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GURUS HERE TOO Renowned Bharatanatyam gurus Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan at The Ashok's Oudh restaurant
GURUS HERE TOO Renowned Bharatanatyam gurus Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan at The Ashok's Oudh restaurant

Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan are equals on stage, but in cooking, he stakes claim as the guru!

They have just arrived in the Capital on the first flight from Chennai, which most shuttlers between the two metros dislike, since they have to get up before dawn. But Bharatanatyam gurus Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan look fresh as the morning breeze, not a hair out of place, their dancing eyes sparkling with vitality. Let alone the lack of a creased brow — even their clothes show no creases to hint at the journey across India!

Some people feel the need to tint their greying locks. The Dhananjayans, into their sixth decade of performing and teaching, have never bothered: Their daily schedule is enough to give Generation Next a run for its money. The dancing duo, in Delhi to receive the Natya Ratna award from Sree Shanmukhananda Sangeetha Sabha, have to rush after the ceremony to a performance by a disciple elsewhere in Delhi, and in the morning, back to Chennai. They will be back in Delhi this coming weekend to receive the G.D Birla Award from the Vice President of India, and the following day, are set for a tour to South Africa. Sprinkled in between are performances in Chennai. However, as lifelong followers of philosophy and yoga, they know the value of living in the present. Right now, that means taking in a delicious lunch at The Ashok hotel's Oudh restaurant.

Appreciating the garden and magnificent flowering mango tree just outside, the couple fits right into the Indian aesthetics of the spacious buffet restaurant. And Indian aesthetics is a topic close to their hearts. Over fresh orange juice, Dhananjayan talks of current trends vis-à-vis Indian arts. The classical arts give India its identity, and along with India's traditional festivals, ancient architecture and monuments, draw tourists and foreign exchange to the country. If politicians, the government and the media recognised this simple fact, the traditional arts would get the public space and artists the support they deserve.

Stress on salad

A simple mushroom soup is welcome as the conversation heats up. Being recognised by the establishment has never cramped the Dhananjayans' outspokenness. They received the Padma Bhushan this year, but the kowtowing associated with the Republic Day honours is not their style.

“I wrote a letter to the Home Ministry to consider giving Padma awardees certain privileges,” says Dhananjayan, referring to travel and other rights granted to sports persons and winners of gallantry awards, etc. He is still awaiting a response.

The two head for the salad bar at the colourful buffet. Shanta tries a bit of everything. Does the stress on salad mean a careful regime? She shakes her head good-naturedly. “I just love salads.”

Having spent their formative years under the direct supervision of Kalakshetra's founder Rukmini Devi Arundale, one of the pilots of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) as a Rajya Sabha MP, Shanta says they are more inclined to vegetarian food. The crisp rotis and paneer preparation come in for praise. Shanta is a renowned cook. She gets more recognition as a chef than a Bharatanatyam dancer, jokes her partner. He has earned the right to rib her. “I was her first teacher in the kitchen,” he reveals. “She didn't even know how to boil water!” Shanta doesn't demur, agreeing she should give him credit as her “adi guru”.

What could be sweeter? Perhaps only the dessert spread. Which one is good, she asks Dhananjayan. He gives his blanket approval to the entire selection.

Once, says Shanta, she shared her special recipe for vendiya (fenugreek) curry on a TV cookery show. Ever since, people on the street would recognise her as the vendiya curry lady. “Once a man also stopped me. I was thrilled! He said he tried it and it came out just right.”

And you thought classical dance is cooked up in its own ivory tower?

ANJANA RAJAN

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