Savitha Sastry and her writer husband AK Srikanth are out to revolutionize the present format of Bharatanatyam and are creating waves in the performing arena. I chanced to have a tête-à-tête with them over breakfast. Excerpts from the interview (as appearing in the feature : Kala Samvada in ANANYA KALASINCHANA, a Monthly Magazine for the Arts) :
How did dance happen ? Please share with us snippets from your initial experiences and early training.
My initiation into the world of dance happened because of my television icons like Hemamalini and Vyjayanti Mala. Back then, when a Tamil Brahmin girl tells her mother she wants to learn dance, the assumption is that it is Bharatanatyam. Living in front of the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai and seeing stalwarts like Sanjukta Panigrahi, Padma Subramanyam and the likes shaped my destiny very deeply, in ways that I would not realize then. When I told my parents that I wanted to learn dance, my father took the initiative and soon enough a dance teacher appeared at our door step. My mother was a bit apprehensive about it as she had various concerns about dance back then, and so she put down some firm rules for me to follow - academics would come first, followed by Carnatic music (which I was a student of) and dance would not really be a priority. My training began with a wonderful teacher, Mohana who was affiliated to Rajarajeshwari Kalamandir in Mumbai. She let me outgrow everything I had learnt and put me on to Mahalingam Pillai. After my father retired, we moved to Chennai. My Aunt, Padmasini who was an iconic figure in Kalakshetra suggested I get tutored by Adyar Lakshman Sir, and my classes began. Subsequently I also had the opportunity to learn from the Dhananjayans.
You have lived in the USA for many years. You were also a neuroscientist back there. Was dance an integral part of your life through the years abroad ? Please describe your journey shuttling between a career as a neuroscientist and as a dancer.
I had never gone away from first love which was Dance. Perhaps it took a backseat, given that I was raising a son, and I had an alternate career, but I enjoyed the different shades to my personality, and I don't think I would go back and change any of it. I tried my best to not juggle. But once the child was a teenager and at an age when being with mom was not cool, that was when I began investing in dance beyond just dabbling in it. I was teaching and performing here and there, all through my time in the USA, but the year 2007 changed things for me. I was chosen to perform for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and just after a tech rehearsal the entire artistic director's team walked up to me and said that they had a question to ask. I naturally assumed there was something horrible about my dance, but they just asked me "Where have you been ?" And I looked at my son (who is a photographer and was present at the theatre that day) and said "raising him of course". That's when my family made a conscious decision that I should get back to performing a lot more and I started coming back to Chennai to perform in the seasons.
As for my career as a neuroscientist , my research was on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and the neurodegenerative process of the brain. I did my graduate studies in the USA, and had an opportunity to work in the pharmaceutical industry developing models for testing drugs which were considered useful to treat these diseases.
When , how and why did the decision to create an alternate form of a Bharatanatyam presentation and to do away with the traditional Margam format happen ?
It was around 2009, when it came to a situation where I figured that either I changed what I was doing or just continue the same old traditional way I was pursuing it and not make it in any big way. There was no point in those trips from America to Chennai to present the Margam, as there were no takers for the Margam. I thought that if I was good enough as a product, people would come to watch irrespective of where I came from. But when there are just 10 persons in the audience, you start reflecting on why this is happening, and what is lacking. When one constantly looks to other dancers or critics for validation, it is better to take the traditional path, same as that of the Gurus who have already been validated in their journey. That is a journey by itself. In my case, I had departed from my Gurus in a search for evolution and I wasn't in a position to go back to them and re-establish. I had lived in America for too long, and had gained that independence as a natural process. And when I didn't receive that validation from the audience, since they were never there, I knew I had to do some serious thinking. Srikanth was always a part of the audience and would say that even the few people that come in were not interested in what I was doing. He himself was not interested and he was there just to support me.
Intuition tells you to listen to the voices of the lay audience members, which many of us dancers tend to ignore. We latch on to opinions that other dancers and Gurus give us and we almost forget that we dance for the lay audience too. And that's when we (Srikanth and I) decided to change what we were doing. We looked to cinema for that, since cinema has lived through the ages and transitions and is still the largest medium of entertainment that captures audiences. Why couldn't we do the same with Bharatanatyam and take its emphasis away from just showcasing a dancer's abilities ? The process started with baby steps and finally came together with Soul Cages in 2010.
