For somebody who had no previous dance training of any kind, Shri Shanmuga Sundaran has come a long way. “My guru gave nothing on a platter. She made me think for myself and grasp the nuances.”
The boy came to the guru and begged her to teach him Bharatanatyam. At age 20, he had no previous dance training of any kind. The teacher was sceptical. Finally, in an all-girls Vijayadasami class, his repeated urgings had her yielding half-heartedly, "Let's see. Okkaaru!" The Tamil term referred to the araimandi posture. Ignorant of Bharatanatyam parlance, the boy promptly sat down on the floor. Around him stood a bevy of girls in araimandi, hands on hips, trying to control their giggles.
A busy dancer and teacher today, virtually his ageing guru's right hand in her school, Shri Shanmuga Sundaran recounts his struggles in a soft, matter-of-fact voice without any bid for sympathy. Born (1974) in Namakkal, the only connection this son of a hardware store owning father and Malaysian mother had to the arts was through a little-remembered maternal grandfather, a singing actor in Madurai Balagana Sabha Boys' Company. Classical music was unknown to his school, nor did he ever get to listen to a live concert. But the local postmaster spoke to the boy about music and dance, introducing him to records and books. Dance sequences in films like 'Salangai Oli' and 'Mayuri' cast their spell. And little Shanmugam stunned his parents by dancing from morning till night.
Joining a Chennai College to study Tamil literature, Shanmuga Sundaran was riveted by Subbudu's columns introducing him to the field and its players. But what made him seek K.J. Sarasa rather than a nattuvanar? "Honestly I don't know. Good fortune? She made me what I am today - on the stage, and in life. I'm still learning from her."
His family's reaction? A cryptic response tells its tale. "Didn't matter, I don't dependent on them." When work in an export company shut dance out his life, he found a part-time job in an auto agency. "My guru gave nothing on a platter. She made me think for myself and grasp the nuances. For sancharis in varnam or padam, she'd outline the concept and say, use your own imagination! Adavus too were taught in ways suited to each disciple's body structure." As he talks about the grooming process, both word and smile reflect his pride in the fluidity of the Vazhuvoor school.
Meanwhile, he introduced Padma Subrahmanyam's karanas in 'Shankara Srigiri', at a recital where the manasika guru herself was present. "I had tears in my eyes," said guru Padma, and showed her appreciation by inviting him every year to the Natyanjali festival, Chidambaram. She also facilitated his performances elsewhere. Encouragement from Lakshmi Viswanathan and Anita Ratnam gave added strength. "Ramli Ibrahim is very supportive, calls me regularly to perform."
Shanmuga Sundaran was not content with ensemble work with several leading dancers including Vyjayanthimala. But wanting to establish himself as a soloist was "not easy for a male dancer, despite famous predecessors such as Ramgopal or Gopi Krishna." He hopes he is on his way to the goal, with favourably reviewed works like the solo dance drama 'Bhavayami Raghuramam' where he had introduced special sound effects.
Inspired by Rodin
At another time, on a Swiss tour, a chance look at a photograph of Rodin's sculpture on a calendar catalysed frenzied research. It led not only to Rodin's oeuvre, and the French sculptor's appreciation of the Nataraja form, but also into Dante's poetry (translated into Tamil by Suddhananda Bharati). The diverse strands came together in Shanmuga Sundaran's multimedia production "Amour," its title drawn from the love that had inspired artist and poet, culminating in Patanjali's 'Shambhu Natanam.'
Says the dancer, "The more exposure I get to other languages and cultures, the more I long to link those unexplored features to my dancing." His feeling for the written word makes him dream of choreographing more and more from world literature.
"I expect no returns for such efforts," he smiles, "Attempting them is a reward in itself." Giving up his office job for full-time dancing, he finds financial stability in his dance school Sadir, in Chennai and Coimbatore, and in choreography for groups abroad (Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and South Africa), as also TV serials and cinema. For a year, he also taught at a dance school in Dubai.
Happy to count himself among the professionals creating a tradition of male dancing today, Shanmuga Sundaran hurriedly declares that he is not ready for marriage. "I came into the field so late, it's still an uphill struggle."