Director Sharada Ramanathan talks about the making of Natyanubhava that captures the essence of Indian classical dance forms

It’s 10 in the night. The traffic shows signs of waning. But inside Amethyst, the café on Whites Road, the crew of director Sharada Ramanathan’s Natyanubhava is all charged up. The bright lights cut across the darkness to illuminate the small performance space amid dense foliage. The beats of the chenda and maddalam pierce the stillness of the night as Kathakali’s star performer Sadanam Balakrishnan gets the last coat of the characteristic pacchha (green) make-up. In the shadows cast by the tall majestic trees his enormous bright yellow costume appears like a flower in full bloom. The senior dancer, who has performed to full houses across the world, has only Nature here for an audience. Sharada and expert cinematographer Madhu Ambat hurriedly discuss the frame and angle, and the camera begins to roll.

Balakrishnan plays out the love story of Radha and Krishna with his nuanced facial expressions. Before moving on to do an intricate navarasa piece he takes a brief break and talks about his eagerness to be part of any initiative that promotes the classical arts, especially his dance form. “Unlike many other things we have imbibed and imported from the rest of the world, these arts are our own. They symbolise our country. We need to find ways and means to take them forward… to the future generation,” he says adjusting the long artificial hair flowing from his glittery headgear.

There’s an unmistakable smile of contentment on the director’s face as she checks the shot on the monitor. “Can we go for a close-up next?” she asks Ambat, who earlier handled the camera for Sharada’s award-winning dance-based film Sringaram.

“Such aesthetically-driven projects that capture the allure of tradition and Nature’s beauty bring calmness to your work and mind. Post-Sringaram I have been hooked on capturing our classical dance forms on camera. Recently I shot six popular dance dramas of Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra,” says Ambat.

The 52-minute Natyanubhava is an initiative by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) with support from the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, to document Indian classical dances. “When Rajiv Mehrotra, managing trustee and commissioning editor of PSBT, offered it to me I really didn’t know what I was getting into and that I was going to experience something to be cherished for many lifetimes,” says Sharada.

For her Natyanubhava is not a documentary, it is almost like a conventional film with colourful characters, a strong narrative, specially composed music, well-choreographed dances, brilliant cinematography, exquisite locations and visually arresting costumes. “These dances are not parallel structures, they are very much part of mainstream arts, it is we who have become marginalised. Dance lends itself naturally to a cinematic format because it is about storytelling. And Natyanubhava traces dance’s story — from the Indus Valley Civilisation to the IT era. The film, scripted by acclaimed Bharatanatyam artiste Chitra Visweswaran and S. Janaki, executive editor Sruti, is divided into two parts — Darshan (The seen and unseen) and Yatra (Journey).”

The crew travelled extensively around the country to capture the various dance forms in the most authentic setting and true spirit. “We have covered the demographic, geographic, linguistic, pluralistic and aesthetic aspects of the art forms. To access remote areas we often travelled by bus and train. For instance, we have shot a Kuchipudi piece by the gorgeous Srisandhya Raju in an 800-year-old temple in Warangal. Likewise, we have an elderly monk in Assam performing Sattriya that was declared a classical dance form in 2000. Natyanubhava also entered the hallowed portals of traditional dance institutions to see how they uphold the values and essence of the art and widen its repertoire through innovations within the format,” explains Sharada.

The film blends the vintage values of legendary performers with the vibrancy of younger talents. “We may have watched many of these artistes on stage but Natyanubhava will establish a closer connect with these traditional arts and its practitioners. The film has been made keeping in mind the sensibilities of the connoisseurs and the uninitiated. It shows how historical, cultural and spiritual factors have impacted these forms.”

The film is not about selling but celebrating classical dance forms. “Markets evoke tourists, societies evoke travellers and civilisations evoke seekers. And if you are not a seeker you deny yourself true happiness,” signs off Sharada with her favourite lines.