Language of dance
Lakshmi Vishwanathan's latest production focuses on the life of one woman, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, and her contribution to the arts. The show is in aid of the renovation of the historic Senate Hall in the University of Madras. CHITRA MAHESH talks to the dancer.
Telling a story through dance.
The gracious building stands mute testimony to history. The passing of time has made it a blurred image of what it was once. And in the dusk it is as silent as it is lonely.
She wondered: Can it not be made new in the tradition and mood that it came into being once? Cannot the people bring back the old, encased in the delights of modern restoration? That is what she seeks to do through Bharatanatyam, one of the most creative dance forms in India. Bring about awareness of the Senate House and the need to rehabilitate it. She is Lakshmi Vishwanathan, the artiste.
"Vidya Sundari" is the new classic dance theatre that she will premiere on December 17 at the Music Academy when the whole city will be agog with dance and music. Just what is this dance theatre all about? Amid trees swaying in the breeze with just a hint of twilight, Lakshmi Vishwanathan talks about it and all things that have led to this point in her life.
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WHAT does this season mean to you?
One of the highlights is my new production. While researching for a book on Devadasis, I was looking at personalities who contributed to the development of the Arts, particularly in South India. I found the life of Bangalore Nagaratnamma fascinating because she was a woman of extraordinary vision. Born poor, into the Devadasi clan, she was a truly liberated woman. She also had the courage to express her opinion on various matters of public interest including literature. I thought it would be a lovely story to tell through dance.
Did going to the Jacobs Pillow Festival in the U.S. contribute to this idea?
Coincidentally, I was invited to this festival, which has been declared as a Heritage Festival. It's in its 72nd year in the U.S. and each year people who are legends in their countries are invited. I was asked to do a whole season lasting for a week. This was also the time I felt the need to do something new for the season and being a graduate of the Madras University, I wanted to do something about the Senate House. It seemed to tie up with the theme I wanted to present about an artiste who was also a philanthropist.
How do you approach your choreography?
The language of Bharatanatyam is so eloquent that you can express any idea. Dance should speak to its audience. There is no need for any ideological message. I have specialised in abhinaya and I know its impact on audiences everywhere. My work "Banyan Tree" is quoted in almost every dance researcher's pieces in the U.S. and England because it had a path-breaking theme. Similarly I hope this one will compel people to choreograph biographies. Merely reading people's lives is one thing. Imagine having its visual interpretation?
What facets of Bangalore Nagaratnamma do you think will fascinate audiences?
So many. It should interest musicians too because she was responsible for building the Thyagaraja samadhi. She was a great devotee of music and Thyagaraja. She also formed a Trust so that each year the Thyagaraja Utsavam takes place on Bahula Panchami. It couldn't have been easy for her. Women were not permitted to perform, but she fought for it.
Is any extra effort required for the visuals?
To begin with, I am recreating some of the old costumes from photographs of 1920s. One scene I hope the visual impact will be great is George Town, which has a unique history. Now it is a crisscross of commercial streets, but it has a fantastic history. Most of the musicians and dancers lived in George Town. They had big mansions. All their patrons lived there. The house Nagaratnamma built still stands.
So you are recreating all that?
Yes. I also want to show how simple dance was then. There was nothing elaborate or complicated. It was communicative but sensual. I have also used a rather erotic poem by a poet called Muddupazhani from the Thanjavur court in the 18th Century. She has written a huge anthology of poems, called "Radhika Swanthanamu". This woman proves that Devadasis were actually erudite scholars. In fact she is listed in the anthology of women writers of India. Nagaratnamma defied a British ban on the book and published the manuscript. She was way ahead of her times. You can depict it with elegance because that is the beauty of Bharatanatyam. .
You have been exposed to various forms of dance. Do you feel that Bharatanatyam is the one that is best for you or are you willing to take all the forms into it?
It's like a language. You have to choose your language and try to see how well you can express yourself.
The usual Bharatanatyam repertoire only includes conventional things and is not much in tune with today's situation. Do you think those situations and attitudes could be incorporated into the dance form?
Certainly. There are many rasas that can be portrayed in any story. For example, in this ballet you'll find many moods betrayal, a woman's struggle, and her courage and confidence. Even when people choreograph dance dramas, it's possible to show a larger canvas of life's struggles. It's just that Bharatanatyam being a classical form it lends itself better to certain themes rather than contemporary social issues. Even your traffic problems can be a social issue. You have to ponder about whether that is going to make an impact as a dance drama. Nobody would like to see a dance drama the second time if you are going to talk about famine. But if you talk of nature you can influence young minds into developing a feeling for beauty, automatically the environment will be taken care of.
Do you see a trend where children are moving away from classical art forms?
Not at all. I find more and more children being passionate about Bharatanatyam. This is not just here in Chennai alone. When I travel in North India or abroad, the number of Bharatanatyam schools is amazing.
Coming back to what you are doing for the preservation of the Senate Hall, what kind of support have you received?
There has been a lot of corporate support for putting the show together. They are bringing out a little booklet with the story and the cast and so on. I hope to raise money through the sale of donor passes and that will go to the University. The Vice-Chancellor and people in the University have also offered to help.
How has it been to work on it for you, personally?
Exciting because I am waiting to see the impact on the audience. And also there is the pleasure of doing something new. I think the product will take care of itself.
You are getting an award this season from the Indian Fine Arts Society?
It's an honour because it is such an old institution. It has a long history second only to the Music Academy. Recently they began giving an award for a dancer as well. Another heritage company, Perumal Chetty and Sons, has largely supported them.
Incidentally they are also part of the George Town culture since they had their headquarters there. The award is a surprise, though. It will be presented on January 4 and I am glad that I am doing something new to go with this season of the award. Sort of justifies all that I seek to do.
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ONE of Chennai's better-known architectural landmarks, the Senate House in the Madras University campus was designed by Robert Chisholm. Begun in 1869 and completed in 1873, It was opened six years later in 1879.
The building is a striking example of the Indo-Saracenic style blending Byzantine and European architectural features like domes, minaret and arcades. The Central Hall on the ground floor is a huge one measuring 130 feet long, 58 feet wide and 54 feet high. Six massive stone pillars support the corridors on either side. Four towers surmount the corners of the building. However, the impact of coastal air and lack of maintenance due to paucity of funds took en their toll. The building is currently under renovation.
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