Ideas, influences, artistry and study combine ingeniously in Sudharani Raghupathy, who talks about her artistic journey.

If her eyes convey fluid emotion when she demonstrates a padam, her graceful illustrations have dignity. Small wonder then that celebrated Bharatanatyam artist Sudharani Raghupathy’s winning combination of sheer artistry, diligence and study have brought her many awards. This month she completes 65 years in the Bharatanatyam field.

In a chat, she muses about her early years of learning Bharatanatyam and voices her philosophies:

My earliest recollections of learning natyam are of the time when I was three years old at Uthukudi in Pollachi district. Our neighbour and friend, Saraswati, a most cultured lady, would perform Tulsi puja for which she would sing Purandara Dasa Devarnamas. I can recall the sublime way she emoted during the song. It was at her urging that I began basic training in the art under her. The tales of Puranas that I learnt and the Harikathas performed in the village frame these tender moments.

My father moved to Bangalore, when I was around five. It was then that I came under the tutelage of U.S. Krishna Rao, an associate of my father. Following the advent of the legendary Guru Kittappa Pillai to Bangalore, I began training under him where I could I continue in the same bani.

My arangetram was presided over by the then mayor, where specifics such as the make-up and costume were kept to the essentials. The main piece I performed was the Khamas varnam, ‘Saminee Ramanave,’ a composition that is a litmus test for the dancer’s abilities.

Talking about this varnam brings to mind Vadhyar’s (Guru Kittappa Pillai) way of instructing me: the process of delineation and enlarging upon the poetic term. He would teach seated and after instructing me about the principal idea, he would then employ the method of suggestions and questions to help me expand on the idea.

When it came to technique, he was famed for his emphasis on the precise way of holding the spine. Learning in this style, one gained the knowledge of drawing vitality from the straight-backed stance.

Another association I cherish is that of the late Kamala Devi Chattopadyay, cultural ambassador. As I accompanied her on her tours to meet artisans, I imbibed a lot about textiles and handicraft. Rukmini Devi‘s positive guidance was another blessing I am proud of.

Precious memory

Among the concerts that I cherish, during the years that my literary and dance education progressed, was the one witnessed by Jawaharlal Nehru and the young Indira Gandhi in Bangalore during my school days. Years later when she became Prime Minister, she recalled this performance in a conversation with me in New Delhi. Another warm memory is my explaining the fine points of Bharatanatyam to a group of Russian artists in English. With Vadhyar by my side reassuring and guiding me, I demonstrated to them the niceties of Bharatanatyam - a trend setter for such sessions in those days.

After I had completed my Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Sociology, this experience helped me become the first Indian at the Randolph Macon’s Women’s College, Virginia, U.S. I majored in world history of dance and learnt the Martha Graham technique in modern dance, as well as western music from Elaine St Vincent.

How did I relate the stimuli of modern dance with my performance and choreography of Bharatanatyam? If control was drilled in, in Martha Graham’s system, the same concept of restraint was emphasised by Vadhyar - to depict themes not explicitly but in a refined way.

The engaging of the elongated bearing of the torso, the flow of grace from the back and the breathing skills in modern dance were useful pointers in my own art.

After coming to Chennai and my marriage, I had the good fortune to meet and develop further the art of abhinaya from doyennes such as Mylapore Gowri Ammal and Balasaraswati. I soon found that learning under them was anything but formal. After commencing with the primary piece, be it ‘Aasai Mukham Marandu Poche,’ or ‘Velavare,’ Gowri Ammal would launch into an hour-long elucidation of the same kirtanam or padam. I would watch astounded as her creativity took flight and she embarked on these fascinating descriptions.

To enhance my knowledge, I began to bring together jatis from gifted artists in the field. Such interactions with renowned elders and colleagues have sustained and strengthened me on the long road of my performing and teaching career.

As a teacher of the art, certain key areas that I stress on are sharpening the inner awareness that there is as much bhava in nritta as in abhinaya (though it is channeled differently), the moulding of the expression of the idea that arises within oneself and the training of the dynamics of the natyam. Yet, while the teacher can instruct, much depends on the urge that drives the learner. It is this passion that will take the art further than what is taught; otherwise the lesson will remain a pale imitation of the substance. I have carried forward these ideals through my institution Sree Bharatalaya, established in 1970.

The electronic media is a boon to the art. I have recorded for Doordarshan, both in the black and white era and later in colour in the 1980s, a series titled ‘A guided understanding of Bharatanatyam,’ which featured my students as well as sessions by prominent artists. My DVDs also shed light on the intricacies of the subject.

The book, ‘Laghu Bharatham,’ in three volumes, is a veritable encyclopaedia on the art. It is the result of years of my research and consultations with scholars and experts and the inputs of my students. The documentation of Arayar Sevai of Srivilliputtur was done with the same intensity.

My generation holds as a repository all that was imbibed from the great masters of the art, the fruits of our own experience and a convergence of corresponding fonts of art and culture. Now, we wish to communicate and transfer these as precious legacies to the successive set of artists and students.

In recent years the internet has been gaining momentum as another medium of instruction. It transcends boundaries where classes of dance and music on skype are quite popular. The thirst for knowledge and learning capacity of the young generation is amazing and is a heartening sign for the art. One may ask, what is the place of the Teacher/performer and of Bharatanatyam in this environment?

I hold that while the computer is virtual reality, Bharatanatyam is the perceptible reality. One can replicate and communicate through the net, but when one actually performs ‘Krishna Nee Begane’ live, it ‘brings’ Krishna to the rasikas. This transcendental experience is what genuine art is all about. With these words, she underlines the essence of a great artist.

Recognition

A few of the prestigious awards given to her are Padma Sri, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Kalaimamani (Tamil Nadu State award). She will also be conferred with Natyacharya Award by The Music Academy at their annual festival later this year.

Clarification

In the above article it was given to understand that the veteran came under the tutelage of Mylapore Gowri Ammal after the former’s marriage. The exponent clarifies: "My association with Mylapore Gowri Ammal was from 1951 onward till her death, at Chennai, prior to my marriage."