Kalamandalam Saraswathy, senior dancer and guru, says the youth festivals revived and preserved many of our classical art forms.

Kalamandalam Saraswathy was pleasantly surprised when she was chosen by the Government of Kerala for the Nrithya-Natya award recently. “It was quite unexpected. But I was very happy to hear the news; my disciples were even happier,” says Saraswathy, a leading dancer and guru in Kerala. Over the last four decades she has mentored several fine dancers, including actor-dancer Vineeth and Usha Suresh Balaje.

For a while now, Saraswathy has been more of a guru than a performer. “I had not danced on stage for a long time due to a variety of reasons, including ill health. Then dancer Neena Prasad requested me to give a performance and I did so in Thiruvananthapuram in 2010,” says the artiste, who has, of late, been appearing more frequently on stage. Her recent performance as Bheeshma in the Mohiniyattam ballet ‘Amba Shikhandi’, choreographed by her daughter and dancer Aswathy V. Nair, has won her much praise.

As a youngster, Saraswathy’s ambition was to learn dance from Kalakshetra in Chennai. “It was my father’s wish that I become a dancer. When I was 10 he took me to Kalakshetra but by then admissions had closed. He then enrolled me at Kalamandalam. There I was fortunate to learn Bharatanatyam from Thanjavur A.R.R. Bhaskara Rao and Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam Satyabhama, who has contributed tremendously in giving Mohiniyattam the distinct classical form it has today,” she says. However, Mohiniyattam, often known as the dance of the enchantress, didn’t enchant the dancer much during her days in Kalamandalam. “The repertoire was limited. The Mohiniyattam dancer did not look as fetching as she does today. We didn’t have the ‘konda’ (bun) hairstyle – hair was worn in a braid instead…” recalls the artiste. But she is quick to point out: “That doesn’t mean I approve of some liberties taken by Mohiniyattam dancers today. I think wearing blouses in bright colours is not exactly a bright idea. I believe white is the true colour of Mohiniyattam; a Mohiniyattam dancer should be dressed in traditional white and gold,” she says.

Among her memories from Kalamandalam is a Mohiniyattam performance she did for the film Nirmalyam, directed by M.T. Vasudevan Nair, who would later become her husband. “Kalamandalam Leelamma and I were the dancers. We performed ‘Panimathi mukhee bale…’, sung by Sukumari Narendra Menon, who taught Carnatic vocal at Kalamandalam in those days,” reminisces Saraswathy.

The artiste says that her favourite form of classical dance is Bharatanatyam. “I believe it is our most complete dance form. It is very technical and you can experiment a lot without diluting tradition,” she elaborates. However, she says that she is proud that Mohiniyattam has travelled beyond the borders of Kerala. “Bharati Shivaji has played a key role in taking Mohiniyattam outside Kerala. Dancers like her have helped Mohiniyattam attain popularity.”

Now, teaching classical dance seems to be Saraswathy’s passion.“I founded Nrityalaya, my dance school, in Kozhikode in 1972. The name of the school was suggested by Padma Subrahmanyam, who has been a big influence in my dance,” she says.

And Saraswathy is particularly busy during Kerala’s School and University arts festival season. “Critics tend to forget that many of our classical art forms survive only because of these festivals. It is true that very few students continue to learn dance after they finish studies, but because of the festivals they and their parents take interest in our traditional arts. And we shouldn’t forget that many dance teachers can make a living because there are many students who train for the festivals,” she says. But she rues that many talented dancers stopped their art after school. “Some of my disciples such as Shanthi Chandrasekhar and Jyothi Raja, could have had brilliant careers in dance if they wanted to. And to that list I must add the name of a dancer, although she was not my student – Manju Warrier, who has the potential to become one of the finest Bharatanatyam dancers in the country.”

Illustrious disciple

One of Saraswathy’s most famous disciples is actor Vineeth, who is a product of the school youth festival. “I was fortunate to be her student. She taught me how to learn dance properly and has been a guide to me always,” says Vineeth, probably on behalf of her thousands of students.