Bharatanatyam Photography

40 shades of Bragha Bessell

As a part of my ongoing project documenting senior dance Gurus while they are at work teaching their craft, I had the opportunity to photograph Abhinaya exponent Bragha Bessell  during her workshop in the cosy and colorful basement of Ananya  in Malleswaram.  Typically I would like to limit the number of images in a blog post or a photoessay to ten , but doing so in this case would be a disservice to the seemingly endless emotive vocabulary of Ms. Bessell. Thanks to Nandini Mehta and Murali Mohan of Nadam Institute for organizing the event and for welcoming me to photograph the artist.





Domestic Dances


No makeup. No blackouts. No spotlights.  No seamless backdrops.


Stack of books on top of dining table by the side of left over orange juice. Titled posters. Random dining table chairs. Annoying glare of compact fluorescent tubes. Daylight from the wrong direction...barely illuminating the dancer in the foreground...Can the dancers rise above these indispensible clutter of our day today interior residential environments for the benefit of the camera? Can the photographer overcome the limitations of tight interior spaces in capturing the energy, grace and the emotive bearings of the dancer?


Here is a small collection of  initimate, in-house performance portraits from the last two years most of them shot within the tight residential spaces in urban neighborhoods - Professor C.V.Chandrasekhar's apartment in Besant Nagar, Chennai ; His disciple Malini Srinivasan's apartment in Queens, New York ; Founder and artistic director of Navarasa Dance Theater - Dr.Aparna Sindhoor’s live-work home/dancer co-op in Sommerville, MA. Perhaps the only exception in terms of scale are the house performance shots of Smitha Radhakrishnan at the single family home of Vallari Shah in Whitefields outside of Bangalore.


Perhaps those center tables, window mullions, light switches and doorknobs in the background don't diminish the visual impact of these dancers. On the contrary, these photos remind us dance is often produced, practiced and refined within the comfort zones of ones personal space, even as it is marketed and consumed in public.


Why are classical Indian dancers almost always pictured formal context - literally elevated on a stage, as they claim the mantle of exclusive ambassadors of a narrow definition of culture. Perhaps we need more photographs like these to divorce the institutionalized relationship between the classical Indian dance as and elite nationalistic representations of culture. Perhaps we need these images to remind us that even classical dance forms at its very core are about the celebration of human body and the joy of personal expression.


As for the photographs for the Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak performances during Independence Day celebrations, there should no cause for concern. There will always be plenty of overdone makeup, misdirected spotlights and dissonant backdrops.

Tracing Bharatanatyam via Muybridge


How can I break the pattern and have a Bharatanatyam  portraiture session not turn into another series of canned poses? Not that there is anything wrong with photographing static frames - there is a whole lot one could do just with the lighting while focusing on sheer portraiture. Yet they still are "poses" - a contrived exaggeration of those fleeting moments in a standard repertoire -  those that are entirely stripped of the energy and intensity that distinguish them in a  good performance.  No beads of perspirations reflecting the colored lights nor  visibly palpitating torsos preparing the body for the next rush of rhythmic movements in space.

 The following series of images were shot at my studio thanks to my muse, partner and artist-in-residence  - Smitha Radhakrishan. This is a truly collaborative work where we started the photoshoot with a series of standard poses, and I began employing extended shutter speeds to trace the trajectory of these poses from point A to point B. Eventually we proceeded to integrate "Abhinaya' - the emotive vocabularies - in the later shots.And I was pleasantly surprised to see that the camera was able to capture these emotions even when the body blurs in those few seconds. Based on the feedback from my 1.5"x2" camera LCD we went back and repeated the same steps till we got satisfactory results.

 There is really nothing new about integrating multiple frames in a single photographic frame. Eadweard Muybridge started doing this in mid 19th century. And these days its pretty easy to combine images and slap them with a "Motion Blur" filter in photoshop. However, if the point of the image is to make an artistic composition of a movement and emotional trajectory, I seriously doubt the usefulness of Photoshop. These are my first serious attempts in photographing movement vocabularies in Bharatanatyam in real time and I hope to do more of these sessions with accomplished artists in the next few years.

Can I capture the stories narrated through space and time with a single shutter exposure....we'll see!!

Shot with Nikon D700 and overhead halogen spot lights. No strobes.