‘In whatever form, work is worship’

Bharatanatyam exponent V.P. Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan

Bharatanatyam exponent V.P. Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan   | Photo Credit: V. Ganesan

Bharatanatyam greats Shantha and V.P. Dhananjayan, recipients of the Nishagandhi Award, talk about their work as dancers, teachers and choreographers

The Nishagandhi Puraskaram, instituted by the Government of Kerala for excellence in dance and music, was awarded to the Dhananjayans, this year. Recipients of several awards, including the Padma Bhushan, this one is special to them, though, as it is the first official recognition from the Government of Kerala to this Malayali couple. More than for acknowledging their merits and skills, this is an occasion to turn the spotlight on the dancing duo’s contributions to Kerala’s art and literature. Shantha and V. P. Dhananjayan talk about the award, their work and some of their experiences, old and new.

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar with Shantha and V.P. Dhananjayan

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar with Shantha and V.P. Dhananjayan   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

This is the first time that you are receiving an award from the Government of Kerala. How do you feel?

We have always felt that we had the acceptance of the public of Kerala. However, this award is a ‘formal’ recognition. It feels good and we accept it with full hearts.

You have been recognised internationally for the quality of your dance and for your inputs to its various aspects. How would you evaluate your contributions in general?

Dhananjayan: I must frankly say that we have made some significant contributions. And that legacy lives on in the hundreds of students, all over the world, to whom we have imparted the art. Many of the students who have trained under us — some of whom are excellent teachers and some who are brilliant performers — have projected and propagated the dance form in its true beauty.

Shantha: Apart from adding several items to the repertoire of Bharatanatyam, we have done some major productions, staged in India and abroad, involving hundreds of artistes, under the banner of Bharata Kalanjali, our institute. And these were not restricted to mythological stories, but based on the works of renowned writers, poets and artistes like Tagore, Vallathol, Pt. Ravi Shankar and so on. We have collaborated with international theatre and dance organisations and artistes like Jacques D’Amboise and Heinz Poll. And many of the productions had messages of social, cultural or environmental awareness. For 25 years, we have been holding Gurukulam camps in Yogaville in the US to generate and introduce appreciation of Indian culture and values to American-born Indian children and other students.

As a dancing duo, too, we have widened the possibilities of presentation, inclusion of themes, expressions and so on. This greatly added to the appreciation of Bharatanatyam among the general public.

Specific to Kerala, too, you have made considerable efforts to promote and popularise its art and literature. Can you give an outline of those endeavours ?

Dhananjayan: We have translated into Bharatanatyam several works of Vallathol, Unnayi Warrier and Swathi Thirunal as dance dramas and solos. In fact, choreography and presentation of numerous kritis and padams of Swathi Thirunal form a major chunk of my work. In the early years, Kalakshetra did not feature Swathi compositions in its repertoire. I did face criticism initially for introducing it into the Bharatanatyam scenario, in the 60s and 70s. Undeterred, I went ahead even as the controversy raged between Semmangudi and Veena Balachander who questioned the credibility of Swathi Thirunal himself.

Our performances of Swathi numbers at that time served to popularise Swathi Thirunal as a great poet-composer and a patron of dance and music. Years ago, we gave a performance on Swathi kritis alone, at the Karthika Thirunal Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram, when the erstwhile Travancore royal family was among the audience.

Shantha: In fact, we have a complete repertoire of Swathi kritis to be presented in the Bharatanatyam margam. In recognition of our efforts to propagate the works of Swathi Thirunal, the Malayali Club in Chennai presented us with the Swathi Ratna Puraskaram.

Dhananjayan: It might also be worth mentioning that I myself wrote in Malayalam and choreographed a full margam that includes a varnam or nrityopaharam, as we call it, a piece on purusha viraham and two types of nayikas, among other items. Aspects of Kathakali, in which I have been trained by Guru Chandu Panicker, have been incorporated into some of our choreographies and production, too. Shantha feels I would have done well as a Kathakali artiste, though!

Bharatanatyam exponents Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan

Bharatanatyam exponents Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

BHAASKARA was your dream project in Kerala, one that, sadly, never really took off? Can you share your thoughts on it?

Dhananjayan: BHAASKARA — Bhaarateeya Saamskaarika Kalaa Rangam, was conceptualised as a gurukulam for art, culture and wholesome education for the local children, along the lines of Kalakshetra and Shanti Niketan. Yes, it was our dream project, meant as an offering to our home state of Kerala and to my native village of Payyannur, in particular. We did invest a lot of our time and effort, emotions and savings, to see BHAASKARA take wing. But unfortunately, they were clipped by interference from local politics and people who failed to see the bigger picture. Anyway, it was Kerala’s loss, to put it simply.

Shantha: However, on the positive side, the project did a lot of good to the village — roads and electricity supply improved and vast areas of barren land were forested. We do find consolation and satisfaction from this fact.

V.P. Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan

V.P. Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan   | Photo Credit: S. THANTHONI

What memories do you have of your childhood in Kerala?

Dhananjayan: Well, you know the story of the son of the poor school master in Payyannur! As a school boy, I used to take part in dance-dramas and also trained in Kolkkali and Kalaripayattu.

This stood me in good stead as my body reacted well to the training at Kalakshetra, which caught Rukmini Devi’s eye. I was offered full scholarship when I joined the institute in 1953. Even as a child, I loved the Malayalam language and used to compose poems in it.

Shantha: (laughs) I was his senior in academics, though not in age! I joined Kalakshetra in 1952. My parents were in Malaysia and for a short span. I lived with my grandparents in our tharavad in Chittoor. It was there that I learned to read, write and speak Malayalam fluently. However, I had to master Tamil and Telugu, too, as it was the medium of instruction at Kalakshetra. Living in the hostel, I used to look forward to going to Chittoor for short holidays and for Onam in particular.

We got to see a new avatar of the Dhananjayans in the Vodafone ad. What was it like to play this new role?

Shantha: We play Asha and Bala, an adventurous, elderly couple enjoying a second honeymoon in Goa. It was our first experience in a full-fledged ad campaign and it was our first time in Goa. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! The director, Prakash Varma, was surprised at how we could stand the long hours of the shoot sessions. The years of steady, rigorous routine of practice and rehearsals had toughened us!

Dhananjayan: We love new experiences and experiments. It was interesting to see how art could be created with technology. Of course, we had always been performing and emoting on stage. But here, the technique is different. It is Natya of another kind and it is work of another kind. And in whatever form, work is worship. That’s what I believe.

In short....

Golden Jubilee

V.P Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananyayan

V.P Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananyayan   | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Bharata Kalanjali celebrates its golden jubilee this year. For the occasion, the Dhananjayans hope to revive and present ‘Jungle Book’, one of their earliest productions.

Youth festival

“All said and done, the school youth festival is a great effort on the part of the government. In spite of the appeals, clashes and instant items, it does serve to kindle interest in the art forms. And from among the thousands of young performers, a few genuinely talented ones do emerge as real artistes.”

Reel role

As a spin-off from the Vodafone ad, Shantha was offered a role in Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam thaala mayam. She says that she was flattered to work alongside a great actor like Nedumudi Venu and looks forward to watching herself as Abhirami Mami on screen.

The first

V.P. Dhananjayan was the first male dancer to perform a full repertoire in Bharatanatyam. He redefined the grammar of male dancing and took away the shades of effeminacy that was attached to it.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 9:00:46 PM |

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