What keeps you going after 40 years of dancing?
It has been 41 years since my arangetram, and there were at least four years before that. Why does one dance still? Because there’s a certain sense of maturity and a sense of intensity one acquires in time. As long as I am in dialogue with my medium, in conversation with my dance, I’ll dance. The moment I think I am not in dialogue, if it has dried out, then I’ll stop. That will be the time to say, “No more.”
This is an awkward question. You lost your mother not long ago. I have seen people who were devoted to their partner, spouse, parent, blossom after the passing of that person they had been caring for. It is as if it were a release. Did that happen to you?
It was a transition point. Ahead of me is a great deal of energy and excitement – to dance, to create, to choreograph. After my mother’s illness, watching her go through it, I’m turning the corner. Dancing is therapeutic.
I was very fond of my mother; looking after her, spending time with her, meant a lot to me. But caregiving takes its toll. Even though you love your parents, want the best for them, it’s a physical, psychological strain. For many months I did not get over the shock. What I’m beginning to feel now is a lifestyle change, as if I can write a new chapter. Suddenly I have all the time to put whatever I want into this chapter – completely devote myself to dance, to choreography, thinking, teaching, writing. I miss her tremendously, miss having her sit by me while I am rehearsing. She was that somebody who’d comment, critique my work, talk to me about philosophy. How I’m going to fill this great absence is yet to be seen. I am finding myself.
Isn’t it physically difficult to go on at your age?
It is more demanding 41years after my debut, but I have kept myself fit by dancing. The longest break was after my mother passed away. I didn’t dance for four months. It’s now a time to rejuvenate.
There may come a time when you are not enjoying it any more?
I am finding a new energy when I am practising; it’s astonishing. There is the age factor – after all I’m over 50. It’s also a question of temperament, of technique, the kind of training you have done. It is how positive you are. As long as I have my conversations with dance, at a very personal level, there is the energy. Today, we had this long rehearsal of the raas in the morning, something I have done so many times. Yet there was so much of wonderment; not just enjoyment, but living in the moment.
How have you evolved as a dancer over the decades?
There are so many stages. As a student you are learning movement, space, body work. Then there is the dancer stage, when it comes much easier. And then there is choreography – you are opening out, other things like the world around affect you and there’s a certain maturity. Then there is the artist stage of a much deeper, more vertical thinking – into your dance form, into the language you’re working with. That’s when you are able to contribute something. It’s not merely performative contribution. There’s a certain maturity and involvement. You ask yourself: How much are you personally engaging dance? What does it mean to you to dance, to keep alive that sense of wonder, the seeking?
How often can you achieve that?
In any art there are moments, some days, when you touch a high. But sadhana is to be so in tune with yourself that you are prepared, waiting to touch a high. Sadhana is preparation for it. If you are not prepared, if the yoga of body-mind does not happen, then you don’t get to that high. When I train dancers, I say, “Where is your mind when you are dancing? What is happening to the mind?” It’s a different way of looking at dance. Engaging with the younger generation I do believe that the kind of
training I want to impart is how they must tap their resources, not imitate me.
Was there a time you imitated?
Yes, as a young dancer. I used to see Yamini Krishnamurti or Lakshmi Viswanathan — all those padams, the way she did stars in the night sky. Things which Balamma (Balasaraswati) did sometimes, which left an imprint on you. Whether you’re imitating or not, somewhere it stays with you. It is natural for all dancers. Then you move on with it. When you are learning as a student, it is necessary to imitate, to get it right. Then you can be a little more open with it, and change perhaps.
How did you feel towards your guru? Is this complete guru bhakti a given or is there scope for thinking of your guru critically?
Perhaps the previous generation didn’t do it. Now dancers are certainly doing it. The whole guru-sishya situation is changing. The way I teach students is very different from the way I learnt from my guru. It is changing rapidly.
Are your education, where you are socially, your breeding and theoretical learning connected to your art, the factors determining this change? How is it different from the way your gurus taught you, saying this is the way, this is the sampradaya?
