`Applause is music to my ears'

"My students have been waiting to meet music's little master. To me, he is still a kid! He is less than half my age. But as an artiste, he is more than a veteran," said celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer Sudharani Raghupathy about the child prodigy-turned-mandolin wizard U. Shrinivas. Her candid compliment struck an emotional chord in the young vidwan. And in his characteristic down-to-earth manner, he acknowledged it with a humble bow and said, "Age has not withered you, it seems to be catching up with me fast."

Sudharani's persona is as striking as her dance movements. And when she talks art she is fervent. As for Shrinivas his greatness lies in being genuine and gentle in a go-getter world. The classical ambience at Bharatalaya [Sudharani's dance school] was perfect for a Take Two with the artistes.

Chitra Swaminathan took notes.

Sudharani: You were just eight years old when I first saw you performing at the Brahma Gana Sabha. Taken in by the divine music and amazed by your mastery over the mandolin, members of the sabha felt that you deserved much more than just a garland, and gifted you with a gold chain.

Shrinivas: I still cherish the moment and the gift. I have always fought shy of asking this question about dance and don't want to miss the opportunity today. Tell me, do dancers have to keep smiling throughout a recital?

(She laughs at his child-like curiosity.)

Sudharani: One should have a pleasant face, particularly when entering and exiting the stage. At other times, the abhinaya or facial expression has to match the mood and the meaning of the song. Even while performing nritta or pure dance you have to emote to give life to the movements.

Shrinivas: Which means you enjoy freedom of expression?

Sudharani: Not really, the choreography has to be relevant to what the song conveys. Of course, we can take liberty with interpreting the swaras. Anyway, not just dancers, artistes generally need to look pleasant while performing. The soft smile you sport during concerts quite suits you.

Shrinivas: I wonder whether it really stands out because I am far removed from modern day flamboyance. (You cannot miss that bashful look).

Demand for innovation

Sudharani: These days artistes, particularly dancers, are under constant pressure to present something new. There's an overkill when it comes to `innovation and experimentation'. As a new generation musician, do you feel such demands are justified? How do you cope with them?

Shrinivas: I don't think I can ever get bogged down by such demands. There's ample space to give play to your imagination within the classical realm. So much so, I could adapt a Western instrument and make it sound authentically Carnatic. My musical style is based on vidwan Rajaratnam Pillai's nadaswaram playing. He and the legendary flautist Mali have inspired me greatly.

Sudharani: That's an interesting mix — Indian influence and alien instrument. Sadly, dancers are even forced to deviate from the traditional margam or repertoire for a wider appeal. For instance, the elaborate varnam, which showcases a dancer's dexterity, is passe. Where's the time for a one-hour piece in today's short duration recitals?

(Shrinivas like an obedient shishya nods in agreement)

Shrinivas: There's no art without rasikas, but we cannot afford to please them at the cost of sacrificing sampradaya. Just look at the incredible variety when it comes to SaintTyagaraja's compositions. Even a lifetime is insufficient to learn them. For the sake of innovation, the least you can do is come up with your own compositions in traditional ragas. There's no question of meddling with the original works.

Sudharani: Looks like you have been able to resist change. But look at it this way, musicians can be heard any where and at any time. You cannot possibly watch a dance recital while driving a car! Without a platform and pakkavadyam, we would be jobless. So, our visibility is limited and our lifespan, shorter.

Shrinivas: Audience' applause has never failed to charge me up right from the days when I first took the stage. The deafening sound is melody to my ears.

Sudharani: It's easier for musicians to have the crowd eating out of their hands by playing vigorous rhythm. And when you reach a crescendo they literally are on the edge of their seats. What's more, by acceding to their requests to play compositions of their choice an instant rapport is created. We dancers miss out on all this. I remember just one instance when I got an emotional response. It was some time in the 1960s. I was doing a piece from the Ramayana, the scene where Hanuman first saw Sita. For a moment, the musicians, the rasikas and I were so moved that there was complete silence in the hall. Of course, such instances are rare in a dancer's life.

(Looks at Shrinivas for his reaction and he just flashes that familiar smile).

Global appeal

Shrinivas: But what's heartening is to see many young faces in the crowd. Most of us tend to think that the classical arts have taken a backseat these days. On the contrary, I feel it is enjoying a global appeal with the coming together of artistes and the fusing of styles.

Sudharani: Do you teach other string instruments, besides the mandolin, at the Shrinivas Institute of World Music?

Shrinivas: Right now it's only mandolin but I plan to take up other instruments eventually. Is fusion happening in dance too?

Sudharani: Actually such exercises are exciting and help you explore the world of art. The increasing demand for dance dramas in the past few years has paved the way for the integration of new techniques and styles. You can always see traces of the Greek, Egyptian and Truscan movements in my choreography. It is because of my exposure to world art.

In 1964 I went to the Randolph Macon's Women's College, Virginia on an international scholarship. And I majored in the world history of dance, studio arts, western music and the legendary ballerina Martha Graham's technique in modern dance.

Such diverse influences help you approach an ancient art with a fresh perspective and make it appealing even to this computer-controlled generation.

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