The silent warrior

Guru Girija Chandran has been quietly working behind the scenes spreading awareness about traditional dance forms and providing free training to thousands of students
Last Updated 22 February 2020, 20:15 IST

In case of emergency, dial ‘Girija Chechi’, ought to be the tagline of the Kerala culture and tourism department! Dial who? ‘Girija Chechi’, the one go-to reference library-cum-able administrator who can put together anything in record time! Going by how government organisations function across India, most things are decided in the last minute amidst bouts of panic. Especially, in the field of arts and culture. One reason is that arts and culture, in general, are given a second if not a third priority. Despite that, there are silent warriors like ‘Girija Chechi’ who work hard to put the best show in place.

If there is one state in India that can be really proud of multiple dance traditions, it is Kerala. From classical dances like Kathakali and Mohiniyattam to theatrical dances like Ottanthullal to folk traditions like Theyyem, all these have peacefully co-existed in the tiny state. In addition to home-grown dances, we also have several outside traditions like Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi from neighbouring states gaining popularity over the years. In the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, one woman has been solely responsible for spreading awareness of dance forms for more than four decades, silently and without much fuss, and that is Girija Chandran, fondly addressed as ‘Girija Teacher’ or ‘Girija Chechi’. ‘Chechi’ is ‘sister’ in Malayalam.

Born to the great Sanskrit scholar R Sivasankara Pillai and Ms Malathi Ammal in 1951, Girija began showing interest in Arts at a very early age. Being surrounded by great scholars and artistes, it was natural that Girija was a quick learner. After basic training under Guru Kalakshetram Bhaskar and Guru Sucheendram M M Pillai in Kerala, Girija later went to Chennai, the capital of Bharatanatyam dance. There she trained with the famous Guru Adyar Lakshmanan, one of Rukminidevi Arundale’s early proteges from Kalakshetra. In addition to Bharatanatyam, Girija also trained under the legendary Kuchipudi Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. That was an era when many students trained in more than one style of classical dance. One remembers the iconic Yamini Krishnamurthy who effortlessly handled Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Odissi.

Girija returned to Kerala and founded the ‘Regatta Natya Sangeetha Kendra’ in 1972. For those curious about this unusual name, Regatta is the traditional boat race event that is famous in Kerala. Much like the name, Girija’s institution has raced ahead of everyone in the field! Over the last four and half decades, Regatta has become a go-to reference point for anything to do with Indian classical dance and music in the capital city of Kerala.

Some of the most famous Mohiniyattam dancers have emerged from Regatta. Dancers like Gopika Varma, Neena Prasad and Methil Devika have performed across the world, thus taking Regatta beyond borders. In addition to these students is Girija’s own daughter Madhavi Chandran. An excellent Mohiniyattam dancer, Madhavi is also an ace flute artiste. She has trained in Bharatanatyam from the famous dancer duo V P Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan in their institute Bharatakalanjali in Chennai. She received the ‘Bala Shree’ award from the former President of India A P J Abdul Kalam. She is also an em-panelled artiste of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

Free classical training

Today ‘Regatta’ is one of the premier institutions of dance in the Kerala and the foremost in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. In addition to providing arts education and dance training to hundreds of students, they have also provided employment to parents of hundreds of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Regatta is also the only dance school that gives absolutely free training in classical dance to hundreds of students who hail from economically backward communities. Happily, there are no caste and religious barriers here.

Indeed, culture has no boundaries of caste, creed or religion. “Being economically backward is no reason for one not to be culturally empowered,” says Ms Chandran. In addition to training dancers, she also conducts teacher-training programmes with her eminent alumni and absorbs them as staff in the various branches of Regatta. The institution is large scale by all means. They currently have five branches just in Thiruvananthapuram and are expanding by the year! Just their costume department occupies a whole multi-storied building! Regatta conducts two major festivals every year. The ‘Girhanyika’ Festival and the ‘Regatta Natya Sangeetotsavam’. Hundreds of dancers trained in Regatta perform at these events. They also conduct regular workshops.

The dancers of Regatta are the first to be called for any important event in Kerala. Be it the inaugural of national festivals or other award ceremonies, Regatta dancers rule the roost. Despite her immense contribution to the arts and culture scene of Kerala, no recognition has come her way. Neither has the Kerala State nor the Central Government bothered to look at the phenomenal service of close to half a century by this inspiring artiste. Notwithstanding that, Guru Girija Chandran continues to work tirelessly like a true Karma Yogi.

(Published 22 February 2020, 19:36 IST)

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