Be it her dance repertoire or personal decisions, Shobana does what she believes in.
A house painted deep lilac somehow defines her! A day after her latest show, ‘Samadhina’, dancer-actor Shobana Chandrakumar Pillai is understandably tired. When you question her about the colour, she says, “It’s my favourite colour. But then it is not just me. Back in Kerala, orange and purple coloured houses are common and it has nothing to do with vasthu, mind you. Not that I have no faith in it – it’s part of the spectrum like spirituality, astrology and music.”
Shobana trained in Bharatanatyam under Chitra Visweswaran and Padma Subrahmanyam and runs Kalarpana, her dance school. In this interview, she reveals how her creative thought process works and her philosophy. Excerpts:
First, about ‘Samadhina’… so many different elements… surprises?
No surprises. We didn’t come up with something just like that. So there is no room for errors. I have passed that stage and made mistakes. This time, it was all planned ahead. I left nothing to chance - the musicians, the dancers coming on cue and to the beat, the way the costumes were designed, the look - in fact, everything. This is what I do. And this is also what I am paid to do. Bharatnatyam is defined in many ways and everyone has an opinion. But I see it as a consummate art – a kind of fifth Veda. It is not meant for only a section of the people. It is meant for whoever wants to see it. Back benchers, front benchers, the masses, the critics, who makes these distinctions? Money, right? So I find all this superfluous. People loved the show, and that’s what matters.
What would you say to those who might feel there was a dilution of the pure classical element?
We have a particular training that we put forth. On top of that, there are the individual instincts/paths. Which we have woven to depict spirituality, which by the way is not a religion. Natyam is universal and with it comes music. Anything beautiful, Sringaram including, goes with music and dance. Western classical music and classical dance gel beautifully. Water down the classical content, it changes. The outcome of a show of this kind is that people come with certain expectations. Which is why we began with Siva; the classical pieces, which I call the super structure, are what we are actually trained in. Only then do we go on to Krishna and all the other things we are comfortable doing!
How different was the musical element? Anil Srinivasan, for instance, figures in many blended concerts…
I felt Anil would have liked to play what he is trained in. I love Western classical music – I grew up on that thanks to my parents who loved it too. So I said let’s do something with only Western classical and he was fine with it. He also put me on to Mr Woo, a professor at A.R. Rahman’s Conservatory. And they came up with pieces (designed for a seven-member ensemble but which had to create the same impact with two) and the dance evolved with it.
Where did the film part come in? Including the song ‘Kannum Kannum’ from ‘Vanjikottai Valiban’?
Well, again to connect with the audience. There were genres - Sufi, Carnatic, Hindustani and so on. The main challenge was to balance them all. Living in Chennai means Tamil films and dance would mean Padminiji and Vyjayanthimalaji. So the song was included. It is a trance of a kind. I have two or three outstanding students who could execute it so well.
Do you believe the costumes reflect the moods?
We cannot mood it all. There are financial implications. It was a charity show. I try to get decent fabrics with colours I feel will look good on stage. I don’t make my students pay for the costume. I design, decide and think that I can do it cheaper than anyone else.
What about the grainy looking backdrop? That too in black and white?
To be honest, that is the only thing I didn’t get involved with. The grainy look, as you put it, was meant to get a theatrical look. A temple with pillars, Chidambaram as we start the programme with Siva. Don’t forget we get the venue in the last minute.
How many months of preparation went into ‘Samadhina’?
Months? Oh no. It took about 10 days! Of course, costume and other things happened along but the musicians came a day or two before D-Day and we connected. I did have my regular orchestra, but the other guest musicians came much later. But being such professionals, they knew how to blend. Problems arise only when an artist chooses to be above the art. Not otherwise.
Are you happy with the outcome?
People have liked it. But I am never ‘very happy’ with what I do. When I go on stage, I am not in ecstasy. I am calm, peaceful and collected but not in that state. I go ecstatic when I watch others perform. So then I guess I am not fully satisfied.
I have had a strong basic training with my guru Chitra akka. A great deal of what I am is because of her. My aunts (the Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini) whom I have seen rehearsing or dancing, helped me realise where I come from. I have worked with Padma akka. They are all my gurus in a way. But I also have to say that I am not influenced by others. I have never looked for anything consciously. I love artists across genres – guitarist John Mclaughlin, Birju Maharajji, Sonal Mansinghji… I can go on. I love the way Alarmel Valli akka does her work and Chitra akka for her discipline, detailing and out-of-the-box thinking.
What about the actor in you?
Oh, I did a film that is a superhit – ‘Thira,’ a Malayalam film. I do films now and then. I’m teaching, I’m a mom and I’m doing my own thing. I don’t think about what I am going to do next; I just do! As for Tamil cinema, I do get offers. But if they are dance teacher kind of roles, forget it. I’m too old to dance in films. I don’t mind playing anything provided it is a good film. Maybe next year I might do a Tamil film.
