Saturday, 22 December 2012

Rukmini Devi, Chandraleka, Bala, Indrani . . . epic women

It was the panel discussion on Day 2 of the 'Epic Women' themed Natya Darshan conference that we attended at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore.

London-based Chitra Sundaram was just closing her paper which also had a short performance to it - Sthree-dom - an Immaculate Conception, based on Arundathi, wife of the sage Vasishtha and Penelope, wife of Greek warrior Odysseus.

Before her act, Mohiniattam dancer Neena Prasad had presented a piece - Surpanaka; A passion disgraced, womanliness mortified.
A glimpse of that closing act made us wonder how a stage which was alive to Carnatic music kutcheris held against a rather grossly-designed kalyana mantap umbrella had been transformed to suit this three-day event.

The Epic Women in Dance round table, with Anita Ratnam and Avanthi Meduri as moderators started on what was a rather informal talk by Katherine Kunhiraman which actually had little substance and fell by the wayside.

Nandini Ramani, speaking on her guru T. Balasaraswathi shared her personal anecdotes from the time she joined dance class (" there would be no questions we could ask during her classes").
 Of how Ganesan was the man who ran the classes directly, of Bala's attitude to fame and wealth ("she was never after money and did not even ask for fees"), her relationship with her students ("one had to be patient and surrender to her when she taught . . .she never openly commented or appreciated the performance of her students") and of what seemed to be a dark phase in latter life when she was a teacher at The Music Academy, hinting to the void she felt.

Nandini said she did not see Bala teach her daughter Lakshmi and never got to know who really did. "She would often say that this dance should end with her life", said Nandini, indicating that Bala was hugely disappointed with what she thought had come of this dance in the 70s.
Quickly, Nandini stepped to the centre and presented a Bala piece, singing it even as she performed the abhinaya - it was a demo that raised a huge round of applause and moved Nandini herself.

Padmini Chettur, who trained under the iconic late Chandraleka from the early 90s and is seen as a key dancer who has gone on to contemporise dance in India spoke closely of her teacher's outlook, consciousness and vision.
Of a teacher who "looked for openness and honesty in her dancers", one who left it to her students to take forward what she had done and did not show interest in institution building ( the way Rukmini Devi had).

Sharing an anecdote Padmini said, "Much after when Chandra saw dancers incorporating yoga and kalari in their dances she would say - 'I seem to have opened a Pandora's box!'"

Sukanya Rahman, dancer and visual artist spoke on her mother Indrani Rahman, a 'Miss India' beauty of 1952 who went on to be a great dancer of many styles. Her snappy anecdotes and vintage pictures, including a short Kuchipudi piece of her mom made her talk very interesting too.

Note: Some interesting notes on the Conference are published as a newsletter and this pdf copy is available at

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