Do you still believe in the concept of a traditional Margam, considering it has been the codified, structured format in vogue for decades ?
If we are given the audience of the 70s and 80s , then yes, I would say traditional Margams are great. But now that the audience has changed, if the dance form fails to evolve, it will lose its relevance in the masses, which is something we already see. Any college going student who isn't learning the art form shies away from classical arts. It is not important to them.
To that degree I feel that having stepped out and having found success in a niche, where dance becomes a medium of storytelling and stories told are relevant to the current times, is a much better approach to keeping the art form alive.
Your thematic productions are all authored by your husband, and these are said to have deep significance to our present day lives. How do you pick up these themes, nourish them and enhance them to be presented to and received so well by an audience comprising people from various walks of life ?
The biggest change one has to make is to understand that "Customer is King" and try and sequester that change. The audience wants an interesting, relevant story that is thought-provoking and has the ability to touch them. What better way to touch them than to find connections with human emotions, which Bharatanatyam can do extremely well anyway ? The dance form has the universality to reach out to all ages without any limitations.
Given that Srikanth writes from his life, with episodes that have touched him (masked in a way that nobody can tell how they are reflective of his journey), there is that element of honesty to the story. This is an important element that need to go into a production. How we connect with the audience and how the audience wants to see live entertainment are other parameters we must consider. The biggest change that has to be made is to step back as a dancer and not showcase yourself and your artistic abilities over and above your story. The same needs to happen with musicians, lighting director, costume designer. Everyone involved needs to acknowledge that they are telling one cohesive story which takes precedence over showcasing individual capabilities.
Your productions are state of the art, utilizing original content, original music scores and technologically advanced delivery. We hear you have a dedicated team of collaborators who work with you on all your creations. Please give us an insight into your creative process which you have employed in over 5 of your critically acclaimed features.
(Srikanth says) : The whole process takes between 9 - 14 months per production. It all starts with the story. I write a lot, some of the stories can be made into a dance production, and some can't, but I've never written for her to be able to dance. If we both agree that a particular story can be put on stage for dance, we 'Dance Board' it, which is like writing the screenplay.
(Savitha says) : A character is introduced through a dance or a passage that establishes or highlights the emotional state of a character. The key decisions are all made on the dance board. Each scene is put in place, duration, narrations, everything is timed to the last detail.
After the dance boarding, we take it to Rajkumar Bharati for the music. We send him inspirational music bits for every scene/passage, because what inspires him is the mood of the song. Words don't speak to Rajkumar Bharati as music does, and his genius captures the mood immediately. He sets the Swaras and the tune, and then decides what the raga is (if it is a pre-exisiting identifiable one, or something he's newly created, or just a melodic tune). The process is sort of a reverse engineering, quite different from the usual mindset of Mukhari for sadness, Kalyani or Shankarabharanam for happiness and so on. The music is thus created.
I simultaneously work with my costume designers and lighting designer, keeping in mind the storyline. For instance, in Chains, the costume and the lights have a Retro chic flavor as the story has a sense of throwback and is yet modern, traversing through time and highlighting three characters in Srikanth's life - his Grandmother, Mother and parts of Me.
Once all this is in place, I take it for the choreography. Rajkumar's music is so layered in itself, that we don't need to over-think the choreography. The dance just goes with the flow of the music. Unnecessary, redundant steps and mathematical calculations which the story doesn't call for are done away with.
How do you generate funds which goes into the pre-production phase ? In India, normally shows aren't ticketed, so are you able to recover your investments after a performance tour ?
(Srikanth annswers) : We've reached a stage in life where our disposable income is slightly higher than what it was when we were in our 20s. I've traversed my corporate journey, she has traversed hers, our kids have grown up and now we're in a stage where we can afford such productions. Having said this, I'd like to clarify that the lack of money should not be a cause for creativity not coming through. If one is creative enough, they could still work with limited budgets and present a raw version which may still be received very well.
