Smitha Rajan imbibed dance from her illustrious parents and grandparents. Though a traditionalist, she is not averse to jugalbandis

Smitha Rajan turned professional dancer when she was just 12, has completed over 2,000 stages, numerous lec-dem sessions in India and abroad, and is now a respected teacher. But she still shudders when she is reminded of her first ever Kathakali performance along with her grandfather, the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.

“That will remain a cherished moment in my life. Looking back it was such a huge privilege to be on stage with a legend. But I was literally shivering when I went on stage. I played Rukmini and he was Sundara Brahmanan in ‘Rukmini Swayamvaram.' The best thing was when I overheard him tell my mother that I had done well,” says Smitha, who represents the third generation of dancers in her family, starting with her grandfather and grandmother, Kalamandalam Kalyanikuttiamma.

Integral part

Smitha cannot say when she began ‘learning' dance. It was everywhere; it was an integral part of her growing up. At home, her grandparents ran ‘Kerala Kalalayam,' the dance school that reverberated with music, dance, right through the day. “Like any little girl I was drawn to all this. I started off imitating my grandmother, or mother (Sreedevi Rajan) and aunt (Kala Vijayan), as they demonstrated the basics of classical dance to the students. I learnt the ‘adavus' and some of the items by watching them.”

Known world-wide as a strict Mohiniyattam traditionalist, Smitha who has evolved a distinctive style of her own, began her career as a Bharatanatyam dancer. “My ‘arangetram' was at a small temple in my hometown of Tripunithura. I must have been just five years old. It was Bharatanatyam. I then strayed into Kathakali. My grandfather taught me the rudiments of ‘abhinaya' and I kept fine-tuning it watched over very carefully by him. He was a strict teacher but always open to questions I had. I think I was fortunate to be trained by masters like my grandparents and to have the unique distinction of sharing the stage with them on so many occasions.”

Mohiniyattam happened naturally for Smitha. And once she was entranced by this beautiful dance form there was no looking back. “I knew this was my passion, my vocation. Right from my first performance till today I have tried to keep this tradition going. I have stuck to the roots not compromising on what was handed over to me by my grandmother.”

Any classical art form evolves over a period of time from its initial humble roots and it passes on to generations through great teachers and great performers through their innovations. As it progresses through time it matures into a classical art form.

“As you know, Mohiniyattam too had its humble beginning and due to the contribution of great masters it finally had a core structure, which defines this as a classical dance form. I'm not ready to compromise on those core principles which identifies this art form; I am a strict traditionalist from that aspect. Unfortunately many of the so called experiments which we witness today are peripheral,” says Smitha who is a post-graduate in English and even taught in a school for sometime even as she pursued dance seriously.

And Smitha has stuck to her beliefs despite attempts to clip her wings, and many a time suffering insults. “It has not been a smooth ride at all, this despite the backing of a rich lineage. I'll tell you about what happened in the only competition I took part in, the University Youth Festival. I was denied a prize only because the judges thought my ‘ahaarya', especially my hairstyle was not proper. This is actually a much-debated aspect, on what actually is the traditional hairstyle for a Mohiniyattam dancer. There is a major difference in the Kalyanikuttiamma style, which allowed the dancer to have her hair plaited in the style I and many others follow.”

A change came in sometime during the 1960's with the hair tied in a tight ‘bun' on one side which was practised by the Travancore royal ladies as seen in some of the Raja Ravi Varma paintings.

“My grandmother protested against this change. Incidentally this was a subject that was debated earlier and was rejected by her guru and Vallathol because it really did not add any classical value. But gradually this was adopted by Kalamandalam. My grandmother had her reasons for this particular hairstyle, it was scientific and symmetrical. Her book, which is a virtual encyclopaedia on Mohiniyattam gives you more details. And today you have dancers attired in garish costumes when the traditional, resplendent in gold, with gold ornaments to match, is so beautiful.”

Smitha, is however, not averse to group performances and jugalbandis, but given a choice she prefers a solo performance. “There is nothing like going on stage alone. It gives you that much space to improvise on your ‘abhinaya.' I'm not biased, but at every jugalbandi I have had, be it with Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi, I have heard people rave about Mohiniyattam, its grace, its unique ‘ahaarya.”

Jhansi Rani

Smitha's own choreography, a Saptham on Jhansi Rani, is a bold attempt to clear many misconceptions about Mohiniyattam. Most are of the impression that Mohiniyattam cannot handle serious emotions and complex subject matters. And her Jhansi Rani is an excellent example to illustrate many complex aspects of modern life, our recent history. It is a challenging presentation of a woman evolving into an independent person; a showcase of women empowerment and pride across the globe. “The emphasis of Mohiniyattam is grace, elegance. I cannot understand people saying that it is too slow, boring after some time. My reply to such comments is that it depends on the dancer. This dance form can handle very complex and difficult subject matters fully, exploiting the tremendous potential this dance form possesses to communicate a serious story. A performer needs to communicate and if this does not happen, it can be slow, boring. Then the fault lies not in the dance.”

In her school ‘Nrithyakshetra' Temple of Dance, in St. Louis, United States, which she manages, Smitha diligently follows the Kalyanikuttiamma style of Mohiniyattam and also teaches Bharatanatyam. “I have a good group of students who are seriously into dance. My first students, Anuradha Chellappa and Sneha Krishna Pillai are married but still continue to dance. That's commitment.”

This is perhaps something that Smitha has been able to rub on to her students. Marriage and kids have not in anyway stopped her from pursuing her passion. “To continue dancing with a family to care for is not easy. I travel every year to India for performances apart from the other shows we have in the US and elsewhere. It was tough when my boys (Jaidev and Abinav) were small. My husband (Jyotis Balasubramanian) has been a tower of strength and support. We have gone through that phase. The boys are big enough to take care of themselves, making it easier for me.”