“Dance begins in the mind. It is not a purely physical activity. After all, the body dances under the command of the mind.
Dance is about the physical and mental or psychological aspects and is very spiritual too,” says Swapnasundari, one of the most accomplished classical dancers of our time. Dedication, focus and passion matter as much as the physical effort of practice. Intuition and high IQ also contribute to a good performance, she adds.
She herself is known for her deep and abiding commitment to her art and intelligence which have made possible an awesome range of artistic achievements. A highly acclaimed dancer of three forms — Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam; a gifted Carnatic vocalist; author of three books on dance; a talented choreographer; widely respected researcher and teacher; Swapnasundari packs a tremendous lot into her life!
A recipient of Padma Bhushan, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and several other honours, her training has been extensive and from some of the greatest gurus in the respective traditions. She was trained in Kuchipudi by Pasumarthy Seetaramaiah, Yeleswarapu Suryaprakasa Sarma and the legendary Vempati Chinna Satyam.
For Bharatanatyam, her teachers were Neela Balasubramanyam, K Govindarajan, Kalyanasundaram Pillai, Adyar K Laxman, and for abhinaya, it was the famed Kalanidhi Narayanan. “I was taught Carnatic music by my grandmother and mother and for learning padams, I went to the renowned padam-exponent, Mukthamma.”
Forging new paths
Restless creativity, refusal to be bogged down by convention, and the zeal to experiment and chart new territory have shaped her entire career. In the process, she has adapted rare texts to classical dance. Like the controversial Telugu prabandham, Radhika Saanthwanam, by Muddupalani. Also, the tele-ballet choreographed by her won a record number of five Nandi awards from the Andhra Pradesh government.
She has also presented in dance Mohd. Quli Qutub Shah’s Dakhni poetry; Viswanath Sathyanarayana’s Ramayana Kalpavriksham; the poetry of Kavi Keshav Das of Orchha; Amaru’s Sanskrit verses; Kalidasa’s Ritu Samharam; Pali verses from Therigathas; Prakrit verses of Hala’s Gadhasapthashathi; Amaru’s Sanskrit verses, Annamacharya’s lyrics and so on. In her performances, she always tries to present lesser-known, even long-forgotten musical compositions — krithis, keerthanas, padams, javalis, etc.
Sometimes, she might have ruffled feathers or led to raised eyebrows in the process. But her courage of conviction has been unshaken.
As she says, “I always wanted to forge a new path and go where others have not been.” Hence her crusade for Vilasini Natyam, the dance practiced by the erstwhile Telugu temple and court dancers. Her work in the reconstruction and revival of this exquisite dance form has been widely admired. She sought out ageing, hereditary temple-dancers like Maddula Lakshminarayana, Pottigari Ranganayakamma and Golconda Bharatamma and extensively researched the features and repertoire of this tradition.
“These consecrated female dancers had a wealth of knowledge and great talent, I discovered.”
In 1996, she became the first dancer in independent India to restore Agamic dance to the temple as part of the ceremonies of worship when she performed Vilasini Natyam at the Sriranganathaswamy Temple in Hyderabad’s outskirts. This temple, where it continues as an annual event, remains the only present-day Hindu temple in India to realign classical dance with worship.
Her dulcet tones delight when she sings on stage during her performances. She is one of the rare Indian classical dancers with concert-level vocals. It is not surprising that Swapnasundari is the lead vocalist for her dance productions and has the distinction of being the first and only dancer-singer to bring out audio CDs of Kuchipudi music.
She has also sung in a staggering nine languages for the music album Janambhoomi Meri Pyaari!
Swapnasundari is also one of the few classical dancers who expends much time and effort in serious research. She has been zealously working to unearth rare literary texts and musical compositions from remote corners of India and forgotten corners of libraries. “I have found many gems stowed away in so many libraries and archives, including private collections.
Sometimes, even the owner or custodian is unaware of their value! There is so much material which calls for years of research, and which will provide the basis for so many more new items in dance and thematic performances. I sometimes feel a lifetime is not enough to do all I want!”
The fruits of her research include two books — The World of Koochipoodi Dance and Vilasini Natyam: Bharatiya of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers. She has also done a project for the National Manuscripts Mission.
Right now, she is researching the textile traditions of Andhra Pradesh and its connection to temple traditions. “The temple as a fulcrum for social and cultural activity makes for a fascinating subject,” she says.
She is also assiduously continuing her work on bringing out rare and hitherto largely-unknown lyrics of Vilasini Natyam into the public domain. How does she manage to accomplish so much? “I stay engaged with my art all the time. In everyday life, I may be doing many things, but my art is central to my life, it is paramount.”