Personality: Roja Kannan, dancer-teacher, is carrying forward the legacy she has inherited from her gurus.
With a successful career in Bharatanatyam spanning over four decades, reputed artist-teacher Roja Kannan deserves accolades for carrying forward the high standards she has absorbed from great masters. She hails from a musical lineage of veteran Palghat Rama Bhagavathar. A milestone in her vocation as a teacher was the completion of 25 years of her school Bharatha Natyalaya in September 2012. Several awards and titles have been conferred on her including Acharya Choodamani from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha and Best Senior Dancer Award from The Music Academy. A charming person who has faced challenges with exceptional poise, she spoke about her tutelage under stalwarts and offered pragmatic observations on the dynamics of the dance scene today. Excerpts:
You performed your arangetram in 1972 as a 12 year old. What was the intensity of your training?
Learning was a continuous process. My mother was the driving force. There were daily classes in dance and music. Whether it was under Aravindakshan Sir or Lakshman Sir, the lessons would be imparted with thoroughness and commitment. With Kalanidhi Narayanan, there was a different orientation in the movement vocabulary, where my thoughts were challenged to communicate nuances of different emotions.
Has there been a change in the way you are presenting the recitals now vis-à-vis the early years?
There was a mix of solo and group performances, which were so frequent that they were part of our routine. Depending on the occasion, it would be traditional margam or part of a group programme with folk presentations or even thematic recitals such as the Kuravanji.
Post-arangetram, we performed frequently at numerous cultural forums. Our repertoire was continuously revised and added to. There was an in-house orchestral group of artists who were always keyed into our presentations. Learning and performing flowed from one to another.
Though there was a lull after marriage, I began teaching soon after the birth of my children and revived my Bharatanatyam programmes in the 1990s with Lakshman Sir at the helm of most of my performances. By then the prevailing scene had changed, for example, there was a tremendous demand for orchestra members that outdid the availability. My focus of presenting classical art that was worthy remained the same, even as my style of individualistic expression evolved. Today, I make it a point to explain my interpretation to the audience, who have become multilingual now. As a performer, I would say it is important to gauge the mind-set and fine-tune one’s selection accordingly.
Your thematic productions have been well received in India and abroad. What are the demands of choreographing for such productions?
Each dance-drama is a learning experience in itself. It includes a lot of research, deciding the music design of the subject, understanding the lyrics and so on. Whether it is ‘Bhaaratha Samudaayam Vazhgave,’ ‘Prapatti Marga’’ or ‘Panniru Tirumurai,’ every project is an experiment which stimulates my artistic energies. I have coordinated with numerous experts for sourcing material for my productions.
What about solos?
I was lucky to learn from Lakshman Sir, when he was immersed in creating dance - for example for the Tyagaraja pancharatna kriti, ‘Entaro Mahanubhavulu.’ He would listen to the lilts of the song innumerable times, until he was satisfied with his perception of the song. He always told us to follow the pattern of the swaras and the intrinsic kanakku.
I faithfully try to follow the composer’s idea thoroughly, before designating dance movements to the words. The magic of the margam is inimitable and nothing can convey better the rasa of performing a traditional margam.
How has the syntax of dance compositions changed from your gurus’ time?
One striking feature today is the moving away from the grammar of the adavu system. Time is a factor. Dance classes are held not more than three times in a week. Adavus are taught in a selective manner and in some instances whole units are left out because they are not used much in the items.
The stamina of the younger generation is less than ours. I can easily keep up with the fittest of them without strain! As a result we find that now there is a shift towards those actions which make fewer demands on the knee, the back or the heel over a period of time.
Another change is the dwindling number of practitioners who have a holistic approach to the Bharatanatyam. There are many teachers but few gurus. This has a direct impact on the way lyrics are presented. Outstanding artists are those who persevere to realise the sublime and not settle for anything less.
What is your viewpoint in training students?
Under the stewardship of my gurus I learnt different aspects of the art such as music, nattuvangam, composing, theory and abhinaya. I train my students on the same line and they are successful performers and an integral part of my team.
Your advice for young aspirants?
Apart from lessons, the learner has to indulge in self-analysis. a really dedicated dancer needs to prepare intensely and polish up what is learnt in the class. This is the age of information. A serious student can access the electronic media, books and willing specialists to offer advice. It is essential for the student to be fully aware of each facet of the art.
Then there is stagecraft. It is important that the artist strikes a rapport with the audience, make sure that they understand the presentation. Constantly evaluating oneself and revising every small detail will bring rich dividends.