Manju Barggavee, the queen of Natya

Actress and dancer Manju Bhargavi   | Photo Credit: S Gopakumar

Manju Barggavee is back from a visit to the Siva-Parvathi temple at Chenkal, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. She was in the capital city for conducting a Kuchipudi workshop in connection with the Soorya Dance and Music Festival. “I love these visits to the temple,” she says. “I make it a point to go on pilgrimages whenever I can, especially to the Himalayas.” She lists the name of the places she has been to, including Kailas, Amarnath and Adi Kailas, to which she undertook a tedious trek in the recent past. Manju brings out a photo of herself as Siva in a Kuchipudi ballet. It is as perfect as a painting.

“Initially I was very diffident about playing Siva — my image was so entwined with the role of Krishna, and besides, I wondered if I could project the masculinity that the role demanded. But my master, Vempatti Chinna Satyam, instilled confidence in me.” The status as a classical dance form that Kuchipudi enjoys today, is solely due to her guru, she says. The Sangeet Natak Akademi had refused to accept it as a classical form, contending that it was more folk in character, coming as it was from Bhagavatha mela and Yakshagana. So the Guru streamlined and systematised it and demonstrated that it did, in fact, conform to the tenets laid down by Natyasastra to qualify as a classical dance form.

On the legacy

Manju, Vempatti Chinna Satyam’s prime disciple, often hailed as the ‘queen of Kuchipudi’, talks about her Guru’s dedication to his art. “He would have struggled and worked with a lot of perseverance to get where he was and make it big in Chennai.” She opines that it was he who made Kuchipudi popular and enjoyable for the general public. While today’s Kuchipudi is almost synonymous with his name, there are a few voices of criticism about his style. She counters these: “Aren’t there many banis (styles) for almost all art forms? So why not see this as a particular bani? Why don’t Kuchipudi teachers and artistes stop nit-picking and work together towards the advancement of the dance form?”

If the Guru has been faulted for choreographing for cinema and tampering with style, then Manju points out that the dance sequences in those movies were pure classical numbers and difficult to perform too. “Even the sancharis were set to rhythm,” she says “and yes, in that way, Kuchipudi today has been influenced by cinema for the better.”

Manju’s intention as a Guru is to pass down what she has learned to the next generation without tampering with the legacy or diluting it. “Teachers these days enrol students en masse. I would advise them to take in just 10 students in a single session and maybe have more than one batch to accommodate the numbers.” And she does just that at Natya Vedam, her dance school in Bengaluru.

Danseuse Manju Barggavee at a lecture-demonstration in Thiruvananthapuram

Danseuse Manju Barggavee at a lecture-demonstration in Thiruvananthapuram   | Photo Credit: S Gopakumar

She admits that she is a big fan of dance students of Kerala, based on her experience with them at the workshops she has held — most of them would have picked up the right methods by day four! However, Manju does not conform to the trend of learning multiple dance forms, all at the same time. “Ideally, one has to spend several years to perfect a dance form, by which time the body would have internalised it. Why switch from one to the other? I would liken the Kerala dance scenario to milk shake!” she laughs, being her outspoken self.

Having completed her golden jubilee in dance, the little girl who once used to feel “restless when there was no dance class” now has whole volumes of work behind her — thousands of performances, ballets, solos and choreography. Her enthusiasm continues unabated as she talks about some of her recent productions, ‘Sri Lalitha Nrityarchana’ and ‘Shambo Sivam Shankarim’. The former is based on the Lalitha ashtothara shathanamavali, translated into Telugu by Sanskrit scholar Rallabandi Kavita Prasad. Presenting a brilliant display of the 18 Sakthi Peethams of Devi, it showcases her improvisations in aharyam, as well, which enhances the reach to the audience. If she played male roles as Krishna, Venkateswara and Shiva with majesty, in female roles such as Satyabhama, she was grace and beauty personified. “In fact Satyabhama was a role that was once denied to me. But being a person for myself, I went all out and staged the well-received performance at Nehru Centre in Mumbai,” she laughs, in reminiscence.

All this work is notwithstanding her impressive presence in South Indian films where she has played countless roles with conviction. Just one Sankarabharanam, the all-time hit, would suffice to prove that Manju Barggavee is a queen of Natya, whether on stage or screen.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 1:53:37 AM |

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