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Torchbearer of tradition


Tara Rajkumar, a student of three legends, broadened the horizons of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam by teaching and performing the art forms in the U.K. and Australia.

Ace performer and teacher:Danseuse Tara Rajkumar.

Tara Rajkumar may not be a familiar name in India – her native country – these days, but her contribution to Indian classical dances in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and Australia has been remarkable. In 2009 she received the Medal of the Order of Australia, the highest civilian honour in Australia. Her South Asian Dance Akademi, which she set up more three decades ago in the U.K., continues to grow. A grand-niece of Appu Nedungadi, the author of the first Malayalam novel ‘Kundalatha,' and daughter of T.M.B. Nedungadi, former chairman of Kerala Kalamandalam, Tara was drawn towards art from a young age itself; she started learning Kathakali at the age of four. She is a disciple of legends Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalyanikutty Amma and Mani Madhava Chakyar, and began performing when she was in school. Her marriage took her first to the U.K. and then to Australia, and this provided her a golden opportunity to teach Indian classical dance on foreign shores. The veteran artiste spoke to Friday Review at her ancestral house in Kozhikode recently, while on her annual holiday. Excerpts from the interview…

On her gurus

I am indeed fortunate that I could learn from three of Kerala's greatest artistes. I still vividly remember going to Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair's house to learn Kathakali from him and Mohiniyattam from his wife, Kalyanikutty Amma. I would be taught Mohiniyattam on the ground floor of their house and Kathakali on the first floor. I learnt the finer points of abhinaya from Chakyarkoothu maestro Mani Madhava Chakyar, when he visited my home in Kochi.

Performing Kathakali and Mohiniyattam while growing up in Delhi

I was lucky enough – and honoured – to share a stage with Krishnan Nair in ‘Rukmini Swayamvaram,' playing Krishna to his Sundarabhrahmana. Those days, I used to participate in a lot of Kathakali shows. I was the first one to give life to Magdalena Mariam on a Kathakali stage. And among the audience was the then President of India, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. My father was a great admirer of Kathakali and he established the International Centre for Kathakali in Delhi. I, therefore, got to witness, and be part of, several Kathakali performances. I was also perhaps the first dancer to perform Mohiniyattam at the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi. Kalyanikutty Amma also gave a lecture on Mohiniyattam on that occasion. It was, of course, the early days of Mohiniyattam as a performing art. When I was learning the art form from Kalyanikutty Amma, there were just five items in Mohiniyattam's repertoire.

Changes in Mohiniyattam

Mohiniyattam has changed with time and those changes are welcome. When I began performing Mohiniyattam, the costume was made in such a way that one's feet was not visible. But I ensured that mine would be for I knew the critics would go to town if they did not get to see a dancer's footwork. Also in those days a Mohiniyattam artiste wore her hair in a braid. I feel that the ‘konda' hairstyle, which came later on, gave Mohiniyattam a distinctly Kerala identity, and differentiated it from Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. There were not many takers for Mohiniyattam then because it still hadn't lost the tag of being the ‘dance of devasasis.' I am glad that it has evolved into a popular dance form now. And we have to appreciate the roles of Kanak Rele and Bharati Shivaji for taking Mohiniyattam beyond the boundaries of Kerala.

On living and dancing in the U.K. and Australia

I moved to U.K. after my marriage to Dr. Rajkumar, a scientist. I began teaching Mohiniyattam and Kathakali to youngsters. I found that there was a lot of interest in Indian classical dances there and I felt there was a need for a school for the same. Thus, in 1979, I founded the Academy of Indian Dance in London (it is now called the South Asian Dance Akademi). My husband and I later moved to Australia. I have been living in Melbourne for the last three decades and I still continue to perform, choreograph and teach Indian classical dance. I have students not only of Indian origin, but a variety of nationalities, including many Australians.

I have been able to do a lot of choreography after I moved to Melbourne. I also began to move out of the constraints of classical dance and explore the possibilities of contemporary dance and theatre.

My work based on the life of Louise Lightfoot, the first female graduate in architecture from the University of Melbourne who went on to become a great dancer and fell in love with Indian classical dance, was well appreciated. The show titled ‘Temple Dreaming' was performed in both India and Australia. It was conceived after Monash University, to which Lightfoot had donated her archival material, asked me to do a production on her. I enjoy teaching young children as well. At Erasmus School in Melbourne, all the 60 boys of the school learn Kathakali from me. I choreographed the Ramayana for the school, in which Sita was a redhead and Rama a blue-eyed boy! When the Government of Australia gave me the Medal of the Order of Australia I felt honoured. I am one of the few Indians to have received it.

On the dance scene in Kerala today

I wish we had more dancers as performers, not just dance teachers. But I am glad that so many dancers are able to make a living as dance teachers. That is the one great thing that has happened because of our arts festivals in schools and colleges. I wasn't very keen about these festivals because of the unhealthy competition that prevails.

But I realise that our youth festivals do much more good than harm and keep many of our ancient art forms alive.

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