Bharatanatyam dancer Radha Anjali has danced her way into the hearts of audiences all over the world. She teaches, does choreography and research in and on Bharatanatyam and runs a dance school, Natya Mandir. Sanskrit terms, slokas, swarams and snatches of music neatly punctuate her conversation as she talks animatedly about her dance productions. Her expressive kohl-lined eyes laugh as she says how particular she is that her students learn the fundamentals of dance before learning the ‘items' and how difficult it is to get students who want to go beyond the glitz and glamour of the stage. So what is special about Radha Anjali? Everything about this danseuse is special when one realises that Radha Anjali, who is fluent in Sanskrit, is an Austrian who runs her dance school in Vienna. Dr. Angela-Petra Zaimian's transformation into Radha Anjali is a story of her love for Indian dance and her sojourn through various dance forms of India. A friend of Pooyam Tirunal Gouri Parvathy Bai of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore, Radha was in Thiruvananthapuram for a vacation. Excerpts from an interview with the dancer….
The first steps
My parents were Indologists and so I was exposed to Indian culture from a young age. I remember travelling in India in 1972 with my parents. In 1978, I happened to see a dance recital in Vienna by Kama Dev, which made me fall in love with Bharatanatyam. The precision and geometrical aesthetics of the movements of the dance were enthralling. I was already a student of classical ballet and modern dance at the Conservatory of Vienna and at the school for ballet called Pfundmayer-Tagunoff. Summer courses for dance at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna familiarised me with Slavonic folk dances, Flamenco, Graham technique and so on. I was also learning Indian dance and Kathak from Dilnawaz and Aban Bana from Bombay [Mumbai]. But once I began learning Bharatanatyam, I decided to concentrate on that.
Learning to dance
As soon as I began learning the adavus from Kama Dev, it just fell into place in my brain. There was a logical progression in the steps and neither my teacher nor I had any problems. Although there were no dancers in my family of architects and scholars, I felt so much at home right from day one when I began my classes in Bharatanatyam; as if I was remembering something I had already learnt. My arangetram was in 1983 at the Mylapore Fine Arts Auditorium in Chennai. My gurus include Adyar K. Lakshman and Kalanidhi Narayan.
Stages of a dancer
I became the dancing partner of Kama Dev in his company and performed on a number of stages. In 1988-89, I received a grant from the Indian Council for Cultural relations for advanced studies in Bharatanatyam. My guru Kama Dev was proficient in the ancient dance form, which had a strong martial character. Enchanted by the fluidity of the movements, I began learning Seraikella Chhau (since 1994) and eventually, I also learnt Kuchipudi from Raja and Radha Reddy (2003-2004). I began choreographing solos and group productions.
Dance over the years
There is a change in dance and in the dancers. One can see more of fast numbers and group productions. One cannot say whether it is good or bad. Only time will tell. But it is important to learn the fundamentals, the theory and aesthetics of the dance before embarking on innovations. One sees a lot of fusion now. But it is painful to see dancers who are supposed to be performing a fusion of classical dances, shake a leg or perform steps that remind the audience of Bollywood. A dancer can improvise and innovate but that should be firmly anchored in the roots of the classical dance. Otherwise, one will get lost. Many Indian dances have spiritual links and it is important to remember that. In fact, my doctoral thesis was on classical Indian dance as a religious and philosophic phenomenon.
I am a professor of classical dance at the Sportinstitut of the University of Vienna. I have about 20 students of all nationalities, including Indians, in my dance school in Vienna. I teach them the way I was taught by my gurus. I insist on them learning the basic steps well before I proceed to the varnams. Sometimes, they get a little bored because it can be repetitive. So I devised a choreography for them based only on the adavus called ‘Adavu 4,' where the dancers perform the basic steps in three speeds in the pattern of a five-pointed star.
My aim is to present contemporary themes through Bharatanatyam and reach out to Western audiences without diluting the essence of its classicism. ‘Furuikeya,' inspired by a Haiku, was a big hit. It was about a frog that jumped into an old pond and we depicted, though movements and music, the ripples on the surface of the water. The 17 syllables of the Haiku were transformed into a tala of five plus five plus 10. ‘Sangama' was an abstract piece of pure dance sequences. If ‘Sari dance' used the technique of Kathakali to pique the interest of the audience by using a curtain to announce the arrival of certain characters, ‘Rent an Angel 1 Christmas Angel' was presented in Vienna during Christmas. I cannot think of doing anything other than dance. I had toured India in 2007 but I have never performed in Kerala. Maybe I will get that opportunity soon.
Photo: S. Gopakumar