Padma Subrahmanyam on her latest projects

Padma Subrahmanyam epitomises the balancing act of performance and scholarly research. The veteran Bharatanatyam exponent and creator of Bharatanrityam — the dance form based on the evidence of treatises and the karana movements depicted in ancient Shiva sculptures — was in the Capital to perform as part of Natya Tarangini’s Parampara Festival. On October 2 she presents a new production in Chennai dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, as part of her institution Nrithyodaya’s 70th anniversary, and a few days later is expected back in Delhi to accept the title of Akademi Ratna (Fellow) from the Sangeet Natak Akademi. All this amidst other performances (in her 60th year on stage) and guiding her students in the practice and scholarship of dance. Excerpts from a chat:

On students at Nrithyodaya

I don’t take too many students. I don’t like the conveyor belt kind of system. I give them personal attention. I don’t increase the number per year. We have a four-year certificate course starting from age seven. Then, a diploma course for another four years. And there is a one-year karana course after this diploma. There is also a nattuvangam course.

Guiding distance learners

In the last two years in addition to this (regular classes) we are affiliated to Sastra University, Thanjavur, so we are conducting through distance mode, BFA and MFA (Bachelors and Masters in Fine Arts). Under this scheme we have 75 students. These students are coming from all over the world for contact classes, one Saturday and Sunday in two months. But on the one Saturday and Sunday they do so much that there is enough to practise for the rest of the month. The first batch of Masters students will receive their degrees on October 14, because it is a two-year course. For MFA we have students, apart from many parts of India, from the U.S., Dubai, Australia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Nepal. They come once in two months, spending their money. I handle this personally, though of course I have a staff.

We are starting a PhD programme this year. I’ve agreed to take five candidates this year: two from abroad and three from India. The qualifications are M.A., and if they have not done an MPhil then there is a methodology test. They need to have ten years of dance experience, preferably Bharatanatyam, but it can be in other Indian traditions. During counselling I decide the dates for the whole year. I have also made it possible to jump from one faculty to another, which is not usually the case. For example a science graduate can also join.

(Other institutions are also trying distance learning experiments in dance.) IGNOU called me also. I came for an initial meeting. But they expect the teacher and student to be techno-savvy. The distance is real! That’s why I’ve made this via media of contact classes. They work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then they can go back and work under the guidance of their guru. We don’t insist that they should only stick to one guru. It’s a very holistic course: Talam, Music, Nattuvangam, and a general know-how, for example they should know about the composers. This (distance learning programme) came about because once I had gone somewhere as an examiner. The dancer didn’t know the music, she didn’t know the hero of the song…unless you have moorings in this culture you can’t do justice to this dance. The theory is not just the hastas. For instance, I took a group on a study tour to Thanjavur, Kumbhakonam, Chidambaram, Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

On the 70th anniversary of Nrityodaya

We are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the school (and also her 60th year in the dance field) with a new production, “Gandhi Mahaan Kathai”. I have compiled it from the work by (author, poet and filmmaker) Kothamangalam Subbu who wrote “Gandhi Mahaan Kathai” for Villupattu (a storytelling art of Tamil Nadu), which you could describe as Harikatha for the rural folk. The style is very rural, and I’ve set it to folk music and with that I’m doing folk style dance. It is narrative, so you don’t see Gandhiji. My father (filmmaker and nationalist K. Subrahmanyam) was the founder of Nrithyodaya, and he was a Gandhian, so this is the best tribute I can pay, by paying a tribute to Gandhiji. Along with me will be Vineeth, one of my best students, who is a star in Tamil, Malayalam, and other films and 45 other dancers. Many of my students have come for the production. There is a live orchestra. It will be at on October 2 at Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai. My invitation will say “no speeches”.

Progress of the Bharata-Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC)

It has been on my mind for 20 years. Like a mirage, it keeps receding, but now it seems it’s going to fructify. There will be a shrine for Bharatamuni and 108 karanas of Shiva and Parvati (designed by her under the guidance of the late Kanchi Paramacharya to show the movement rather than just static postures). All (sculptors) are traditional sthapatis. I’m not having any modern artists (for the karana sculptures). R. Jaganathan is the architect. He had learnt dance from me. Each year the budget increases, and the sculptors take a long time. It’s a laborious process. Six-seven years ago it was Rs.30,000 per karana and now it’s about 50,000. We need about Rs.3 crore for the first stage. Dancers and dance schools have sponsored the karanas. There will also be a library, a museum, a conference hall, a guest house, an administrative block. Some of these might help bring in funds, but the money collected for the karana project cannot be used for the buildings. We can manage the shrine but the prakaram around it to house the karanas needs funds. The shrine should be ready by early 2013.