‘Natya Kala Sarathy’ recipient Meenakshi Chitharanjan is candid as she talks about her Bharatanatyam odyssey.
‘The flag-bearer of the great Pandanallur Tradition’ is how veteran Vyjayanthimala Bali hailed Bharatanatyam dancer Meenakshi Chitharanjan during a recent award ceremony. It’s a heavy weight to bear, especially in today’s classical arena where lines dividing banis seem to be blurring. But Meenakshi is only too happy to bear it. “I consider it an honour to be called so. The responsibility is huge, but with it comes creative satisfaction.”
The elegant Bharatanatyam dancer is flush in the success of another Margazhi Season gone by where she was honoured with the ‘Natya Kala Sarathy’ title from Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. And is busy as ever what with the schedule of her students' performance going into March. Sitting in her tastefully done up bungalow in Alwarpet, she says, “I only wish my mother were here to see me now. She would have enjoyed every bit of my success much more than me. In fact she was instrumental in my taking up dance. She watched her cousin practise and was so passionate about dance that she decided that if a girl was born to her, she would make sure that little girl learnt Bharatanatyam.” So, after four sons, when Meenakshi was born to Savithri Sabanagayam, sure enough, the little girl's destiny was pretty much chalked out.
When she was four, Meenakshi began her artistic journey under the watchful eye of the illustrious Pandanallur Chockalingam Pillai and later his son, Subbaraya Pillai. Recalls the dancer, “Those days, we did not have a proper school. Periya Vadhyar (Chockalingam Pillai) had hired a room in a Corporation school in Egmore. We were a handful of students. My guru believed in perfecting every little step, every adavu. So we would practise the same adavu for weeks sometimes, till he was satisfied. And vadhyar had some choicest of abuses reserved for those who did not keep up! That kind of rigorous training has indeed come in good stead, for we not only learnt dance, but lessons in life too.” Added to all this, Meenakshi played many a sport including tennis and basketball, which kept her fit.
When her father, who was in the Administrative Service, moved to Delhi, Meenakshi would visit Madras every holiday, stay with her grandmother and continue her dance classes. “Around that time, Chockalingam Pillai was not keeping good health. So he handed over his baton to son Subbaraya Pillai. And since I was a visiting student, I began taking special classes from him. In a manner of speaking, I became Subbaraya Pillai’s first independent student.”
Meenakshi remembers the marathon dance sessions she used to have. “It would go on for hours.” And all that practice came to fruition when in 1966, she had her arangetram. She was nine. “The then Chief Minister M. Bhaktavatsalam was the chief guest. He blessed me. And years later, I married his grandson Arun Chitharanjan! Now, that’s fate for you!”Date with Bharatanatyam
Even as she enrolled into Ethiraj College, Meenakshi kept her date with Bharatanatyam. She says, “My parents did all the work… organising shows, arranging the orchestra, booking their travel arrangements, handling invitees and the press, taking care of costume and jewellery… everything. All I had to do was just dance. And today, when I have to look into every minute detail, I am able to appreciate all that they did for me.”
Performances at prestigious sabhas paved the way for a promising career. “My first December Season recital was for Tamil Isai Sangam. The Music Academy debut happened in 1975. I danced at the inauguration.”
Marriage and children followed and for a few years, dance took a backseat. Till she met Srinivasa Pillai, a mridangam vidwan, who had played for her since her childhood. “He lived on the same street as I did. One day, he spotted me as I was seeing off my daughter to school. He came up to me and asked me if I was still dancing. When I replied in the negative, he pushed me to take up the anklets again. And soon, I was back on track.” Here, she acknowledges the strong yet silent support from her musical-minded husband and piano-playing mother-in-law.
Abhinaya training under Kalanidhi Narayanan was yet another important phase in her career path. “We (including Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli) were among her earliest students. She chiselled my art further.” Even as avenues opened up for more and more performances, awards sure enough came her way, including Padma Shri, Kalaimamani and Nrithya Choodamani. She says, “My only regret is that my mother was not around when I got the Padma award She would have been ecstatic.”
Another milestone in her life was the birth of Kaladiksha, her dance school. “Actually, I began by teaching my daughter Aparna and my niece. Soon their friends joined and slowly, the school took shape.”
Today, Meenakshi has over 100 students and every time, a student takes the stage, Meenakshi feels she has done a little bit to ensure the Pandanallur bani is kept alive.