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.