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Classes for the masses

Dancer Gopika Varma speaks about her TV serial on classical dance.


THE MORE television programmes specialise in putrid soap operas and obscene music videos, the more classical artistes try to provide the masses with a different brand of entertainment that has some edification thrown in. Gopika Varma is embarking on such a feature as she starts filming for her 52-episode serial on Mohiniyattam to be aired on Asianet. This Chennai-based Mohiniyattom dancer is reaching out to the masses in another way too. Married to Prince Marthanda Varma of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore, she is carrying on their tradition of serving the arts.

Gopika recently came out with a learning set for mudras (hand gestures) used in Mohiniyattom. The kit consists of a VCD and a book, and though Gopika is convinced that no one can learn dance from such tools alone, she feels the project, called `Hasta', will go a long way in familiarising laymen with an aspect of classical dance that often baffles them. For students, it is a valuable reference, she points out, since the book - without which the VCD is no help, she warns - contains the complete list of hand gestures used in Mohiniyattom with their 548 uses and shlokas in English, Malayalam and Sanskrit. Though it is not an entertainment VCD, but a lesson, she finds it is selling well in Chennai with both dancers and non-dancers looking it up.

As opportunities for classical dancers shrink, with limited patronage and a largely unappreciative public, Gopika realises it is imperative to create informed audiences. That is why she is making this TV programme, though it has not been easy to get sponsors. "One commercial house told me, `If you use film music, we will be glad to sponsor you,' but I do not want to compromise," says Gopika, who plans to show a short dance piece followed by informative narration by eminent dancers and critics. Padma Subramaniam, Chitra Visweswaran and Vyjayanthimala Bali have already agreed to appear, says Gopika, who also runs a school in Chennai called Dasyam, which will host its first solo debut in June. At Dasyam, apart from teaching Mohiniyattom, she continues her outreach efforts by conducting lecture-demonstrations regularly.

Meanwhile, Gopika is busy researching and documenting the contribution of the Travancore royals to the arts. Best remembered are Swati Tirunal, the prolific music composer, and Raja Ravi Varma the painter, but there are others. "Kartika Tirunal Dharmaraja wrote the `Balaramabharatam', an important text like the Natyasastra. Many of the ranis also created compositions, for example, Lakshmi Bai. I am trying to propagate these kritis through my dance and choreography," says Gopika, adding that the reason these composers were not in the limelight was because as part of the royal family, they did not take on disciples who would publicise their works. "The family is against promoting ourselves. We are only patrons."

Now, that is a lesson many could do with!

ANJANA RAJAN

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