Dance guides me and awakens me

Dance is a way of life for Chitra Visweswaran Photo: Parshathy J.Nath  

“I think a dancer absorbs the experiences of life and lets it influence her art,” says Chitra Visweswaran. A conversation with Chitra meanders through books, folk art and theatre. A few minutes into the interview, we are talking about therukoothu, Shaivism, Rabindra Sangeet, Natya Shastra and spirituality. She does not see any of these as mutually exclusive. “I see life and dance as holistic. You just cannot compartmentalise.”

The 65-year-old dancer was at the Perur Pateeswarar temple where her disciples are to perform for Perur Natyanjali, the three-day long dance festival organised by the Rotary Club of Coimbatore Metropolis and Department of HR & CE, Tamil Nadu. Chitra performs a short dance piece as her offering to the deity. “I was not prepared for a performance today. I did not even have bells and had to borrow it from one of my students,” she laughs.

Chitra says she has restricted her performances “ Unless we step out, how can the youth emerge? My decision was also partly due to my husband, R. Visweswaran, falling ill. So, it all happened naturally.”

She is the dean of Lalit Kala Mandir, a part of Muthukrishna Swami Mission, headed by her spiritual mentor Mataji Vithamma, and Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts, which she founded in 1975. She is also busy with steering Association of Bharathanatyam Artists of India (ABHAI), and Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram (EINM), a state government appointed body to encourage art forms, steeped in Tamil culture.

Chitra has designed activities for ABHAI, in which dance is seen as interdisciplinary and holistic affair. There are workshops for artists not just for Bharatanatyam but also for folk art forms, theatre and yoga .

She owes her interdisciplinary outlook to early years of her youth, spent in Kolkata. “I studied Carnatic music, Rabindra Sangeeth, Manipuri dance and worked with amateur theatre groups. The city itself was artistic and unconventional.” Her theatre experience influenced the way she used lighting in her performances, and her decision to underplay the role of costumes. “Instead, I gave importance to ‘presence of theatre’, which teaches you how to own a character, when you are on stage. Your body language speaks louder than your attire. It is more challenging.”

Chitra took Chennai by storm when she first performed at a sabha there in the 70s. Her recital was unconventional. She introduced thematic presentations and idea of “narrative” into the mainstream repertoire.

It also raised a few eye-brows among the conservatives, she says. “But, I strongly believed that art has to change according to the times. Originally, dance, theatre and music were conceived as one. It was a way to improve the value system of a society and keep it out of mischief. Somewhere, along the way we lost the true motive.”

Chitra says she derives the courage to experiment from her unconventional up-brining, thanks to her parents, both of whom were deeply interested in art. Rukmini Padmanabhan, her mother and her first guru, was also a powerful influence, she says. “So are my gurus T.A. Rajalakshmi, of devadasi tradition who was brought to Kolkata by Tagore, and Vazhuvoor Ramaiyya Pillai, whose radical approach helped me see dance in a holistic way.”

Chitra’s philosophy of art is contemporary, yet anchored to history. “I always tell my students to get their research right. You must approach a composition with its historical context in mind and only then contemporise it with your interpretations. Do not restrict your interpretation to the literal level.”

ABHAI encourages this vision, and also aims to see dance as a therapy. Chitra knows how art can heal better than anyone. “I had a brother who was differently able. My mother was adamant about me learning Bharatanatyam because she wanted me to remain positive. Dance was supposed to give strength to both of us.” That’s why dance is prayer for her . Chitra says she is now on a spiritual path. The new journey, she has embarked, has transformed the way she looks at dance, now. “It is not just about entertainment or titillation. Dance guides me and awakens me. It has become something beyond just an art form.”

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 9:50:05 PM |

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