N. Srikanth and his wife, Aswathy Srikanth, are both accomplished classical dancers, each a name to be reckoned with in their own right, having conquered the stage with their skills in nritta, nritya, and natya. Together they make a dynamic duo and are today one of Bharatanatyam's leading couples, on and off stage; artistes who together “create magic on stage.” While Srikanth literally grew up on the stage, following his family's footsteps into Bhagavata mela, the dance drama of Melattur in Tamil Nadu, and later training in Bharatanatyam under Padanallur Shanmugha Sundaram Pillai, Saraswathi, and Padma Subrahmaniam, Aswathy too had an affinity for the arts from an early age thanks to her training in Mohiniyattam under her mother, Kalamandalam Saraswathy, and later under Kalamandalam Leelamma. After deciding to take up dance professionally, Aswathy learnt Bharatanatyam under Srikanth himself and is trained in Kuchipudi too. Apart from regularly performing together in India and abroad, the Kozhikode-based duo runs Nrithalaya, a dance school founded by Kalamandalm Saraswathy. Srikanth was recently chosen for the Sangeet Natak Akademi's Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in 2010 for making a mark in Bhagavata mela. Srikanth and Aswathy, who were in Thiruvananthpuram for the Soorya Festival, talk to Friday Review about their strengths as a couple and their journey in dance. Excerpts from an interview…
Challenges of choreographing a duet
Aswathy: It is very challenging because intrinsically both of us are soloists. When choreographing for two people, the scope for manodharma (improvisation) is very limited. You really can't make any changes to the choreography on stage.
Srikanth: The advantage is that the audience gets to see the same thing presented by two different energies. The male energy and female energy on stage make a striking and visually appealing combo. However, when two contrasting energies appear on stage there has to be a demarcation between the male and the female. They should not appear as carbon copies of each other.
Playing on each other's strengths
Srikanth: Aswathy is a sincere and dedicated artiste – she was so even when she was my student. She is modest and not at all flamboyant, unlike me. With Aswathy, the line is very clear: on stage she becomes a consummate artiste – a clean and beautiful dancer – and off stage she is quite grounded.
Aswathy: I like his energy and how effortlessly it comes across to the audience. I think it's very important for a male dancer to have that kind of energy on stage. I love his abhinaya, and in it I can see reflections of his guru Padu akka [Padma Subrahmaniam]. It's something that I am yet to match up to. But I think my demure presence on stage helps, for it brings out a nice contrast between us.
Srikanth: I'd like to do a full-fledged choreography where I present a female role and Aswathy dons a male role. She is very good at character roles such as that of Yudishtra. It's not that we will go for a radical change in attire where I would don female garb and she would cut off her hair! We will still be suitably dressed and present something different, within the strictures of Bharatanatyam.
Srikanth: Dance is a visual art form, and for the first five minutes, at least, it's the visual element that stands out. That's why we give a lot of importance to our costumes. We try to use different materials and textures and not just Kancheevaram. We've used Oriya silk, Pochampalli designs, and so on, and try to make the costumes as matching as possible. We were one of the first to use pink as a colour in our costumes. Black too. For instance, I take an element from Aswathy's costume – such as a design from her sari pallu – and highlight it in my sash.
Aswathy: Srikanth takes care of our styling. Our costumes have always been much talked about and we try to revamp our wardrobe at least three or four times a year. These days people expect something different from us and Srikanth, being a shopaholic, is more than happy to be creative with our costumes.
Attracting youngsters to dance
Aswathy: Youngsters these days are very receptive. And everyone seems to want to learn some art form or the other, especially those in Kerala. However, the sort of motivation to dedicate your life to your art is sorely lacking here. Just look at how many of those interested actually take up dance – or any other art form – professionally. One in 100, one in 1,000?
Srikanth: It's a motivation that has to be inculcated at a young age. In Kerala, the ultimate aim appears to be to learn an art form to participate in youth fetes. The marks that you get for winning a prize at the youth fetes have become so vital that it's overshadowing everything else. Fine arts is supposed to make a fine person out of you and is not meant for momentary pleasure.
Aswathy: It is up to the parents and teachers to bring about a change in attitude. With Nrithyalaya we are trying to make a difference. Youngsters should realise that the performance – and not the prize – is what gives joy.