Multi-talented artiste Janaki Rangarajan talks about how she found her calling in Bharathanatyam.
Treatises on Indian classical dance such as ‘Abhinayadarpana’, ‘Natyashastra’ and references in ‘Sangitaratnakara’ elaborate on the ideal characteristics of a dancer. These include beauty, agility, intelligence, humility, grace, the ability to sing, dedication and hard work, among others. Watching Janaki Rangarajan on and off stage, one cannot but think that she is the embodiment of all that and more.
Does she have a family background of dance? “I am a maverick!” laughs Janaki. The decision to initiate Janaki to the world of Bharathanatyam was made by her grandmother. Says Janaki: “My grandmother was deeply appreciative of Bharathanatyam, but never got a chance to learn the art form as it was considered taboo for girls from good families! She was keen that I be gifted with the skill to dance.”
Thus, at age four, Janaki started taking lessons in Bharathanatyam from Guru Madhavi Chandrasekhar in Thiruchirapalli. When the family moved to Chennai, Janaki was put under the tutelage of danseuse Padma Subramaniam. One hears of artistes having to search for gurus and dance forms, learning different styles and aspects and so on. But for Janaki, it seems to have been a straight journey ahead on the highway, so to speak.
For the 17 years Janaki was under Dr. Padma’s wing she learned, performed and taught at Nrityodaya and was one of the youngest teachers there.
In between, the academically brilliant young dancer also completed a doctorate in molecular genetics from the United States and even worked for a while. Realising that her job did not afford her the joy or contentment that she sought, Janaki followed the dictates of her heart and took to Bharathanatyam full time with passion, dedication and hard work – all of which reflect as she performs.
By and large, Janaki’s performances are based on the margam format of Bharathanatyam. While her guru, Dr. Padma’s style is Bharatha Nrityam that accentuates the ‘karanas’ on which she has done immense research, Janaki sticks to traditional Bharathanatyam. “My guru sees to it that her students are given a strong base in customary Bharathanatyam, regardless of her personal inclinations. We are taught all the adavus and other essentials that come with a course in Bharathanatyam. Thus, quite literally, I have received a firm footing in Bharathanatyam from my guru. But I do use karanas and other elements of her style to enhance my presentations, when and where necessary,” explains Janaki.
Choreography is another of her fortes. What inspires her? “Music, poetry and concept,” says Janaki, who is adept at the veena and Carnatic music as well. And going by several of the concepts that she has elaborated on through her choreographies, she comes across as a deeply introspective person.
Her production ‘Antar yatra’ is a “journey of the soul”, as she calls it. “It speaks of traversing beyond the physical, through human emotions. For this, I have used poems from Sankaracharya to Sufi and excerpts from Jaisankar Prasad’s symbolic work ‘Kamayani’ to convey the concept,” says Janaki.
In ‘Draupadi’s Dharma’, a poem by Pramila Venkateswaran translated into Tamil and with music by Raj Kumar Bharathi, Janaki explores the epic woman’s psyche at a very human level. “This is a Draupadi, who, although had instigated a war, is now weary of it and is restless to return to a normal life. I have tried to portray the inner spaces of the woman who says ‘It is time for you to let go, Yudhishthira, of your idea of dharma; I am through.’
Janaki’s prowess as a complete dancer has been further spelt out by her presentations at the many prestigious festivals in and out of the country and awards such as Nadanamamani.
Shuttling between India and the United States, where she lives with her husband, Aneal, and daughter, Vaidehi, Janaki also finds time to teach Bharathanatyam at her institute Nritya Niketan in Virginia. That she delights in teaching was evident at the workshop she conducted in Thiruvananthapuram as part of the Mudra Festival. “It is very thrilling to share and impart the knowledge and even more satisfying when there are eager students at the receiving end,” she says.