Noted dance guru A. Janardhanan goes down memory lane.

In the later years of her life, Guru Rukmini Devi Arundale choreographed “Buddhavataram”. For the lead role, the Kalakshetra founder chose her long-time disciple A. Janardhanan, one of her ace repertory dancers who willingly dedicated the best years of life to serving her and Kalakshetra. An intuitive guru and choreographer, when Rukmini Devi cast a dancer in a role, she created an indelible image.

Guru Janardhanan admits it was not only the role of a lifetime, but also the fulfilment of Rukmini Devi's long cherished desire to create a dance drama on the life of the Buddha. When the production toured South East Asia, the then Prime Minister of Vietnam was moved to tears, he recalls. But that role is only one of the gems in Guru Janardhanan's sparkling memories of nearly 47 years with his mentor.

Brought to Kalakshetra as a young boy, when his father Chandu Panikkar Asan was heading the Kathakali department, Janardhanan grew up to become not only a lead performer and popular teacher but also right-hand man to Rukmini Devi — “Athai” to all her students. Now retired from Kalakshetra and teaching privately in Chennai, Janardhanan brightens at the very mention of Athai. Organisations are still celebrating the birth anniversary of the arts pioneer, whose date of birth was February 29. But for Janardhanan, there is no season without memories of his mentor.

Excerpts from an interview with the Bharatanatyam and Kathakali maestro, who is one of the few remaining representatives of the Kallarikoda style of Kathakali:

Memories of Athai

She was not only a teacher, not only a boss. She was a mother. How caring she was when we were on tour! Mother, teacher, choreographer, guide, she was all in one.

On Kalakshetra's iconic Ramayana series, in which he played Lakshmana and then Rama for decades

We never thought we were dancing or acting. We thought we were doing the Ramayana. Lakshmana gets a blessing from Sumitra when they are about to leave for exile. She says, “Take Rama as Dasharatha, and Sita as your mother. Go peacefully, happily.” It means, you won't miss your father and mother, but Athai gave us the inner meaning of the lines, which she must have got from scholars: “Rama is none other than Vishnu. Sita is Goddess Lakshmi. The forest is Vaikuntham. You are all together, because you are (the incarnation of) Adisesha. So go happily.” These things can't be learnt from videos. (If you learn that way) you will only be doing the hands (gestures). You won't be able to show the inner meaning unless some senior teachers explain.

Learning on the job

Athai gave all the freedom to Periya Sarada Teacher (scholar S. Sarada) to teach us. After every programme there was a post-mortem. For example, she would say, the way you looked at him in that scene was not okay. That (support) itself gave us confidence.

Stage management lessons

Paul Strom was a senior actor. He was interested in Indian religions. He used to set the lights for the dramas (in the 1970s). No programme took place without proper lights rehearsals. He would tell Athai, let the artistes be conscious of the lights. He would test us — me, Krishnaveni, Balagopal, etc. — by changing the direction of the lights. He would shout, “Okay you stupid fools!” It was a lively light rehearsal! He taught us how to reach a marked position or set a property on the stage: Look at it, close your eyes, feel the distance; when the lights dim, quickly go and you will be in the right place. We learnt how to mix the colour filters. When we did “Shyama” for Tagore's birth centenary, Strom designed the lights. In the scene where Uttiya is beheaded he gave terrifying effects. The top people guided us, so though we were not much experienced, we held our own.

Old lighting technology

Oh my God! We had to pluck one and put it there…. It was huge equipment. Sometimes there would be fire, sometimes sparking.

On his father Chandu Panikkar

He joined Kalakshetra at 60 in 1948 and worked till he was 89. He was a student of Icchara Menon in the Kallarikoda tradition of North Kerala. Athai preferred this style. In this, prominence is given to anga shuddha. Now, apart from (C.K.) Balagopal, (K.P.) Kunhiraman, (V.P.) Dhananjayan and myself, no one follows it. The Madhya Kerala style followed in Kalamandalam has become popular. Who is there to adjudge us now? It was approved by Athai. That's all we need.

His forthcoming book

The book is on navarasas but mainly on Athai's work, dance dramas, etc. It will be useful for trainees. It is expected in May.