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Updated: October 16, 2009 16:22 IST

Expression remains his forte

Gowri Ramnarayan
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FRESH APPROACH TO CHOREOGRAPHY: N. Srikanth.
Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu FRESH APPROACH TO CHOREOGRAPHY: N. Srikanth. Photo: R. Ravindran

PERSPECTIVE For N. Srikanth, donning female roles comes as naturally as male roles.

He is as flamboyant and fun-loving as she is reflective and reticent. So how did dancer N. Srikanth manage to marry his polar opposite? True, audiences had long noted their stage compatibility. Yet the man was stunned when Aswathi, his disciple and successful stage partner, suggested that they team up for life. "With your beauty and brains, you can do far better for yourself," he said. But now, he fondly admits to chatting about shopping with his mother-in-law, dance guru Saraswati, while his wife discusses world cinema and literary trends with her father, eminent writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair.

Srikanth was lucky to be born at all {ndash} his mother decided to have the third child only because her childless sister offered to adopt him. Growing up in Melattur where his uncle M.R. Krishnamurti served as treasurer to the Bhagavatamela company, the boy joined the cast as Prahlada. During the 31 years of performing this ritual drama, he specialised in female roles - Chandramati, Sita, Rukmini and Suniti. He recalls vidwan M. Balamuralikrishna saying, "You look stunning!" and actor Sivaji Ganesan chuckling, "If I'd been younger, I'd have married you!" As the pregnant Devaki, he left viewers wondering, "How did a boy understand what it feels like to carry a child?"

Formal training

The early years saw the all-male cast under layers of white or yellow make-up, in saris and jewels borrowed from the village women. "Cycle kattu is still my favourite." Formal training in Bharatanatyam was under Pandanallur Shanmugasundaram Pillai, Kumbakonam. Ill health made Pillai depute disciple Saraswati Sundaresan for the arangetram, "costing a princely sum of Rs. 4,500!" The town-bred teacher replaced the sringara songs of the nattuvanar (Manavi, Marubari) with a 'male' repertoire of bhakti ("Swami naan undan adimai", Murugan stuti).

The second innings began at guru Padma Subrahmanyam's school, virtually gurukulavasam, with a few hours of sleep at home. A second arangetram at the Melattur temple had the dancer dressed as a woman doing lasya items in part one, followed by part two of male tandava items, all specially choreographed by his guru. For years he followed this pattern in every solo, "Assistants pulled off my wig and I changed 'gender' in 6 minutes flat!" he laughs.

Is it so easy to change body language, glance and gesture? "The transformation has to come from within, not in costume change. But I am a Gemini, you know!" And how did he transpose himself to a wholly new style with guru Padma? "Honestly, it just happened, though today I find it difficult to explain to my students about precision control, timing and balance in a chari or karana." As his guru's shadow, he learnt by observation as well as her grooming. "God knows how many times she corrected my tribhangi!"

Through B.Sc (Botany) and M.A (Sanskrit) courses, Srikanth remained focussed on dancing. Doing nattuvangam or dancing with guru Padma was daunting "because she herself never knew what she'd do on stage." Once, as the battling Devi, she rushed into a new direction, leaving poor Mahisha (Srikanth) too far away to be killed. "Akka shouted one word at me. My terror made me take a single leap to where she wanted me to be!" he laughs.

Recognition at last

When Srikanth moved out to make it on his own, he knew he could not imitate his guru. Going back to his Pandanallur mode, he layered it with her style in fresh choreography. Nattuvangam assured income. After 2002, he was recognised as a dancer as well, "on par with my peers among women dancers - in performance, if not in awards. Among male dancers, I think I perform the most." Abhinaya remains his strength, though he no longer adopts a woman's costume. He prioritises communication.

A versifier from childhood, he revels in abhinaya for Tamil songs. But Kerala connection has left its mark. Unable to launch a school due to heavy touring, Srikanth conducts workshops with his wife in her mother's dance school in Kozhikode. He dreams of choreographing his father-in-law's powerful 'Rendam Muzham' telling the Pandava story from Bhima's perspective. He sighs, "Sometimes I feel I haven't got what I deserve, but I know I also got more than what I expected. So!"

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