While the Kerala dance-drama kūṭiyāṭṭam focuses on weighty episodes from the venerable Indian epics, its performance affords a number of occasions for humor outside of the stock buffoon character of the vidūśaka, who provides narration in Malayalam and jokes directly with the audience.
Some comic moments are produced in the classical Sanskrit texts by the characters of maids, doctors, and so on, but other verbal and physical comedy has been interpolated into the tradition by the performers representing monkeys, demons, madmen, drunks, sweepers, soldiers, and gardeners.
This according to “Comic relief by non-vidūśaka characters in kūṭiyāṭṭam” by L.S. Rajagopalan, an article included in Living traditions of Nāṭyaśāstra (Dilli: New Bharatiya Book Corporation, 2002) pp. 123–127).
Below, an uncostumed kūṭiyāṭṭam dancer demonstrates some monkey moves.
Filed under Animals, Asia, Dance
The renowned Hindustani śahnāī player Bismillah Khan lived in Varanasi for all of his adult life, and never wanted to leave the city even for a day—for example, complicated negotiations were required to persuade him to travel to Eluru to receive a prestigious award.
An American patron once invited him to come and live in California, but he replied that he could not bring himself to leave his beloved house. When the patron offered to build him an identical house and create a similar neighborhood, Khan asked him whether he could also bring the Ganges River!
This according to “The legend that was Bismillah Khan” by Pappu Venugopala Rao (Sruti 264 [September 2006] pp. 20–21).
Today would have been Bismillah Khan’s 100th birthday! Below, a live performance; can anyone help us to date it?
Filed under Asia, Performers
Natesan Ramani performed his debut seven decades ago. He has spent six decades as a soloist, five decades as a globetrotting star, four decades as a top-ranked performer and teacher, three decades as an academic, and two decades as an elder of the Karnatak music community.
This according to “N. Ramani: A front-rank flutist” by Manna Srinivasan (Sruti 223 [April 2003] pp. 21–29)—except that we have added one decade to each category in honor of his 80th birthday!
Below, Ramani performs Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar’s Mahā Gaṇapati, a song in praise of the elephant-headed god also known as Ganesh.
In West Bengali tradition, a person known as a patua travels around the countryside to entertain with sung narratives illustrated with painted scrolls. The patua’s audiences are usually poor and illiterate, lacking access to televisions and films as well as to written entertainments.
Increasingly, however, patuas are finding that their scrolls are viewed as valuable folk art, and that their storytelling skills are in demand among the urban intellectual elite as a means of selling these illustrations, which thereby take on a new, passive function.
This according to “From oral tradition to folk art: Reevaluating Bengali scroll paintings” by Beatrix Hauser (Asian ethnology LXI/1  pp. 105–122). Below, a patua demonstrates her art.
BONUS: A more modern example of the patua’s skills used to raise ecological awareness, with English subtitles.
Related article: Bhāgavata purāṇa as performance
A week-long festival centered on stories about the deity Kṛṣṇa is held in the hamlet of Naluna, Garhwal district, Northern India; this practice (known as a saptāh) is primarily a product of an elite Hindu community of the North Indian Plain.
Two loci of power are salient: the village deity representing local authority, and the text-as-artifact of the Bhāgavata purāṇa, the metonymy of the authority of the recently imported cultural practice.
The local community comprises modern subjects and empowered agents, accounting for the nature of the interaction between the village deity and the sacred text, and the new cultural synthesis that emerges.
This according to “Village deity and sacred text: Power relations and cultural synthesis as an oral performance of the Bhāgavatapurāṇa in a Garhwal community” by McComas Taylor (Asian ethnology LXX  pp. 197–221).
Above and below, the saptāh in Naluna.
Filed under Asia, Literature
C. Saraswati Bai (1874–1974) began studying Karnatak music at the age of 6, and by the time she was 9 her exceptional talent was so evident that the harikathā guru Tiruvaiyaru Krishnachar took her under his wing.
By the age of 11 she was gaining local notoriety, and as it became clear that she was contemplating a professional career the established performers of this male-dominated genre moved to undermine her, effectively blackmailing performance venues into refusing to engage her. Saraswati persevered, and public support for her grew; at last, those who had sought to squelch her career relented and tried to make amends.
In early 1911 she embarked on a highly successful tour of India and Sri Lanka, and by the age of 22 she had become one of the most acclaimed harikathā performers of the time.
From 1913 through the 1930s Saraswati traveled almost continually, performing standing up for six to seven hours in a different town each night. She recorded nine successful records for Odeon, and often performed on the radio; she was also in great demand for performances at weddings. At the height of her career she earned 2000 rupees each night, more than any other harikathā performer at that time.
