Friday Review

The discovery of an inner voice

Dance should not become a pendulum from being a taboo to social snobbery – like today people treat it as a style statement rather than a study of the arts

Dance should not become a pendulum from being a taboo to social snobbery – like today people treat it as a style statement rather than a study of the arts  

Padma Subrahmaniam was exposed to cinema, dance and music right from her childhood. Born to late film director K. Subramaniam and Sanskrit scholar mother Meenakshi, Padma was trained in Bharatanatya at a young age by Vazhuvoor B. Ramaiah Pillai.

The beautiful dancer, who has created history in the field of dance with Bharatanritya, was in Bengaluru for the Drishti National Dance Festival, where she was conferred with the “Drishti Puraskar”. This legend is also known as a music composer, choreographer, teacher, writer, and researcher. She has been conferred with many awards, including the Padmashri and Padma Bhushan. Padma talks to the Friday Review about her dance journey.

Tell us how your dance began.

My father was a leading film producer director and a visionary. He started the Nrutyodaya Dance School in 1942 as he was interested in Indian heritage and culture. He was outgoing and bold, while my mother was shy, an introvert and a lovely home maker. This parentage that I had was a blessing in my life. So I learnt both - to look at things from a global point of view without the clause of the traditional values. This became my life.

What triggered the dancer in you to become a scholar?

My brother headed our dance school while I worked as an artistic director for a long time. His wife was a musicologist. So after my parent’s demise I was under their care and my passion for research just grew. I got all the support from them, hence I could afford to be single and concentrate completely on my art – dance, music and study, archaeology and research.

Did you ever feel stressed with your hands in so many things?

I did not feel the strain as I found that everything I did was inter-related. Whether I travelled to Russia or a remote village in India, I made use of every travel for my research. Like I would make it a point to visit museums or meet scholars. This is how I really evolved and developed as an artiste and a scholar.

You always questioned your gurus. How was that received by them?

It’s sad as asking questions were not appreciated. Even today I simply do not accept anything that I am told. I was snubbed and was not encouraged to ask further questions. So I started referring to the Natya Shastra by myself. That study led to the inception of the form Bharatanritya.

Did you feel anything was missing in the form that your were taught that led you into research?

I was smitten by the sculptures in the temples in Chidambaram. I would stand for hours and gaze at them. I always felt that these stances or postures were missing in the form that I was learning. Soon I was asked to choreograph a dance for the Nrutyodaya by my father. He gave me 20 days. I was in my late teens and shocked. But took it up as a challenge and used the independence that I was given using the postures of the temple sculptures in my choreography.

How did the audience receive it?

The audience was floored. They found something new. But there was a small group that felt I deviated from the original form. They felt that I was doing something sacrilegious. But this dance put me on the cultural map of India. And the best complement I ever received was from Bharata Iyer, who wrote the first ever book on Koodiattam. He wrote: ‘Padma opens a new chapter in the history of Bharatanatya; an intellectual treat.’ That kept me going and doors gradually opened. My study opened my eyes to the Indo-Asian culture, temple iconography and architecture. I felt that the dance sculptures in the temples are like still photographs of moving dancers. So I recognised that there was something to precede and something to follow. Discovering that became my focus. I started to understand sculptures and texts better and so my dance became better.

Would you say that this was the original form and Bharatanatya was later brought out from this?

I would say that Bharata’s Natya Shastra is the Marga (the common grammar) that binds the entire Indian subcontinent and the Desi is the regional interpretations of the large text. Desi concentrates only on certain aspects. Like Manipuri has no facial expressions and Kathakali has too much of it. Each form is keeping something of the whole. I was looking at the primary source -- the inscriptions, sculptures and the Natya Shastra. With these three primary sources I was reconstructing the Marga which is like the mother. All the regional forms are like its daughters. I have a faculty and formulated a syllabus to help interested dancers and researchers. Nrutyodaya now offers a BFA and an MFA in Bharatanatya and a Ph.D. course. It is affiliated to the Shastra University. I believe that every form of dance can be studied in relation to the Natya Shastra.

Is it necessary for a dancer to know the scriptures of the Natya Shastra?

It’s not mandatory. But it does help. And all cannot become choreographers, dancers or musicians. Everyone cannot become a Tyagaraja. We need singers too for his work to come alive. M.S. Subbulakshmi never composed a single song, yet, she is a Bharataratna. Being always creative does not mean you should be a scholar or a choreographer. One must learn to excel in anything he/she does and that makes all the difference. Dance should not become a pendulum from being a taboo to social snobbery – like today people treat it as a style statement rather than a study of the arts.

What is that rare quality in a dancer that sets her apart from a crowd?

It doesn’t matter if you are part of a crowd. Dance is not just about name and fame but about atma tripti. It’s not just the spectator’s enjoyment, but also about your own. Dance is also about an inward journey, which should be the ultimate aim. But that takes time.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 4:21:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/the-discovery-of-an-inner-voice/article6811446.ece

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