Chitra Visweswaran, the new president of ABHAI, talks to Chitra Swaminathan on the challenges of bringing Bharatanatyam closer to the audience and opening a window to a larger culture
When Indian classical dance is trying to find its feet in the digital world and when art appreciation is about instant downloads and YouTube videos, the challenges are enormous for eminent Bharatanatyam artiste Chitra Visweswaran. She recently took over as the president of the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI). It is a daunting task, she admits, but one that is worth undertaking.
“I have an emotional connect with ABHAI. I have been with it since its inception (it celebrates its silver jubilee this year) and see it gain a broader vision like the art itself. In the absence of social media and mobile phones, it served as a crucial link then among artistes — an interactive platform and a source of expert guidance. Legendary performers heading ABHAI over the years brought in their own vision to further the purpose of the association,” says Chitra.
The senior dancer is busy choreographing her next move — mapping artistes across the country, whether they live in Thanjavur, Bishnupur or Bhilai, understanding their problems, helping with creative inputs, facilitating interaction with organisers, arranging for musicians, finding rehearsal space and if possible, even performance opportunities. “Bharatanatyam is confronting declining attendance, escalating costs and waning philanthropy, but it is by no means a lost cause. My thrust is to make ABHAI a resource centre for practitioners. To help young enthusiasts perceive dance as a holistic art. My desire is also to reach out to the uninitiated. Precisely, to bring the art and audience closer,” she explains.
It’s a blazing and lazy Sunday afternoon. Chitra is sitting with work sheets spread out in front of her. The dancer’s love for the classical extends to the décor of her house too. Antique artefacts occupy every nook and corner. Though no longer a busy performer, she still has no time to put her feet up. “That’s a little tough also because of a leg healing from fracture,” she laughs.
Chitra is excited about chasing a new dream. “But I am not pursuing it alone. A vibrant, young team has already swung into action. Being active on the social media, their ideas and inputs will matter a lot.”
Her recitals have always been as much about tradition as engaging with contemporary tastes. Chitra gave a new dimension to Bharatanatyam’s physicality, a larger interpretation of its poetic texts and established a cross-cultural connect of its inherent philosophy. It’s a result of her sustained research, reading (she has a well-stocked library at home), travels, learning other dance forms such as ballet (in London), Manipuri, and Kathak and intensive training. Says the artiste, “Every art is the expression of the ‘here and now’ when you celebrate its natural dynamics. Challenges of the changing times will cease to impact, if this art is viewed in a broader spectrum. Dance is movement, literature, archaeology, mysticism, music, painting, poetry and drama. It is a window to a larger life and culture.”
Chitra developed a love for dance early in life. She grew up in Kolkata in a culturally-conscious upper middle-class family. Her dancer-mother was her first teacher but Chitra was later mentored by masters such as T.A. Rajalakshmi and Vazhuvoor Ramaiyya Pillai. Soon the stage became her world and the dance school (Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts) she started in 1985, more than a home. She found her life partner in musician and composer R. Visweswaran, who shared her creative vision and together they came up with several choreographic works.
Undeterred by societal pressures, Chitra’s parents always stood by her decisions. Her father R. Padmanabhan, an engineer with the Railways, was keen that she complete her graduation.
“I did my B.A. in English Literature from the Calcutta University. But I spent most part of those three years at the National Library, which was near our house, as the college would be closed for months due to frequent strikes. I have always been an avid reader. I remember, instead of buying me a pattu sari as is the norm, my parents greeted me with a book on the Natyashastra on the first Deepavali after my wedding,” she laughs.
Chitra shifted base to Madras with her mother and brother after receiving a National Scholarship for Advanced Study in Bharatanatyam from the Government of India. She found a dedicated guru in Ramaiyya Pillai. And till she met Visweswaran, nephew of the celebrated vocalist G.N. Balasubramaniam, marriage was never on her mind. Life revolved around rehearsals and performances.
“He proposed to me in such a funny way that I couldn’t refuse. He said, ‘One madcap can easily get along with another.’ A Chartered Accountant, after marriage, he decided to pursue music full time. Life was tough with our chaotic schedules and unsteady income. But our shared love for the arts saw us through. He was part of all my creative endeavours and successes. His passing away five years ago has left huge void in my heart and art,” she says moving her fingers slowly over the 100-year-old piano in her husband’s small studio on the first floor of their house. There’s a distant look in her eyes as she shows you his collection of instruments — seven guitars, three veenas and five santoors. “I feel his presence in their strings. I had to get back to dance for his sake. He would have never liked me giving it up for anything, not even for him,” she says misty-eyed.