When life revolved around art...

Best step forward Sudharani Raghupathy during a performance  

Sudharani Raghupathy on the city’s cultural scene and a quiet Luz Church Road

My dance career began in a small temple in Uthukuli, where I would dance to aartis in the temple near our house and get a powder tin, soap or ribbon as a gift. Seeing my interest in the art, our neighbour Saraswati taught me to dance to Bharatiyar and Purandara Dasa songs. Later, I moved to Bangalore.

I started learning Bharatanatyam much against the wishes of my architect-grandfather, who thought my bones would wear away. But my mother encouraged me to pursue it. I remember how I once sneaked out of the house to perform before Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Later, when my grandfather came to know about it, he said: ‘Okay, you can do a little bit of practice, but don’t overdo it.’ I was extremely passionate about watching dance performances and would come to Madras as often as I could. All my vacations were spent here. I was elated when I finally moved to Madras in 1965 after marriage. I married Raghupathy, the son of my mother’s childhood friend. Our marriage was fixed when we were kids. After marriage, my husband and I stayed with his grandmother (Rajalakshmi Ammal), whom we fondly called ‘ammanne’ on Luz Church Road. Our house was called the ‘Sir K.S. House’ (Sir K. Srinivasa Iyengar, her husband’s great grandfather, was a council member). There was a huge buri tree in the front. It had a big compound and I would be afraid to walk up to the gate after sunset. There were just five or six houses on this now-busy road. Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer was our neighbour. There was the St. Isabel’s Hospital, Nageshwara Rao Park and the Andhra Mahila Sabha. There was hardly any activity in the area so much so that when lights were put up in front of our house on the occasion of our wedding, it was amusing to see passers-by stop and take a look at it.

In the absence of television and very few going out to watch films, art and culture was a dominant factor in most people’s life. I would attend almost all the kutcheris and dance recitals, especially at the Music Academy, which used to be held in P.S. High School, Mylapore.

The dancing scene in Madras was not new to me. I was familiar with the dancers and sabhas from my student days. Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra was like the fountainhead of classical arts. Then there was Balamma, who inspired generations of Bharatanatyam dancers and was the biggest crowd puller. Her dance was more about improvisation. The best way to learn from her was to watch her perform as often as you could.

Continuing dance after marriage was not easy. Now, I recall with amusement, but then it was quite scary to hear people comment, “Enna, council member veetula thatha-kili kekardhu? (the sound of dancing in a council member’s house?). For my performances, I would always be escorted by Soundararaja Iyengar, secretary of the Music Academy and the family lawyer, and musician Madurai N. Krishnan.

There were very few sabhas and not many dance performances. Artistes did not approach sabhas; rather they waited to be invited by them. Also, music and dance were not performance-oriented. Artistes did not rehearse just before a programme. Practice was part of their everyday routine. The dance costume was simple and accessories and make-up minimal. I would finish each recital by doing a namaskaram on the stage and then would go down to meet the audience, which included stalwart artistes and the city’s leading lights. Seeking publicity was looked down upon. I was once asked by a family friend, ‘Why have they put your photograph on the cover page?’

Though we were two generations apart, ‘ammanne’ understood I didn’t want to be tied down to domestic chores and was passionate about pursuing my art. She told me: ‘I won’t say stop dancing, but think well before you do anything’. Women like her, though bound by the diktats of society, had a mind of their own. They were keen learners and, in their own little way, made a constructive contribution to society.

SUDHARANI RAGHUPATHY Born in Pollachi in 1944, she grew up in Bangalore. She learnt Bharatanatyam from U.S. Krishna Rao, K.P. Kittappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Amma. She trained in Carnatic music under T. Chowdiah and Madurai N. Krishnan. Sudharani also learnt Modern dance from Eleanor Struppa at Randolph Macon Women’s College (Virginia, 1964-65). A recipient of the Padma Shri, and Sangeet Natak Akademi and Nritya Choodamani awards, she founded her dance school Shree Bharatalya in 1970.

I Remember

I was once performing at the Parthasarathy Swami Sabha in Triplicane. My first son Siddhartha, about three years old then, was in the audience. I was performing the popular ‘Krishna nee begane baro’ padam in which the dancer portrays how Yashoda pleads with Krishna to come to her, when I suddenly saw my son running on to the stage. He said, ‘Amma, I know you were calling me.’ The audience was amused while I couldn’t hold my embarrassment.