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`There's divinity in beauty'

With your kind of figure, it is not too late to learn dance - Padma

They began the Take Two as auspiciously as they would their recital. No sooner did Carnatic vocalist Bombay Jayashri enter the celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer Padma Subrahmanyam's home in Adyar, than she bowed to touch the veteran's feet. Padma blessed and gave her kumkum from the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. In these times when everything old is being given a modern spin, what still sets our art and some of the artistes apart are traditional gestures like this. The duo looked like guru-shishya, though Padma insisted she is more an admirer of Jayashri's `swara shuddha' singing. She was also impressed by the neckpiece Jayashri was wearing that day to match her elegant Kancheepuram sari. Instead of the usual question-answer session, the no-frill young vocalist preferred to join Padma on a 90-minute creative trip, getting an insight into how arts were perceived in the past and how they thrive in the contemporary context.

Chitra Swaminathan recorded the harmonious exchange interspersed with humorous anecdotes.

Padma: Music can exist without dance but dance cannot without music. You know what I mean, a dancer is always delighted to meet an accomplished musician. So I feel today.

Jayashri: [With a warm hug] I couldn't have asked for more than this opportunity to meet you. Your performances I had watched in Bombay are still etched in my memory. Your solo dance dramas are like full-length plays where your face is a smorgasbord of emotions. I always wondered how you could limit your smile to just one side of your face. [I divide my face into half, laughs Padma] At least in my next birth I would want to be your shishya. Actually I started training in Bharatanatyam in Bombay. I had learnt just a few pieces, when one day the master shifted me to the other end of the hall where music classes were held. He never ever let me near the dance class again.

Never too late

Padma: Thank him for spotting your talent. Maybe he had an intuition about your becoming a well-known musician. Anyway with your kind of figure, it's not too late to learn dance. You know Rukmini Devi started dancing when she was 32. Legendary ballerina Martha Graham was past 80 when she performed for the last time. Dance is a way of life. For the sake of your body you eat, and so you dance too.

Jayashri: But with a Padma Subrahmanyam around, who would want to see Jayashri dance?

Padma: Begin by travelling inward. Initially, we learn to enjoy performing for ourselves and then strive to make the person even in the last row of the auditorium share the joy. Take, for instance, the December fest; don't you agree we are paid much more outside, but still prefer to perform in sabhas here for the sheer love of it. Sometimes you just want to close your eyes, forget about the people around and cherish the experience.

Jayashri: I seem to do it too often. And I have realised there's a flip side to it. As photographers complain they hardly have pictures of me with eyes open. [Padma has a hearty laugh]

Sincere effort

Padma: Though the Margazhi festival of music and dance is known world over, what's happening at the Bangalore Habba (festival in Kannada) is heartening. A sincere attempt is being made to take arts to the common man. The approach is new-age — 32 kinds of programmes happen simultaneously at 32 different places each day during the week-long festival. From Veda Parayanam to pop bands, there's something for everyone. And most important, none of the programmes are ticketed. Can sponsors help the sabhas here in doing something like this? Artistes then will have the pleasure of performing to a full house and enjoy presenting something new in every recital.

Jayashri: There is an unending variety in our traditional compositions. If we understand the essence of these timeless gems, we as artistes can elevate ourselves as also the listeners to new levels.

Padma: Catering to contemporary tastes has not been a problem for me (she smiles). What I did 20 years ago was termed modern. But I was angry even with critics who praised my work and called me a creative artiste. I wanted them to say I was authentic. After all, I was recreating a 500-year-old tradition through extensive study and research. I am like a pauranika, not Valmiki.

Jayashri: This is a narrow-minded way of judging an artistic work. If you enjoy watching a performance, nothing else should bother you. I got mixed reactions when I sang for films. Surprisingly, some hardcore Carnatic music lovers received it well, particularly that popular "Minnale" song. I liked the tune so I agreed to sing.

Padma: You should take it up when you get good film songs. I think trained singers like you can make a difference to the quality of film music. Salil Choudhury, the man behind melodies such as "O Sajana", was my first music guru. I was in school then and was so influenced by the song that I unconsciously composed a tillana based on that tune. Till date, it is my favourite tillana. You know Salilda composed "Ja to se na bolun Kanhaiya" at our house after hearing Balamuralikrishna sing "Vatapi Ganapathim". A great composer will never shut his ears to any music. Even Tyagaraja was greatly influenced by folk music. My sister-in-law, the late Shyamala Balakrishnan, who had done research in folk music had presented a paper on it in the 1960s.

Jayashri: Being the daughter of filmmaker K. Subrahmanyam, and having seen many classical dancers making it big in films, were you not tempted to enter the glamour world?

Padma: I started giving full-fledged recitals very early in life. Then I got busy with studies and research work. Though I got offers from established filmmakers such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Satyajit Ray, I wanted to seriously pursue classical dance.

A pleasing picture

Jayashri: Your choreographed dance productions stand out not just for their co-ordinated movements and expressions, but also for the well-thought out colour of the outfits, hairstyle, accessories and make up. Vocalists too need to present a pleasing visual picture with their dressing.

Padma: In our culture, we don't differentiate between beauty and divinity. When we dress up well, there's an element of divinity. There's some beauty in your name too. (she laughs)

Jayashri: Interestingly, many a time I get overseas calls asking for Ms. Bombay. Subbudu mama while reviewing one of my recitals, used Bombay as a prefix to my name.

Gradually everybody started referring to me as `Bombay Jayashri' and I too liked it. But sometimes it gets really funny when I go to perform in Bombay and get mentioned as `Bombay Jayashri from Chennai'. There's so much in a name!

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