Bharatanatyam guru Aniruddha Knight’s philosophy of dance is a happy amalgam of Western modernity and Indian antiquity.
A male dancer in a predominantly female domain; an illustrious male heir of a primarily women-centric family of dancers; a semi-Westerner by birth, born of a very traditional Indian matriarchal lineage- all these antitheses sum up Bharatanatyam guru Aniruddha Knight.
A practicing dancer and performer carrying the mantle of his maternal grandmother, T. Balasaraswathi (Bala/Balamma), born to Lakshmi, the talented daughter of the dance doyen and Douglas Knight, an American percussionist, Aniruddha is an epitome of cultural union — the best of both worlds!
In the course of your conversation, you are amazed at his deep knowledge of dance and his own sense of belonging to this ancestral art form. Here is a pure artiste in every sense of the term; he is creative to the core with an artistic bent of mind that can visualise art even before translating it into dance. “Creativity is crucial to art. And this comes with constant observation. Improvisation is at the root of my grandma’s style of dancing. The abhinaya to express a particular sequence or emotion is not to be rehearsed; it ought to be spontaneous no matter how many times you got to do it on stage as your vocalist keeps the refrain of the song going. Formatted dance is choreography not improvisation. I hail from a family of dancers who only improvised and hence creativity has been our forte. If a set pattern is already there, well how many times are you going to do it before it becomes stale?”
Well if there is no format, doesn’t it turn into a loose structure? And in turn dents continuity and flow? He answers: “Unfortunately we are so infatuated with Shastra, so involved in canonizing what we do that we forget a vital point, say for instance, clarity in mudras or watching our hands as we take them to form a hasthabhinaya. ‘Yatho hastha, tatho drishti’ is not being followed to a T. Dance is not about how complex our sancharis are; it is about clarity and resolution. Within the technicality of Bharatanatyam for instance, the artiste must create the bhava; not allow one to over-ride the other. The Puranic texts are there only as basis. They were but conceptualization of the author. And in the process of recreating these, the dancer should be able to bring out the nuances in an aesthetic manner.”
Though he is a proponent of the ancient dance tradition, there is this beautiful merger of a Western progressive outlook and Indian antiquity in Aniruddha; that makes him so unique. “Tradition,” he defines, “has to accommodate change with artistic integrity. Then it will reach the viewer the way it should. Bharatanatyam, as I was taught, is an art of suggestion. You create the highlights of an image, not portray the whole image in its entirety. My grandma would never mince words when she insisted that in dance, bhakti/ shringara are just one entitiy. She always approached sensuality with a devotional mind. You lend dignity to the most erotic song with enunciation of the imagery. You do not concentrate on the anatomy of the body; you move past and beyond it — only then does art achieve its true sense.”
He sums up his heritage with interesting anecdotes. “My grandma had an Anglo-Indian tutor to learn spoken English and she was an instant success outside her own country. If the purely Western audience thronged her performances in good old days when they had no clue of Bharatanatyam as such, it was that artistic magic that worked as she mesmerized them with her artistry. My father would drive all the way to wherever she was performing only to see her doing it. She was very particular about absolute clarity in hastha mudras. Once, I was told, that her guru Kandappa Pillai put hot coals in her palms for getting a mudra wrong after which she never ever got it wrong! What made her style so strong was the subtle abhinaya with clarity of hands. My mother Lakshmi Knight was a graduate from Ethiraj College and met my dad when he came over to learn mridangam from my grand uncle. After her marriage she shifted base to the US where we all lived and performed till her death in 2001. That’s when I took a call to make Chennai my home, though dad is out there and I keep myself half in the US and half here. I can divide my audience into three types: those who understand my dance and appreciate; those who are lost and those who dislike what I do,” he says candidly.
The dance of Balasaraswathi doesn’t originate in the temples or darbar-that’s a misconception. It has been created for the stage by Kandappa Pillai, a descendent of the Thanjavur Quartet. Hence there is no room for innuendos, vulgar display of body kinetics. “You must be able to convey with dignity and not dwell in anything close to sensational; that is the crux of real art,” he closes.