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Portrait of an artist

ANJANA RAJAN
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CHAT Tulsi Badrinath says her latest book is about the dance world and not a biography of V.P. Dhananjayan

Adulation amidst analysisTulsi BadrinathPhoto : R. Ravindran
Adulation amidst analysisTulsi BadrinathPhoto : R. Ravindran

The air of a thatched cottage in Chennai’s perpetual summer is cool and welcoming, but it can grow hot with anger, be lashed about by the dextrous movement of trained bodies, and also stand suspended beyond time. If this seems familiar, chances are you have visited a Bharatanatyam class in that city. Tulsi Badrinath, in her latest book, “Master of Arts: A Life in Dance” (Hachette India), takes the reader into the thatched cottage where she was moulded into a dancer by the illustrious Dhananjayans of Chennai at their institute Bharata Kalanjali.

The book intertwines three strands: there is Guru V.P. Dhananjayan’s journey from a Kerala village to Bharatanatyam stardom; there are other male dancers, often inspired by Dhananjayan to try the stage; and there’s Tulsi’s evolution from a wide-eyed child to a serious dancer. It is the third strand that in a sense holds the other two in place, as Tulsi describes her gurus, her fellow students and the other professionals she interviewed for the book.

To dancers in Chennai, much of what Tulsi writes about may be familiar territory. Others will not easily locate landmarks. Tulsi bridges the gap, partly because she too discovered in her dance class a world apart from the one she knew at home — like drinking in steel tumblers from an earthenware pot, and not sipping a glass of refrigerated water; sitting on the floor and not at a dining table, and the like. “It seemed to me I knew the world from the inside and if I wrote about that, it would bring the reader into my world,” says Tulsi. “That’s why these three strands are there.”

This is Tulsi’s third book and first non-fiction title. She has written two novels, Meeting Lives (Niyogi) in 2008 and Man of a Thousand Chances (Hatchette) in 2011. She says she initially suggested a book that brought out the guru-shishya aspect but the publishers wanted her to go further than this. Therefore the book has turned out to be a look at what it means to be a male classical dancer in a field dominated by women performers, with a focus on Dhananjayan’s role as trailblazer — even if an unwitting one.

Approximately eight decades ago, Rukmini Devi Arundale founded Kalakshetra in thatched classrooms to propagate the classical arts. It was in these thatched cottages that Dhananjayan, a penurious but fearless youngster, went through his rigorous paces in Kathakali and in Bharatanatyam. It was here that he met his wife the illustrious Shanta — right on his first day she was assigned to ‘look after’ Dhananjayan and his co-entrant Balagopal as she was the only student who knew Malayalam.

It was from here that they exited, alone and isolated at first, but eventually to shine as one of the country’s first and brightest dancing duos.

And among the scores of Bharatanatyam professionals who have emerged from their institution is Tulsi. Ask her how long it took to put the book together and she answers, “Forty years.”

Because it was that long ago that she first entered the cool air of a thatched cottage and discovered a world beyond time.

ANJANA RAJAN

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