Bharatanatyam artistes Aswathy and N. Srikanth tell that their dance is about harmony amidst differences

The week has given them artistic highs and personal lows. Between shows at Palakkad, Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram, Aswathy and N. Srikanth stop in Kozhikode to attend to Srikanth’s ailing father. One moment they are scouting for care takers, at another they effortlessly slip into the Bharatanatyam rehearsal for the next stage. For a while now, their life has been a delicate trapeze act between high art and mundane routine.

Yet, heart-warming appreciation is all these artistes need to soothe their spirit. And they got plenty as they danced across the State for Rasavikalpam and the Soorya Parampara Festival. “We danced to a discerning crowd,” says Srikanth as the afternoon sun lightens up the hall at Nrithyalaya, the dance school begun by Kalamandalam Saraswathy where Srikanth and Aswathy teach. “The audience appreciated subtle, choreographic points, that something special being done.”

New home

About six years ago the couple left the cultural comforts of Chennai to make Kozhikode their home. The move was tough for Srikanth, well known in Chennai dance circles as a disciple of Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam and also as a soloist and teacher.

Kerala for him was a different canvas, less so for Aswathy, who was born and brought up in Kozhikode. “Moments of dejection were many,” he recollects. Indifference towards classical performers at cultural events bothered him. But there were also pleasing moments, he adds, often when Malayalis commended them during performances abroad.

Classical arts should have a place in people’s hearts as they are its greatest nurturers, he says. “Every fine art is intended to bring refinement, make you better human beings. I always believed that if there are two artistes in a crowd of 50, one should be able to make them out.”

A different canvas

Art for the pleasure it gives is what Aswathy and Srikanth try to teach their students. They know classical dance for youth festivals has been the norm. “We tell them it is not winning that matters,” says Aswathy.

She says one should be practical about competitions, since children do not get many other avenues to perform. But she and Srikanth send only those who have proved their commitment by spending years learning the art. “Lot of times our kids don’t win. We are okay with it and we prepare the parents too for it,” she says.

For this couple, dance is a collaborative effort dating back over a decade when Aswathy boarded the train to Chennai to be Srikanth’s student. She is the daughter of dancer Saraswathy. “From a young age I got an opportunity to watch top gurus from whom my mother learnt. Though I was not serious about dance I knew who the good dancers were.”

With Srikanth she delved deeper into the nuances of Bharatanatyam. “I had to work the most on abhinaya, to which I had no exposure. My mother was not a patient teacher when it came to me,” she says. Srikanth’s mastery of abhinaya was chiselled by years of performance at the Bhagavata Mela. “There is no question of comparison. I have no ego, I will always be his student,” she says. abhinaya

Their artistic experiment is about retaining their individual stamp, yet creating harmony in contrast. They led contrasting lives until they came together. Struggle was inevitable for Srikanth as he was among the few male dancers around in Chennai. “When I came there were about five male dancers. Even when I was learning from Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, whose style was mostly for female dancers, I had to watch, learn and adapt it to suit me,” he says.

“Sheer observation” often showed the way, and for six years he was like a shadow to his guru, he says. When he finally charted out on his own, he went back to the Pandanallur style of his early years for nritta and embellished it with the abhinaya he learnt from Dr. Subrahmanyam. “People started calling it the Srikanth style, but for me it was just necessity.”

Art for pleasure

“I am still struggling when it comes to style,” Aswathy says candidly. “I cannot imitate anyone and when I am dancing I want to please myself.” For the daughter of writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair and Saraswathy, the struggles were within, as she finally veered away from literature to find herself in dance.

“The contrast has to be there among dancers, but the final product should be wholesome,” says Srikanth. Performing together is still a learning experience, they say. There is enough practice but always improvisation on stage.

“Applause gets him excited,” quips Aswathy. Dance, says Srikanth, is not about talent alone. “It is about giving that bit of magic, masala. I am an extrovert,” he says. His grouse against Aswathy is her reticence. “She is sincere and very true to what she is doing. As an artiste it is not just about the talent, skill and hard work. Her public skills are bad.”

They are now gearing up for a performance at the prestigious Music Academy, Chennai, in January. “Then there is our big project ‘Amritavarshini – A Rain Song’ supported by the Ministry of Culture, to be premiered by March next year,” says Aswathy. Srikanth will receive the best male dancer award from the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India on November 25. “We will fly out straight to Kuwait for a performance,” she says.