Time and age have not made a dent in Manju Barggavee's (her name is spelt that way on account of numerology) passion for dance. While most dancers today have, in some way or the other, compromised on the traditional aspects of their dance, Manju has resolutely stuck to traditional Kuchipudi.

She celebrated her golden jubilee in dance last year. She runs her ‘exclusive' Kuchipudi dance school, Natya Vedam in Bangalore, keeps performing, retaining that profound fascination that began ever since she could remember.

She finished a gruelling rehearsal session before her performance at the national dance and music festival, organised by Sree Sankara School of Dance, Kalady, and sat down to share her thoughts on dance, especially Kuchipudi.

Philosophy of dance

“Classical dance is like philosophy. There is so much meaning beneath the lines. A dancer needs to understand the true import to be one with the dance. It is not simply putting a leg there, or a hand here,” says Manju.

At ‘Natya Vedam,' the danseuse limits the number of students to 10 at a given time. “I like to teach students individually. This is because each one has a specific body language. It would be good if Kuchipudi teachers go through a training programme for it happens that they often tend to get lost, turn repetitive, forget the essentials, begin to adapt, and create something that is totally different.”

Tradition has been diluted in dance and Kuchipudi has been no exception.

This is where, she feels, the contributions of the masters become relevant.

“They took so much effort; used their imagination, vision; went beyond the lyrics in choreography. My guru (Vempati Chinna Satyam) transformed Kuchipudi. He fought with the Akademi that refused to give it classical status. For them it was only a folk form. He proved to them in every way that the Natyasastra was ingrained in it. He demonstrated through charis, mandalas and karanas, from his dance pieces. And they had to give in. The problem is two-fold: lack of committed dancers and lack of honest choreographed items.”

For a long time Manju played male roles in group performances. (Incidentally, in the past, female roles in Kuchipudi were performed by males). Even today male dancers enact female roles like that of Satyabhama in ‘Bhamakaalapam.' It was Chinna Satyam who broke this tradition with Manju. “It was not easy because you needed to develop a posture. When I did a few roles like Krishna or Vishnu it was not very tough as they had some bit of femininity in them. But when I had to do Shiva I asked my guru if I could do justice, as it demanded complete masculinity. I found it very difficult to break this style, especially when I had to go solo. I had to unlearn all that was male.”

For a short while Manju learned Bharatanatyam from Narmada, a disciple of Kittappa Pillai. “I wanted to find out what it was like learning another style. I did a full margam and around 200 stage performances. Then I said it was enough for there were a lot of Bharatanatyam dancers but very few for Kuchipudi. And Kuchipudi was my first love.”

Moreover, she considers Kuchipudi a complete dance form. “In this style the dancer needs to give lip movement to the songs. So what happens is that you are not depicting a character, you turn into that character. The ‘abhinaya' comes with the dance, you need not go and study a ‘padam' or a ‘javali' to know what expression is.”

Leading role

It was this natural ability to emote that came with Kuchipudi, which landed Manju her role in the landmark film ‘Sankarabharanam.' “Before this film K. Viswanath made a movie in which I did a ‘javali' and two scenes. He insisted I do the dubbing for the two scenes and when I went for it, Viswanath told me he wanted my photographs without make-up. Two months later he sent word that it was urgent. I got my photos taken and sent it. And that's it.”

She believes that Kuchipudi helped her a lot in that film. “Memories of that film can never fade. I did this song sequence where I danced on the sand. I didn't even realise it was difficult until Padma Subrahmanyam made a statement that dancing on mud or sand required so much of expertise, so much balance.”

After the release of ‘Sankarabharanam,' for the next three years, she was living out of suitcases.

Despite the popularity of the film, its songs and dance, Manju never danced for these songs on stage.

There are many who think that Manju has hung her anklets and are surprised when they see her as deft and flexible as ever on stage.

“It has been a very interesting journey so far. Many don't know that I'm still performing. That's because I do not go around putting applications or contacting people. I'm within myself, teaching, dancing, enjoying what I love most.”