The Dharani School of Performing Arts is 25 today. Shyamala Surendran’s passion for dance led to its genesis
The late bloomer made sure she did not miss much. Therefore she worked twice as hard and could achieve more than many in her chosen field: classical dance. That Shyamala Surendran enjoyed what she did is a bonus for her. Today, she looks back at her off beat journey in life, with that same equanimity and poise that she did 25 years ago (June 21) when Dharani School of Performing Arts was born. She sits in her house, Dharani, at SRM road, Kaloor, where this sweet story began, with Meenu, the parrot singing and whistling in between her dialogues, ‘Thathamme, poocha poocha’ in perfect Malayalam with the perfect accent.
Around the tastefully done up house (Dharani was her mother-in-law’s pet name) and garden, women of all ages, dressed in dance rehearsal attire, are going around, with many coming up to ask her doubts about the grand programme they are putting up in connection with the silver jubilee celebrations of the school.
“They are my children and they feel this is their house. They look after me too,” Shyamala says proudly, as one student brings us hot steaming cups of tea. More than a thousand students have learnt dance at Dharani, and today, she has around 160 students who come twice a week for classes. The senior students also teach. Learning music alongside dance is a must at Dharani. She believes that to understand the subtle nuances of the art form, knowledge of music is essential.
In her thirties
The native of Kannur never got a chance, as a child, to learn dance. Of course she was in those group dances while at school in St Teresa’s Anglo Indian High School. “I started learning Bharathanatyam when I was 34, when my son was 10. Till then, I was dancing to the music of the ‘Beatles’, ‘Boney M’, Cliff Richards while on the ship, with my husband, who was in the Merchant Navy. Then I had this urge to learn classical dance. C.E. Janardhanan was my first guru, in Kochi. I was obsessed with it and learnt fast. Before my arangettam, my master insisted that I perform before Dhananjayan Master and Shantha Dhananjayan for perfection. My trip to Chennai opened a whole new world to me. I decided that nobody would come between me and my dance.
“I sold some of my gold jewellery and bought a beautiful dance costume and costume jewellery for myself, as I did not want to make my husband spend too much for my hobby then,” she disclosed. But it turned out to be her vocation, life and love and what kept her going after she lost her husband a few years ago.
“I stayed with Mami (Kalanidhi Narayanan) and learnt abhinaya too, along with Bharathanatyam at the Dhananjayans’.”
It was later that she saw Kanak Rele performing Mohiniyattam at Chennai and fell in love with that dance form. So she came back home and started Mohiniyattam lessons from Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma herself and her daughter, Sreedevi Rajan. Today, Shyamala, at 64, performs only Mohiniyattam, (though she teaches Bharathanatyam.) “I have videographed every ‘adavu’ and movement of the Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma style. Amma herself did it for me, and I teach that style. Of course while choreographing a piece there is some improvisation, but the basics remain,” she explained. One of her favourite choreographed pieces is Tatvamasi, the story of Ayyappan that is performed after ‘thillana’. Stree Shakthi is another one Shyamala choreographed, which has elements of Kathakali and Bharathanatyam blended into it, along with Mohiniyattam. This was performed in several foreign countries.
Shyamala’s hairdo for Mohiniyattam is neither a bun on the side nor a plait. “It’s a bun at the back, and I got the approval of Amma before I made that the style in my school,” she says firmly.
Most of Shyamala’s first batch of students are married and she has taught many mother-daughter duos. One of the first students is doing a doctorate in dance in the US.
“I have students as young as seven and as old as 64. A majority of them are homemakers and a handful of men too. There are doctors, teachers, lawyers and other professionals. I have no fixed fees. They pay what they can. I teach many students free too. I also teach street children. One girl was very bright and Dharani is sponsoring her education in Kalakshetra. But I do NOT let my students participate in competitive youth festivals. I don’t believe in learning dance just for contests, they must enjoy doing it.
“Moreover the benefits of dance are many. It gives you concentration, it’s good for health, you gain confidence and the posture is right. One does not change into another person while on stage, but is oneself, communicating, which means the idea is not to try and look beautiful, but tell what you have to, with abhinaya and body movements,” she says of her school in a nutshell. The Dharani students perform in many foreign countries like the UK, US, Hungary (Budapest), Canada, Austria (Vienna), Russia. Shyamala conducts dance workshops in most of the countries the group dances in.
The programmes in connection with the silver jubilee celebrations begin today at the Fine Arts Hall.