Thursday, 20 August 2015

KALA SAMVADA - Conversations

Rama Vaidyanathan is a name that needs no introduction in the dance circles. A top performing artiste of international repute, an intelligent choreographer and a doting Guru and Mentor, she has won the hearts of Rasikas and students world over for her perfect dancing and aesthetic approach to choreography.
Excerpts from my tete-a-tete with her on a rainy Saturday evening, while she was in Bangalore for a Workshop (As appearing the August 2015 issue of Ananya Kalasinchana, a monthly magazine published by ANANYA, a Bangalore based organization for the promotion of the Arts) :

Please share with us how it all started - Your days as a student of dance and the stepping stones that aided the metamorphosis into the performer that you are today.
My early learning began under Guru Yamini Krishnamurthy in Delhi. We would  board two DTC buses and an auto to reach the dance class, and it was my mother who diligently escorted me to the class twice a week or sometimes more. The commute was never a difficulty as learning was a very joyous experience and my Guru was a stern yet a very warm person. When I was 10 years old, she said I was ready to do my Arangetram. I was her first student to do the Arangetram, and thereafter it was only more and more dancing.
I got married at the age of 19 into a family where the platform was ready for me to take up dancing seriously. My mother-in-law, a Bharatanatyam Guru herself wanted a daughter-in-law who would dance, and take forward her institute. So I wouldn't say that I had to make the decision to be a dancer , I think that decision was already made. Though I went on to do my B.Com Honors at Delhi University, Dance is what was meant to be.

Those who have watched you dance will vouch that there is a breath of freshness, and a very unique thought-process that goes into the choreography and presentation. You have moved beyond the realms of a conventional storytelling. How do u approach a piece when you choreograph it ?
My approach to choreography is non-conformist. I don't conform to any particular rules such as a Margam mandatorily including a Kshetrayya Padam or a Javali and so on. I take up what my heart tells me to do. The intent was not to be different from the rest. I was brought up all my life in Delhi and I would visit Chennai only during 'the season' and so wasn't really aware of the trend in Chennai. In hindsight I'm quite thankful that I was unaware, as that gave me the opportunity and the freedom to process by myself what Bharatanatyam should be. So it was a personal dialogue with Bharatanatyam in my own pace and way and the outcome was through my dance. It is very important to have conviction in what one does. If one is not comfortable with a particular piece or movement - emotionally as well as physically, I don't think they should do it. In my case, I had the conviction in what I was doing.
With regard to approaching an individual piece, I like to portray it in a way which does justice to the poets vision. I try to look at layers in between the Sahitya rather than following it word-to-word typically, and if there aren't any layers I just make my own layers. When I have to portray a particular episode or theme, I do a lot of reading about it. A distilled product of all the material collected through this reading is what goes into the dance. Normally such intensive research is done for productions, but I ensure I do this for every piece that I choreograph, be it a Varnam or Padam.
Among all your choreographies, your most favorite / profound creative work would be :
Definitely the Mayura Alaripu ranks on top. Every piece is definitely special, but among the productions I think the most special would be "Mad and Divine" a feature on Janabai's Marathi Abhangs and Lalded's Kashmiri poetry which I premiered for the Natya Darshan Festival in Kartik Fine Arts.

You belong to the league of performers who effortlessly move people with a piece as complex as a Varnam or as simple as an Alaripu - something only deep conviction to our roots can bring about. Your thoughts on adherence to the Margam, and reinventing within its scope.
Adherence to Margam is absolutely necessary. I for one propagate solo dancing. There are only handful who are taking it forward because it is difficult to be a soloist, in every way. For a soloist, the best format to perform is the Margam.
Reinventing or relooking at the Margam is a dancer's personal choice. Margam doesn't essentially have to be Alaripu, Jathiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam etc upto the Thillana. That's the broader version of the margam but there are workarounds within that. A Margam as I see is a performance that begins at a base note, goes upto a crescendo and comes back. The emotions felt by the audience as well as the performer has to rise gradually, comes to a height at point of the Varnam and then slowly cools down. This experience can be given by any combination of items within the Margam.

