Music, Dance and Kalopasana in K Viswanath’s Cinema

This article is part 3 of 6 in the series Appreciation of K Viswanath's Cinema

--- I ---

In the realm of Indian art and aesthetics, kalopAsana is an invaluable attitude, orientation, striving, and an ideal. The Sanskrit word, upAsana variously means “dispatch,” “adoration,” “act of sitting or being near,” “worship,” “being engaged in,” “serving,” “homage,” and so on. When the word kalA is added to it, we get kalopAsana, which means being in a state of continuous and active contemplation, exploration, learning, pursuit, performance, striving for, and appreciation of art. As an ideal, it’s akin to a lifelong penance.     

This equally applies both to the artist and the connoisseur. In the words of M Hiriyanna:

To paint a landscape is more than to photograph it. The painter does not reproduce it as it is, but as his imagination represents it to him…the artist never copies the given mechanically, but idealizes it; and in this idealization lies the secret of his art…and a proper appreciation of a work embodying the results of idealization is impossible without an imaginative reconstruction of its content. It is only when thus ideally reconstructed that the beauty of the work becomes actual for the spectator…

To put the same in the Indian way, the beautiful as a value needs to be striven for and achieved (sAdhya), no matter whether one approaches it as an artist or as a spectator. [Art Contemplation: M Hiriyanna. Emphasis added]

It can be reasonably said that the full realization of the aesthetic experience lies in forgetting oneself, being immersed in a work of art that’s “verified by one’s own heart.”  This is true of both the artist and the connoisseur (Rasika, Sahrudaya), or to quote M Hiriyanna from the same essay, the zenith of aesthetic experience lies in

inducing in us a unique attitude of mind which signifies not only pleasure but also complete disinterestedness and a sympathetic insight into the whole situation depicted by the artist… in the view of Indian thinkers, it is comparable to the ideal state of the jivanmukta or one that has realized the goal of life. [Emphasis added]

The same attitude, outlook, and sentiment flows forth from the gifted pen of the late Veturi Sundararama Murthy when he writes in Sankarabharanam that “rAgam tAnam pallavi nA madilone kadalADi kaDatEramannavi.” That “rAgam (melodic scale/mode), tAnam (creative improvisation of a rAgam impromptu), and pallavi (lyrical composition) saunter in my mind telling me to reach spiritual liberation.”

Ragam Tanam Pallavi Song Sequence

This lyric among others also forms an artistic element delineating the protagonist Sankara Sastry’s character and establishes his precise attitude towards music as kalopAsana. Also notable is the scene showing his young disciple Shankara who hears the strumming of the TambUra strings in the breath of his sleeping Guru and the seven notes (Saptaswara) as he steps into his Guru’s home.

In the same movie, K Viswanath also shows the method and process of learning and pursuing music. Needless, the Guru-Shishya parampara (lineage or tradition) in the realm of learning in general (for e.g. Vedas, etc) and specifically in performing arts in India marks a great civilizational and cultural distinction that continues to this day. To what extent it has been preserved intact is beyond the scope of this essay.

--- II ---

What is relevant is the manner in which this kalopAsana reveals itself in K Viswanath’s movies. In Sankarabharanam, we can cite the scene showing the ageless method of developing voice culture by immersing oneself neck-deep in cold water under the strict watch of the Guru. As well as the scene where the prostitute played by Manju Bhargavi practices music by listening to Sankara Sastri’s recording on a LP record, reminding us of Ekalavya.

In Sagara Sangamam, we have the powerful confrontational scene in which Kamal Hassan tells S P Sailaja how upAsana of dance must actually be done. Or the evocative and rather endearing scene in which Kamal Hassan communicates using only classical dance movements to another student that he intends to learn her dance form, Kathak.

