Bragha Bessell looks back on her dance journey

Bharatanatyam dancer-teacher Bragha Bessell

Bharatanatyam dancer-teacher Bragha Bessell   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

Well-known Bharatanatyam teacher-performer and abhinaya specialist Bragha Bessell says that her six gurus are the pillars on which her art is built

They say the universe conspires to make you what you are. Cynics may dismiss such fanciful thoughts, but once in a while there maybe inexplicable coincidences in someone’s life that make you pause. Take well-known Bharatanatyam dancer-abhinaya specialist Bragha Bessell’s case — there was no plan to be a dancer, yet she had the fortune of being trained by four dedicated gurus, two of whom taught and groomed her during childhood, and the other two as gurus for advanced learning. Each of them seemed to have come into her life at the right time to mentor her and to take her art education forward.

Bragha, 64, looks back on her journey as she completes 51 years in dance since her arangetram on December 6, 1967. As any nine-year old, she and her friends were enamoured with the glamour of Bharatanatyam and decided they would learn it. Suddenly, one day she found that she had no playmates as they had all joined dance classes. Not to be left out, she joined Nrithyodaya and learnt all of three thattu adavus from ‘Jayakka’ before she met Guru Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer in her periappa’s home. She was mesmerised by his tejas and his imposing persona, with long, white hair, long, white beard and a big pottu in the middle of his forehead. When he asked her, if she knew how to dance, the young aspirant gave it her all in the basic thattu adavus by sinking into an extreme ‘mukkaal mandi’ (three-fourth seated stance) for further emphasis.

That show of bravado must have impressed him, because a few days later, there was a knock on their door at 6.30 a.m. It was Guru Dorairaja Iyer saying, ‘Today is a good day, I want to start class for the child. Please wake her up, dress her and bring her, I will wait.’ For the next one and a half years, Guru Dorairaja Iyer taught Bragha and her little sister Brinda. “Master was a grandfather-like figure for us. He never lost his temper, so classes were fun. We learnt without realising how big this art is. We celebrated our initiation as dancers with the ‘Gaja’ pooja, for which Guru Dorairaja Iyer chose every gaja (bell). At the end of the function, he threw a bombshell saying that ‘I am 75, and unable to cycle from Kodambakkam to Adyar, almost 12 km, thrice a week. I wanted to bring these girls into the art. Please take it from here.’ The ball he set rolling then is still rolling, more than 50 years later,” says Bragha.

Bragha Bessell looks back on her dance journey

“Guru Chidambaram P.S. Kunchithapadam Pillai, disciple of Kaattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai, came into our lives soon after. He was in his forties and much stricter. For 17-and-a-half years, we had no free time, no holidays. From 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, we practised. Imposition was a regular feature. If we came late, imposition. We did not execute an adavu properly, imposition. Or even just like that, we performed an adavu 200 times. Actually, we got used to it, and did not think we were being punished.

“He taught us anga shuddam, how the eyes should follow the arm, the totality of presentation and focus. We understood emotions as he told us stories from the Puranas. Two years after commencing, when our guru told my father we were ready for our debut, my father couldn’t believe. My grandfather Ekambaranathar Iyer’s friend, the renowned musicologist Professor P. Sambamoorthy, was called in to certify our readiness. He declared that we satisfied the three requisites that he had in mind. What were they? I can only guess. May be talam, anga shuddam and bhavam.”

The guru’s only request was that the sisters have their arangetram at the Chidambaram temple. But there was a hurdle; they had to prove their skills to the temple official Nataraja Dikshitar. The test was abhinaya for his padam, ‘Kodidu kodidu kopam kollade’ (Valachi, Adi). “He was so impressed that he gave us the sacred space facing the Nataraja sannidhi,” recalls Bragha.

They began to dance regularly in temples and sabhas, and at home, where their father built a big hall, for visitors from other countries. The young girls learnt to present themselves and the culture to interested foreigners. The guru choreographed many thematic shows such as on Lenin for the Russian Consulate, ‘Panchali Sabatham’, ‘Aarupadai Veedu’, ‘Thiru Vilayadal’ by Nataraja Dikshitar and pieces for Father Schluz of the Leprosy Centre, Madhavaram.

“When our master quit, we felt lost. Someone suggested we teach, but I realised with shock that I knew nothing. I could dance, but not teach. I realised I had been miming and I had no knowledge of the art form. Vadyar had become too old. At 26, I went to Guru Adyar K. Lakshman. I told Lakshman Sir that I wanted to be able to teach and that I needed to learn from the basics. I also told him that since I had an orchestra thatwas dependent on me, I be allowed to do small programmes on my own. He agreed most graciously. Lakshman Sir is one of the most generous gurus I have come across. His words continue to reverberate in my ears, ‘Daraalama kathuko, daraalama panniko’.”

