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Steadfast dedication, staying power

As an artiste, what one ultimately aims for is spiritual evolution, says danseuse Sudharani Raghupathi.

IT'S NO easy task to plant a seed and find it blossoming with such tremendous results! And it feels pretty much the same when a small endeavour grows into such a big institution. For those who pass through its portals, the travel from childhood, to adolescence to responsible adults is filled with lessons on commitment, sagacity and perseverance. Nearly 32 years ago, Shree Bharatalaya came into being in Chennai. It is now a comforting haven where art, spirituality and personal growth come together in a synergy of devoted artistes, teachers and people! And the person responsible for this sits proud and happy— with all that has gone by; of life well lived; of love that permeates through every gesture of hers; of an artiste who has travelled from the mundane to pure spirituality She is in a mellow, peaceful frame of mind. Her spiritual guru, Madurai Krishnan, sits on guard to see that everything keeps going well and Sudharani Raghupathi draws me into her world — of hard work, dedication, formidable scholarship, supreme laurels and the fine arts!

"When I look at my life, the first 20 years were packed with great accolades, starting with dancing before Pandit Nehru when I was nine and going as far back to 1956-58. There are four stages that every artiste's life are marked by — practice, aspiration, achievements and finally the accolades. I have seen most of it, maybe all. I was the first Indian at the Randolph Macon's Women's College, Virginia, U.S.-sponsored as an international student. And when I got married, that too into a very orthodox, Iyengar family, it was like a metamorphosis. I set out being a housewife, but then fate had something else in store. Now I feel content when I see all my little buds blossoming into flowers."

What do they learn at Bharathalaya besides dance?

We also teach music, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Callisthenics. And it's because of this that people easily identify a Bharatalaya product. I tell my students to live in society, be part of it, have a family and still keep the dance, just as I have. A dancer is always an artiste."

Do you see a difference in the attitudes of children who used to come say 10 years ago vis-a-vis those who come today?

Oh yes. Earlier they would wear pavadai-davani and never walk in with a pyjama. They would come, change, dance and change again. Plus the style of dance I taught then has undergone changes now. I have evolved and so have those who went and came back. They sometimes say to me "why have you compromised?" For example, in the Aramandi, I might say, "doesn't matter, after all they are children, let them learn.

In terms of commitment, how are the children today?

Some 15 years or even 10 to 12 years ago, commitment was less. But I find it being more now in the last three years. Strange, but true.

Why is that?

Maybe because when the computer boom happened everybody tried to computerise things — including music. I too have tried some computer music, ragas etc. Then when it palled like a toy in a child's hands the urge to get back to the arts took over. It finally leads back to the basics of life. Besides, dance is a moment's experience. That one moment when you can bring a tear of joy. That one tear we all aim for. Something that might come only once in 20 performances."

How much of dance is a spiritual thing?

The spiritual level is high. I have been educated in a convent and those days, I studied in the U.S. I have been around the world, but I have comeback to a very orthodox situation. And at one point, I wouldn't say hate, but I was antagonistic. But now, I believe in everything — Karma, rebirth, and fate!

In these last few years what kind of changes have you seen — in the general dance field?

"Initially there were not many dancers and the style was still orthodox. Though it was a Marga, it was orthodox. There were different styles of course but that was because the teachers come from different villages — Vazhuvoor, Pandanallur, and Thanjavur. The Adavus were basic. Some 10 years later, they thought the Margam items were becoming boring. So the Varnam, which was danced for an hour, was shortened to half an hour. And then there was a slackening, with the involvement of various other movements, gyrations and jumps. Experimentation. Then the next 10 years saw people hating Bharatanatyam. But Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay told me `I know you are going through a crisis but don't compromise. Keep your style as it is.' Then the last 10 years, I find we are getting back to basics.

Back to the roots?

Yes. That's where I have to thank Rukmani Devi and Martha Graham — they always said get back to the basic. I can accept anything beautiful. But basics are important to me.

What does dance mean to you?

It is my very life. I can't imagine myself apart from it. I mean as an artiste inside.

CHITRA MAHESH

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