The practice of learning dance just for the sake of competitions sake is a fallout of the all-pervading influence of the youth festivals. But Kuchipudi danseuse, guru and choreographer Geetha Padmakumar recalls how her guru Kalamandalam Mohanathulassi insisted that she should not participate in any competition. Rigorous training helped Geetha identify the exquisite beauty of the dance form. It motivated her to go for advanced training from the legendary Guru Vempati Chinna Sathyam in Chennai. Her Guru presented her proudly at festivals across the globe. While all her performances have been outside Kerala, at home, she turned a sought-after teacher. Geetha was recently in Thrissur in connection with the launch of her website by Manju Warrier. In fact, Geetha was the inspiration for Manju’s second innings as a dancer. In an interview after the function, she talked about explained her two-decade old journey in dance. Excerpts from the interview…
A family of artistes
I was born in Haripad but brought up in Ernakulam. As I look back, I feel my family’s cultural background has contributed to my artistry. My mother and her sisters were diploma holders in music. My uncle, Haripad K.P.N. Pillai was a music director at All India Radio, Kozhikode. Another uncle, Udyogamandal Vikraman, underwent training in the Vazhuvoor style of Bharathanatyam after a course at the FACT School. My father, Velappan Ilayidam, though not an artiste was always a source of inspiration for my dance pursuits. He insisted I do well academically too. So I did my graduation in economics. I then did my graduation in Bharatanatyam from St Teresa’s College and added a post graduate degree from RLV College, Tripunithura, both with ranks.
First steps as a dancer
I started my schooling at St Joseph’s School, Ernakulam. While in lower kindergarten, Sister Rosette spotted my talent and sent me for various competitions. In the higher classes, Kalamandalam Gopinath and RLV Shyamala were my teachers and I brought laurels to my school (St Antony’s, Kacheripady) in the fields of folk dance, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. I bid adieu to the world of competitions in class eight when Mohanathulassi teacher took me under her wing for training in Kuchipudi. Realising my potential in this dance form, she took me to her Guru, Vempati Chinna Sathyam.
In the world of Kuchipudi
I stood transfixed before that legendary Guru who had produced great exponents such as Hema Malini, Sobha Naidu and Manju Bharghavi. But he was a symbol of humility and care. After watching my short performance, he told my mother that any requests for sending me home would not be entertained. That was in May 1994. From December onwards, Guruji selected me for performances. The gurukulam training at Kuchipudi Dance Academy, Chennai, was strict and sometimes the same item was practised for almost a year. As time went on, he appeared to have more confidence in me and started giving me pivotal roles like Sathyabhama in his dance-dramas ‘Sree Krishna Parijatham’ and of Ganga in ‘Ardhanareeswaram’.
For a show in Visakhapatnam where ‘Ksheerasagara Madhanam’ was to be staged, Prabha Ramesh, the popular star in Tamil and Telugu films, could not turn up owing to ill health. He trained me for just 15 minutes for the role of Menaka, which was earmarked for Prabha. I could not believe my ears when Guruji announced after the show ‘This little Malayali girl was compelled to don this role with a training of just 15 minutes’, and he hugged me on the stage. No award in my life could be richer than that. He selected me for group and solo performances in all the major festivals in India including Khajuraho. In Kerala, I danced at the Soorya and Malabar festivals. Among foreign jaunts, the one in the United States was the most rewarding – around six months and 60 stages. In connection with Guruji’s 83rd birthday celebrations, I was invited to perform with the great fraternity of his former students.
As a teacher
Even after seven years of my stay at the Academy, I still frequent the institution for training from Guruji’s son, Ravi. I settled in Perumbavur after my marriage and have opened classes in Perumbavur and in Thrissur, mainly for teachers. Manju [Warrier] wanted her daughter to be trained in the art form. Three classes later, Manju expressed her desire to learn the dance. An intelligent student, she can assimilate the intricacies of the dance form with amazing speed. Her performances since, starting from Guruvayur, have been under my direction.
Thulasi Ramayanam, Ashtapadis, excerpts from ‘Narayanathirtha Tharangani’ are some of my widely applauded productions. I am compelled to choreograph for competitions, as youth festivals are the order of the day. One of my pieces was staged by 19 contestants in the state festival held in Malappuram. My experience as a judge has been bitter on many an occasion and I have opted out of such assignments completely. I feel that the grace marks awarded is a bane. The government should instead provide stages for the winners at the numerous festivals. This can go a long way in creating good dancers.