Adavu, he would say, when you take off it should be forceful, but your landing should be like a flower falling. You cannot find these aesthetic principles in books; only the repositories of this culture were able to transmit it to their students. They taught us body-friendly principles and wove certain safeguards into the technique. To perform a margam, I would practise for 90 minutes to build up stamina. This is more important than rehearsals.”
Recalling how dancers of an earlier era like Pandanallur Jayalakshmi danced through the day eating only pazhedu (fermented rice), Valli says they consecrated their lives for dance. “I have danced for 50 years on a cement floor, both in the dance class at Egmore and later, when Subbaraya Pillai sir came home to conduct classes. While I did have spondylitis, I never suffered any debilitating injuries or pain that kept me from doing justice to the dance. This was definitely thanks to the footwork technique imparted by my gurus, of striking the floor mainly with the front of the feet. The resultant sharper, more cadenced sound was generated from the hollow of the feet rather than the heels. This emphasis on the use of vallinam and mellinam, or light and shade in footwork, spared me major knee and spinal injuries.
“For the araimandi, we were taught to position the feet in a wide, obtuse angle, a wide V, rather than as a straight line, at a full 180 degrees. The knees, however, had to be open and turned well outwards. This helped us maintain the araimandi stance more comfortably, without undue pressure exerted on the heels to maintain balance. I remember my Guru, Chokkakingam Pillai, saying that very high arches were not conducive to the kind of stamping that Bharatanatyam calls for. I too have noticed in my classes that often students with high arches suffer pain in the ball of the foot. I have low arches myself and I feel it has been beneficial.”
Valli too developed a heel injury, but that was only after active practice on a cement floor for 25 years. Given her busy performance schedule, the dancer, besides taking up a healing yoga routine, wore a skin-coloured cotton sock on her left foot with the toes cut off for better traction.
“Fortunately, no one noticed. You have to practise with the right kind of technique. Imbalance leads to stress and injury, as also mental stress. Of course, we had a much more leisurely and contemplative life without the tyranny of social media,” says Valli.
The one technique that was emphasised in Kalakshetra according to Professor C.V. Chandrasekhar and Jaya Chandrasekhar was to tuck your bottom in (they called it the dhobi bundle), important for body centring and putting less pressure on the knees. The reasoning is that if we lean forward we can sit more, but this leads to wrong weight distribution. Incidentally Kalakshetra’s old campus in the Theosophical Society campus had mostly mud floors in its cottages.
With the passing away of most of the old-school nattuvanars, we have lost a part of history and an irreplaceable knowledge bank. It would be a good idea to try and collate their philosophies while also establishing a standard body strengthening protocol to assist dance training. It could be based on yoga. Any takers?