Dancer-scholar Sucheta Chapekar on how she designed a repertoire based on Marathi songs
Sucheta Bhide Chapekar was just another Maharashtrian Bharatanatyam aspirant in Bombay in the 1960s, when her guru Acharya Parvati Kumar discovered to his delight a book of Marathi songs, Korvaiyache Sahithyache Jinnas, written by King Serfoji II. The songs were composed in Carnatic style, but without notation. In her teens then, Sucheta recollects being part of this excitement. During her arangetram, two pieces, alarippu and jatiswaram, were from different nirupanas in the book. She learnt about 30 songs from her guru.
“In 1969, we presented all 18 pieces of a Nirupana for the first time in Bombay, and in 1972 we were invited to the Music Academy Sadas by Dr. V. Raghavan. Journalist V.V. Prasad and NCPA’s Dr. Narayanan Menon were of great support,” says Sucheta.
Drawn to delve deeper into this sahitya, Sucheta says that while everyone knew the war history, no one knew the cultural history of the Bhonsle kings, who ruled 300 years ago in Thanjavur. In 1972, she received a grant and went to the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, a treasure house of manuscripts, to study further. “I took up King Shahaji II’s compositions; I found palm-leaf and paper manuscripts of independent compositions and prabandhas, a dance opera like Yakshagana, with different kinds of darus and padas in Marathi, but all were not in Devanagari script. The palm-leaf manuscripts were in Telugu.”
The dancer had to learn the Telugu script, but luckily there were Telugu pandits there to help. “I sat for such long hours there I still remember the smell of the library,” she says. Compositions like the Salamu Daru in praise of different deities had information on the swara prayogas of ragas popular at that time (Soratha, Ghantarava, etc). It was also evident that these were performed in temples as ritualistic dances.
King Shahaji’s darus were rhythmic musical compositions, with sollus, swaras and sahitya. The padas only had lyrics — shringara padas, bhakti padas, vairagya padas, etc.; and the language used was old Marathi, along with Sanskrit and Tamil.
Unique line up
“I needed someone with an authentic knowledge of vintage compositions and ragas to help me compose the pieces. I had met the revered Guru Kittappa Pillai, a musicologist and a descendent of the Thanjavur Quartet, at Acharya Parvathi’s house. When I approached him, he readily agreed to help.”
Hailing from Thanjavur, Kittappa Pillai knew traditional dance pieces and rare ragas, and was even aware of the existence of a Marathi repertoire. “He composed the nritta part of the Shahaji pieces; the sahitya part he left to me,” says Sucheta. “I have retained his nritta compositions in the abhinaya darus, jakkini darus, theermanams, etc. He was a great proponent of the vilamba kala nritta; I have adapted that into my style, as I understood the beauty of lines unfolding gradually.”
Dr. Raghavan introduced the dancer to Sangita Saramrutha, written by Shahaji’s brother Tulaja, which mentions the adavu sampradaya, establishing its existence 300 years ago. In 1974, Sucheta performed at the Music Academy. She included eight compositions from Shahaji’s Thanjavur Nritya Prabandha.
After marriage, Sucheta moved to Pune and performed in small towns across Maharashtra, where she found that no one had even heard of Bharatanatyam. The use of Marathi songs did not help as they were rendered in the Carnatic style. “To make my art accessible, I started performing Natya Sangeet songs from Marathi theatre,” she says. The first song she choreographed was ‘Tandav Nrutya Kari Gajaanana,’ a Marathi invocation.
In 1985, Sucheta also choreographed Bharatanatyam pieces set to Hindustani music, calling them Nritya Ganga. It was to teach these pieces that she set up Kalavardhini with like-minded artistes.
Sucheta believes in artistic individuality rather than categorising classical as traditional and contemporary as creative. “Classical can allow you to be at your creative best while sometimes the contemporary can be mundane. You need to understand aesthetic values according to the time and space,” she says.
The Chennai-based author writes on classical dance.