A full circle

A full circle

A full circle

The Kishna brothers have returned from foreign shores to their artistichomeland to spread the Tanjore Quartet dance tradition, writes Hema Vijay.

The intriguing Bharatanatyam duo, the Indian-origin Kishna brothers of Amsterdam exude a fierce passion towards safeguarding the purity of the revered Tanjore Quartet paramparai (Tanjore tradition of Bharatanayam) that is not so hard to understand. After all, distance does make the fond heart grow fonder. What is more intriguing is that they have headed back to India, their artistic homeland — marking a journey that has turned a full circle.

The two have a grand world vision for Bharatanatyam that involves revival of the pure essence of the ancient Tanjore tradition. Ronald Suresh Kishna and Theodorus Ramjit Kishna see themselves as ambassadors of Indian culture who could effortlessly take the Tanjore paramparai across the world, given their global ties.

The Kishna brothers’ major choreographies have unusual themes such as the Navasandhi kauthuvam, about Brahma and the nine symbolic directions around him, Raja Rajeshwari, celebrating the Tanjore Quartet brothers and Swarajithi, to name a few. Along the way, they have also danced at quite a few unusual locations that include the Serbian fortress during Serbia’s Belef festival, and the Tanjore temple and the Thiruvarur temple during Shivaratri festivals.

After experimenting with Mahabalipuram, the brothers are settling down at Auroville, the international commune at Pondicherry. They are now busy setting up Arangart, the Tanjore Quartet United Arts Foundation there, planned as a centre for both teaching and performing dance . “Certainly, we don’t mean to be the big guys from the West telling local people what to do. We just want to revive the Tanjore tradition in India and take it to the world too,” adds Ram.

Pure interpretation

The reason why many of us turn away from Bharatanatyam — both as performers and as audience — is because what most of us get to see and know as Bharatanatyam is not the genuine and pristine Bharatanatyam of ancient times, but an overstated and overt version of it, contend Ram and Suresh Kishna. “A recent dance workshop we conducted in Holland is a case in point. There were a bunch of young hip-hop dancers in the group, and we found that the boys were intrigued by our Bharatanatyam, very eager to learn it,” says Ram.

Suresh adds, “Genuine Bharatanatyam is an indescribable experience. It is beyond dance, beyond art, energy, spirituality, and even being. The mudras, for instance, are cosmic pauses manifested through the human body. The pity is, there is so little of the pure form to be seen anywhere now, even in India.”

So, why do these brothers hold the ancient Tanjore tradition in high regard? And, can an ancient tradition offer enough room for expressing new thoughts? Are there enough variations in an old tradition to give form to these thoughts? “If you are going to create something, it has to be better than what exists. That is why we favour the Tanjore Quartet. It is an extremely evolved tradition. Most Bharatanatyam dancers who switch over to the contemporary dance route do it as a reflex action to being stifled by their exposure to non-genuine Bharatanatyam,” Ram retorts. He adds, “There is immense and enough variation in the classical Tanjore repertoire.”

Something different

Christian Brillinger, the German businessman who is now collaborating with the Kishna brothers, credits their pure interpretation of Bharatanatyam to have sparked off his own interest in it.

He says, “Like pearls, the Kishna brothers hold on to the pure essence of the Tanjore tradition. Their returning to India is the opposite of brain drain. India is one of the last few places that still hosts ancient art traditions. India is turning modern all of a sudden, and there is a huge chance that India, too, will lose her traditions. We can’t afford to let that happen.”

Ram and Suresh are one hundred percent Indian, if you are considering genetics — the brothers were born in Suriname as the last two of 11 children to their Indian-origin father Goerdin and mother Martina Sukhi Kishna. They moved to Amsterdam when their father shifted base there.

So, are the Kishna brothers back in India for good? “I don’t know if we have moved to India for good. India is a difficult country to get things done,” mentions Ram. The filth, the red tape, the bad driving and deep-rooted corruption that resident Indians take for granted appals them. In a cultural sense, the fatalistic thinking and resistance to change that they have encountered infuriates them.

“When people say apologetically, ‘What can you expect? This is India,’ I say, ‘No. This is you.’ Indian culture touched the deepest reaches of thought, empathy and understanding long back, and it is appalling to identify Indian-ness with such negatives,” says Ram.

The brothers’ fascination for Bharatanatyam began in their childhood. Before they started learning Bharatanatyam formally, the brothers would try out the Nataraja pose, fascinated by the beautiful bronze of Lord Nataraja they saw at Suriname. Later, of course, in Amsterdam, they got to learn Bharatanatyam from a disciple of the doyen of the Tanjore quartet tradition, the late K P Kittappa Pillai.

Eventually, the call of the arts proved too strong to resist and the brothers cut the cords with their respective professions and moved to Thanjavur to learn under Kittappa Pillai himself. One fact that hurts them about their Indian experience is that, despite all the hype about the Indian culture of guru-shishya tradition, apart from this duo and Padmini Rao, not one of Kittappa Pillai’s famous students (that includes the likes of Vyjayanthimala Bali and Hema Malini), bothered to gather at his deathbed.

“We felt deeply connected to him. Kittappa Pillai was a simple man and at the same time a world citizen with a global perspective and understood the dance idioms of the world,” Suresh says.
Meanwhile, Kittappa Pillai’s trusted singer Saraswathi Sankaranarayanan  sings for them now.

Dance variance

The brothers like to experiment with costumes. For instance, they performed their Krishna choreography in a costume that looked like pedal-pushers!

“We design our own costumes while most people wear mass-produced costumes. And we favour a practical, contemporary approach to it that is comfortable, artistic and relevant to the choreography. It is an individual expression. It is not a revolution, it is an evolution,” says Ram.

“We are from many continents. That is our asset. We can go across cultures. The costume for the Krishna choreography, for instance, was inspired by the flare of the bell in Thai temples,” mentions Suresh.

They dabble in graphics, painting and jewellery design. He adds, “We do everything from cooking and keeping house to choreography. An artiste needs all aspects of life and its experiences. He can’t be a diva living in an ivory tower.”