How Venu devised a visual language for dance


The well-known guru painstakingly created notations for three of Kerala’s dance forms

Oral transmission has traditionally been the practice for training and performance of classical music in our country, whereas in the West the system of notations has been in vogue since medieval times. Staff notation for Western music was invented by Guido De Arezzo, an Italian monk, who lived in the 11th century. In dance, attempts to record the movements of dancers in space and time began as early as the 15th century in Spain. Since then, the list of notators has been incredibly long. Among different notations, the one introduced by Rudolf Von Laban, known as ‘Labanotation’, was widely accepted and, in fact, Kapila Vatsyayan, acclaimed scholar of Indian dance, applied this to some dance forms here.

But notations for dance actually gained recognition through the efforts of G. Venu, who is now known more as consummate performer, choreographer, and promoter of Koodiyattam. In a recent chat, Venu spoke about how much he worked in the early days to evolve a system of notation, first for Kathakali, then for Mohiniyattam, and finally for Koodiyattam.

The Kathakali notations.

The Kathakali notations.
 

Initiated into Kathakali at the age of 11, Venu trained under the great masters including Guru Gopinath. Says Venu, “It was when I was a student at his Viswa Kala Kendra that I was drawn to the hand gestures in Kathakali. Like spoken language, Kathakali gestures are a complete mode of communication. I realised the need to document this sign language. That is how I evolved a system of alphabets for the basic gestures and a system of notation for the varied hasta mudras.” As his training in Kathakali progressed, his interest in the depiction of mudras deepened. He would always sit with a pencil and notebook when watching maestros perform. Over time, the number of notebooks grew.

Venu soon came up with a comprehensive system of notation, which he shared with Kathakali exponents, including Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai. But a lack of formal training in drawing made him reluctant to publish them, even though he had inherited a love for painting from his artist-father Chittore Gopalan Nair.

The Mohiniyattam mudras

The Mohiniyattam mudras
 

Finally, he decided to visit Cholamandalam Artists Village, near Chennai, to meet K.C.S. Panicker. Panicker went through the notebooks and also asked Venu to demonstrate some of the mudras. He then told Venu, “These symbols fulfil the purpose you seek and need no alterations.”

Books on mudras

In 1977, the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi published the 373 mudras as Kathakaliyile Kai Mudras. In 1984, his own institution, Natanakairali, published an English version, Mudras in Kathakali. And finally in 1994, the Department of Cultural Publications of the government of Kerala published a collection of 587 mudras titled Kathakali Mudra Nikhandu (dictionary), which was well received by artistes and researchers.

Koodiyattam mudras.

Koodiyattam mudras.
 

“Taking a cue from Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan’s suggestion, the system, although initially evolved with Kathakali in mind, can be applied to other Indian dance systems with some minor modifications and the use of a few other signs,” says Venu, who notated the mudras in Mohiniyattam with research support from his wife and Mohiniyattam exponent Nirmala Panicker. Based on Hasthalakshanadeepika and Balaramabharatam, the hand gestures were translated into notation and published in 1983.

For Koodiyattam, as Venu’s mentor and guru Ammannaur Madhava Chakyar trained him in the mudras of the Attaprakaram or acting manual of Ramayana Samkshepam, Venu painstakingly recorded each mudra according to his notation system. It took three years — December 1982 to April 1985 — to complete it. Interestingly, the Attaprakaram has almost all the mudras used in Koodiyattam plays that are based on the Ramayana. The historically important work was published in 2013 as a bilingual volume.

Venu’s notation system won international appreciation at ‘Four Hundred Years of Dance Notations’, an exhibition held in New York in 1986. It had on display 55 original notation systems from the 16th century to the present. Venu’s was the only one from Asia.

The writer and culture critic

is a trained musician.



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