Celebrated danseuse and academician Leela Ramanathan talks of all aspects of her art from the teaching of it to the practice as well
I feel change is inevitable and dance is no exception Leela Ramanathan
Renowned danseuse Leela Ramanathan has done it all and some more. From her first performance at Puttannachetty Town Hall in the city to performances in the presence of royalty in India and abroad, she has enthralled generations of connoisseurs. She has donned many hats including successful performer, erudite academician, loving wife, caring mother and doting grandmother. Winner of many awards including the Shantala Award for excellence in dance, Leela looks back in affection and shares her mantra for life in this candid conversation. Excerpts. From Leela Bhaskariah to Leela Ramanathan and beyond must have been an exciting journey. You are right. My life has been an exhilarating journey. But to tell you the truth, I have had no time to think about it. The deep faith and belief inculcated in me by my parents helped me develop a positive attitude early in life. When I was introduced to classical dance at the age of ten, I took to it with zest. . I had the opportunity of being trained in Bharatanatya first under Kolar Puttappa, then under great masters Meenakshi Sundaram, his grandson Tanjore Kittappa Pillai and his son Natya Kalanidhi Mutthiah Pillai.I remember my first performance at Puttannachetty Town Hall in Bangalore with Guru Puttappa doing nattuvangam. My performance at the Padmanabha temple in Travancore in the august presence of the Maharaja and his family is an unforgettable moment. The same goes for my solo performance at the Salle Pleya in Paris, and Cambridge Theatre in London. Performances in important venues in South America as a part of the cultural delegation of the Indian government, are among the other joyous memories of my dancing career. Another most cherished memory is my performance with my students at Military Hospital in Bangalore for wounded soldiers. In my academic career I cannot forget my first day in Maharani's College as an English lecturer facing students who were of course relatively a milder lot! What is the secret that holds multifaceted `Leelas' of Leela together and intact? The secret really lies in the positive approach that I was able to make work at every level of my life. Each role instead of disturbing my mental equilibrium, complimented the other. Do you feel disturbed when confronted with innovative trends in dance today? My long association with classical dance forms makes it difficult for me to change and accept radical transformations. On further thought, I feel change is inevitable and dance is no exception. Modernity need not be viewed as a thing to be confronted. Many a time certain aspects of modernity have helped regeneration. Hence, the introduction of new conceptualisation and innovative techniques are necessary for dance to grow. However not at the cost of tradition. Branching off or grafting need not necessarily involve uprooting the tree. Dance has existed in India and theintroduction of new forms need not be a cause for concern. I believe that ultimately it is the core values that enable art forms to survive. Is the phenomenon of reinvention of dance a passing phase or here to stay? I feel traditions have perfected themselves over a period of time. Considering their contextual relevance, it is better to let them be. Nevertheless dancers have the right to experiment and break with tradition to establish a new order, which in its turn becomes a tradition to be emulated or rejected by the generation that follows. Each tradition thus establishes its own identity redefining its boundaries resulting in the emergence of diverse traditions. Nothing is permanent. We need to develop an attitude of tolerance towards new trends and reorient our outlook. What prevents a professional dancer from developing an academic attitude? An academic attitude involves longer years of study,deeper understanding of the subject and facing an exam. The process of getting degrees is time consuming. In the new socio-economic order dance has to be a commercial venture. The absence of patronage makes dancers fend for themselves. Thus most try to become professional performers or teachers within the shortest possible time with very little investment. Developing an academic attitude in such a situation naturally becomes a last priority. Dance has been reduced to a movement of ill-conceived rhythms due to lack of understanding. Has there been any attempt to set right this imbalance? There is an explosion in dance forms. What appears to some as ill-conceived rhythms is for others differently restructured dance forms. In new trends, dancers prefer to express themselves differently. It takes time to accept, understand and educate people. No doubt seminars and academic presentations are arranged. But they are few and far apart. Confined to universities and cultural academies, there is little chance of information reaching the general public. Ultimately it is the responsibility of such bodies to create awareness and generate interest among people about art traditions.Some efforts are being made at the individual level. I am happy that I have been able to work in this direction through performances in India and abroad, lectures and lecture demonstrations, participating in seminars and conferences. I have written over 800 articles on dance, which have been published in leading newspapers and journals. As chairperson of the Karnataka Secondary Examination Board, I was involved in the publication of the textbook for the Vidwat Examination in Bharatanatyam. Sangeet Natak Academy has filmed my Tana Varnam for its archives. A film on my Varnams has been acquired by Karnataka Sangeeta Nritya Academy for its archives. My book, Nartana is due for publication. What is your message to future generations of dancers? My advice is dance because you love to and want to. It should be a passion as if dance is everything — the whole and soul of existence. And the rest is incidental. Such an individual dances till it becomes an integral part of his or her system. It is very necessary to develop a strong conviction as regards the tradition one follows. Evolving a distinct style and establishing one's own identity is of course the most essential factor to achieve success. How does it feel to be such an honoured individual? Dance is a great passion with me and awards or honours do not really matter. But when I received awards, it was gratifying. It was a great feeling that there were individuals and institutions that shared my joy. The Shantala Award is the highest award in Karnataka for excellence in dance, and it made me very happy, all the more reason to go on dancing forever. I have always felt that even when I am unable to dance physically, I shall continue to dance in my mind.