Confrontational Scene with Kamal Haasan and S P Sailaja

Kamal Haasan Communicates through the Langauge of Dance

Like in other aspects discussed so far, Viswanath unravels his approach to kalopAsana in a very nuanced fashion. For instance, in Sagara Sangamam where Kamal Haasan's mother, uncle, friend (played by Sharath Babu), and Jayaprada narrate in bare minimum words Kamal Hassan’s passion and devotion for learning classical dance.

Viswanath also provides the other crucial dimension to kalopAsana: that of propagating the art to the next generation. Or what’s known as the continuation of the Vidya Parampara. In a highly personal mode of knowledge transmission like the Guru-Shishya system, it’s a fact that any Indian performing art will remain alive only so long as its last practitioner is alive. K Viswanath artistically stresses on its importance in some brilliantly executed scenes.

One notable sequence is the climax song sequence in Sankarabharanam where the protagonist Sankara Sastry ties his anklet around his young disciple’s ankle, symbolizing the passing over of his music to the next generation.

In Sagara Sangamam, this takes the form of self-realization on the part of S P Sailaja who reluctantly learns dance from Kamal Hassan.  But she eventually realizes his greatness as a Guru and artist and then presents his artistic legacy on stage. Viswanath enmeshes this climactic finale with the background rendering of Bhartrhari’s timeless verse, Jayanti te sukrutino rasasiddAh kavIshwarAh nAsti yeshAm yaSah kAye jarAmaraNajam bhayam (Victorious are the masters, the rasa-siddha poets whose body of renown has no fear of age or death), indicating the eternal nature of true art.

Sagara Sangamam Climax Song

--- III ---

On the other side, Viswanath also shows a few facets of the decline of classical art forms like music and dance in the hands of incompetent and jealous teachers, haughty artists, and cultural pimps.

The character of Rajashekhar who descends in his morals and ascends in his avarice in exact proportion to his fame in Shruti Layalu is illustrative of this. Indeed, it’s a tribute to K Viswanath’s courage that he portrays on celluloid the numerous devices and shenanigans in the world of performing arts in this film. It’s both a critique and a reflection of the seamier side of the world of performing arts and the glitz of cinema.

In Sankarabharanam, there’s the iconic scene epitomizing the incompetent Guru in the character of Dasu. Viswanath’s artistic prowess lies in the nuanced parody of pedagogical ineptitude. Neither shrill nor preachy, this brief sequence at once lampoons the unqualified Guru who mangles the lyric of Mysore Vasudevacharya’s evocative composition, Brochevarevaru ra, and shows how such lyrics should be sung in the proper classical milieu. The filmmaker also shows how Dasu’s young disciple intuitively recognizes her Guru’s incompetence and chides him saying, “Go away, you don’t know anything, I’ll never learn from you again.”

Scene Parodying an Incompetent Guru of Classical Music

Not merely stopping at this, Viswanath outdoes himself in Sagara Sangamam where he demonstrates how this classical decline plays out in the field of cinema.

In a scene and song sequence that can be described as a rather brutal critique, he unravels the ability of the human mind for justifying perversion: where classical dance, regarded variously as a Goddess, becomes a prostitute in the hands of a film choreographer. Whereas Kamal Haasan speaks the language of classical Indian aesthetics, of “auchitya” (aptness) and the conception of the roles of the “hero” and “heroine” as “pavitra” (chaste), the dance director reveals the full range of contempt he displays for “these Shastriya Nrutryam (classical dance) fellows.”

What follows is a caricature of a dance sequence choreographed to depravity. Viswanath’s craftsmanship lies in showing this depravity contrasted starkly with the tune and the superb lyrics of the song Veyi vela gopemmala. Written by the talented Veturi Sundaramamurthy, it sketches Sri Krishna’s character using great wordplay (for example, “kanna todu lenivade kanne todu unnavaade,” and “gItarThasAramicchi gItalennomArchene).

