Friday, 13 February 2015

New Indian Express article

THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS Chennai, February 11 2015

A solo artiste, city-based dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan is one of the foremost exponents of bharathanatyam, specialising in abhinaya. With the increase in group and thematic productions, the art of expressing may have taken a backseat. However, Lakshmi believes in its importance and appeal.

Comparing it to Hollywood actor Marlon Brando’s style of method acting, she says that it is rather the art of subtlety. “It is about the subtlety in showing emotions in a suggestive way. It is a kind of method acting, just like underplayed acting by Marlon Brando. But I have been in touch with it and the songs that demand it. I learnt them, and teach musicians too. Today, people tell me it is a dying art. But once something starts dying, you can’t revive it,” she says.

With intensive training when she was in class one, Lakshmi, who hails from an artistic family, came under the guidance of Kausalya, her first dance teacher. Later, she was under the tutelage of Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai in the Thanjavur bani. Lakshmi learnt Kuchipudi from legendary Vempati Chinna Satyam. “I thought one should always know other related styles. Kuchipudi is a parallel dance form and has a different repertoire, tempo and movements,” she says.

After a degree in English literature, her artistic side got another vent for exploration. With research fellowships and extensive work on the temple dance tradition of South India in the 70s, she soon translated the paper into a book. The book titled Bharatanatyam The Tamil Heritage covered volumes of topics from the sillapaddhikaram to other parallel connections like temples, kings, etc. Painstakingly researched, she had met some of the last of the devadasis who were then alive in Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and Chennai. Later, another book on the devadasis titled Women of Pride, interspersed the tradition which existed over the ages, with ancient texts and courtesan composer links, from the dancer’s point of view. She says, “Many told me they understood the concept better when they read the book and there was a positive view about it. Each age had a different viewpoint about devadasis. It is the process of social viewpoint, moral viewpoint, law, justice and everything that came together to say that the tradition should stop. There is always a social stigma attached to the last days of the tradition. Even the biggest empires were rubbish bins, in the last days,” she says.

Lakshmi adds that now that the dance form survives, it may not be right to say it was appropriated from the devadasis. “It is not appropriation; we didn’t take it from them, stopped them from performing and then danced at the same place. Urbanisation and shifting was a natural process. If it is known worldwide, it is because of the generation that came after 1947. It had such a style and appeal, it crossed barriers. Many took it to Gujarat and Kolkata. People like Indrani Rehman became Miss India and she performed bharathanatyam and made it global. Several South Indian actresses took it to Bollywood. We owe it to the pioneers. I think people like me have contributed to it enormously for the last 50 years to keep it intact. We learnt from the gurus and had no interactions with the devadasis. We are not doing ritual dance. Today, we have festivals in temples. It is art for art’s sake,” she says.

Seeing Tradition in a different Light

With famous productions like Banyan Tree, choreographed in the late 90s, Lakshmi‘s repertoire as a dancer has been vast and unique. Banyan Tree, which traces the history of bharathanatyam, toured the US. Lakshmi says that she is hoping to revive it. Later, Chaturanga, which was choreographed on the occasion of the 50th year of Independence, looked at four aspects of freedom, using Bharathiyar’s songs. Vidya Sundari and her production on epic women displayed her penchant for a difference within the limits of tradition. The latter focused on Devaki, who longs to be with her child Krishna, and King Dasharatha’s wife Kaushalya, who is anguished after being separated from her son Rama. Her other production on women poets of India was staged at the Delhi International Festival. She chose Karaiakal Ammaiyar, Muthu Pazhani, a devadasi from Thanjavur (she had composed a song on Krishna, who is distraught after being separated from Radha), Akka Mahadevi, Avvaiyar and Meera (MS Subbulakshmi’s Hari Tum Haro). An off shoot of her wide research, Lakshmi has presented lectures on different topics, the latest one being about the 1,000-year-old Thanjavur temple.

Monday, 9 February 2015


I virtually stumbled upon this great dance style in 1967/8. Driving around Panagal Park after a usual visit to the Nalli showroom I saw a board 'Kuchipudi Art Academy'. I parked outside and just went in to see what this school was all about. I had seen just one Kuchipudi performance in Bombay conducted by Guru Acharyalu, for the dancer Sudha Doraiswamy and it made an impression. But I never imagined I would one day learn this style of dance. Thank God one is adventurous in one's twenties. A brief meeting with a tall elegant Telugu speaking gentleman clad in traditional Dhothi and Jibba, interrupting his class(!), led to my joining the school the next day. That is how informally Vempatti Chinnna Satyam became my Kuchipudi guru. One year later I performed the whole repertoire.... And played Satyabhama in his dance drama Krishna Parijatham! Thereafter I performed full length Kuchipudi recitals, and also did select Kuchipudi dances during the second half of my Bharatanatyam recitals with the exciting costume change.....!

Many even today do not know what Kuchipudi dance is. Well, that is another story. This past season, writers visiting from abroad asked me where they could see a good Kuchipudi performance. Considering one of the great Kuchipudi Gurus of the twentieth century, Vempatti Chinna Satyam lived and ran his school successfully for more than five decades in this city, it seemed odd that this style was not featured prominently in the Sabhas. However, I myself
did get to relish some really impressive Kuchipudi talent in mid January.

The most touching and arresting impression was made by none other than the current Guru of the Vempatti school.....Vempatti Ravi Shankar, son of Chinna Satyam.  He has been in the field as a dancer and teacher now for decades. And, to my utter delight, he has truly arrived now as a Guru. He is a master of his craft and to my special satisfaction, his singing is impeccable. I always think musical expertise is so essential to conduct a dance performance. He fits the bill. And as for his choreography....he follows his father's style in all the minute details  and comes up with classic pieces.
The pleasant surprise for me is the superb dancing of his wife Priyanka. There is a body language which defines Kuchipudi. I experienced it in my learning from guru Chinna Satyam. It is a fluidity of both movement and stance which is very different from Bharatanatyam. This young dancer knows it well, and brought that special authentic touch to the recital. A range of dances were performed with grace, perfect co-ordination, precise footwork and pleasing expressions. The Tarangam is as elaborate as a Varnam in this style and it has the added attraction of dancing on the edge of the brass plate. Priyanka held her poise through this, and brought a beguiling charm to the two Padas, one of Annamayya and the other of Kshetrayya.
Two others who are in training with Ravi Shankar shone in their performances. One is Deepika Potarazu who is an American-born teenager from Washington DC , full of vibrant energy, and a remarkable sense of dance . She is a Kuchipudi exponent in the making. The other is Yamini Saripalli, who is also from Washington , a mature dancer who did complete justice to the Vempatti school in her performance.  Credit goes both to the Guru who has maintained a high standard of technique and a carefully chosen repertoire, and to the hard work of these dancers. They are united in keeping the reputation of Kuchipudi dance in tact.
Vempatti Ravishankar should be celebrated not only for his expertise as a Guru, but also his equipoise in coping with the trials of health to give the joy of dance so generously to all his students.