Tulsi Badrinath tells Anjana Rajan her latest book is about the dance world and not a biography of V.P. Dhananjayan
The air of a thatched cottage in Chennai’s perpetual summer is cool and welcoming, but it can grow hot with anger, be lashed about by the dextrous movement of tens of trained bodies, and also stand suspended beyond time, oblivious to the march of centuries. If this makes sense to you, chances are you have visited a Bharatanatyam class in that city. Tulsi Badrinath, in her latest book, “Master of Arts: A Life in Dance” (Hachette India), takes the reader into the thatched cottage that was witness to her moulding as a dancer as she trained under the illustrious Dhananjayans of Chennai at their institute Bharata Kalanjali.
The book intertwines three strands: there is Guru V.P. Dhananjayan’s journey from a Kerala village to Bharatanatyam stardom; there are other male dancers, often inspired by Dhananjayan to try their luck on the stage; and there is the story of Tulsi’s evolution from a wide-eyed child to a serious dancer. It is the third strand that in a sense holds the other two in place, as Tulsi describes her gurus, her fellow students at Bharata Kalanjali and the other professionals she interviewed for the book.
To dancers, especially those who have trained in Bharatanatyam in Chennai, much of what Tulsi writes about may be familiar territory. Those used to the ‘new’ India though — chrome, glass and computers, swanky malls and mechanised cafes, branded shoes and jeans — will not easily locate landmarks. But till now there have not been many who could write about that obscure universe in the language of the contemporary. Tulsi bridges that gap, partly because she too discovered in her dance class a world apart from the one she knew at home — like drinking in steel tumblers from an earthenware pot, and not sipping a glass of refrigerated water; sitting on the floor and not at a dining table, and the like.
“It seemed to me I knew the world from the inside and if I wrote about that, it would bring the reader into my world,” says Tulsi, in New Delhi for the launch, which featured a short performance by her gurus along with their troupe. “That’s why these three strands are there.”
This is Tulsi’s third book and first non-fiction title. She has written two novels, Meeting Lives (Niyogi) in 2008 and Man of a Thousand Chances (Hatchette) in 2011. She says she initially suggested a book that brought out the guru-shishya aspect — “that would have been the story of me, my life in dance, and his story as one who established himself and made a space (for a male dancer) where none existed” — but the publishers wanted her to go further than this. Therefore the book has turned out to be a look at what it means to be a male classical dancer in a field dominated by women performers, with a focus on Dhananjayan’s role as trailblazer — even if an unwitting one.
In writing about her guru, Tulsi faced a natural challenge. “There’s a pre-judgement that it’s going to be a hagiography,” she says. Indeed it is clear that she writes as a smitten disciple, even as she avoids flowery language. “Firstly I was very clear that it wasn’t a biography of Dhananjayan. I was writing a book about the world of dance. Secondly, there is an adoration of the guru. If you have sensed that smitten disciple thing, it’s not because as a writer I couldn’t write in any other way, but because I wanted to convey that sense of adoration,” she clarifies.
Approximately eight decades ago, Rukmini Devi Arundale founded Kalakshetra in thatched classrooms to propagate the classical arts. It was in these thatched cottages that Dhananjayan went through his rigorous paces in Kathakali and in Bharatanatyam, a penurious but fearless youngster. It was here that he met his wife the illustrious Shanta — right on his first day she was assigned to ‘look after’ Dhananjayan and his co-entrant Balagopal as she was the only student who knew Malayalam. It was from here that they exited, alone and isolated at first, but eventually to shine as one of the country’s first and brightest dancing duos.
And among the scores of Bharatanatyam professionals who have emerged from their institution is Tulsi. Ask her how long it took to put the book together and she answers, “Forty years.” Because it was that long ago that she first entered the cool air of a thatched cottage and discovered a world beyond time.