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Will you dance with me?

TODAY IF someone were to talk of the romance of eminent Bharatanatyam exponents Shantha and V.P. Dhananjayan, one might take it as referring to the allure of their duet performances. But as far as their alma mater, Kalakshetra, Chennai, is concerned, the romance of the Dhananjayans refers to their marriage and the events leading up to it, and these continue to charm the present and former students of the college of classical arts - never mind their status as senior citizens.

"I was not at all inclined to be a dancer," recalls Dhananjayan, who came as a 13-year-old to Kalakshetra, "But as luck would have it, Chandu Panikkar Asan (the Kathakali guru) chose me out of four boys in the family. But at Kalakshetra, the atmosphere reverberated with music and dance. There was a galaxy of scholars. This atmosphere fed us, made our personality."

Shantha, who has danced from the age of three, never considered any other career. Born in Malaysia, she joined Kalakshetra at eight, in 1953, a year after Dhananjayan. If decades of marriage are studded with memories, those of childhood are no less vivid.

"Classes would be anywhere. There were no timings as such, though we did have academic studies too. At 4.30 a.m. class would start," says Shantha. "Who would take so much time? Even we can't give so much time and effort to our students," she remarks.

"See, the beauty of it was, the music teachers were also involved in the dance class," chimes in Dhananjayan. "Like Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer would ask, `What did Asan teach you today?' Or he would explain a tala by tapping along with his supari cutter."

The musical stalwarts then at Kalakshetra under Rukmini Devi Arundale's directorship, such as Sambasiva Iyer, Tiger Varadachariar, and others, were all "thathas" - grandpas - for the youngsters. "We had to pass their houses to get from the hostel to the dining hall, and the thathas would teach us funny little songs. We were never in awe of such great vidwans," says Shantha.

The idyllic life at Kalakshetra was in contrast to modern times, or indeed to life as Shantha might have known it in Malaysia. "Before we got married, I was debating whether to bring him to Malaysia. My family said, no, you can't go to India, but I couldn't imagine him anywhere else but Kalakshetra. I was not even a graduate. Everybody said, what will you do," she recounts of those days of suspense. Today they look back with satisfaction on their decisions. "I came from a very poor family," explains Dhananjayan. "In spite of that, we never thought of how much we could earn in Malaysia to help support the family. It didn't matter to us that the salary at Kalakshetra was Rs.120. It is a lucky thing God didn't put that into our heads."

Though their roles are well demarcated - "If she is designing costumes, I leave her alone, and if I am creating something, she leaves me to it" - sometimes they find themselves voicing identical thoughts, as in a choreographic idea one may suggest, only to be laughingly informed by the students that the other has already taught the same set of movements.

As for their two sons, Sanjay and Satyjit, the parents say they never compelled them to learn the arts but both are interested. While Sanjay went in for music after learning dance and pursues a corporate career too, Satyajit is a know young dancer, while Sanjay's wife Preeti Vasudevan is one of their disciples and a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.

With a flourishing institute Bharata Kalanjali in Chennai, a residential centre, Bhaskara in Payanur, Kerala, regular international tours and awards aplenty, Dhananjayan sums up their effort: "I am the architect and she is the engineer. Drawing is easy. But building it, she does." But Shantha is quick to return the compliment. Her "I am lucky" says it all.


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