There was a certain fixed attitude the way Guru Kalyanasundaram or Guru S.K. Rajarathnam taught me. And I valued it. At that time I needed someone to say “This is the way you must do it”. I was not asking questions, even of Kalanidhi Mami, when I was learning from her in the late 1970s. She was on this real journey of discovery in dancing. We had the most unique kind of sessions, because she was herself growing and finding herself. It was so exciting. But yes, the teaching methods have changed; I can speak for myself. My mind is contemporary, my articulation is contemporary. The way I analyse my dance style is contemporary.
Also you have performed before varied audiences all over the world.
Again it goes back to cerebration. As a dancer I ask myself many questions, on technique, interpretation, movement. I ask myself, what is space today, what am I doing with the space, what do I want to do with the space? I guess it’s unique to each person: How do we create our style? What I am dancing is a very different style from what I learnt from Rajarathnam Pillai or Kalanidhi Mami. I have shaped it differently.
How do you make sure that the changes you make or happen by themselves are still rooted in tradition?
It depends on how much you value tradition, how strong your foundation is, how imaginative you are, and the risks you take. When you are very imaginative, you are taking risks. You have to come up with the right vocabulary. It means tuning yourself to what is tradition, and the Bharatanatyam language. You need to be very alert, very critical of yourself, not believing that everything you create is wonderful. My mother played this crucial role. She sat and looked at the rehearsal and said, this works, but this works better, and this doesn’t. Now as I have to do it myself, I need to be more alert to myself. It’s tougher. How does one learn to create something without crossing tradition or moving too far away? It is just the love of tradition, and the passion to say this is my tradition and I respect it for what it is.
You need to push boundaries with attention, a certain care and thoughtfulness, as tradition is very precious. I don’t want to throw it around, but rather gently unfold it. I want my art to create some kind of resonance. I don’t want it to be just performative, certainly not at this stage of my career.
You have a number of male followers, men who attend your lectures and ask intelligent questions. I think it is an unusual thing for men who are generally less informed about dance than about music.
Maybe my work is more cerebral and that engages them. Women by and large are more emotional. Because my work is both emotional and cerebral, it engages people of different types. People are hesitant, inhibited, when they watch classical art. When an artist is able to get past the so-called barrier, our technique and our language are so eloquent, communicative, reflective, that it doesn’t matter. It is the quality of the dance itself, the ability of the artist to find the quality that is so communicative. When I am training dancers, I tell them, don’t concentrate so much on the hasta as if it were the end-all of it. It’s just a highlight. You have a movement and a hasta at the end of it. Sometimes there’s so much preoccupation with the hastas that it turns into dumb charades. You can’t blame the dance for it. What I am saying in a nutshell has come through years of internalisation, it’s deep within and somehow affects the dance. There are no easy, quick steps.
How does it work in a world where you have to earn a living, make a career of it, be financially stable?
You have to have undying faith, undying passion.
Have you never lost hope, never doubted…?
I had my lows like all artists. You go down, down. Against all those odds, through it all, you have to have faith, love dance itself. Just dance, enjoy the moment, and dream.
Did you dream that you wanted to be the best dancer in the world?
To be rich and famous?
The rich part doesn’t come into dance. When I was in my 20s and 30s, we lived very frugally, my mother and I. We travelled 2nd class by train, lived on a verytight budget. All we wanted was to have the grace of art in our lives. Both of us thought alike. I wanted to be known as a good dancer rather than a popular one.
Doesn’t fame matter?
I was driven by the quest for excellence, constantly raising the bar for myself. That is what pushed me in a certain direction. Coupled with that, I had a mother who never ever told me to make dance janaranjaka. She spoke to me about philosophy, the deeper aspects that affect dance. What is reaffirming when I look back is that I could produce the work I wanted. I want to be celebrated as an artist. You don’t have to be popular to become famous, if you do serious work and are committed to your values. To be celebrated on the international circuit, that was really something.
