Dance

Guru who took dance to the West five decades ago

Veteran dancer Sudha Chandrasekhar, who will celebrate her 80th birthday next month, talks about her teenage years with excitement. A student of Thiruvidaimarudur Kuppiah Pillai, the dancer performed across India, from her hometown Bombay to southern cities, from the princely state of Bhavnagar to the national capital New Delhi. Audiences for her Bharatanatyam shows included Prime Minister Nehru, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, visiting foreign dignitaries and even Hindi filmstars. In 1967, shortly after marriage to Sankaranarayanan Chandrasekhar, she moved to Canada, and ten years later, to Michigan in the U.S.

Sudha Doraiswamy

Sudha Doraiswamy  

Sudha has spent the last five decades performing, teaching, collaborating, exploring and learning, but all along, she has adhered strictly to the Thanjavur tradition of the dance. Regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, the word Thiruvidaimarudur trips off the tongues of her students with ease. “We’re not easily fascinated by other styles in Thanjavur,” she says. “We don’t need to change, because every little nuance is taught in each of the 108 adavus.” With complexity systematically accruing at each level, the student imbibes the movement vocabulary without craving ‘newness’ for the sake of novelty.

Sudha Doraiswamy with the participants at the Bharatanatyam workshop ‘Rhythms and Mudras’ during the Detroit City Dance Festival held at the Detroit Opera House studio.

Sudha Doraiswamy with the participants at the Bharatanatyam workshop ‘Rhythms and Mudras’ during the Detroit City Dance Festival held at the Detroit Opera House studio.  

Only to dazzle

There is a growing trend in Bharatanatyam — barring the odd exception — towards gymnastic stretches, ever longer, higher leaps, and challenging jatis designed to dazzle with their length and complexity. Some observers long for the ‘old’ Bharatanatyam, with its repose and ample space for abhinaya and subtlety. And it is interesting that we sometimes find the old tradition hiding in Canadian and American dance studios.

Sudha’s initial lessons, when she was hardly four, were under Kuppiah Pillai’s son-in-law and daughter, A.T. Govindraj Pillai and Karunambal. Karunambal’s brother Mahalingam Pillai came to Bombay from Tamil Nadu shortly after, while the patriarch himself arrived later. After her arangetram at age 16, Sudha received in-depth lessons under Kuppiah ‘thatha’. Meanwhile, gurus Mahalingam and Govindaraj would prepare her for performances. One was a ‘powerful and deep teacher,’ while the other was the authority from whom Sudha learnt everything about rhythm. Kuppiah’s younger son Kalyanasundaram, not a teacher then, played the mridangam; he also ran a drama company.

Karunambal taught at the family’s Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir, founded in the mid-1940s in Bombay, and also gave lessons around the city. A highly knowledgeable teacher, “her hands once placed (in position) would never droop,” recalls Sudha. The rules regarding the striking of the feet, flexing the knees and wrists were repeatedly emphasised.

Guru Kalyanasundaram, who belongs to the Thanjavur tradition of Bharatanatyam, with students at his Mumbai-based Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir

Guru Kalyanasundaram, who belongs to the Thanjavur tradition of Bharatanatyam, with students at his Mumbai-based Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir  

Sudha also admits that without the support of her parents — Jayalakshmi and V. Doraiswamy — her hectic parallel career in dance and college may not have been possible, but equally, no performance was complete without Karunambal’s blessings and debriefing.

Popularising the gurus

After moving to the U.S., Sudha and her husband organised visits by their gurus Mahalingam, Kalyanasundaram and other family members to tour and teach there. She hopes to continue doing so with other members of the family. Although her gurus never spoke of their careers prior to coming to Bombay and Karunambal never took to the stage, Sudha is happy to see the next generation of girls and boys from the dance family carve out individual careers. “Kalyanasundaram master’s daughter Shruthi is doing very well, and Mahalingam sir’s granddaughter Bharathi, and Govindaraj’s and Karunambal’s daughter Raji are conducting classes in Chennai,” she says.

Maintaining this continuity in the inherited dance form is clearly important for her. Sudha is conscious of the historical currents that have shaped Bharatanatyam. “I feel that by our (non-hereditary dancers) getting into performing and taking over the teaching of the dance form, which was for our own sake, we are doing some kind of injustice to the community of nattuvanars. Because they have got the art; I don’t think we have completely got it yet. What they had was something unique, powerful and I wish more had been done to preserve what they were doing .”

Recalling the performance of a hereditary dancer she watched once, Sudha says, “You could see the power in that dance. It has to go back to that sometimes. There’s too much glamour now.”

The Delhi-based author writes on classical dance.

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 9:34:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/going-beyond-glamour/article32687084.ece

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