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DANCER late than never

Shyamala Surendran has been an integral part of Kochi's cultural scene. HEMJIT BHARATHAN on this dancer and her mission.

SHYAMALA SURENDRAN has become an integral part of the cultural growth of Kochi ever since she started her Dharani School of Performing Arts. Dance is a passion for her. "It is a form of prayer. An interaction between you and God and not a competition to prove I'm better than you." Her large expressive eyes, aquiline features, high cheekbones complemented by a slim figure suit her vocation as a dancer.

First love

Born as the only daughter among three brothers, who petted, bullied, loved and teased her, Shyamala was never taken seriously when she expressed her desire to learn dancing. Opportunity came her way when she was studying in Standard XI at St. Teresa's Convent, Kannur. She volunteered to choreograph a popular Hindi song for a school programme. Mother Gabriel, the Headmistress, who was also one of the founder principals of Providence College, Kozhikode, spotted her talent and was called to direct a group dance. "Mother Gabriel's belief in me and her quest for perfection while choreographing was my first inspiration," Shyamala reminisces.

Chance encounter

A few years later, during her graduation days at the Sree Narayana College, Kannur, walking listlessly after bunking her Hindi class, she strolled instinctively into a classroom where dancers were being selected for a college day Bharatanatyam show. "I don't know how I was selected. I never had any Bharatanatyam coaching and only knew to move to `Nadanam Aadinar... ' unaware if it was a Keerthanam, Varnam or anything else. But after the performance I was stunned to receive a special gold medal though I did not know what a ragam or talam was, whereas the others had undergone formal training."

Yet dance took a back seat, after marriage and the birth of a son. The initial years of married life were spent sailing round the world with husband Captain Surendran. "It was an invigorating experience, but I could not practise dancing as it disturbed those on the lower deck. Nevertheless, it was a time for introspection."

Her husband did encourage her to perform for private gatherings. "Once I had the good luck to dance before Raghavan Nair of Nrithya Bodhashala, Bombay, who convinced him that I had potential and should learn dancing. Thus with continual stimulus over the years my conscience no longer let me ignore my passion. Art cannot be contained. For ultimately the artist in you will surely come out, however you resist it." Thus in 1982, at age 34, with her husband at sea and son at Rishi Valley boarding school, she enrolled for her first Bharatanatyam class at Fort Kochi. But instinct made her distrust the teacher's integrity for she detected a false varnam.

She was then fortunate to be taught by C. E. Janardhanan, Dr. Dhananjayan's pupil, who opened her eyes to the world of dance. She was soaked in sheer ecstasy. Then there was no looking back. On a beautiful September day in 1984, Shyamala performed her arangettam at the Guruvayur Temple. For the preparation Janardhanan Master sent her to his gurus, the Dhananjayans at Chennai. "The Dhananjayans' magnanimity was overwhelming. Though I was just another arangettam aspirant, they treated me with genuine love during those ten days. Like a loving mother Shanthakka not only adjusted my costumes but even a loose strand of my hair. Before I left Dr. Dhananjayan asked, `would you like to join us, you fit here so well.'"

Her first public performance was for a fund raising show at Kannur. "People somehow sensed the dancer in me for even before my arangettam I was approached for this show." With Dr. Dhananjayan's words haunting her she soon enrolled herself at their school, in Chennai.


But accommodation was tough. As sheer providence would have it Padmabushan Kalanidhi Narayanan, the Abhinaya Saraswati of India, staying a few yards from the Dhananjyans was offering paying guest accommodation. Here in the company of the illustrious she interacted with not just dancers but art critics, musicians etc. "Maths and History, subjects I detested at school, acquired a new meaning for I found a Mathematical precision in talams and adavus that is sheer poetry in motion. History too is depicted interestingly in dance."

Dharani was formed in 1987 at her residence with three students. As the number increased the classes extended from the living room to the garage. Dharani, with nearly 200 students, is today a dancing school with a difference.

"I found my students unable to concentrate. So I conduct summer classes in Kalaripayattu and Yoga, for which I had undergone training. This help train minds from wandering. All art forms complement each other. But one should dance with enjoyment and total surrender. Character is moulded through dance."

Manly dance

Regarding male dancers, she affirms, "I want my boy students to perform in a manly way to bring out the beauty of the male form and not be dainty. In Kerala the male dancer is always depicted as effeminate as our movies used to portray long-haired effeminate dance masters. Thus I do not charge any fees from my few male students."

In 2002, Dharani staged an all male ensemble Bharatanatyam performance. Shyamala found her true style in Mohiniyattam. Her gurus were Kalamandalam Kalyanikuttiamma and her daughter Sridevi Rajan.

Her husband's demise in 1999 was a period of deep introspection. His encouragement still guides her. Dharani over the years has enlightened Kochiites on various classical art forms.

From celebrity shows of Shobhana and Vyjanthimala to rapturous Hungarian folk music, vibrant jugalbandis, Koodiyatam, violin recitals to Kathak, Odissi performances, there was even an Odissi recital by Masako, a Japanese girl. Besides dance, Carnatic music, veena, mridingam, Sanskrit etc. are taught at Dharani. The lecture demonstrations after each show are as beneficial for art lovers as the main event. "The public, friends and acquaintances have been my biggest support. If not for their generosity, understanding and unconditional love and support, Dharani would never have reached where it proudly stands today," she says.

But as the number of students increases she is apprehensive about individual attention. Does that worry her? "I believe in my karma. I never worry about tomorrow and take each day as it comes."

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