Articles and Interviews
Unlayering Sampradaya       
Sudha Jagannath

Sampradaya is a word with many dimensions echoing across a multitude of cultural spheres, from high art to the usages of everyday life. Broadly it refers to a body of inherited beliefs and customs and in the sphere of music and dance, the ‘way’ or the predominant concepts and usages that give the forms their distinct identity. Its palpable presence eludes a qualifying definition yet evokes from the pundits constant references to its pristine essences. As one of the doyens of Carnatic music, the celebrated G.N.Balasubramaniam defined it succinctly, ‘Sampradaya means a tradition of music handed down to us through centuries of experience, research and knowledge…sampradaya is conditioned by factors like time, region, standards of appreciation among rasikas and the capacity of vidwans.’ 1 Indeed sampradaya is the ever evolving body of tradition, its defining canons and its everyday usages. In dance specifically Bharatanatyam, there are some structural concepts and attitudes that are thought to be the carriers of sampradaya. Here I will briefly propose some of the concepts worth studying and in later issues follow up all the topics with detailed discussion and examples.

The Concert Format – the presentation of a repertoire traditionally follows a progression, proceeding from Alarippu to Tillana. Before the period of Tanjore Quartette 2 (1798-1832), dance presentations were popularly of the ekaprayoga variety or centering on a single theme. In the context of the Tanjore Quartette, their efforts to condense, compile, catalogue and compose pieces specifically for dance have a deep significance. It was during this period that dance became high art and gloried in a crystallized and articulate grammar as is evidenced by the scintillating alarippus, melody rich jatiswarams, varnams, and other compositions that have become synonymous with Bharatanatyam itself.

The brothers Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Sadasivam and Vadivelu were born in a family of Oduvars or traditional singers and performers of tevaram hymns. Their inherited musical and performance knowledge was dramatically enhanced by an apprenticeship with Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar3. Stunning formal innovations, a practical re-invention of movement vocabularies and a re-appraisal of all old and venerated texts inform their music and dance inputs. How did they negotiate their own war-torn and famine stricken times which surely had none of the serene grandeur, gamaka-laden cadences, iconic units of movement strung together in poetic sequences that characterize their extraordinary oeuvre? It is important to study in detail the historical implications of this body of work and its motivating impulses springing as much from imagination as from the pressure of historical circumstances, before we can either claim to be fastidious espousers of tradition or its half-baked rebels. Perhaps, the margam or concert format as followed and indeed used as a ‘given’ today, needs to be studied in greater depth to understand its internal dynamics and practical applications.

The Dance Lyric – in dance the lyric reigns supreme. Pure dance by itself seems to hold the lesser position vis-à-vis the lyrical. In lyric, the content and musical form are inseparable whether the words are minimal as in Pallavi singing4 or when they appear to border on the verbose, as in the madhyama-kala charanams 5 of many padavarnams. Looking at the predominantly Bhakti-Sringara content of dance lyrics, it would not be an overstatement to say that dance-music apart from the obviously formal compositions like todayamangalams, pushpanjalis, jatiswarams and tillanas has emanated from a larger body of Bhakti music surrounding it through time. In the context of courtly dance traditions, the ‘dedication’ to royal personages, invoking royal grace, and inviting the royal beloved, are themes which are musically or stylistically indistinguishable from those addressed to the divine presence (a fact that has curiously not yet invited critical historically aware scrutiny). The dance lyric incorporates an entire spectrum of musical experience, from the sensual, meandering padams of kshetrayya, the majestic corpus of the Tanjore Quartette, the operatic oeuvre of the 18th century as exemplified in the kuravanjis, geya-natakas etc., the Tamil compositions and indeed many traditions of Tamil poetry such as the works of the saint-poet Arunagirinathar which were kept alive within the community of Nadaswaram artists. The lyric incorporates many languages and their poetic traditions and conventions, creating interesting tensions between the Sanskrit and older Tamil literary traditions, the courtly display of virtuosity and the temple rituals. The legacy is massive and bewildering, perhaps an embarrassment of riches. To an ordinary student of dance, understanding a lyric, its context, its meaning, its subtle shades is to begin a journey through a maze of referential and self-referential meanings. (Perhaps leading many a performer on stage to look heavenwards and raise their arms in supplication!)

Interpreting Lyrics - Repetition and Improvisation - the usual way of interpreting or performing abhinaya to lyrics begins with showing the word-meaning or shabdartha-bhava in a variety of ways, followed by sachari-bhava or an oblique, more exploratory and nuanced, sometimes more narrative mode. In practice they appear to be the gestural counterparts to musical sangatis or variations of increasing inventiveness and complexity that enhance the joyful re-statement of the main musical theme. Indeed the lyric appears to gain an entity through the process of repetition in singing and abhinaya and a resonance through the improvisations during performance.

Theoretically at least, much like the musician, the dancer after duly imbibing the raga-bhava 6 and sahitya 7 of a composition performs these erudite abhinaya improvisations replete with poetic images. In practice however, rarely are improvisations seen on stage during a ‘traditional’ concert. The abhinaya is ‘set’ or is already composed for the dancer by the guru/nattuvanar/self. Indeed most abhinaya pieces are in the form of ‘set’ compositions forming the core repertoire of all banis or styles. The same applies to all nritta or pure dance compositions.

