Nataraja Ramakrishna who received the Sangeet Natak Academi Fellowship (Academi Ratna) talks about all things relating to dance.
He is the Bhisma pitamaha of classical dance in the 21st century. His life and work has been a single-minded pursuit in the cause of dance as it originated and practised in the ancient temples of Andhra Pradesh. There cannot be another who can stand up to Nataraja Ramakrishna and declare to have given up on all personal interests and relationships, making dance the all-consuming choice of his life. The Sangeet Natak Academi Fellowship (Academi Ratna) has been bestowed on him rather late in life. Frail in body and weak at heart, he is overwhelmed at the thought of aspiring researchers seeking him out to guide them in classical aspects of ancient dance traditions.
“The Academi Ratna is a rare honour which has indeed made me happy but what makes me immensely happy is that my work will be carried forward into the future. I had spent a lifetime standardising what I had learnt and performed from those yonder souls who are no longer in existence.
They were the real artists who worshipped the anklet bells they adorned as much as the deity for whose worship they were dedicated. The practitioners of dance were erudite in their own way-it was darshanam (seeing-performing) and smriti (memorising). They learnt the hereditary art with a classicistic approach, retained their knowledge in the recesses of their brain and expressed it through their excellent dance. The minute I knew their worth, I did not want this art form to fade out as these practitioners were fast losing ground. And so, I sat down to learn, sieve and develop the genuine form into a wholesome performing art which would be handed over to generations ahead,” says the grand old sire.
Yes, he had tried each mudra and expression on himself, codified the nritta, nritya and abhinaya as mathematical, intellectual and intuitive forms of artistic expression called dance.
“My guru was Naidupeta Rajamma, a stupendous dancer attached to the Kalahasti temple. My childhood exposure to Ramakrishna Mission had already given me a spiritual bent of mind. This together with an artistic inclination led me to assimilate the toughest abhinaya and reproduce it with emotive precision. There is no aspect of dance that I theorised without trying it out on myself. My practise sessions with my gurus began at dawn. In order to master abhinaya (artistic expression), you have to be a master at padams. I learnt Hindustani tumris from Champa Bai of Nagpur and soon got the accolades from great scholars of my times. I took a deep look at Vaishnavite and Shivite temple dances which had their own peculiarities. I was able to visualise and bring my inner self to reflect the movements which would ultimately be directed towards a spiritual end,” he reflects on his early tryst with a dance structure that was tight yet fluid, authentic yet defying standardisation.
How classical was the temple dance format that you chose to call ‘Andhra Natyam'? “The name was just a way to classify it as a dance form that originated in this land of Andhra Pradesh. The temple dance was called Bharatam to distinguish it from Bhagavatam as performed by the Brahmin community of Kuchipudi. It was sound-oriented to a certain extent. I refuse to call it dasya attam as in Tamil Nadu. It was lasya nartanam as against Tandava (masculine) style. The nritta began with ambaram (alapana) wherein the dancer arrives with the khumbaharati (lighted lamp on decorated brass pot), and does a pushpanjali (flower offering) then the beat of the percussion sets the pace for aaitham (talam) which flows into nritya with mudras and then into abhinaya, the soul of dance. I codified these technical aspects of sound and vibration and the rasa sastram (abhinayam) into an Andhra Natyasastra which is still in the manuscript form with one of my early pupils. It is more or less the gist of Natyasastra untouched by later day modifications,” his frailty is no deterrent to detailing his passion and pet project.
Nataraja was a title bestowed on Ramakrishna in his youth for his exceptional dancing skills by scholars in performing arts. Though temple dance lays greater stress on padams and abhinaya, it does not fall short of the adavu repertoire which is quite rigid from stance to footwork as well as elegant without being flimsy.
The Sangeet Natak Academi award is a prestigious one given for high standards of excellence and achievement on a national basis as well as sustained individual work through performance and teaching. It carries a cash award of Rs. 3 lakh. Dr. Nataraja Ramakrishna and Girija Devi (music) were the only two fellows chosen for the year 2010 in the last 50 years says the maestro.
This award coming in the twilight of his life is nevertheless one way of paying tribute to his contribution and commitment.