Shanta Dhananjayan @ 80
Shanta was born on 12 August, 1943 in Malaysia, her ancestors having migrated there from Kerala. She showed enough promise even as a three-year-old for her parents to decide to send her to India for her education. After a brief period in Kerala, with the encouragement of her uncle Achuta Menon, they sent her to Kalakshetra. Shanta joined Kalakshetra in June 1952, when she was eight. She earned her Post Graduate Diploma with distinction in Bharatanatyam and learned Kathakali and Carnatic music.
It was instant love; she made up her mind at the age of 12 to marry Dhananjayan, though she did not reveal her feelings to him for a long while. They were later paired as Rama and Seeta in the Kalakshetra dance-drama Seeta Swayamvaram of the Ramayana series. She was a prominent dancer in Kalakshetra’s productions from 1955 to1968, the year she left the institution.
Shanta has an excellent eye for colour, line and aesthetics. Her aharya designs for their solos, group or thematic presentations are classy. She is a master in wielding the cymbals and conducting recitals. Whether she is doing the nattuvangam for her husband or a debutant of Bharata Kalanjali, she does it with equal concentration and involvement.
An epitome of grace
Shanta – a name that means calm and peaceful. The bearer of that name, as mentioned in the Ramayana – was none other than the beautiful daughter of King Dasaratha. Shanta was known to be a Vedic scholar, well-versed in arts, and a proficient warrior. But she is known not for these but rather for her being the underlying basis for the epic of Ramayana. She was the ultimate reason for King Dasaratha to beget sons. The reason for his country coming out of drought and becoming prosperous. The reason for his successful Putra Kameshthi yagna. And as a result, let’s not forget – The main reason Lord Rama and his brothers were born!
I refer to this because my Velliamma or Periamma, or as I better know her, Shanta Akka, was the driving force in shaping me. Be it as a dancer, a choreographer, a woman, a mother and a person: I can safely say that I am who I am today as a direct result of her being my teacher and mentor. When someone influences your life’s path, it’s challenging to summarise it all in a few words, but I’ll try to do it by talking about three significant aspects of Shanta Dhananjayan. The three roopams of her avatar are a teacher par extraordinaire, a scintillating dancer, and most importantly, a wonderful person who has always lived up to her name!
Let me start in reverse by describing my connection with her and my bond with her as a person. My earliest memories of her are of a beautiful lady; in a crisp cotton settumundu or saree, with not a hair out of place and bringing an ocean of serenity and calm. Any class with her, however hectic and taxing (and they always were because of her perfectionist attitude), would never feel so. She has a way of coaxing the absolute best out of someone by ensuring everything was just right and without feeling any mental fatigue, although we would be wrung out to dry physically!
She was such a source of inspiration to me that I’d always be front and centre, just waiting for class to start – watching and waiting for instructions. The tiniest of nods, nay, just a tilt of her head, with a sideways glance, was all I needed to know that I was on the right track and my days were divided into times that I received that nod vs when I didn’t receive it.
When we played Kuni-Kaikeyi, where I played the role of Kaikeyi, and she played the protagonist Mantara (Kuni), our chemistry was undeniable, and several people commented on it. And while she performed this with many other artists, I always felt secure in knowing that our performance was always special and defined by our wonderful bond.
While my teacher–student bond was always strong, when I was about 12, I had the wonderful opportunity of spending a whole month with Shanta Akka (and Dhananjayan Sir), at their house. During that period, I got to see a different side of Shanta Velliamma, which I never knew existed. Every morning she would wake up early, water the plants, clean the entire house, cook for the family and then be ready in her beautiful saree for the dance classes. And once she started, she was meticulous in her teaching as she ran the household. And she does all of this to date!
From her, I learnt that a woman is like the Goddesses depicted in photographs – with multiple hands that can give everything from life to knowledge while retaining an inner calmness and serenity. Her cleanliness, her organisational skills and her dedication to the craft, to this day, is nothing short of herculean. Yet, she makes it look like a day in the park. This attitude has profoundly impacted my life and made me strive to be like her every day since.
Her relationship with Dhananjayan Sir is another defining part of her. If he’s the creative force, she’s the execution partner, perfectly complementing him in everything – in dance and life. I’ve learnt how to be a better partner seeing this dynamic work between them.
Shanta Akka has inspired a legion of children to take up Bhartanatayam, develop excellent dancers and, most importantly, help countless dancers become better versions of themselves. Her keen eye never misses anything, even in group classes. She knows just the right things to correct that elevates a dancer. She sets high standards and cajoles you to achieve the same.
As a performer, she is exquisite! A perfect foil for her partner and a dazzling dancer by herself. She embodies excellence in her every move; never have I seen her not giving her best on stage. She can perfectly visualise it in her mind and, the next minute, execute it in reality. Be it her dancing, teaching, knowledge of music, singing, or sense of rhythm; she effortlessly does it with panache.
- By Divya Shiva Sundar