A good part of your year is spent in travelling and performing all over the world. Please share with us your experiences of performing in the global dance scene.
Though I've been performing outside the country for many years, it has been 10 years or so since I've started performing in mainstream dance venues of the world. It is great to take our dance to the Indian audience abroad, but we are truly erasing borders when we present Bharatanatyam in a mainstream dance festival outside the country for audiences from varied backgrounds.
Dance intrigues me  every time I present it to an alien audience who enjoy our classical dances despite being possibly unaware about our mythology and the Gods and Goddesses. I don't think one needs to understand Bharatanatyam, they just need to connect with it, which they do and that is because of the profound nature of dance form itself.
The challenge is that I like speaking about my pieces before I perform them, and this becomes very difficult in a non English speaking country. Despite giving programme notes , having a translator etc. I don't think it does justice and I always wish I am able to speak the language of the country I'm performing in. To that extent, I think the language barrier challenges me, but only with respect to explaining the items, not in terms of dance.

Your tips and tricks to maintaining fitness, physique and stamina.
No tricks. Only tips. Balanced diet is the key. I don't go to a gym, or do yoga or Pilates. Truth is that I only dance. Before my practice sessions or performances, I have a routine which I strictly adhere to. It is a self developed warm up routine which is a  combination of Yoga, Pilates and basic Bharatanatyam adavus. This routine is something I'm conscious about, a good routine which I teach my students as well, and they've all found it magical. This maybe the trick !

How does a typical day on Rama Vaidyanathan's calendar look like ? What do you engage yourself in when you're not dancing ?
A typical day in Delhi begins with my rehearsals at 8 am, starting with a warm up routine, and reading up on what I intend to practice with the musicians. The musicians come in by 9 am. Most of my rehearsals are always with the musicians as we are either working on new productions or new pieces that I'm composing, or rehearsing for a performance. We go on till 1 pm. After lunch I take classes and teach the students of our institute - Ganesha Natyalaya. Following this is reading, doing research work and planning for the pieces. A lot of my choreography happens in my room when I'm sitting on my bed, I don't need to be in the studio for that. I work out the piece in the studio only after I've thought about it for a while. I also watch performances in the evening. But when I'm in Delhi I try to stay at home as I'm otherwise travelling all the time.
Cooking is a big stress buster and a therapeutic activity for me and I do cook sometimes in the evenings. I also enjoy reading, and tend to read specifically on the lines of what I'm working on, sticking to spirituality, mythology, philosophy, biography etc.
I don't like to clutter my life with too many activities or engagements. I'm not as busy as I am thought to be, because I purposely keep open spaces of time for myself where I'm just sitting and ruminating, watching my videos, reading, spending time with family and introspecting.

Your mother has been a constant source of support to your dance, evident from how she continues to accompany you on many tours and workshops. Your mother-in-law on the other hand is a Bharatanatyam Guru of international repute and a Padmashri, Padmabhushan awardee. How have the two of them influenced you as a person?
My mother Smt. Madhavi Gopalakrishnan is an immensely learned person. She does discourses on the Bhagavadgeeta, Narayaneeyam and Upanishads. When I have the dance residency workshops, I get her to talk to the students to give them an insight into philosophical topics. Philosophy is an important topic of study for dancers as it really helps in many ways. My mother nurtured my initial learning and continues to inspire me.
It was my mother-in-law, Smt. Saroja Vaidyanathan who gave me the support system. She would say, "I will take care of your child, go and practice", which is a huge thing for a dancer-mother. She's the one who molded me by teaching me how to be a professional performer and  how to create that impact and aura of a dancer.
When I went on stage to received the 'Young Woman Achievers Award' from the FICCI in New Delhi, I got both my mother and mother-in-law on stage as this was a Woman Achiever's award, and I was able to receive it only because of these two women who have helped me.

