Unending passion

Padma SubrahmanyamA platinum dancer

Poetry in stone or poetry in movement? Padma Subrahmanyam, an exponent of Bharatanatyam, scholar, choreographer, author, musician, composer and teacher transferred her understanding of poetry in stone on to her practice of movements in dance.

The temple sculptures fascinated her even as a young child, and the fascination turned into reality when she began assisting her brother Balakrishnan, who was working on a documentary on temples. It was then that she stumbled upon the karanas — the dance postures described in Natya Shastra (as seen in the temples of Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Kumbakonam) — and she threw light on it in her research ‘Karanas in Indian dance and sculptures’ that karanas are movements, not static poses.

Her correlated study of the Natya Shastra, its commentaries, karana sculptures and inscriptions have enabled her to reconstruct the 108 karanas practically, and this has received great acclaim. Subsequently, she designed 108 sculptures of Nataraja and Parvathy for the Nataraja temple in Satara, an undertaking she took on the advice of the seer of Kanchi.

Looking back

Padma talks about her 75-year journey, where her personal life is so intertwined with her own career, and her dance becomes an extension of her self and her family. She came into the public eye through her performance in the film Geeta Gandhi, directed by her father, late K Subrahmanyam, a renowned film-maker and freedom fighter.

It was in 1942 that her father founded Nrithyodaya, a dance school that completed its platinum celebrations in 2017. It was started as a charity organisation, and today, under the directorship of his able daughter, it has risen to become a dance institution.

Padma began to learn dance under Kausalya, who was a young teacher at Nrithyodaya. Later she came under the tutelage of Guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai and had her arangetram in 1956.

Observing her continued interest, her father introduced her to Dandayudhapani Pillai, from whom she learnt adavus (basic dance steps), besides learning over 150 adavus from several devadasis. Like Mylapore Gowri ammal, who introduced her to the world of abhinaya. She began teaching at Nrithyodaya when she was just 14, studying and teaching, which gave her an understanding of theory and practice.

She got an opportunity to choreograph a project (because her guru had a prior engagement), leading to the much-talked-about dance drama, Meenakshi Kalyanam, when she was still a teenager. It’s performed in its original avatar even today, says Padma.

Music is an essential facet of dance, for what can you dance without music? Padma was inspired by her mother Meenakshi, who was a music composer, lyricist and an instrumentalist. Her growing up in this scholarly and culturally rich atmosphere nurtured Padma to become a wholistic artiste. She was fortunate to be influenced by Salil Choudhry, who “was her first music teacher.” Guru B V Lakshman further trained her in music.

In partnership

When she started accompanying her sister-in-law, Shyamala Balakrishnan, a reputed singer and research scholar in classical and folk music, it impacted her. Their partnership was something that even audiences were able to perceive. Understanding Shyamala’s strengths, she not only made use of her musical capabilities, highlighting them, but also based her choreography on the research (especially in folk music) that Shyamala had relentlessly worked on. Padma is a composer, too, and scores music for several home productions. It is her wholistic approach to the art, with an understanding of music, choreography, history and an inquisitive mind, that has put her in a class of her own. Her choreography includes several reforms that are reflected in her costumes, hair-dress and jewellery. They have been influenced by stone sculptures. 

Indologist and Sanskrit scholar T N Ramachandran influenced her in grasping ideas. This research of hers brought about a unified dance codification under one single umbrella of Natya Shastra. She also stated that the long-forgotten artistic base in marga (the way shown by Bharata muni) was common to all Indian classical dance forms.

She has several firsts to her credit — her most memorable work was Krishnaya Thubyam Namah, her first ekaartha production where she played many parts herself. She composed the first Bengali varnam set to Salil da’s music, she was the first dancer to introduce Pushpanjali as a dance piece, and she was the first to score a Meera bhajan to suit a padavarnam.

Constantly experimenting, she showcased Jatayu Moksha set to Tchaikovsky, Gajendra Moksha set to the Japanese music by Michio Miyagi. Nrithdodaya, produced for Doordarshan as a 13-episode documentary on dance titled ‘Bharatiya Natya Shastra’, was based on Padma’s research and study.

She has travelled extensively, imparting knowledge through her performances, lecture demonstrations and workshops. She is the author of several books and scholarly articles. She has been the recipient of several prestigious awards — Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Kalaimamani, Kalidas Samman, Fukuoka Asian Culture prize, to name a few.

More recently, she has been appointed the chairman of Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal.

She is the only dancer to have constructed (under progress) a shrine for Bharata muni. The temple is meant to showcase the karana sculptures, act as a centre for research, studies and documentation, and it also proposes to have its own library.

Says Padma, “The dream is to create an Asian cultural corridor for artistes and philosophers to interact and help human harmony.”

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