How and when did the choreographed compositions happen? To what extent is it possible to incorporate choreographed (or composed) dance sequences with improvisatory skill and imagination? Like the Sangeeta Manodharma 8 is it possible to visualize a Natya Manodharma? If so, what kind of apprenticeship can produce the skilled interpreter of lyrics, moving seamlessly between the taught and the experienced?

Deploring the Dilution of Standards and Erosion of Taste - As early as 1947, the legendary chronicler/compiler/Vainika Sri Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar, a devotee of the celebrated Veenai Dhanammal, bemoans the erosion of aesthetic standards. Imperfect study, lack of depth, both in comprehension and rendition of lyrics (as in kritis) are few of the lacunae he finds in the musicians of his time 9. While he had his well documented, scrupulously qualified reasons for doing so, this expression of regret over loss of standards in the present can become a recognizable posture of the so called ‘traditionalist’. The adherents of any ‘tradition’ are prone to refer to a grand and pristine past and the difficulty of keeping it alive in the present. With growing dismay the carriers of ‘Promethean Fire’ survey a world full of cheap gas-lighters. This posturing seems to look upon the inherited tradition as a complete and impregnable entity, unaffected by the bloody processes of history. It is often seen as perfection embodied, few caring to locate it within the larger matrix of region, time and historical processes, and fewer still caring to add, revise and re-invent with historical awareness and conceptual clarity. The absence of any nurturing hagiographies of seminal composers and performers in dance has compelled present day practitioners to fill in the gaps with a tradition of eulogy and bombast! These are some of the factors worth studying with the overall goal of understanding the past and the myriad ways it continues to inform the present. There has been a constant process of revision and re-invention of canons, practice and modes of transmission. This is amply illustrated through the life and works of Maratha kings, the Tanjore Quartette, and later the Dhanammal family followed by the well-documented Rukmini Arundale, to name a few. The re-inventions and revisions of an earlier age become the sampradaya of today and though it is hardly such a smooth or predictable process, the creative faculty works with inherited tradition to illuminate the present. sampradaya is the vibrant pulse of manodharma that makes any tradition of the 'here and now’.


1. G.N.Balasubramanam, in the essay, ‘Carnatic Music’, Aspects of Indian Music – Symposia organized by the All India Radio, Published Papers, 1957.

2.Tanjore Quartette brothers, Chinnayya , Ponayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu who as Nattuvanars and choreographers flourished during the reign of Maratha ruler, Serfoji II (A.D.1798-1832) and his successor, Shivaji Maharaj. Their music compositions and dance choreographies form the backbone of Bharatanatyam.

3. Muthuswamy Dikshitar (born in 1775) one of the ‘Trinity" of Carnatic music, the other two saint-composers being Tyagaraja, born in 1767, and Syama Sastri, born in 1762. To quote T.L.Venkatarama Aiyar, "For outstanding beauties in the handling of Ragas and Talas, their compositions form a class by themselves, and among them, those of Syama Sastri excel in intricate rhythmic phrases (Tala), those of Tyagaraja in the happy blend of emotion and melody (Bhava), and those of Muthuswami Dikshitar in their richness in the portraiture of melody forms (Raga)". Muthuswami Dikshtar, National Book Trust, 1968.

4. Pallavi singing -- the main musical theme -- statement of any composition. It is the central singable idea which can accommodate playful and complex elaborations, and forms a triumphant refrain. To some musicians, words or lyrics are incidental, pure music being supreme. To others, lyric and melody are like nail and flesh.

5. Madhyama Kala Charanams of Padavarnams - Charanam can be understood as the resolution of the musical theme with a sequence of melodic metaphors as it were. In padavarnams, or varnams used predominantly for dance, the charanas are rendered in an ‘almost’ medium tempo, differing from vocal concerts which employ an exact medium tempo of the pallavi tempo during varnam renditions.

6. Ragabhava - if raga can be understood as a ‘melody formed of certain well-defined sound phrases’( T.L.Venkatarama Aiyer- 1968), raga bhava can be thought of as the dominant musical emotion or experience.

7. Sahitya - simply put means the words or lyrics of a song.

8. Sangeeta Manodharma - ‘the duty of the mind’, ‘exercise of the imagination’ as William J. Jackson puts it.(Tyagaraja - Life and Lyrics, Oxford University Press, 1991), the improvisational aspect of a musician’s art in developing the raga, presenting melodic variations in general as well as those commencing from a particular place or graha in the tala-cycle.

9. Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar - preface to the Kriti Mani Malai, Volume - II, 1947.


Sudha Jagannath is a Delhi-based Bharatnatyam exponent and choreographer. She started by learning Bharatnatyam at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Part of the faculty at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra since 1998, Sudha has choreographed solo repertoires. She has also been associated with Navtej Singh Johar on various performances and research projects since then. Sudha was awarded the Junior Research Fellowship from 1998 to 2000 by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, for research on the structure and grammar of composition in Bharatnatyam repertoire. She has been the principal performer in all major choreographies of Justin McCarthy 1993-2003), and has toured all over the world with the Chandralekha group (1994-1997).