Saroja Vaidyanathan’s calm demeanour reflects the collective experiences of her years as a renowned Bharatanatyam artist, a well-respected teacher, author, choreographer and the founder-president of Ganesa Natyalaya, New Delhi. In a career spanning several decades, she has been richly decorated with awards including the Padma Sri, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Kalidas Samman and Sahitya Kala Parishad at the national level, besides Kalaimamani by the Government of Tamil Nadu. The latest feather in her cap is the nomination for Padma Bhushan by the Government of India.
During a recent visit to Chennai, Saroja revisited her first steps in Bharatanatyam and discussed the mind-set of the current generation of young dancers…
How did the social environment in your early life influence your career?
It was a conservative era. My Guru Lalita was extremely passionate about her art. But difficult circumstances in her marital home meant that she could pursue the art only as a single woman. You must remember that this was the1930s when a single woman faced tremendous pressure from various quarters of society. When I started learning Bharatanatyam, my father was in the RAF and my family atmosphere was one where education and learning the fine arts were emphasised. I learnt vocal music, flute and the veena along with Bharatanatyam. Impressed with my performance at the Gokhale Hall, Chennai, when I was 16, I was offered an opportunity to act in a movie by producer Madhavan. Naturally my family got anxious and soon I was married! My husband was a senior government official in Bihar and in deference to public reaction at that time, my career as a performing artist was put on hold. But there was no conflict towards teaching the art and I slowly began teaching and later performing with my students.
Could you elaborate on the essentials received from your teacher that have inspired you?
My Guru’s motivation and practical sense were important factors. She had the foresight to record her repertoire so that even though I was in another city, I would be in touch with the art. Today, I make it a practice to digitally record my compositions and make them available to my students at a nominal cost.
What is the philosophy behind your teaching process?
A vibrant atmosphere for pursuing Bharatanatyam exists in my dance school, Ganesa Natyalaya, where the doors are open for all from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. The repertoire expands by the year and all the students are enabled to learn these. Some of my senior students are the teachers there and they also impart Bharatanatyam training outside the school. My daughter-in-law Rama, herself a well-known Bharatanatyam artist herself and my her daughter Dakshina, are actively involved in the productions of my school. In fact, all the three of us performed together recently.
How would you describe the attitude of the present day students?
When I was a student, the Guru’s word was final. As far as the students in the 1970s were concerned, they were different in their outlook compared to those belonging to the current batches. Respect to the Guru is still expressed with the traditional obeisance. Today, there is much more informality that mirrors the milieu. I now have disciples who greet me with ‘Hey Guruji!’ It is not that there is no respect towards the teachers… rather, the way of conveying it has changed. My disciples wish to publish and dedicate a book on me which is their way of showing their love.
How has your teaching method evolved over the years?
Currently I have students not only from India but all over the globe. So, I help them familiarise themselves with our mythology and heritage. Also, I have to be ready to explain the relevance of these legends in today’s context. Within the classical format, teaching has to recognise the changes in audience tastes and expectations.
As a choreographer, how would you describe your individual style of composing?
There is no unilateral method to it. There are different approaches. Composing for a solo is one thing, while for a group involves different dynamics altogether. When I set Bharatanatyam for a jugalbandi with Odissi, I use soft movements that do not jar with the visual flow. Compositions should go along with the type of music that is being used. Traditional Margam dictates its unique format as does a thematic presentation based on Subramanya Bharati‘s poetry. An example would be a composition that I created for a conference in Mumbai dedicated to the five primal elements. It involves Yoga, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and Western classical dance to depict each element.
Technique in Bharatanatyam is shifting rapidly. In your opinion, in what manner has this affected the execution of the adavus?
I would say that today, dancers dare to go in geometric directions that my generation would not have thought of – due to our conditioning. (Saroja demonstrates). The hands for theydithtithtey are presented in different directions and not just the way it was done all along when one hand went backwards. Aesthetics is all that matters.
Your views on contemporary state of the art…
There is a great degree of openness and interaction as never before. I encourage my students to see as many performances as possible. I recall that one student was particularly inspired by a piece she saw at an Odissi recital and wanted me to teach it to her. At my behest, she did her research on the song and with the help of the Internet, brought me the lyric complete with the meaning. That propelled me to study the lyric and compose it for her. I take inputs from the students when they come up with suggestions. Art is a vast ocean and as an artist, I find that there is still much for me to learn. In this new age, it is a process where I continue to learn as much from my students as they do from me!