Siblings and classical dancers Draupadi Praveen and Padmini Krishnan on performing together and creating a new dance idiom.

The school- and college-level youth festivals in Kerala have seen the birth of many talented artistes, who, after a point, either fizzle out or choose to retire from the stage owing to many reasons. But there are a handful who still hold fast to their art form and continue to achieve laurels. The Neelamana Sisters, Draupadi Praveen and Padmini Krishnan, fall into the second category.

Marriage and motherhood have not hampered their progress as dancers. In fact the graceful and elegant duo, both of them medical practitioners, come across as two thick friends just out of their teens who are out to have fun. But the siblings, over the last four years or so, have been busy creating a new dance idiom through their jugalbandi performances, with Dr. Draupadi performing Bharatanatyam and Dr. Padmini, Kuchipudi.

“We chose these genres because we are comfortable presenting them. In the jugalbandhi, we perform the same kriti, sticking to the respective styles. The rhythm, mudras, adavus… everything is different in these two dance styles. While Bharatanatyam has natyadharmi abhinaya, Kuchipudi has elements of lokadharmi. But, ultimately, both genres convey the same meaning to the audience,” says Dr. Draupadi.

Dr. Padmini adds: “Our first jugalbandhi was at Tirupathi temple, which was more of a coincidence. Till then, we used to perform at the same events, but separately. Today we cannot imagine giving individual performances. The energy would be missing. The passion and bond we share as sisters and dancers is something special. Of course, there is an advantage as well – we can cover up for each other’s mistakes!”

Coming from a family of doctors (“there are 13 doctors in our family”), was it easy to focus on dance? “Of course. There was no pressure on us to become doctors. In fact, we started learning dance because our parents (N.N. Murali and Yogavathy Antharjanam), wanted us to do so. But eventually, we fell in love with dance. We got admission for medicine based on the grace marks we got from the Kalathilakam titles we bagged. Even while doing medicine, we continued to perform. Once we passed out, we chose to be dancers and not doctors,” says Draupadi.

Talking about the youth festival scene, the duo feels that they were festivals in the true sense. Unlike today when you have reality shows, there were no other platforms to showcase one’s artistic talent, they say. But has quality suffered over the years? “Not at all. We strongly feel that today’s kids are very gifted and talented. But the problem is that they are not taught pieces that suit their age. How can you expect a small girl to reproduce the bhakti bhava of Bhakthameera or the angst of love-stricken Damayanti? Children can never understand the essence of what they are performing when they are forced to do such peices,” says Dr. Padmini.

The judging parameters too have changed, she adds. “The first time when I went as a judge, I was shocked to see the list given to me. The dance aspect was just one of the parameters. We were asked to give marks for make-up, costume, hairstyle and some other aspects as well, which meant that even if the dancer did not perform well, if his/her appearance was good, that was enough to score marks. That is quite appalling!”

The duo is so much into dance that shuttling between their respective houses for practice is not tough. Although Draupadi stays in Kollam and Padmini in Kottayam, on weekends they come together at one of these two places. In between, Draupadi travels to Chennai for her Bharatanatyam classes under Lavanya Ananth, while Padmini takes her Kuchipudi lessons from Geeta Padmakumar in Perumbavur, besides learning Carnatic music from Mathangi Sathyamoorthy.

This is in addition to their responsibilities as homemakers and mothers. While Draupadi has two kids, Padmini has three. “My youngest one is just one year old. You may not believe it, but we had given performances when we were pregnant! We are immensely grateful to our parents, our spouses (both of them doctors) and our in-laws who’ve encouraged and supported us all along,” Padmini says.

Short takes

Dr. Draupadi won the Kalathilakam title in the University of Kerala youth festivals in 1996 and 1997. Dr. Padmini was the Kalathilakam at the state school youth festival in 1997 and 1998 and in the University of Kerala youth festival in 2000.

They launched their debut production, ‘Atmanivedanam’, at the Soorya festival recently. The work presents Ramayana through the eyes of Sita and Urmila, who are sisters and sisters-in-law. “However, it is not just a presentation of the epic. We are holding a mirror to present-day society, where women continue to be victimised not only by men, but also by women themselves. Manthara was responsible for the misery that Sita and Urmila went through in the Ramayana. Manthara, an embodiment of evil, was presented as a shadow. We presented the Rama-Ravana war through Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppetry) performed by Ramachandra Pulavar,” they say.