Guru Lakshman corrected Bragha’s lines and presentation. Subtle corrections such as advising against a flexible elbow and using the wrist to change hastas, enhanced the visual appeal of adavus. He taught her about composers such as Tiger Varadachariar and about vaggeyakaras. He taught her to revere others’ vision. “He would get angry if you messed up someone’s choreography. He was very supportive of his students’ efforts. I had choreographed a Bharatiyar kavuthuvam on Buddha (Ariya Darisanam) and a Kalakshetra Pasupathi thillana (Simhendra Madhyamam, Adi) for a Natyarangam festival on religion. The next time I performed it, he announced proudly that it was choreographed by me, adding that I had done a good job. It’s the greatness of such gurus that they can praise us so wholeheartedly. These values mean more than the dance pieces you learn,” points out Bragha.

There was more thirst for learning in Bragha. During Sruti Foundation’s Bani Festival in the 1980s, she watched Guru V.S. Muthusami Pillai’s innovative adavus and was intrigued. Guru Lakshman encouraged her to learn as much as she can. And when Guru Muthusami wanted to teach not just one piece as Bragha had requested, but a full margam, Guru Lakshman had no reservations, ‘Please learn whatever he teaches...’.

Bragha Bessell looks back on her dance journey

Bragha heard about Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan from fellow students. With Vadyar’s permission, she approached the abhinaya doyenne. Unnerved by her stern façade, she mustered courage to ask for ‘just one class.’ Fortunately for her, it became three classes per week. This association turned out to be a turning point for Bragha. “I was awed by the depth of understanding, of bhavam, of characterisations, of situations, of lyrics in Kalanidhi Mami’s style. Just as a phrase from the Kamban Ramayana describes Rama’s beauty as he entered Mithilapuri, ‘Thol kandaar, thole kandaar...’, I felt that way about Mami ‘Kann kandaar kanne kandaar...’ I became mad about the art form. I was constantly thinking about it. No video, no mirror, the practice has to happen within. The mind was the recording machine. That is the video I played and replayed, and prepared myself. To understand mami’s depth, I needed 19-20 years of preparation. She stood for beauty, subtlety and dignity.

“You watch, you learn, you grow. The next stage when you show, she would take the cue and develop the abhinaya from your interpretation. It becomes a samvada, a dialogue, at that level. It took me eight years before I could present the javali ‘Sarasamu ladetenduku’ (Kapi, Adi, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar). Life teaches you. Anubhavam enlivens art. With age you lose something, you lose your figure, the body is unable to do what it did in your twenties, but you can do so much with your anubhavam, which you could not then. That growth, inner journey, is what is important. You cannot fight nature,” explains Bragha.

After marriage, She was out of India for about 12 years. She could not dance in Saudi Arabia, and thought her life as a dancer was over. Suddenly one day she got a mail from the then director, Kalakshetra, Leela Samson, inviting her to teach abhinaya for eight weeks. “My husband and 12-year-old son pushed me to do it. I had been so out of touch, I was thrilled and scared at the same time. I had left my dance notes back in India under lock and key, because they were so precious. I remember the moment I opened that cupboard in Chennai, the past came rushing back. Kalanidhi Mami and my father were both so excited about this offer.”

Bragha has not looked back since. She has become an abhinaya specialist and is much in demand as a teacher and performer. In her words, ‘I am at a stage when my students are my gurus. I learn through their questions, performances, mistakes, love and affection. Learning is a never-ending journey.

“My journey in the arts would be incomplete without mentioning two more generous teachers — Guru Kamalarani, who taught me nattuvangam and looked out for me after my mother died, and scholar V.A.K. Ranga Rao, who helped me re-learn every song with the correct pronunciation and meaning when I started teaching. I have six pillars on whose support my career was built.”

Teacher or dancer, where does her heart lie? She is quick to answer, “I enjoy performing, but I enjoy teaching much more.” She is keen to pass on all that she learnt from her gurus.

What is Bragha’s strength? “Strength I don’t know, what is important for me is the connection with the audience. From the time we learn thattu adavu, we are told to smile and dance. Why? To make contact with the audience. How much we connect, depends on our hardwork, focus, dedication. When you reach a stage, you take them with you. Where? In the inner journey. What is it? It is what you believe, admire, achieve in the appreciation of poetry, characterisations, bhavam, beauty of the art form, take them into that. The important thing is that even though they are with you, you must reach a stage when you are not there with them. Just that beauty exists... It’s a lifelong journey. That journey should happen everytime you dance, even in the classroom. If you don’t do it in the classroom, it won’t happen on stage. I am talking as a practitioner. Not that I have achieved anything. One programme may happen... everytime the journey starts again,” says Bragha.

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Printable version | Mar 27, 2020 4:06:23 PM |

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