Methil Devika is a picture of grace. We are all set for the tête-à-tête when the little one standing close to her asks: “Amma, is this the interview you were talking about?” The danseuse scholar had warned us that the interview wouldn’t be smooth with her six-year-old son, Devaang, around. However, but for occasional queries in between – “Is it not over? We’ve to go out!” – Devaang is patience personified while his mother talks about her life as a dancer.
Nearly 30 years as a dancer, scores of dance productions, creating alternative spaces for dance, writing… Devika has a lot to talk about. But, at the moment, she is eager to talk about Sripada Natya Kalari, her dance school at Ramanathapuram in Palakkad district, which opened in October last.
An art space that blends facets of Vastushastra and Natya Shastra, Sripada, however, wasn’t her dream project.
“In fact, Sripada just happened. I wanted a place where I could dance when I want to. Now it has become a space for my creative pursuits; its quaint and peaceful ambience gives me a lot of energy, thanks to my architect, M.M. Vinod Kumar,” says Devika. Sripada recently received top honours from the Kerala chapter of Indian Institute of Architects.
At the kalari, her students, 20 of them, are “first introduced to the common codes of Indian classical dance and after analysing their calibre, I teach them the dance form that suits their body. For instance, out of the 20, maybe two or three can learn Mohiniyattom,” she says. Devika follows the same pattern with her senior batch, those in the 50 to 60 age group, too. She teaches Mohiniyattom and Kuchipudi at Sriprada.
She believes a dancer shouldn’t restrict herself to one dance style only. “I have learnt Western dance while studying in Kolkata. If you are a dancer, any style should suit you. Dance is about movement. If Alarmel Valli were to do Mohiniyattom, she will excel in that as well, because she is an excellent mover,” she says.
Close to her heart
Mohiniyattom, nonetheless, is special to Devika who is also trained in Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam. “I feel like a representative of this dance form, especially when I work for Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPICMACAY, of which she is an empanelled artiste). I think I represent the State, its language, its literature and allied arts.”
As debates are on about experimenting with its costumes and hair-do, she says: “Traditional is what your teachers have told you. Tradition, for me, is a matter of perspective as well. For instance, I choose to wear the traditional Kerala settu-mundu for chamber performances, especially for lecture demonstrations or workshops of SPICMACAY. People have appreciated the costume, which means, I needn’t come all decked up on stage to perform when I age!” she says with a hearty laugh.
Devika’s experiments do not stop at costumes. Now she is exploring therapeutic aspects of dance by developing modules for mentally challenged children. “But, I am not a certified therapist. However, I’m happy that a student of mine is doing movement therapy. At least I could inspire somebody to do it,” she says with pride. She adds: “There are alternate spaces for dance and I love exploring that but within the box. For, I believe that rules give us a lot of liberties. Without rules, there will chaos.”
A reason why she would like to be a director’s dancer also. “I’d be happy if a dance director approaches me for a production. The concept is very popular in the West and even in Bangalore, but hasn’t come to Kerala yet. In fact, I might work with such an artiste soon,” says Devika who has worked in the domain of arts management with Anita Ratnam in Chennai and for Attakkalari in Bangalore.
Meanwhile, experimentation continues in her productions as well. “I now look more into moments and emotions and not just stories,” she says, referring to her upcoming works on Lord Buddha – his thoughts as Siddhartha on the day before he left his palace in search of enlightenment, and one on the wife of sage Valmiki, when he was Ratnakara and used to be a robber. Then she is working on a script for a drama.
Literature for Mohiniyattom
She seeks literature from archives across India for her dance productions. And she has the highest regard for Kavalam Narayana Panicker with whom she has had a long association. “He has in-depth knowledge about literature, music and theatre. When he writes something, he puts the idea in chaste lyrics, keeping in mind the tune and rhythm…he even visualises the work. Nobody can match this quality of his.”
Immediate circumstances nurture a dancer. “You might have the talent, training and experience. But a strong support system is important. My parents created an environment for me to pursue my interest,” she says. Support system also stands for a reliable group of accompanying artistes. “I am blessed on that account, but not everyone. Huge rates charged by the accompanying artistes have affected the career of many dancers. Unfortunately, this happens only in Kerala. They demand even rehearsal fees also.” She now uses CDs as well, especially “when organisers don’t have enough funds.”
Before signing off, we ask her about movies. Having choreographed a song in V.K.Prakash’s Karmayogi, why not acting? “I have got many offers. Most of them are supposed to be dance-oriented roles. It is the role that should excite me, and not the dance factor. If something exciting comes up, I’ll do it.”
That is another act, of course!
Born and brought up in Dubai, Devika started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of four from S. Natarajan. She learnt Mohiniyattom from Kalamandalam Leelamma and Girija Chandran, director of Regatta Cultural Society, Thiruvananthapuram, and Kuchipudi from Vempatti Ravi and Satyapriya Ramana.
A topper in MBA (University of Madras) and a gold medallist in MA (Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata), she is the recipient of Devadasi National Award, Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar for Mohiniyattom from Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademy and Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award.
“I am an occasional writer,” she says. “I write candidly on socially relevant topics. Sometimes, I write under a pseudonym, to know how people react!”