Dance of destiny

Dance of destiny

Half a century ago, when Indian dance held only an ‘exotic’ tag on the world stage, a lithe young man ventured to explore complex concepts through Bharatanatyam and staged it at the reigning cultural capitals of that era.

It was also a time when male dancers were an obliterated species. But this young man believed in the power of his craft and in his own mastery of it. He essayed masterpieces like Ramanatakam in Russia; Chakra with a cast of 1,000 multinational children at the National Dance Institute, New York; Ghanashyam in association with Pandit Ravi Shankar; the Jungle Book Ballet as a joint venture with the Ohio Ballet Company; Sita Rama Katha and Sanghamitra at Singapore; Mahaabhaaratham jointly produced by French Theatre Fluerry and the Association Vaani in the French Reunion Island... And the world sat up and asked for more.

Awards too poured in, like the Padma Bhushan, Plaque of Honour from Ohio State for Excellent Community Service and International Understanding through Art, Sangeet Natak Academy Award, UNESCO Paris, Medallion De Merit....

And why not? He, Vannadil Pudiyaveettil Dhananjayan, has played a huge role in getting Bharatanatyam acknowledged as a singularly powerful and aesthetic dance form that allows for exploration of any thought under the sun, not just ancient myths.

The off-stage duet

Still agile and quick to leap into a thandava or gesticulate a mudra, 76-year-old Dhanajayan augurs that Natya carries a far more deeper nuance than ‘dance’. “Dance is merely a physical exercise. Natya is intertwined with spirituality and elevated thinking — though not necessarily about God.” He adds, “Only art, natyam in particular, brings forth the complete coming together of the senses, skills, spirit and the intellect. With natyam, you need to understand the story and the lyrics, master the mudra and the movement, perform in tandem with the music, and get imbibed in the character you essay... It brings about physical, mental and spiritual discipline.”

It is a pleasure to meet Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta, one of the legendary dancing couples of India and the world, at their beautiful home in south Chennai. When I meet them, they have just got back home to Chennai, after performing Dashavataram at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre. Talking to them and hearing their story is a privilege; and encountering their enduring humility and contentment stays behind in the mind as an inspiration.

As a 14-year-old, Dhananjayan had set off from the small village of Payyanur in Kerala to learn Bharatanatyam at Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Kalakshetra in Chennai.

One of eight children of a struggling school teacher, he was spotted by Chandu Panicker, a teacher at Kalakshetra, who had been asked by Rukmini Devi to scout for young male dancers. A chance meeting with Dhananjayan’s father on a train journey brought Dhananjayan to Panicker’s notice. Though not trained in dance, the creative spark in the young boy was evident and Panicker took him to Kalakshetra, with Dhanjayan’s father’s blessings.

“Arriving at Kalakshetra, the first girl I saw was Shanta,” Dhananjayan reminisces. Shanta had entered Kalakshetra just a year ago. She was already famous as a child prodigy in Malaysia.

“Our first performance together started when we were still teenagers, as supporting artistes in dance dramas at the Kalakshetra, with Rukmini athai herself taking the lead,” Shanta says. That was in 1968. It was around the same time that they fell in love with each other.

The essence of Natya

Fast forward to 2014. They are still dancing together, still in love, and continue to do everything together. They have given electrifying performances at festivals across the world. From Dasaratha-Kaikeyi, Rama-Seethe, Ashoka-Sangamithra to Geetha-Govindam, they have essayed all kinds of roles and relationships. “We know each other’s pluses and minuses, we understand each other perfectly, having practically grown up together... There is lot of give and take, but we have our individualities,” Dhananjayan says. The couple have two sons; elder son Sanjay lives in the US, while the younger son Satyajit is a dancer and photographer, and lives with the Dhananjayans.

Though the couple are adept at both Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, they hold Bharatanatyam as their base and fulcrum. “Bharatanatyam facilitates the exploration of a variety of subjects, but we do incorporate aspects of Kathakali in our productions, especially in dance dramas,” shares Dhanajayan.

Shanta explains, “Angikabhinaya is strong in Kathakali, so for any role that needs a furious body language, Kathakali technique comes handy. For instance, while presenting furious or ferocious sequences, like the acrobatics of Hanuman and Jatayu, the rage of Ravana, or the swelling of the oceans, Kathakali movements bring it out exquisitely.”

In any case, all of Indian dance is rooted in Bharata’s Natyasastra. “Natyasastra is a sublime text and spells out a fantastic format. It also gives the freedom to innovate. Imagine, even 2,000 years ago, Bharata calls upon dancers to innovate according to the times, the emotions, the theme and the object involved,” Dhananjayan points out.

This innovativeness perhaps sparked off Dhanajayan’s intriguing international collaborations and the freedom to experiment, such as exploring Ramayana in neutral costumes, Kathakali without traditional costumes, or to choreograph and perform something as far flung as his Adventures of Mowgli. He continues to compose now, and next on the anvil is a solo on River Ganga, choreographed on a Dikshithar composition.

What makes Dhananjayan’s contribution invaluable includes the impact of his academy Bharata Kalanjali, which he started with a single student in 1968.

Mystique of the male dancer

How does this maestro regard the dynamics of being a male dancer? There is a general sense that practicing natyam renders males effeminate. Dhanajayan has managed to stay clear of this; there is no trace of effeminate gesticulation in him, off stage.

“This was because of my guru, who believed that a man should dance like a man. Rukmini Devi herself used only male dancers for male roles. Both men and women should know how to render thandavam (vigorous ferocious movements) and lasya (curvaceous movements) when it comes to teaching, but avoid its overlap as performers. If the dancer’s technique is sound, he or she will be able to stay clear of this ambiguity. And when it comes to subtle expressions, I think men can execute it much better than women.”

But at the end of the day, male or female, it is skill and commitment that comes through and stands tall, and the Dhananjayans score heavily on both. “I don’t think of myself when I dance. I just get into the role to do full justice to the art. I think that is the key to my success,” he says.

His wife remarks, “On stage, I feel possessed by the character. While the impact of the character lingers on in the onlooker, it doesn’t in the dancer. A dancer is perpetually poised and ready to ‘be’ another character.”

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