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Gravity with good cheer

ANJANA RAJAN
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INTERVIEW Madhavi Mudgal talks about growing up steeped in the arts

Matter of grace Madhavi Mudgal PHOTO: R.V. MOORTHY
Matter of grace Madhavi Mudgal PHOTO: R.V. MOORTHY

A n artistic ceramic nameplate assures us we are at the right place. Madhavi Mudgal opens the door in a crisp cream cotton Ganga-Jamuna style sari (whose top and bottom borders are in different colours), the blouse contrasting rather than matching with the upper border. Dwelling on her wardrobe choices for this meeting is not by chance. It brings back snapshots of memory.

Those were simpler times. The title of George Orwell's “1984” hadn't become obsolete. Computers were only just on India's horizon. Doordarshan was the only telecaster. College cool was about Khadi and Gurjari (the brand popularised by Gujarat State Handloom and Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited). Fabindia was popular too, but there was only one outlet!

And among the cultural elite of the Capital, the petite Madhavi Mudgal could be counted on to stand out in her refreshing handloom saris paired with crafted jewellery. If it were wintertime, there would be warm khadi jackets and salwar-kameez, a woven shawl draped sedately round her neck. Because those were the days when, it would seem, the policies of government support to handicraft and textile traditions across the country had succeeded in roping in at least one generation of influential youngsters who took pride and comfort in dressing Indian.

Times have changed. India has changed considerably. And Madhavi, along with her generation of artistes who were sprightly youngsters in the '80s, is now among the seniors, a Padma Shri and a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Odissi along with other honours tagged to her name. But she can still be spotted — and still sporting the best of Indian handicrafts — at most of the major cultural festivals and performances around town. This week too, though performing and conducting recitals by her students at various venues, she was in attendance at shows elsewhere. It has been a lifelong habit.

Teaching for decades now, Madhavi stresses the importance of watching performances. “Unless you watch, you don't grow,” she says. As a youngster, she recalls, she would attend lots of plays produced by the National School of Drama, besides of course innumerable performances of dance and music — many of which were simply an extension of home, since home was where her father, late Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, founded the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya before she was born.

Today, even dance students don't watch dance programmes, Madhavi rues, but adds, “it's not that they don't want to”. Girls travelling alone late at night are not safe in the city. Lack of transport sometimes plays spoilsport. So Madhavi takes the middle path, advising her students to watch programmes whenever circumstances allow them. Besides, there are more choices for young people today.

If Madhavi exemplifies a fine aesthetic taste in all spheres of life that casts her persona in harmonious hues, her students represent a generation constantly shifting between compartments.

Today's TV channels could help by beaming meaningful programmes right into their homes, but there is largely silence from that quarter, she agrees. “When we were growing up, TV was almost non-existent,” she notes.

“There was only one National Programme of Dance, and everyone used to look forward to that.” Today, Lok Sabha TV is a “good, serious channel,” she feels, and one that telecasts programmes related to classical arts too.

Her stint with TV

Madhavi has had her stint with TV as a medium of making culture accessible. On DD's “Yuva Manch” whose producer was Kirti Jain, she used to anchor a programme that introduced the arts to a lay audience.

Madhavi once persuaded Kumar Gandharva to appear on the show. “He never wanted to go on DD, but because ghar jaisa thha (he was like family), he agreed.” She convinced him that they would have everything ready and he would waste no time on the sets. As he entered, she played a recording of the maestro singing as a child. “He heard it and his eyes lit up. He became so lively,” she recalls.

As for “just like family”, when Madhavi was growing up, her home was a base for classical musicians from different parts of the country, particularly practitioners of Hindustani music.

All-night concerts and music on the lawns were a common feature of life at the Vidyalaya, which was then located in Connaught Place. It was only in the early '70s that it shifted to its present location on Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg.

“That's where I really grew up,” she explains. Madhavi never had formal training in music.

“I just heard it. But all the musicians used to stay with us…Hirabai Barodkar, Manik Verma…I think the times were different; they didn't rush back (after a concert). Those sanskars were my training. I knew the bandishes just because I heard them. And my dance was also like that, till I was 12-13. I started when I was really young. It never seemed like a formal class.”

Child dancer

As a child, says Madhavi, she was naturally inclined towards dance. “Those days Mr Shankar used to organise the Shankar's International Dance Competition. I won the first prize in that,” she relates with a smile. The four-year-old's winning number was “Kamala sulochana” choreographed by Guru Valmiki Banerjee who taught at the Vidyalaya. “It was not Bharatanatyam, not Kathak. He taught more of the Uday Shankar kind of style.”

It was only later that dance became a career option. In an age of specialisation, Madhavi is an example of how a holistic art education helps in enriching one's final focus. A Bharatanatyam performer before turning to Kathak (the latter under Pandit Birju Maharaj) she finally settled on Odissi and became one of the premier disciples of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

Does she miss his guidance today? “Yes, I do. After the '80s we did not have regular interactions, but everything I did I showed him.” His presence itself was an assurance. For any new venture she could pick up the phone and say, “Guruji I want your ashirwad.”

With parents immersed in teaching and making music, were they a sounding board for her ideas too? “Oh yes, my mother and brothers were always my biggest critics.”

To develop a sense of understanding in dance takes more than a lifetime, feels Madhavi. Take the musical aspect. “I'm lucky, I understand a bit more, but it's very difficult for dancers. Buddhi khulne mein bahut time lag jaata hai. (It takes so long for the awareness to develop),” she muses. “Any devadasi or mahari (traditional temple dancers) would be a singer first…”

Not known for vocal criticism of individuals or even general trends, Madhavi remarks about the state of classical dance today. “Technically we are very advanced, but the soul is disappearing. We are propagating the kind of dance that strikes you, but the soul…” she tapers off.

Part of the reason is the paucity of time that has set a trend of 20-minute performances. In the '70s and '80s if students were learning 2-hour repertoires, today they hardly have the need.

This may be the reason for the disappearing sense of repose in performances. All the more reason, perhaps, for those trained in slower times, unstressed climes, to persevere on the course. These are the intangible essentials of life. In Madhavi's words — “That's what makes up life. That's what nourishes the soul.”

ANJANA RAJAN

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