CHAT Srikanth Natarajan and Kalamandalam Amaljith on receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi's Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar for 2010. ANJANA RAJAN

Srikanth Natarajan

Awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi's Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar for his excellence in Bhagavata Mela of Tamil Nadu in the category of Major Traditions of Theatre, Srikanth Natarajan is perhaps better known for his Bharatanatyam performances, both as a soloist and as duet partner with his wife Aswathy. However, it is to the art of Bhagavata Mela that he was given, in a sense, ever since he was born. Srikanth feels it is this art that is at the source of his other skills. “I was given in adoption to my periappa (uncle), M.R. Krishnamurthy, when I was 30 days old,” he recounts. Krishnamurthy is a Bhagavata Mela actor and actively involved in keeping the Narasimha Jayanti festival alive (a 72-year-old unbroken tradition). “So I was brought up in Melattur and have been on stage for the past 33 years.”

At the SNA Yuva Puraskar festival, Srikanth performed a female role (stree vesham). “I do enjoy (performing) female roles,” says Srikanth, and searches for words to express the thought. “Before I even knew who or what I was, I started doing it.”

Srikanth's first role was of Bhooma Devi in “Markandeya Charitram”, when he was six or seven. Then he played Parvati in the story of Harishchandra. “My father always plays Shiva, so imagine, I was (performing as his consort at) seven and he was 45! They don't see height and things like that. Usually, characters go to one particular family,” he explains. “When I was 12, I did my first heroine role — Chandramati in Harishchandra.” He has since become adept at major female leads like Sita, Savitri and others.

“I take a lot of care in every aspect, like the makeup. I read a lot about them, I try to get into the character. I am very aware that as soon as you appear you have to look like a woman, and if you are, say, Sita, you have to look absolutely gorgeous.”

To dance as a woman in Bhagavata Mela and dance like a man in Bharatanatyam must be challenging. In Bharatanatyam, he counts as his gurus Pandanallur Shanmugasundaram Pillai, Padma Subrahmanyam and Saraswati. “I've always felt my dance is very lasya oriented,” he notes, “but there is something people enjoy and look forward to in it. And over the years I've really strengthened my adavus. I'm anyway from Thanjavur and my adavus are very powerful,” says Srikanth. “No one has ever said my adavus are effeminate or weak.”

Srikanth hastens to add, though that he doesn't go by lasya-tandava stereotypes. “I've never believed in dancing a too effeminate, rechaka-based style or the too macho, vibrant, ‘no-abhinaya' way. My abhinaya is quite strong, because of my Bhagavata Mela,” he clarifies. However, there should be a marked difference of energies between men and women dancers, he says. In duets with Aswathy, he is particularly aware of this requirement of a good stage package. “Mine is a very flamboyant style. I enjoy leaps and jumps and cuts, while she's very calm and composed,” he explains.

Srikanth and his gurus are keen to keep Bhagavata Mela as close to its original intentions as possible. “I perform Bharatanatyam throughout the year, but May is reserved for the Narasimha Jayanti, come what may.” He rarely performs Bhagavata Mela outside of Melattur, unless a special occasion requires it. “My gurus and I feel it should be kept as a community or group form and not diluted to a solo like Kuchipudi,” he says. He says they also wish to maintain its ritual sanctity as an art performed by Brahmin men. “A few years ago we started a school at Melattur,” he says. His guru Melattur S. Natarajan wanted to induct a new generation of performers with stipends for students, but the project fizzled out. Soon, says Srikanth, when his guru retires and returns to settle in Melattur, the idea may get a boost.

Kalamandalam Amaljith

Awarded in the category of Kathakali, Kalamandalam Amaljith has been an artiste and teacher at New Delhi's International Centre for Kathakali (ICK) since 2000. Amaljith completed his post diploma course at Kerala Kalamandalam in 1997 before going for specialised training. Before that, alongside his schooling, he learnt at Kudamaloor Kalakendram under Guru Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair and others. Grandson of the well known Kathakali artiste Champakulam Pachu Pillai, Amaljith has had the benefit of all approaches to learning: through an institution, through guru-shishya transmission and by virtue of genetics. No wonder his research theme for a fellowship from the Government of India's Ministry of Culture was a comparison between institutionalised training and the vidyabhyasa or guru-shishya tradition in the classical art.

The ICK is a pioneering institution in Delhi, its student body distinct from the single-minded children who enrol at Kalamandalam. “In Delhi life is very fast,” he agrees. “In Kalamandalam a child goes only for Kathakali, but in Delhi they can't do that. But even within that (limited time available to them as part-time students), they are performing so well,” he asserts. “Even Kalamandalam doesn't have so many students.”

It is a common worry that the popularity of Kathakali is limited to connoisseurs, even in Kerala, and dedicated performers languish for lack of opportunity. “It is not declining now. There are lots of opportunities,” insists Amaljith. His personal experience gives him the confidence of his convictions: “My grandfather did not allow my father to become a Kathakali artiste, but he did teach me. Once I asked him why, and he said, ‘At that time it was not possible to look after your family in this career, but now it is'.” Similarly, says Amaljith, once when he received Rs.400 as remuneration for a performance soon after completing his course, his grandfather told him, “When I was 82, I got Rs.450 (performance fee), so if you are getting Rs.400 at the beginning of your career, it shows there is improvement in the field!”

Amaljith, who performs as Surya in Evoor Rajendran Pillai's “Karnothbhavam” being premiered this Saturday at the ICK premises, hopes to do some creative work himself, whenever his busy schedule permits. “I want to take Kathakali forward, not to leave the tradition behind, but I would like to be more flexible in choreography and try experimenting alongside dancers from other styles.” He adds, though, that he will go ahead only in consultation with Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan, former principal of ICK. “He is my guide. When I got the award too, I first called him for his blessings.”