Straddling so many worlds… How do you do it?
There’s nothing to straddle. I still do hang out at parties thrown by friends. But I get bored with all that. You won’t see me doing much of that. There are very few I can talk to. Then there is my daughter. I like spending time with her. She is five. I would like to see her as a consummate performer one day. She has a good sense of rhythm and she knows when we mess up.
Nothing for now. We can plan grand things, but we also need a grand sponsor. When I perform, there is a huge audience, for whatever the reason. I don’t take that for granted. If people say they come because of my film background, so be it. I am conscious of the fact that I don’t have much time left. Not like a musician, who can go on and on… A dancer has physical limitations. I really rehearse for productions like Samadhina. But when it comes to Margam, I don’t. I allow my moods to dictate my show.
Shobana Chandrakumar Pillai has acted in more than 200 films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Kannada and English. She has worked with directors such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, K. Balachandar, A.M. Fazil, Mani Ratnam, Bharathan and Priyadarshan. She won the National Film Award for Best Actress twice, for her performances in ‘Manichitrathazhu’ (1993) and ‘Mitr, My Friend’ (2001). Her other films include ‘Kanamarayathu’, ‘Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove,’ (1984), Yaathra, Rangam (1985), Anantaram, Vrutham (1987), Idhu Namma Aalu (1988), Siva (1989), Innale (1990), ‘Thalapathi, Manichitrathazhu (1993), ‘Thenmavin Kombath,’ ‘Dance like a Man’, Mampazhakkalam and Makalkku. In fact, From Aviduthe Pole Ivideyum to Upaharam, Shobana did twelve movies in a single year, 1985.
Shobana Chandrakumar Pillai has acted in more than 200 films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Kannada and English. She has worked with directors such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, K. Balachandar, A.M. Fazil, Mani Ratnam, Bharathan and Priyadarshan. She won the National Film Award for Best Actress twice, for her performances in ‘Manichitrathazhu’ (1993) and ‘Mitr, My Friend’ (2001).
Her other films include ‘Kanamarayathu’, ‘Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove,’ (1984), Yaathra, Rangam (1985), Anantaram, Vrutham (1987), Idhu Namma Aalu (1988), Siva (1989), Innale (1990), ‘Thalapathi, Manichitrathazhu (1993), ‘Thenmavin Kombath,’ ‘Dance like a Man’, Mampazhakkalam and Makalkku. In fact, From Aviduthe Pole Ivideyum to Upaharam, Shobana did twelve movies in a single year, 1985.
In a Trance
Every now and then there is a way to make people sit up and notice what you are doing, just as members of ABHAI burst into ‘Ganesh Vandana’ at Citi Centre on World Dance Day (April 29) surprising/shocking onlookers. much to the surprise (read shock) of the onlookers. That was hardly the time to analyze the dance or the dancers. It was purely a moment of joy and creativity. and it drew everyone present into that spirit. In a similar sense of joie de verve and creativity, whether it was Ramayana with voices from Bollywood or Krishna that was large, grand and operatic, was ‘Samadhina – Trance,’ which was performed to packed audiences recently on April 22 at the Music Academy. Dance as an expression of the soul is an individual journey; .it is personal and it is something that arises of each person’s interpretation of life.
‘Samadhina’ – Trance, was a show with many elements the presence of which can be argued back and forth for its concept, styles of dance and imagery. Yet its appeal cannot be denied simply because its creator Shobana just believed in it. creating-and putting it out there for people, who have proved yet again that they would like to see what she does if the large numbers that turned out are any indication!
Mounted on a wide canvas of thought and ideas, the show had music (Anil Srinivasan on the grand piano, Vijay Ghate on the tabla, Sanjoy Das on the acoustic guitar and Kyunwoo Chung on the western guitar), dance or Bharata Nrithyam by Shobana’s students, colour (costume in various hues and patterns) and ambience (black and white blow-ups of temple corridors)… and everything in her sensibilities that added up to a spiritual trance.
From Siva to the mountains, from Krishna to Brindavan, from classical to films, from Sufi interpretations and Bachto the minarets and finally the merging of the form to movements in all its avatars, the production managed to draw many streams of thought into a kind of a holistic experience.
At the end of the day Art is subjective and not every part of it can be fitted into a category or label — there was much meandering, though the various process of creation, which took along with it movements that deviated sometimes from the purely classical idiom and the music (from Carnatic and Hindustani to the Western sounds). It felt like scattered pearls picked and gathered and strung together in a manner appealing to anyone. expecting visual and exciting things on stage. Across tastes and borders!
And then Sometimes, it is best for the artist and the creator to explain how and why things come together. If what she says makes sense, then that is all there is to it as the reality of bringing to form is in its existence, its appearance and in the way it appeals.