Your opinion on organizations that promote arts, how they have changed over the years, and their relevance today.
Organizations that promote the arts are SO Important, in fact more important than the dancers themselves. I say this because there are so many artistes and very few organizations. The need is for more organizations with adequate funding, as only those organizations with good funding are able to present good work.
I also think that it is very important for these organizations to realize that they have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. They cannot present mediocrity. There is an opportunity for the mediocrity to excel only if mediocrity doesn't get opportunities easily. But if mediocrity is getting an opportunity already, they will NEVER run that extra mile to perfect their technique and excel. Art Organizations need to be watchful of whom they showcase because in bigger picture these organizations are shaping the cultural evolution of this country.

And finally, your suggestions to young dancers who look up to you as their role model / inspiration.
Just spend your time perfecting your technique rather than complaining and thinking of the opportunities that you don't have. Everyone doesn't get equal opportunities, that is the way of life. Instead, focus on blossoming with the opportunities at hand.
Once the decision to take up dance as a full-time profession is made, one can say Good-bye to the bank balance, at least for the first ten years. One has to invest their time and money in dance, but then, don't we invest in any profession ? There is no point complaining. One has to walk the path, which everyone else has taken. Today if seasoned artistes are able to demand their price, it is because they have earned it after treading the same path. Success is bound to come if one works on perfecting technique and giving their all to dance.
My suggestion to young dancers is : Give to Dance. Dance will give you back ONLY whatever you have given it. Never more, never less. I always say - have a convex vision towards dance - the dance is a huge, limitless entity and we dancers are extremely small entities in perspective. When one has this vision, I think Dance can take them places.
My only goal has always been to continue widening this convex vision for dance !

The Samvada was crystal clear as is her persona. Rama Vaidyanathan's quest for perfection is an inspiration to all dancers, evident from her training which reflected in the recital by her students from Karnataka - Ashtabhavika, later that week.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015



Considering my wonderful memory, I should have started a travelogue way back in time to document my innumerable memorable travel escapades - dance related and otherwise. Since I didn't take to writing so seriously back then, I'll have to settle with photo-album memories of Singapore, Switzerland, Hong Kong, London and China, and a host of Indian cities and towns, should the desire to reminisce them arise. Here is an account of the wonderful five days spent in Malaysia, with anecdotes and instances specific to the travel.

"The most blessed country - Mutli-religious, Multi-cultural Malaysia", came the remark, once every 15 minutes from our tour guide Mr.Ben Soo. Ben was in charge of taking us through our three-hour city tour in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. After spending our first day in Malaysia snoozing away our alarms (thanks to the midnight flight), and shopping away at the Sungei Wang Plaza the entire evening (three women together results in either an estrogen overdose or a buying spree. We were naive to think otherwise !) , we figured we would do our trip costs some justice and do the traditional "sight seeing". What ensued was a City Tour and a Country Side Tour and some Local flavor absorbing (read roaming close to the hotel at the centrally located Bukit Bintang).


From our rooms we could see the conspicuous mono-tower, known as the Menara. Not far away was the Petronas, something we itched to see for as long as we could remember. The City Tour with our guide Ben Soo began at the Petronas (well, somewhere close we could say). Amid the photography sessions, I couldn't help pondering over Ben's rantings. He was so proud about his country. Of course he is a tour guide and he is supposed to speak high of his nation that thrives on tourism as a main source of income. But beneath all those layers of duties towards his country, I saw pride, I saw a sense of belonging, and it was unconditional. 
Lesson 1 !

The next two stops were shoppers' paradise. A Crafts Emporium and a Chocolate Factory. How smart of the tour operators ! They just know the game. But on hindsight, it is a no-brainer. Who wouldn't want to take back some really beautiful souvenirs and specially crafted chocolates ? After an hour of picking up classy souvenirs and gifts and of course tasting and buying the boutique chocolates, we hopped back onto the car to do more sight seeing. 

