French, not FOREIGN
A French-born ambassador for Indian classical dance. That is Devayani. ANJANA RAJAN speaks to the artiste on a mission to promote Indian culture and dance.
For the cause of culture; Devayani.
WE MAY still have staunch regionalists who think arts like Bharatanatyam or Carnatic music `belong' particularly to those hailing from the South of the country, that Tagore is only to be touched by the Bengalis, and other such fallacy mongers, but we also have a situation where some of the most dedicated exponents of our arts are from foreign countries. So it is that Devayani, the French-born Bharatanatyam dancer who has made India her home for the past 25 years, was the only representative from India invited to participate in the World Culture Open at Seoul in South Korea recently. "Whereas all the other countries represented had large teams or troupes, I, Devayani, born in France, had come alone to be `the participant from India' and bring through the medium of this ancient traditional dance art my message of peace and harmony," says Devayani, encapsulating in her statement both the strength of the art she practices and its power to turn cultural and geographic boundaries into lines drawn on water.
Although Devayani's French origins come through unmistakeably in her heavy French accent, her acceptance of India's traditions is also visible when she remarks how auspicious it was that she landed in Chennai ("Then it was called Madras") on "Mahashivaratri day".
Complete art form
Earlier trained in Western Ballet, Flamenco and Modern Dance, Devayani says she was in search of "a complete art form," and when in 1973 she saw a sequence of Bharatanatyam in a film shot in Kalakshetra, Chennai, "It was a complete revelation. The footwork, the expression, everything was perfect."
She began learning Bharatanatyam from Amala Devi, a contemporary of the famed dancer Ram Gopal settled in France, and later trained under the French dancer Malavika. Devayani later came to Chennai and was guided by Malavika to Guru Kancheepuram Ellappa. After his death she trained under Guru V.S. Muthuswami Pillai, besides Kalanidhi Narayanan with whom she concentrated on the expressional or abhinaya aspect, and the uniquely gifted Swarnamukhi who specialised in the karana postures associated with Lord Nataraja found in temple reliefs and sculptures.
Despite having learnt under a number of gurus, Devayani feels, "There is nothing which can beat the guru-shishya parampara." In her case, she says, her guru Muthuswami Pillai was aware and accepted that she went to other teachers to specialise in various aspects. Besides, she says, "Muthuswami Pillai was a very open person. You could see it in his eyes."
The name change
Devayani, settled in Delhi for two decades, was originally named Anne Chaymotty. Devayani was a name she chose when learning a dance number about Lord Kartikeya in Guru Ellappa's class.
Attracted by the beautiful ring of the name of Kartikeya's second consort, she also says it suited her because it had a `Y' and an `I' in it, just like that of her idol, Yamini Krishnamurti. And, sums up Devayani, it had four syllables, which she wanted since she was not using a surname.
Later she had the chance to learn from Yamini Krishnamurti when the doyenne of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi helped her with a programme called `The Cosmic Dance of Shiva.'
Those 10 sessions were lessons for a lifetime, she feels.
It is creditable that Devayani's craving for knowledge seems to keep her safe from hierarchical hesitations of seniority and juniority. She has been pursuing her riyaaz under Justin McCarthy of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra too, and candidly says the vigour of the Kalakshetra style he pursues has helped improve her own.
Teaching in Delhi, Devayani says she has cut down on classes now, since, "My mission in life is to promote Indian culture and dance internationally."
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