Padma Subrahmanyam says the Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture, her dream project, is planned to function as a cultural corridor to preserve and revitalise Asia’s cultural heritage.

Padma Subrahmanyam is wired differently. As she says she cannot ‘think small.’ Her dreams, like her dance and research, are extraordinary. And the best thing is that she continues to dream. A rare combination of dancer, research scholar, choreographer, teacher, music composer, singer, author and Indologist, Padma has been, for the last decade, immersed in her dream of building the Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC).

The foundation is aimed at functioning as a cultural corridor that will help revitalise Asian cultural links. “There are strong cultural links between nations of this region that are seen through the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Bharata’s Natyasastra and Tamil works like Thiruppavai. On my way to Japan to receive the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Award I visited Indonesia. There, on a guided tour to Prambanan, the temple complex in Central Java, I discovered 53 karana sculptures that were very similar to what I had made for the temple at Satara as advised by Sree Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. And there are so many other links, which we intend to revitalise through this institution,” explains Padma.

Padma becomes animated when she talks about this project. Her excitement is palpable in her eyes, her hands, her gestures.

“The Tamil Nadu government gave us five acres of land, eight kilometres near Mahabalipuram, where we have begun construction of what is envisaged to be a research centre for performing arts at a pan-Asian level, a place where artistes and scholars can meet and work. When completed, there will be a Bharatamuni Memorial that will comprise a museum of Asian performing arts, an auditorium, library, seminar hall, an administrative block, cottages and rooms for visiting scholars and artistes.”

This project takes a huge chunk of Padma’s time but she says that she has managed to strike a fine balance between all her other activities. “I still dance a lot and I’m looking into new areas of research. I have been able to balance all that quite well. I have also learned to keep a balance between bouquets and brickbats. Oh! Yes, even today after all these years in the field I still get a fair share of criticism for my dance, mainly for my other projects. But all this has only helped me become more determined; it has helped me grow.”

Garnering the resources

The biggest change that has happened to Padma once she ventured into BIFAC has been learning how to demand money for her stage performances and other public appearances.

“I have never done this before. The project needs a few crores and I have already ploughed all my resources into it. Everything I ‘earn’ today goes into it. In the beginning it was tough asking people for a fixed amount as fee. But my friends taught me how to go about it and also drove into me that it was not a sin asking for money for a good cause like this. Ironically, at this stage of my career I have begun doing this.”

In fact, the amount collected from participants of a three-day Natyasastra workshop organised in Kochi by BIFAC and Sandhya Nritya Niketan is to be utilised for the Centre.

There were many who asked Padma why she chose to establish an Asian cultural centre rather than restricting herself to something that is Indian or even more localised. Padma was ready with her answer. There is need, she felt, to work for Asian solidarity.

“The problem is that we in India have been looking at only the differences rather than realising the similarities of cultures. Moreover, there is need to preserve the integrity and sanctity of our culture which is fast giving way to a sort of pub culture. I have seen this happen before my eyes in Chennai, Coimbatore and Bangalore. The Asian nations also face similar issues. I’m trying to do my bit for the future generation.”

Padma’s life is centred on dance. This is her 62nd year on stage and she is still a busy performer, active in her unique creative contributions to contemporary Indian dance. She sings for several dance performances of her disciples accompanied by Gayatri Kannan, her nephew’s wife. Padma continues to teach at Nrithyodaya, the school founded by her illustrious father, K. Subrahmanyam, a pioneer in film making and a patriarch in the field of culture.

“The school is older than me,” Padma says with a laugh. “I began teaching there as a teenager. We have evolved a new pedagogy for body training, based on my study of the Natya Sastra. We want to give the students a holistic view of the various aspects of dance, theoretical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Our syllabus here includes Sanskrit and Indology. And deserving students are given free training.”

Post independent India has seen the revival of various regional dance forms such as Bharatanatyam. Padma was the first to discover the long forgotten Margi tradition common to the entire Indian subcontinent and even beyond.

Landmark production

“In fact on July 13 I’ll be performing the popular dance drama ‘Viralimalai Kuravanji’ at the Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, along with Priyadarshini Govind, Shobana and Vineeth. This has been a dance production of Nrithyodaya for over 50 years and I’m so happy to perform with three brilliant, young dancers who have volunteered to dance in this fund-raiser event. Later this year, sometime in October, I will be dancing at a few venues in Kerala under the aegis of Soorya. I choose on an average three to four performances every month from the many requests I get. So, I’m still busy as a dancer,” Padma signs off.