One of the major changes to date is the alteration of the margam structure. The margam structure consists of an ordered set of pieces, wherein which each piece has a particular set of rules that a musical composer must follow in order for it to be considered as such. The order, as set up by the Thanjavur quartet, is: alarippu, jathiswaram, sabdam, varnam, a series of padams, and finally, a thillana. There is an inherent symmetry to the structure, where the dancer warms up her limbs on stage with an alarippu, then takes the viewer through the more rigorous – but still only nrtta (pure dance) aspects of the jathiswaram, introduces abhinaya (facial expressions) in the sabdam, all leading to the piece de resistance, the varnam. The varnam is explored fully over a half hour, following a jathi (chunk of nrtta) – swaram (chunk of lyrical song involving abhinaya) – jathi – swaram structure. Then the padams are performed – short lyrical pieces based on mostly facial expressions and storytelling, and finally the thillana – pure nrtta again, but still complex, like the jathiswaram. The pieces involving abhinaya are usually based around stories from Hindu mythology and involve the bhakti emotion: devotion, usually to a Hindu deity.
This margam structure has changed drastically. Even simple ideas such as the length of a margam have succumbed to the will of the people. Margams, previously having been three to four hours, have shortened to fit within the span of two, a direct result of catering to global audiences. Alarmel Valli’s most recent tour in the US, The Forgotten Seed, fit precisely within a two hour block with a nice 10 minute intermission. A quick look at the past, however, shows that this was not always the case: an interview with Valli shows her previous stand where her margams used to be “uncompromisingly long”, ranging between three and four hours. (Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web*) Yet compromise she has: audience members, adamant about the length of a performance, have created this change. For instance, the main – and usually only – complaint about Her Story, a recent choreography of mine, was that there was no intermission in the course of the two-hour show.
These are just minor changes compared to what else has happened to the margam: both the piece-wise structure and the emotional themes have been altered. Margams no longer need to follow the pushpanjali-jathiswaram-sabdam-varnam-padams-thillana structure but rather can follow the emotional structure as outlined above, that of a bell curve with a slow and subtle rise to the main piece and a drop off to an ending that completes itself on a higher note than the beginning. Alarmel Valli, again, recently displayed this change by keeping only the varnam of the margam and replacing the other pieces with new compositions. (Sambamoorthi) In fact, these changes to margam structure have been happening enough that even the recent choreography Her Story was deemed completely traditional, though it only began with a pushpanjali and ended with a thillana. (Gautam**) The varnam was completely replaced by a new composition filled with speech, jathis, and a thematic storyline that was woven throughout.
These changes happen because competing artists are constantly finding ways to create “new” within the “traditional” (O’Shea). New compositions allow for artists to explore novel ways of keeping audiences interested in their performances utilizing fresh themes and innovative pieces. Interestingly enough, this exploration has also resulted in another change: that of the removal of the bhakti emotion as the prevailing emotion in a margam. In fact, all four top artists have major noteworthy pieces that have nothing to do with bhakti or even a Hindu deity, and these days rarely perform a full margam fully devoted to one deity as was done thirty to fifty years ago. The emotions throughout a margam have also taken on a much more secular tone, a direct result of artists trying to connect with audiences who are not able to empathize with bhakti, a very Indian specific and religious notion which thus limits the audience members who can feel and appreciate the dance the way it is meant to be understood.
The artists now often explore very contemporary ideas and themes in order to gain and keep a larger audience, for an audience that can empathize and appreciate is much more likely to expand and return than one that believes they are simply watching a cultural phenomena. So, themes such as war and sadness for a fallen child (for example, both Priyadarshani Govind and Alarmel Valli have noted pieces that relate to this theme), the power of women (exemplified time and again by Rama Vaidhyanathan) and abstract notions such as light and color (Mallavika Sarukkai’s expertise) are explored. Rama and Alarmel even make direct associations with the contemporary, Alarmel stating that she likes to “convey the contemporary through the traditional” (www.alarmelvalli.org); Rama claiming that “she…intends to address several contemporary issues that all mankind can relate to” (www.ramavaidhyanathan.com***).
*Valli, Alarmel. "Ageless Magic of the Margam." Interview. Web log post.Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web. 27 June 2008. Web.
**Gautam, Savitha. "Pivotal moments in their lives." The Hindu [Chennai] 24 July 2009. Print.
***Rama Vaidyanathan - Bharata Natyam exponent and choreographer. -www.ramavaidyanathan.com. Web. 18 Dec. 2009.