Dance

Dance, her first love

All smiles: Manju Bharagavi. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup  

Her eyes light up when she speaks about ‘Sankarabharanam’. More than three decades may have passed since the Telugu classic created cinematic history across South India, but Manju Bharagavi continues to be best known for playing the heroine of director K. Viswanath's masterpiece. This, despite the fact that she has been one of the leading exponents of Kuchipudi for decades. Not that she is complaining.

“It feels great to know that people remember me as Tulasi from ‘Sankarabharanam'; I will always be proud of being a part of that great film,” Manju told Friday Review in Kozhikode recently. She was the chief guest of the anniversary celebrations of Natyadarpana Dance School, Kozhikode.

Box office hit

The danseuse-cum-actor says she never imagined ‘Sankarabharanam' would do so well in all the South Indian states.

“There was hardly anyone to see the film on day one in Andhra Pradesh, but soon it became a phenomenon at the box office. I remember how popular ‘Sankarabharanam' was in Kerala (it was dubbed into Malayalam). It is amazing what ‘Sankarabharanam' did to classical music and dance; the film single-handedly changed the attitude of the common man towards Carnatic music, and boys started learning classical dance,” she reminisces.

As for her role, she says she was surprised when Viswanath offered her the role – the dancer daughter of a sex worker.

“After watching me perform a ‘javali' in his earlier film titled ‘President Peramma,' he asked me to send some photographs of myself without any make-up. I totally forgot about it, but he reminded me a month later and that was how I became part of ‘Sankarabharanam,'” Manju recalls.

She didn't quite capitalise on her success as an actor, though. “But I have no regrets; dance has been my first love since childhood. I continue to act, but only when a role excites me. I enjoyed my roles in Telugu films like ‘Yamaleela' and ‘Ninne Pelladatha,' back in the 1990's. I am now happy with my dance shows,” says the Bangalore-based Manju, who, interestingly enough, was always the hero, not the heroine, in Vempati Chinna Satyam's Kuchipudi dance dramas.

She smiles when she recalls her ‘heroic' days at Vempati's dance school in Chennai. “I was so convincing as a man, thanks also to my height, that people would sometimes find it difficult to believe that it was a woman who had played the hero. Shobha Naidu was often my Satyabhama when I played Krishna.

"Actors Rekha and Anupama Mohan, who is now settled in Kerala, were also there with Vempati at the time. Somehow Vempati felt I was suitable only for the male roles, but I wanted to prove that I could play Satyabhama, the very soul of Kuchipudi. So, I organised a drama of my own and played Satyabhama; I invited him to the show, and he was surprised,” Manju laughs.

Manju was one of those pioneering dancers who made Kuchipudi a woman's dance. Earlier, it was men who portrayed the most feminine of Kuchipudi heroines. Of course, no woman could match Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma in Bhama Kalapam, she says.

“I have always admired Vedantam's Satyabhama; he was so beautiful as a woman. He was the first dancer to take Satyabhama beyond the boundaries of Kuchipudi village. Yes, now there is a complete role reversal, with women doing the male roles and few men taking up Kuchipudi as profession,” says Manju, who adds that she was impressed by performances by some young dancers she saw earlier in the year in Kerala.

“I was a judge of an inter-collegiate competition here, and was bowled over by a boy's performance; I don't remember his name, but he looked exceptionally talented in Kuchipudi, though it was evident that he, like all the dance students in Kerala, was heavily influenced by his training in Bharatanatyam.

"Many of these students who compete at competitions at school and college in Kerala are talented dancers, but it is a pity they don't take it up as a profession once they leave college. I think young dancers here should be given platforms to perform, as in states like Karnataka, where there are so many festivals that showcase young talent,” says Manju as she winds up.


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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 7:54:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/dance/Dance-her-first-love/article15773200.ece

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