Putting it in perspective, we don't take sponsorships, primarily because we are on to something that is genre defining, and we don't want that genre to be redefined and controlled by people who are putting money into it. For Savitha this is a passion and a hobby, it's not her livelihood. To me, it is a matter of keeping her happy because she has given me and my family her all, and it's time we gave her back some.
(Savitha adds) : When I dance in India, there is a very clear goal of making a change here in bringing the art form to people that would never consider going to it. If my work is limited by issues of finance, constrained budgets etc, it will be just another reason for the art form to languish. Believing in the change that we are set to bring, Srikanth and I are very clear of not expecting money out of this. Having said which, it's entirely upto an individual what they expect out of a performance and whether they seek a remuneration for it or not.
You are based in Mumbai. Do you find that to be an advantage/disadvantage as opposed to living in a hub for Bharatanatyam like Chennai or Bangalore. Do you teach/mentor passionate dancers in Mumbai on a regular basis ?
The geography doesn't essentially make a difference. I am travelling almost every weekend, performing in different cities, and I've taken away that feeling of having to make it big in a particular place. I'm not sure what significance "making it in a city" has today.
I mentor students in a very small way. I don't have a school per say, but when a student comes to me I try to point them towards the right direction. I tend to do more workshops in the cities I visit and keep my side where I interact with students alive.
What is your take on the role of organizations in promoting art and culture ?
SABHAS ?!?!?! (They question, with a laugh)
Organizations are people at the end of the day. People have preferences and mandates. Most times the people making the decision aren't artistes and are influenced by many things. One could wait for the right influence in getting through to the right person and try to achieve, but when eventually the doors don't open, one gives up. This process may be out of one's due diligence but one can't give up just because they haven't had an opportunity from an organization , and one can't hold them accountable for it as well. It becomes a frustrating part of the artistic journey. Why is there a constant expectation that someone has to do something for us ? If we need something, we got to go and get it ourselves.
You are actively into Yoga and pilates. A must for dancers ? Or yet another way to stay fit and healthy ?
The whole process of dance is a repetitive stress for the body, something that most bodies weren't designed for. At some point of time, for an average person, repetitive stress starts to trickle into the body either due to bad posture, or just the act of dancing for years. Finding cross training that will allow one to balance out is essential.
For me Yoga is the medium for flexibility and balance, and I go to Pilates for strength. Between these two dimensions I am covered for any injuries that I might experience.
I would encourage dancers to listen to what your body is telling you, take notice of it and accordingly take up a form of exercise that would address the concerns.
Have you had the opportunity to watch youngsters present their choreographies ? Your suggestions and advice to passionate performers who are waiting to come out of their cocoon and attempt something different, but are struggling due to the lack of support or funding.
No. I have not had the chance to see any new choreographies that have stepped out of the realm of being completely out of the traditional box of mythology or spirituality. But I would be more than happy to watch something that comes up if I am around.
As for performers who are waiting to come out of their cocoon, one needs to examine the reasons if they need to step out, and why they need to step out. For some it is not important to move beyond. For others who wish to, it is the probably the fear of not finding the right support, whether it will be accepted, whether the Gurus would support through it etc. This fear can only be overcome by your introspection of whether the status quo is acceptable. One formula doesn't need to apply for everyone. But I do believe that the niche I have created can grow explosively where people can find tremendous artistic freedom and don't have to be limited to doing the same Shankarabharanam Varnam in ten different ways when really there was only one story to tell !
Anything else that I have not asked which you might like to mention ?
(Srikanth says) Failure is inevitable. After five successful productions, our sixth one could perhaps fall flat. But that will not stop us from doing another. The process should be enjoyed. And if one isn't enjoying it, there's no point.
(Savitha adds) Complaining is futile. You've chosen your path, so it's your responsibility to take it forward. Many dancers have outlined that even if there are 10 members in the audience, they are happy dancing for them, and if that is their target audience. There is no scope for complaining here. That is perfectly fine. But if one expects that there be a wider outreach, one has to cater to the audience, and hence has to reinvent.
The thought provoking conversation left me inspired in many ways. Later that evening I had a chance to watch their production "CHAINS - Love Stories of Shadows", at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.