Unfazed by criticism and unspoilt by adulation, P.T. Narendran strides the dance scene with grace and finesse

The year was 1993. The venue, Chowdiah Memorial Hall, where Kalakshetra was premiering the magnificant “Siri Purandhara” scripted in true Mysore Vasudevacharya style. Time stood still as the ballet on the life story of the saint poet unfolded. All eyes focussed on one figure. It was an as yet unknown dancer who portrayed the young Purandhara before his transformation. The emotions he evoked – pride, arrogance, greed, contempt and sudden repentance – carried the audience back centuries to a temple town near Hampi where Navakoti Narayana, a brazen millionaire, reigned supreme. This was before his transformation into the great Purandhara Dasa.

PT Narendran played the role to perfection. His very entry on the stage conveyed the youthful arrogance of a man intoxicated with the power of money, which slowly gave way to repentance and realisation. Through the fine distinctions between rhythm and emotion, the dancer managed to convey an entire persona to the audience that night. That is how I first met Narendran, who has travelled a long way since, with his eclectic performances captivating audiences across the globe. Narendran is much more than a mere globe trotter. From Europe to Australia to South Africa to Reunion Island, in dance genres that vary from traditional, contemporary to modern ballet, in roles as varied as dancer, teacher, choreographer and director, he has charmed audiences with his wide repertoire of art forms that include Bharatanatya, Kathakali, Odissi, Chhau, Afro-Cuban dance, classical ballet, contemporary ballet, yoga, mime, shadow puppetry, storytelling…….the list is endless.

But, no matter where he performs or what his theme, he is a classicist who does not believe in jeopardising his traditional art. When asked whether his own dance form will not be compromised in the process, Narendran exclaims indignantly: “In my dance, there is no fusion – or confusion!”

It is pure Bharatanatya all the way, whether he performs for an orphanage in Italy or a church in Germany or a theatre festival in Switzerland. The artist in him is always open to fine-tuning his art to project varied themes. It may be another Ramayana in Reunion Island, an Ashokavanam in Melbourne or a Thandava in Singapore. If he finds the theme appealing, with a slice of his own genre of dance enhancing its beauty, this versatile dancer has no problem in lending his expertise.

“I want to bring up other dance forms,” he says. And adds: “Why compromise mine?” No wonder producers and directors of several theatre productions abroad have sought his expertise in choreography. If Narendran has collaborated with the renowned Rudra Bejart Ballet and even performed in one of their productions, the young dancer from Kalakshetra has indeed arrived. The 11-year-old boy who travelled from Pangathody in Kerala to learn from the legendary Rukmini Devi in Kalakshetra has become one of the most sought after choreographers today. His lecture demonstrations in reputed universities, his workshops in different countries, added to his own dance productions, have brought him many laurels. But, this scion of a traditional family of folk dancers, remains unspoilt. Nor does he fail to remember where he came from. His celebrity status notwithstanding, he recalls his childhood with its meagre morning meal of puffed rice (“like what Sudhama gave Krishna”) and the Rs. 8 evening meal, after which “I was ready to go out and dance forever!”

Perhaps, it is this utter lack of self-importance that makes Narendran a true artist. Unfazed by criticism and unspoilt by adulation, he strides the dance scene with grace and finesse. A teacher who is much sought after too, he finds time to train a 19 year old Downs Syndrome patient in Perth because “dance may heal her condition.”

Watching Narendran perform this evening in the rare ambience of the ISKCON temple, I think I glimpsed the secret of his art. Earlier in the day, he had said: “Mere technical prowess is not enough in any art, unless your soul is in it.” When this artist dances, you no longer notice the footwork, the symmetry or the body language. You do not even see the bhava or abhinaya that he executes so flawlessly. You forget the dancer performing on the stage. You are seeing Rama weeping over Sita’s jewels. Or, Purandhara protesting his innocence in a temple. The dancer in him gets into the role he plays with such total abandon that he ceases to be a mere performer. He becomes that which he is portraying. It may be mythology, a scripture or just a story born in a writer’s mind.

The art of PT Narendran cannot be taught. It is simply a state of being. An indefinable something that happens when he steps into the spotlight. Something that would have made even Rukmini Devi brush a tear from her eye to realise that her temple of art was not built in vain.

Keywords: P.T. Narendran