Siblings Ram and Suresh Kishna talk about their artistic journey from South America to Thanjavur.
From the small country of Suriname in South America to The Netherlands in Europe to temple town of Thanjavur in India has been one arduous yet remarkable journey for the Kishna siblings, Ronald Suresh and Theodorus Ramjit. Arduous because they chose to pursue an art form that is not too common in those parts of the world, yet remarkable because they actually did follow their passion and have made a success of it. Ram and Suresh are Bharatanatyam dancers and they have had the privilege of learning from the great Kittappa Pillai himself. And today, as they are busy establishing Arangart: Tanjore Quartet United Arts Foundation in Auroville, they look back on their journey with a smile. They will be performing ‘Heavenly Illumination’ this evening, 7.30 p.m. at Alliance Francaise.
With their straw hats, dark shades, jeans and jackets, the siblings could pass off as tourists when we meet in Mamallapuram. But once they start talking, their hand gestures and body language give them away. “We are originally from Rajasthan” says Ram by way of an introduction. “My grandfather was an Army man with the British. When he was 22, me migrated to Suriname, then a Dutch colony, met and married my Bihari grandmother there. And our roots were sunk then. Then, my father, a well-to-do architect, moved to Amsterdam when we were quite young.”
The last two of eleven children, Ram and Suresh were always drawn to dance. “I remember we had a beautiful bronze figurine of Lord Nataraja. We were very proud of it as was a rare piece in Suriname. We would try out that pose even when we were children,” remembers Ram.
Brought up in a household where education was mandatory and the arts were encouraged, Ram and Suresh completed their formal education though even though they leaned towards an artistic career. It was Suresh, the younger of the two, who started taking formal lessons in Bharatanatyam in Amsterdam, from one of Guru Kittappa Pillai's disciples. All this, while juggling a high-pressure job with the Justice Department of the Government. Ram was inclined towards the fashion industry and even dabbled a little in designing.
But the call of solkattus, adavus and abhinaya was too strong to resist. About five years ago, the brothers decided to make a trip to Thanjavur to meet their master Guru Kittappa Pillai, a descendant of the Thanjavur Quartet. Cliched as it may sound, that trip changed their lives for ever. While Suresh had his arangetram in Holland, Ram took his first official steps at the Brihadeeswara temple.
Calling themselves 'ambassadors of the Indian culture' across continents, Ram and Suresh are trying to integrate their world vision into their dance. “We want people to know that there is more to India than just Bollywood.” To that end, the brothers have been teaching in Holland and even a few students in India. However, what really excites them is collaborations with other dancers. “Art has no boundaries and it’s that aspect that we want to explore and experiment with.”
How did the Dutch speaking Indians tackle the problem of language, especially when the padams and varnams are in poetic Telugu or Tamil? “Our vadhyar would translate the words and we would write it down. So much so, today, we have a complete documentation of all the items he taught us, with solkattus and other nuances.” As for the music, they recorded every song in the voice of their guru’s trusted singer Saraswathi Sankaranarayanan, who sings for them now.
Hard-core vegetarians who say their most important relationship is with Bharatanatyam, Ram and Suresh find spiritual solace in Bharatanatyam and today they feel proud that the name and fame of the Thanjavur Quartet has reached towns in Holland. “I think that is our greatest achievement.”