Having been an artist people look up to, I don’t want to compromise on what I believe. That has been my biggest success: to be able to say I’ve been able to go in my direction and be famous, celebrated, and all the rest. This is what I want to tell younger dancers.
Would you call it an obsession, your involvement with dance?
Maybe, yes, it can sometimes get obsessive, but it is more a passion.
You must be a difficult person to live with then…
No, that is not true. I lived with my mother for so many years. It worked very well. We were a very unique kind of mother-daughter. It isn’t as if we didn’t have scraps, arguments. Every relationship has all that. But by and large, our train was the same. We were on track, stable.
How old were you at your arangetram? I don’t suppose you’ve had the kind of friendships that other children have?
I was 12, and no, I did not enjoy the luxury of friendships. Recently I went to my first film festival, at last. I went to MAMI in Mumbai. It was so exciting, I was seeing another aspect of living. I watched films non-stop for five days and went to Irani restaurants with my friends. We walked around, went to the club for meals. And it was lovely. I missed out so much on the normal things all those years because it was dance, dance, dance.
This question of dance being a spiritual quest and all that. How is it different from gymnastics or ballet? Is it because Bharatanatyam is based on our mythology, our epics?
We call spirituality by different names. A ballerina may call it ecstasy. We use the word spirituality to describe the body-mind sync. The I, ahankara, is not predominant. When it gets displaced, is not centrestage, you feel a moment of the spiritual. It is a moment of sacrifice. It is prayerful. I’m training myself to be able to find these moments. It’s deep consciousness, tissue memory, body memory that goes all the way down. For me it’s that moment of delight, of spirituality.
It doesn’t matter what rasa you’re playing, sringara or bhakti or whatever?
It could happen in pure dance. I am talking beyond anga suddham, of energy in the body. Can a dancer, an artist evoke satvika energy rather than rajasic? What we see in most concerts is rajasic energy.
Does that include energy from the audiences?
They play a part.
The “spiritual quest” has been a constant in your several efforts. We see that expression bandied about freely. The self-forgetfulness you speak of doesn’t seem to happen a lot, at least in music, though on the day it does, it is fantastic. I suggest the reason that spirituality can be ascribed to art rather than say other activities like sport is perhaps that in art, in dance, at its best, you are not competing with anyone. There may be an occasion when a sportsperson is completely at one with his activity, but he is still trying to defeat someone. The very nature of sport is competitive. Would you agree?
Yes, that seems a fair description, but so much depends on the temperament of the artist. It’s not as if music per se or dance per se is spiritual. Till you seek it, you wait for it, you are willing to prepare for it… if your objective in dance is something else, it doesn’t happen.
The popular interpretation of spirituality in dance is perhaps the textual content, in Rama and Krishna?
When I say spiritual, I don’t mean gods and goddesses. I’m speaking of moments. If I find it by doing the song of Krishna, fine, but I can find it in pure dance. It’s just the harmony, the alignment of the body and mind coming together.
How do you define bhakti from the point of view of your art?
A few days ago, I was working with my musicians and trying to edit my Andal production called Maname Brindavaname. Everytime I felt that this bhakti was so different from the bhakti of the Nayanmars.
Speaking of Andal, how do you equate eroticism with bhakti?
That is such a big question. It takes years of sifting through what you feel, to be able to put sringara and bhakti together. It is very difficult. In sringara bhakti, there’s more surrender. It’s a question I have pondered a lot. When I read Andal, I see the bhakti in the lyrics in a way I can’t in a Kshetrayya padam.
Reading A.K. Ramanujan has affected me so much. When I read When God is a Customer, whose poetry ranges from Annamacharya, to Kshetrayya to Sarangapani, I realise that some poetry is filled with bhakti, while some other poetry is pretending bhakti. As an artist you have to plumb deep. Speaking of Andal, Rukmini Devi’s Andal would be so different from my portrayal or one by Mythili Prakash. We are talking of the essence of Andal, not Andal the person. I sometimes wonder while doing a description of Krishna, do I really know what he looks like, and then realise that I don’t know. What we are actually getting to is the essence.
