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A symbol of dedication

As an artiste, what one ultimately aims for is spiritual evolution, says danseuse Sudharani Raghupathi.

Formidable scholarship: Sudharani Raghupathi

IT'S NO easy task to plant a seed and find it blossoming with such tremendous results! And it feels pretty much the same when a small beginning grows into such a big institution. For those who pass through its portals, the travel from childhood, to adolescence to responsible adults is filled with lessons on commitment, sagacity and perseverance. Thirty-two years ago Shree Bharatalaya came into being. It is now a comforting haven where art, spirituality and personal growth come together in a synergy of devoted artistes, teachers and people!

And the person responsible for this sits proud and happy— with all that has gone by; of life well lived; of love that permeates through every gesture of hers; of an artiste who has transcended from the mundane to pure spirituality.

Her face reflects none of the travails she has seen while the institution grew. Sounds of students rehearsing for the big event are punctuated with laughter and chatter. She is in a mellow, peaceful frame of mind. Her spiritual guru, Madurai Krishnan sits on guard to see that everything keeps going well and Sudharani Raghupathi draws me into her world — of hard work, dedication, formidable scholarship, supreme laurels and the fine arts!

"When I look at my life, the first twenty years were packed with great accolades, starting with dancing before Pandit Nehru when I was nine and going as far back to 1956- 58. There are four stages that every artiste's life are marked by — practice, aspiration, achievements and finally the accolades. I have seen most of it, maybe all. I was the first Indian at the Randolph Macon's Women's College, Virginia, US-sponsored as an International student. And when I got married, that too into a very orthodox, Iyengar family, it was like a metamorphosis. I set out being a housewife, but then fate had something else in store. Now I feel content when I see all my little buds blossoming into flowers." What do they learn at Bharathalaya besides dance?

"We also teach music, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Callisthenics. And it's because of this that people easily identify a Bharatalaya product.

I tell my students to live in society, be part of it, have a family and still keep the dance, just as I have. A dancer is always an artiste."

How do you feel when you see children come and go?

"Many come and many go (many of them get married) but I am always with children. It's when I start running with them that I realise I am not young. Even those who get married, come back. I have always seen only seven to 18 year olds in Bharatalaya."

Do you see a difference in the attitudes of children who used to come say 10 years ago vis-a-vis those who come today?

"Oh yes. Earlier they would wear pavadai-davani and never walk in with a pyjama. They would come change, dance and change again. Plus the style of dance I taught then has undergone changes now. I have evolved and so have those who went and came back. They sometimes say to me "why have you compromised?" For example, in the Aramandi, I might say, "doesn't matter, after all they are children, let them learn".

In terms of commitment how are the children today?

"Fifteen years or even 10 to 12 years ago, commitment was less. But I find it being more now in the last three years. Strange, but true."

Why is that?

"Maybe because when the computer boom happened everybody tried to computerise things — including music. I too have tried some computer music, ragas etc.

Then when it palled like a toy in a child's hands the urge to get back to the arts took over. It finally leads back to the basics of life. Besides, dance is a moment's experience. That one moment when you can bring a tear of joy. That one tear we all aim for. Something that might come only once in 20 performances."

Do you see dance making a difference in these children's lives? In their attitudes and beliefs?

"What I try to impress upon them is a way of life. God has created man as an artiste. But this has to be awakened.

Dance has a lot to it because it has everything — colour, costume, scenery, rhythm, and music, everything in one as Bharatha himself says."

And the benefits?

"Discipline, because of the drilling we give to the body. Once that happens mental alertness is there. That in turn gives emotional stability. Finally, a person aims for spiritual evolution. Art makes man a better person and if he is an artiste, he becomes divine. And I am sure of it, at my age now when I look back on 55 years of dancing. God has been great."

How much of dance is a spiritual thing?

"The spiritual level is high. I have been educated in a convent and those days I studied in the U.S. I have been around the world, but I have comeback to a very orthodox situation. And at one point, I wouldn't say hate, but I was antagonistic. But now, I believe in everything — Karma, rebirth, and fate!"

And do the students also follow these thoughts?

"Of course! They are seeing the results. They tell me if they didn't do something I've told them, they feel like something was going wrong. That is the greatest thing in my life. No amount of awards can match the fact that these children come back to me constantly. Life has been worth living."

In these last few years what kind of changes have you seen — in the general dance field?

"Initially there were not many dancers and the style was still orthodox. Though it was a Marga, it was orthodox. There were different styles of course but that was because the teachers come from different villages — Vazhuvoor, Pandanallur, and Thanjavur. The Adavus were basic. Ten years later they thought the Margam items were becoming boring. So the Varnam, which was danced for an hour, was shortened to half an hour. And then there was a slackening, with the involvement of various other movements, gyrations and jumps. Experimentation. Then the next 10 years saw people hating Bharatanatyam."

But Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay told me `I know you are going through a crisis but don't compromise. Keep your style as it is.'Then the last 10 years, I find we are getting back to basics.

Back to the roots?

"Yes. That's where I have to thank Rukmani Devi and Martha Graham — they always said get back to the basic. I can accept anything beautiful, even the innovation. But basics are important to me."

What do you feel about modern and contemporary dance?

"It's interesting. Let them experiment with the body. I have done so too. In fact, when I came here in 1965, I was shy to wear leotards and tights. And I still have that costume. But now everybody wears them on stage. If you discover your body through Bharatanatyam, there will come a time when you rise above the adavus and reach the spiritual stage."

So you see no harm in mixing the contemporary and the traditional?

"I am not saying I see no harm, but I feel it's good to experiment. Sometimes in the name of experimentation, there is some truly indistinguishable work! That's like mushrooms growing. After the rain, the next morning, you see mushrooms all over and a few days later, none of them is there. Dance is for the people, not just for the self. It has to have some audience, some appreciation."

And art for art's sake?

"That's just a phrase. It is an evolution of the soul when you give yourself to society. When you make them happy you become happy. It is a give and take process. After all, a dancer is only an agent, only a medium. She is not an end in herself. I love people clapping, I love my photographs, and I love people saying you are lovely. Why not? But we have to evolve from within."

What does dance mean to you?

"It is my very life. I can't imagine myself apart from it. I don't mean dancing, jumping around the stage or giving programmes or anything. I mean as an artiste inside."

You've come this far. What is ahead?

"Ahead I see the three Ps formula — Posterity, (what do you want to say for posterity,) Positive attitude, and Productivity, (whatever you so it must be productive and purposeful."

And the future of the institution?

"It is in safe hands. The concert that we have done for the 32nd anniversary was done entirely by the next generation. I was just a spectator. This has given me a lot of satisfaction."

Is there anything you tell yourself that this is how I will live?

"Yes I believe in a very highly principled life. Everything should be moderate; nothing should be overdone, even sleeping."


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