Swapnasundari is one of the few dancers to focus on the presentation, music and academic aspects of classical dance. Her research and work on Vilasini Natyam has revived the ancient dance form that was on the verge of extinction.
Swapnasundari cannot be hemmed in as just a dancer. There is a marked restlessness about her, prompted by an urge to create, that makes her go in search of new perceptions about her art. This restless creativity has taken Swapnasundari beyond the borders of classical dance. She is one of those rare artistes who has continuously strived to improve, and innovate meaningfully and responsibly.
“Yes, there is this restlessness in me. Once, Sonal Mansingh and I were walking and talking. She stopped suddenly and asked me whether I get bored easily. That's what she observed. I told her that it was not that I got bored, but that I could never remain static. Creativity is personal and perhaps stems from a sort of restlessness to improve or do something exciting,” says this dancer, perhaps the first to have focussed on the presentational, musical and academic aspects of classical dance. The dancer was in Kochi for the national Sree Sankara Dance and Music Fesitval.
After setting her stamp on Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam and more recently Vilasini Natyam, Swapnasundari has moved on to new areas, all related to her art.
A gifted vocalist, she has numerous albums to her credit, sings for her dance productions and has made her mark as an innovative choreographer. Of late, she has turned author with her well-researched, path-breaking work, ‘The World of Koochipoodi Dance,' which is considered a definitive effort to educate people on the dance form.
Along with her regular performances and lectures, Swapnasundari is now set on something new. “I'm working on my own music company. The first albums will roll out soon. It will be music that will have links to dance. My music will not be the pop or fusion kind, but music that will surely be heard.”
Another project to which Swapnasundari has been contributing is preparation of a detailed catalogue of manuscripts related to music, dance, drama and allied traditions. “This is a project entrusted to me by the Manuscripts Mission and it relates to manuscripts in the Telugu language and script. I have been surveying and studying palm-leaf, old paper and print manuscripts.”
But Swapnasundari's greatest contribution has been her revival, reconstruction and crusade for Vilasini Natyam: a dance form indigenous to Andhra Pradesh but which was on the verge of extinction.
“Like so many important events in my career, my introduction to this ancient temple dance form happened by chance. I had finished a performance when the organisers requested me to stay back to felicitate a few artistes. That was when I saw the elderly Kalaavanthi Maddula Lakshminarayana. I was struck by the charm and beauty of the dance, and the talent of the dancer. I was drawn towards this powerful art form through this elderly dancer.”
These temple dancers were virtually forgotten after 1947 when the Devadasi custom was abolished by law.
On the verge of extinction
“They and their dance were put into cold storage. Their lives, I understood, became miserable. Their only wealth was land gifted by the temple. They were forced to sell that in pieces down the years. Moreover, they had to bear the mortification of being looked down upon by the new society that had emerged. The men folk, especially the next generation, did not want the women to have anything to do with this culture or dance. Soon, this became a forgotten art form, living only through a few elderly dancers. And even they did not want to be identified as being part of this group, as they feared that they would face opposition from their society.”
From 1996 onwards Swapnasundari, has not only been performing this ritualistic dance form but has linked it again with the temple. Vilasini Natyam is now an integral part of the temple ceremonies at the Brahmotsavam of the 350-year-old Ranganatha Swamy temple in Rangbagh, near Hyderabad.
“This has been very satisfying. To ensure that the art form never fades into oblivion, I conduct free classes in this dance form in Hyderabad. I travel there every month and classes are held for select students. We now even have male dancers who have performed within the temple.”
Vilasini Natyam has no relationship to the other dance forms of Andhra Pradesh such as Koochipoodi (the spelling that Swapnasundari insists on using). “The traditional dancers from whom I had learnt Vilasini Natyamhad never studied Koochipoodi and most of them had never seen a performance until television entered their lives.
“Vilasisni Natyam consists of over 100 ‘nritta' units or ‘adavus' and their permutations and combinations in the northern and coastal schools alone. There are another 35-40 in the southern school. “None of these ‘adavus' find a place in the Koochipoodi style as taught by the traditional gurus."
A book by Swapnasundari on Vilasini Natyam, a product of her intensive study and extensive research, is due for release this year. “I have a whole cupboard full of material, audio, video clippings, photographs and notes on this dance form. My book will be an essence of what I have carefully gleaned from this vast mass of invaluable material.”
The dancer has also completed a 13-episode performance on Vilasini Natyam for Doordarshan.
“I'm not ready to teach Vilasini Natyam in bits and pieces to someone who simply wants to enhance her repertoire. Anyone who wants to learn must learn this as a separate dance-style. A lot of young dancers are seriously into this dance now. I'm sure it will gain even more recognition for it has the elements, the soul in it," avers Swapnasundari.
Through painstaking research and by direct learning from some of the last living Kalaavanthulu or traditional dancers of Andhra, she has revived Vilasini Natyam. The dance has an identity of its own, quite different from the other classical dances of the South. It has a detailed ‘abhinaya' process and very economical movements. There are also vestiges of the traditional theatre and courtly traditions. Added to this is the elaborate ‘ahaarya,' which makes Vilasini Natyam a living symbol of a whole period of time and culture.