What does the metaphor of Krishna mean to you?
Sometimes it is just a moment, the essence of Krishna. I think sringara bhakti as an emotion takes a long time to merge sringara with bhakti. To do it separately is much easier. As a dancer matures and starts asking questions, she is more comfortable with sringara. Because you have done so many padams, you have a vocabulary, and you can do bhakti separately. But when the two have to intermingle, it is a very fine nuance. It took me years to be able to locate it, and be comfortable with it. When I became comfortable with it, I started asking questions. At which point does sringara bhakti actually manifest itself? It took me years to feel comfortable with that emotion, that state of mind. What you are suggesting in say a Radha is a state of mind. I have taken my time understanding the emotion of sringara bhakti.
When do you think the understanding came about in dance that this is sringara bhakti, not just sringara? When did people start interpreting the higher purpose?
I think it represents the temperament of the artist and also the artist’s own evolution. You could ask, “Why is it a person like Balamma could touch it so easily?” Another person of her background or age group might not have found it. I think it is an individual finding it in each case. And it doesn’t even have to be found by all artists. Some artists may actually be more comfortable with sringara.
What did Rukmini Devi do that people found so objectionable as the sanitising, brahminising of sringara?
I know there’s been such a discourse, and cross-talk about it. I think she did what she felt she had to do at that point of time. Did it have relevance, did it make a statement, did it have lasting power? It did, whereas when I trained with Kalanidhi Mami, it was so different.
What you are doing now in dance is different from what you learnt from Kalanidhi Narayanan, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s very different. Mami was a contemporary of Rukmini Devi, but was into this whole world of padams and all that she had learnt from her gurus. I think Rukmini Devi’s temperament made her take it in her way. She was a pathbreaker in many ways. She was defining the dance form. There were tempestuous conversations between E. Krishna Iyer and Muthulakshmi Reddy, there was a great confrontation. It’s all history for us. We don’t know the actual tension of it, which this film Unseen Sequence on me does touch upon.
Have you personally felt awkward portraying eroticism?
I think eroticism is really a state of mind which dictates the moment and moulds it differently. In my own example, I’ve done a lot of sringara, where I am taking my dance to sensuality, not eroticism. There’s a great amount of sensuality to the body that we can bring out. Why not celebrate the body? Celebrate it, but sensually. If I am thinking erotic and I want to seduce the person in the first row, then I am going to look very different.
When the lyric is explicit, how do you deal with it?
There’s a question of deliberate choice. Many years ago I was in this world of sringara and love and emotions, and I said I want to do something different in sringara. Most of the pieces we do are all about viraha, about wanting but never being there. I said, I want to do the moment of sringara. So what do I do? I stylise it, take it through the pathway of pure dance, suggesting a coming together, suggesting passion, masculine-feminine, ecstasy, even burning desire. I don’t want sahitya at all. I’m going to explore with movement, I said. I use the body’s design of sringara as a unit, and rhythm. You can do a lot of things with rhythm for sringara. The first time I did it, people said, “Wow, how did you think of it?” I said, “I’m just exploring what I have and I am using my alphabet differently.” I could suggest passion, sensuality, and ecstasy all through pure dance, which gives the audience the sense of sambhoga without making it erotic. It is there to discover. What do you want to do with it? When I did Khajuraho in Sacred and Secular, there was obviously so much sensuality. When one is doing sensuality one has to be very alert to oneself, make sure that one is on that fine line of the sensuous, not succumbing to easier, more popular notions of sringara. You need the discipline of the body and mind to say, I’m here and I’m not going to move.
We have to keep at it. After years I find that the mind has to have a very fine rigour, whether it’s in interpretation, in editing something that one has done, or technique. We stay on course, so that we actually do something meaningful.
Is it the purpose of art to uplift?
Classical art, at the very core, gives you and the audience those moments of flight which are so precious and are so honourable. You have to be alert and waiting for such a moment.