From the 1940s until the early 1960s Saraswati performed less and less, due partly to a decline in audiences with the advent of sound films, and partly to the intense physical demands of traveling and performing. She took a keen interest in developing cultural organizations, and was an ardent supporter of Gandhi.
This according to “C. Saraswati Bai” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (writing as Sriram V; Sruti 262 [July 2006] pp. 21–31 and 263 [August 2006] pp. 17–38). Below, one of her Odeon recordings.
In the first half of the 20th century South Indian temple dance underwent a remarkable transformation from a low-caste activity to a national art form—from nautch to bharata nāṭyam.
This transformation was nurtured by the Indian nationalist movement, which was deeply rooted in European Orientalism and Victorian morality. The unsuitabilities of the figure of Shiva as Naṭarāja from the point of view of previous dance practice became precisely the qualities that qualified him as the nayaka (hero) of the new dance form.
Ananda Coomaraswamy groomed Naṭarāja for this role and brought him to the attention of artists including Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. Arundale, in particular, moved Naṭarāja to center stage, both as an independent force and as one heavily conditioned by a set of people and ideas.
This according to “Rewriting the script for South Indian dance” by Matthew Harp Allen (TDR: The drama review XLI/3 [fall 1997] pp. 63–100). Above, a traditional sculpture depicting Shiva as Naṭarāja; below, a bharata nāṭyam piece that evokes the cosmic dancer.
Related article: Varieties of love
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by rāga performances, and he wanted a demonstration.
After a specially prepared vegetarian dinner, Thakur began with hindolam, which depicts valor. “When I was soaring in the high notes of the rāga,” he later recalled, “Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later his visage gained normalcy and he said ‘A good experiment.’”
After Thakur brought him to tears with rāga chayanat, which is meant to depict pathos, Mussolini said, after taking some time to recover, “Very valuable and enlightening demonstration about the power of Indian music.”
Il Duce then returned the favor: Producing his violin, he treated Thakur to works by Paganini and Mozart. Again, both agreed on the music’s power to evoke emotion.
“I could not sleep at all the entire night,” the vocalist recalled, “wondering whether the meeting had really taken place; I thought it was a part of a dream.” The next day, two letters from Mussolini arrived—one thanking him and one appointing him as director of a newly formed university department to study the effect of music on the mind (an appointment that he was unable to accept).
This according to “Omkarnath Thakur & Benito Mussolini” by B.K.V. Sastry (Sruti 163 [April 1998] pp. 19–21).
Although the exact date of this meeting is not recorded, we know that it took place in May 1933—80 years ago this month! Below, Thakur performs rāga bhairavi.
Related article: Rāgs and recipes
Earlier treatises placed śṛngāra (love/the erotic) among the aesthetic qualities known as rasas, but the 11th-century Śṛngāraprakāśa, attributed to Bhojarāja, King of Malwa (inset), was the first to assert its supreme importance.
The treatise includes highly detailed typologies of love—for example, chapter 22 alone discusses 64 stages of love, each subdivided into 8 categories, each of which is then subdivided into 8 more categories, with hundreds of illustrations from poetic works in Prakrit and Sanskrit.
This according to “Bhoja’s Sringara prakasa: A landmark in the evolution of rasa theory” by V. Subramaniam (Sruti 190 [July 2000] pp. 37–41). Above, a classic image of Krishna and Radha in the moonlight; below, the legendary T. Balasaraswati’s depiction of Krishna’s childhood provides an embodiment of śṛngāra in bharata nāṭyam (filmed by Satyajit Ray).
Filed under Antiquity, Asia
On 27 May 1912 the first Karnatak music conference was convened in Thanjāvūr.
Hosted by the celebrated practitioner of Siddha medicine and devotee of Karnatak music Abraham Pandithar (inset, 1859–1919), the conference’s stated purpose was “to promote an academic interest in and to diffuse a knowledge of all that was best in the science and practice of Indian Music; to correct all conflicting notions in regard to Ragams and determine the precise and scientifically correct methods; to concert measures to the advancement of Indian music.”
At the conference Pandithar established the society Sangeetha Vidhyalaya Mahajana Sangam; the group met five more times between 1912 and 1914.
This according to “A centenary of music conferences” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (Madras heritage and Carnatic music, 25 May 2012). Above, the society’s group photograph, taken after the first morning session; below, Pandithar Thottam, the farm in Thanjāvūr where Pandithar grew traditional medicinal plants.