“Give him a mridangam, somebody!” said the harried mother, busy with her dance class, when her child started crying. Sure enough, the toddler stopped in mid-wail as little fingers started tapping… “That’s what I wanted to do -- play the mridangam and sing,” smiles Sheejith Krishna, repertory artiste, choreographer and dance guru at Kalakshetra, Chennai.
Mother Manorama, a disciple of K.J. Sarasa and Vijayalakshmi, taught classical genres, while father Balakrishnan produced folk dance and dance dramas in their ‘Nupuram’ at Kannur, Kerala. For little Sheejith, joining his mother’s classes was as natural a process as essaying roles, conducting rehearsals, performing solos and winning the coveted Kala Pratibha Prize at the State Youth Festival. What he loved was to sit up all night and listen to music being composed for dance productions. Meanwhile, his mother’s annual Chennai visits gave the child the delight of learning from ghatam maestro T.H. Vinayakaram.
Dreaming of turning a musician, the 17 year old was distraught when a determined father got him admitted into Kalakshetra to study Bharatanatyam. “I wanted to run away,” Sheejith recalls. “My father was different, but my distaste for dancing was provoked by the effeminate male dancers I’d seen.” Fortunately principal S. Rajaram noticed the boy’s penchant for drumming and arranged mridangam classes, promoted him to third year (music), and into his advanced vocal class. Sheejith started playing at dance drama rehearsals and students’ programmes. But a transformation happened when he was assigned to Sarada Hoffman’s dance class.
Martinet she was, making students labour on araimandi through an entire class, rejecting every effort she did not deem perfect. But Sarada Teacher introduced a new aesthetic, no-excuses discipline and ruthless commitment. She convinced Sheejith that a male dancer could retain his masculine identity with power and dynamism. “She never let us down before anyone. Her expectations were extremely high, not for the person who danced, but for the dance through the dancer.”
The magic of Kalakshetra
What did Kalakshetra mean to the Kannur boy? “Every tree and leaf, the pond I helped to dig, the bhajanai sessions, the lamps lit in the theatre, the costume materials and colours, the stage curtains – I’ve never seen anything so magical anywhere. To me, this sense of beauty is Kalakshetra.”
The second year onwards saw Sheejith in participating dance productions, graduating to major roles, as diverse as Rama and Ravana. Did the solo margam get neglected? “No. Dance dramas train you to do solos, and to choreographing varnam, padam or tillana. We learn to paint a scene – city, forest, hills, riverside… I love the way Rukmini Devi has used Kathakali without disrupting Bharatanatyam, a relaxed approach I’ve imbibed. Besides, where can you get so many characters and moods to experience? I thought about her choice of sahitya, editing, music, poetic lighting.”
He scored and choreographed his first work ‘Marthyan’ while still a student. Later, Siva’s dance implementing the five yatis, ‘Swapnaraag’ where the story flows along the 72 Melakartas, was enthusiastically received by even the nit-pickers. ‘Masquerade’, based on Alexandre Dumas’ ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ has an original score based on Carnatic ragas glinting with offbeat shades in the orchestration, using violins, viola, cello, a range of flutes and drums. Naturally, the dancing assumed unusual forms and flavours, the fight scenes sparked by Hollywood’s ‘The Matrix’. This self-taught lighting designer perceives lighting as crucial to his visual structure and integral knowledge for a choreographer. How satisfying for Sheejith to have some of his works in his alma mater’s syllabus!
With a bashful smile, he admits that his creative adventures may be dominated by his passion for percussion. However, quiet seeming Sheejith has an imp within leaping into the least expected, as when he persuaded a flabbergasted female partner to play a twinkle-toed Krishna to his pining nayika.
Tech-savvy, Blackberry-wielding Sheejith can be unbelievably accommodating when he works with others. Once, just before a show, at the director’s request, he cut the length of the recorded soundtrack on his Mac book without a fuss, splicing and editing accurately right at the performance venue, adjusting the dance to the changed version.
Married to vocalist Jyothishmathi (‘Her singing drew us together’), a doting father to little Sneha, a riveting teacher… has this artiste with a presence that makes the stage his own forgotten ‘Nupuram’? “I go every year to choreograph and teach. I’ve danced in Kerala temple festivals, where a 2000 strong audience is watching the performance. So, with my students, I’ve started a Nupuram movement in a small way in Bangalore and Hyderabad, to demonstrate and workshop in villages. We ask if a classical art can have mass appeal. Unless people know what it is, how will they decide whether they like it or not?”