A quick delve into the history of Malaysia at the Museum showed the metamorphosis of the way of life in Malaysia and neighboring regions. Ranging from utensils used in the stone age equivalent, to the throne of the King, myriad phases of existence were conveyed through actual artifacts as well as imitations and panels. But  what caught my attention was articulate shadow puppets of Sita, Ram and Ravan. It was time for me to feel proud of our Indian culture. The pride lasted just a second. After all, the South-east Asian countries and India share common roots, so our Gods and Goddesses are as much theirs as ours. Ben Soo did mention Multi-cultural after all. 
Lesson 2!

Shadow puppets of Lord Ram, Sita, Ravana and Hanuman

"Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy", he remarked. I quickly checked - A constitutional monarchy is a form of monarchy where the governing powers of the monarch are restricted by the terms of a constitution. In the case of Malaysia, the King/Prime Minister holds office only for a period of 5 years. He is ably assisted by a cabinet of ministers, who should be qualified in the respective field. For instance the present health minister Dr.Subramanian is a qualified dermatologist. All other ministers are equally well-qualified.
So many thoughts crossed my mind while Ben Soo stopped at the Prime Minister's residence, which I guess in some sense is a Palace as the King resides in it. "Istana Negara". Palatial, Lavish, Earned ! Lesson 3 !
Istana Negara- The residence of the Prime Minister /Monarch

In the remaining time spent at the two attractions within the city - the War Memorial and the Independence Day Square, Ben's account of the "Rukunegara" or the Five Principles of Nationhood kept ringing in my ears.
    1. Belief in God
    2. Loyalty to the King and the Country
    3. Uphold the values of the Constitution
    4. Follow rules of Law
    5. Good moral and social behavior
And he was extremely proud to flaunt all of them. He vouched for every fellow Malaysian as well. How lovely, I thought ! If only ..... Well ..... Enough said.
Lesson 4 ! 

Ben Soo dropped us off at Saravana Bhavan (an Indian chain of restaurants that is extremely popular globally). He offered to take our chocolates and  other souvenirs back to the hotel lobby, as they would melt in the tropical heat if left in the car during our Countryside Tour. We happily packed it in a parcel, name tagged it and sent it with him. I'm not sure if I'd ever trust a tour guide or a taxi driver here with something as precious as chocolates :) 
Lesson 5 !


Hand impressions of the workers who helped establish the Pewter Factory
After a brief South Indian Lunch session, we began the Countryside Tour at the Pewter factory. Pewter is an alloy of Tin with Copper and Antimony being secondary components. It was quite amusing that having lived in Bangalore all my life, I never had the chance to visit the famous Tin Factory in KR Puram (famous..well for obvious reasons of a never ending Traffic Jam at all times of the day), but I had the chance to visit a Tin factory in KL. How good are they at marketing their stuff I thought. An internal guide took us through the history of the factory, the family members of the founder , the process of making the products out of Pewter, and finally landing in a Pewter Retail Store (of course it had to end in a shop !). The way out had a wall with the hand impressions of all the workers who helped establish this Pewter Factory, and that was the winning note for me. Everyone's contribution is recognized
Lesson 6 !

Batik WIP

After another visit to a Batik (wax-resist dyeing of cloth) boutique, we headed up north to the famous Batu caves. The naturally occurring wonder is flanked by a man-made towering golden statue of the Tamil God Kartikeya/Muruga. Naturally the place was a little poorly maintained (Lesson 7 - Part 1) in contrast to the rest of KL, nonetheless we managed to have a great time climbing 272 stairs with prying monkeys hoping to pounce on us at the sight of food / anything that interested them. The dark damp caves were beautiful and had two Sannidhis (Sanctum sanctorums) of Lord kartikeya - Velayudhar and Valli Daivanai Naathar. The climb down proved to be a tad bit disappointing. To see an Indian stand right in front of the massive statue of the Lord and smoke was disgusting and it spoke so much about value systems. (Lesson 7 - Part 2)

Of course, what followed was more roaming and more shopping, before we hopped onto a flight to Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands in the northern part of Malaysia.

More to follow in the next post !!!