Meet this myth remaker

Meet this myth remaker

A chat with dancer Janaki Rangarajan, who wants to reinterpret mythologies

Artiste Janaki Rangarajan
“My productions are not comfortable. I want my audience to think. I want to leave the interpretations to them." - Janaki Rangarajan

All dancers are a little crazy; we need to be!” declares Bharatanatyam dancer Janaki Rangarajan as she settles down for a quick chat. The US-based artiste is known across the world for her innovative productions such as Voices and Unravelled, made with the delightful combination of her passion and talent.

Rangarajan’s journey began when she enroled for classes with Madhavi Chandrasekhar in Trichy at the age of four. At the age of seven, she became a student of the legendary Padma Subrahmanyam. “We learned karanas and adavus (basic dance lessons) side by side at Nrityodaya,” says Rangarajan, referring to Subrahmanyam’s dance school. Rangarajan also learned Carnatic vocal and veena from Kamala Viswanathan and took advanced vocal classes with D K Nagarajan.

The Eureka moment

In an unconventional move, Rangarajan decided to pursue dance as a career after she had established herself in academics. With a PhD in molecular genetics, Rangarajan had kept her ankle bells aside and was working full-time as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It didn’t take her too long to realise where her passion lay.

“When I was working in the lab during my postdoc, I found myself increasingly thinking about dance. I was choreographing pieces in my head. That was when I realised that dance was my calling,” she remembers. She decided to go forth with her heart and spend the next few years practising and perfecting the adavus.

What were the challenges of entering the field? Rangarajan doesn’t hesitate to reply, “Finding acceptance in the dance community took me a long time. I had to struggle to find my own space in the field. It wasn’t easy for people to accept my style, my way of thinking and choreography.” She adds, “I did not have anyone to guide me, to help me find a footing, or tell me how tough the journey would be. I had to figure it out on my own.” This could be why young dancers find it easy to approach her to discuss their career prospects.

“My productions are not comfortable,” she says firmly, “I want my audience to think. I want to leave the interpretations to them.” For instance, her production Unravelled using a different angle to explore the episode of disrobing Draupadi. It doesn’t involve Krishna supplying her with endless saris to protect her dignity. “I believe that Draupadi was so strong that Dushasana could not pull the sari off her body,” she says. She recalls how her productions were not well received initially.

Rangarajan doesn’t limit herself to the exploring of Indian themes. Her production Samah - Dance of the Mystics is based on Sufi philosophy or “Sufi bhakti” as she puts it.

Connecting with viewers

Rangarajan believes in the power of emotions over everything. When asked how she strikes a connect with her audience, she says, “It is the easiest to connect with people through emotions. Not everyone is familiar with Indian mythology, but everyone understands emotions.” Is there any challenge in communicating with the non-Indian audience? “Not really; I might have to give a slightly more elaborate introduction to them on each piece, but other than that, everyone is the same. I believe that we all are connected through divinity.”

Rangarajan is passionate and believes in the freedom of expression. “Artistes have a strong voice, and we should make good use of it.” Which could possibly be the reason why she doesn’t worry too much about the acceptance of her productions. “I have to say what I have to say.” She feels that the audience responds favourably to her productions. “My productions are about topics that are not spoken about enough; so they resonate with the viewers,” she says.

Rangarajan has recognition coming to her from different quarters. She has been awarded Singar Mani, Nritya Shiromani, Nadanamamani among other titles. Rangarajan is also a graded artiste with Doordarshan and empanelled with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

She is busy with her dance school Nritya Niketan in the US, which has branches in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.. Amid her globetrotting performance schedule, the ever-effervescent artiste is already thinking of her next production. “I have a few ideas germinating in my head; you will hear from me soon!” she says as she signs off.