Veyi Vela Gopemmala Song Sequence

This sequence offers a good study of Anauchitya (non-aptness, irrelevance). Indeed, true Anauchitya lies in the wayward conception and execution of an artistic scenario. As examples, we can cite the slew of mindless masala Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters that emerged in the 1970s-80s. Or those scenes where the “hero,” an unemployed graduate or a daily-wage factory worker knows how to drive a truck, fly a helicopter, and perform surgery. Or the ones where he flies off to exotic international locales, wears expensive clothes, and has an entire troupe of junior artistes who act as encouraging voyeurs as he romances his lady.

K Viswanath’s artistic vision eliminates this kind of Anauchitya by making it irrelevant to the scenario. Which is why the song Veyi vela gopemmala doesn’t come across as vulgar whereas say, Kitukulu telisina chitapata chinukulu is a truly crass example of Anauchitya.

Viswanath has, in the aforementioned scene and song, pulled off a tour de force, a parody of a parody executed with understated brilliance.

In the same Sagara Sangamam, Viswanath also infuses some illustrative bits that shows the qualifications and prerequisites that an art critic should possess. This element runs as part of the storyline through the principal protagonists played by Kamal Haasan and Jayaprada.

Sans lengthy dialogue, Viswanath gives the contours of honest art criticism by taking a bit from the lyric of the opening song, Om Namah Shivaya. He shows instead of telling. Through Kamal Haasan, he demonstrates how this lyrical bit, “PanchabhUtamulu Mukhapancakamai” must actually be performed (this is the same confrontational scene between Kamal Haasan and S P Sailaja presented earlier in this essay). That Viswanath accomplishes this by having Kamal Haasan demonstrate how this lyrical bit is performed in various dance schools like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Kathak is his greater achievement.

Equally, the brief scenes involving Jayaprada’s articles in The Illustrated Weekly of India also provide other facets of art criticism and serve to take the narrative forward.

Neither does Viswanath blindly glorify nor indulge in blanket criticism. In Swati Kiranam, he shows how a Guru--no matter his renown and prowess--should not be. Although this film lacks the artistry of say Sankarabharanam, Sagara Sangamam, and Swarna Kamalam, it stands out for a refined depiction of a sensitive topic: a highly egoistic and jealous Guru who drives his supremely gifted Shishya to suicide.

Swati Kiranam distinguishes itself for its sensitive portrayal of human emotions set in the backdrop of classical music. The monarch of music stooping down to steal notes from his disciple’s music, and the disciple who tragically shows the Guru the error of his ways by killing himself.

Climax Scene of Swati Kiranam

--- IV ---

In fact, K Viswanath, through his movies, has himself pursued the selfsame KalopAsana which he has portrayed in his cinema. By repeatedly invoking the trailblazers and masters of classical arts like Annamacharya, Tyagaraja, Jayadeva, Narayana Teertha, etc, it can be said that, in a way, he has discharged the kalArna (debt of art) by adding to the repertoire of great art.

Not stopping at that, he has also paid tribute to contemporary greats in two ways: first by creatively narrating their artistic contribution in his movies and second, by directly getting them to contribute to his cinema.

One example of the former is the scene in Sagara Sangamam where Jayaprada shows an invite to a national dance festival to Kamal Hassan. Inscribed in the invite are names like Yamini Krishnamurthy, Sonal Mansingh, Geetha Nair, and Gopi Krishna. The build-up to and the execution of this emotionally rich scene shows K Viswanath at the height of his powers.

Scene where Jayaprada shows the Dance Festival Invite  

Instances of the latter include the contribution of the legendary Odissi exponent, Kelucharan Mohapatra who choreographed dance sequences in Swarna Kamalam.

In Sirivennela, Viswanath roped in the eminent flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia for the flute renderings of the blind protagonist, whose character is not coincidentally named Hari Prasad.

In Sagara Sangamam, the Kathak maestro Gopi Krishna, choreographed some dance sequences apart from formally training Kamal Haasan for “at least a month.”

To be continued




Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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