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Expose common man to classical dance:
Padma Subrahmanyam
Bharatnatyam exponent Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam was at her articulate best, as she fielded a range of questions with aplomb at a coffee chat organized by Deccan Chronicle at the Rasam Restaurant here on the breezy morning of December 28, 2010. A host of her disciples from within and without had converged on the restaurant to listen to this guru par excellence pour out her mind and heart on dance, music, fans, critics and what not. Students from India, the U.S., Malaysia, Australia, France and Singapore had all been treated to some extraordinarily candid answers from this legendary artiste. As she held court in a different stage, Padma revealed her age-defying spirit. Surely, it had a rub-off effect on all those who assembled there that morning. She managed to cast a magical web with her elegant articulation, forthright delivery and easy gesticulation. As she infused a sense of freshness, she spread a feeling of optimism. She set out decidedly to clear many myths about Bharatnatyam, its popularity and reach.

No repeat show
She isn’t the kind who disappoints fans. "I am grateful to my rasikas. I get repeat audience, ‘’ says Padma. No surprise that she makes it a point not to repeat any of her show. "Each of my performance is different," she asserts. That’s a tough task and consumes quite a lot of her time, especially during the December season. `Meenakshi Kalyanam’, a group recital with around 30-odd artiste, and `Homage to Mother’, a programme dedicated to her mother in her centenary year, are among the variety of fairs Padma has lined up this season.

No dearth of dance recitals
Is Bharatanatyam getting its due in December seasons? Padma feels it does. There are lots of Natya Kala conferences during the season, she says. She was, in fact, the first convener of the Natya Kala conference of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. "There are enough dance recitals in Margazhi season," she says. The Music Academy too has a dance calendar during the season. According to her, some dance programs do run full house concerts. Nevertheless, she concedes that all dance recitals don’t get even audience. This is true in some music concerts as well. It all boils down to the quality of an artiste, she explains.

Healthy exchange
Padma favours healthy exchange of views and ideas between dancers and musicians. More musicians should go to dance recitals. Likewise, dancers too should go to music concerts. This, she feels, will pave way for a healthy progress in their repertoire. She, however, regrets that only a very few artistes do this. Lalgudi G.Jayaraman is an exception. He does take time out to watch dance recitals. This has helped him to compose tillanas for dance, she points out. She wants this kind of exchanges happen regularly. Like Lalgudi Jayaraman, Mridangist Umayalpuram Sivaraman, too, loves to lend his instrumental support to all. It isn’t that easy to play mridagam for a dance, she hastens to add. "It is difficult. You need a special training for that," she point out. If music is universal and gender-neutral, she does not comprehend why some male artistes don’t play accompanists to female artistes. "It is just male chauvinism," she asserts.

Dance & common man
"Dance is for everybody. It is not confined to a set of audience," Padma declares. "If you have sensitivity to dance, even you can enjoy," she says. Why should dance be boxed within the confines of air-conditioned sabhas? In former times, according to her, Oduvars used to sing for dance in temples. Used to hearing music that wafted through the morning air when they drew kolams in front of their houses, household women those days were able to differentiate the early morning raga from an evening one. "They might not exactly be identifying Bhupalam as the morning raga though," Padma points out. Now, music and dance have become largely sabha-oriented, she rues. “That’s why I want to take dance to temples,” she says. Ever since she has taken the classical dance to Nagapatinam some years ago as an integral part of the Navarathri festivity there, the people there are able to differentiate between a good and cheap art, Padma says. “You must expose a common man to dance,” she argues. "He must be given the opportunity to see dance," she adds. Decrying the sabha-oriented approach to classical art, she points out how Saint Thyagaraja had taken Unjuvarthi on the streets of Tiruvaiyaru and sang his compositions in praise of God for bhaktas and rasikas. He didn’t sing them in air-conditioned halls or sabhas. "As an expression of devotion, it flowed out of him," she says. "It is wrong on our part to think that a common man can’t appreciate dance. If I can’t convince the common man of my own art form, who else will do it then?” she poses.

Audience interest
Does audience matter for her at all? How important a venue is for her? "The programme has to be tailored. It is important," she says. The size or the area of a sabha is important especially if it is programme comprising a number of artistes. During recitals abroad, she adjusts the time in such a way to suit the audience. "It doesn’t mean that I dilute the art. I only adjust the duration," she explains. For her, it is important to conclude a recital before the audience asks why and why not.

Kerala, she feels, has nurtured the interest in classical art among the youth and children. This is primarily due to the Government initiative, she adds. "Whatever be their political value, the leaders there have not compromised on cultural values," she feels. Even her Communist friends would tell her that they would come a little late to her dance recital since they had to go to Bhagawathi temple. “Good things have to be appreciated from wherever they come,” she says. Temples in Kerala, according to her, have helped to sustain cultural arts. The Vishnu temple at Tiruvallaz is a classic case, where even today Kathakali artistes perform at midnight outside the Muktha Mandapam to virtually empty audience. "They perform throughout the night. Their only audience is the deity of the temple Vishnu(Vallabah)," she points out. Yet, they perform without any compromise. "Most of the time, their only audience is the empty stage. They assume that the Lord Vishnu is seated there," explains Padma.

Positive influence
Is Bharathanatyam elitist? Is it religion-centric? Not exactly, feels Padma. During Nrityotsavam, an international festival in Central Java in Indonesia, 120 people perform Ramayana every night. The audience mostly comprises tourists. To her surprise, Padma discovers that the artistes performing Ramayan there are Muslim! Classical art can have a positive influence on even a dacoit! This she finds out during one of her trip to Madhya Pradesh several summers ago. So taken in by her dance, dacoit Pandit Ram Sharan Gautham has begun seeing Durga in Padma! The dacoit-turned-ardent fan has been a guest to a few weddings in Padma’s family! He not only laid down arms but has gone to be conferred the `Rashika Shiromani’ by Pandit Ravi Shankar, narrates Padma.

Convulsions, not dance
Ever an optimist, Padma believes in the victory of the good. Natya Sastra talks about major and minor limb movements. "The limbs can be moved individually and collectively. There should be always symmetry and proportion. This unites the classical Indian dance and classical sculptures and paintings. The basic culture is the same," Padma points out. “Anything outside the aesthetics, your eyes reject it," she says. Only those familiar with Natya Sastra can explain the how and why of it, she adds. "Convulsions are not organized or disciplined movements. Such movement can’t be termed a dance. Some do it thinking it’s creative. That’s why it’s vulgar," she reasons.

Yelling is no music
Cinema, according to her, has both positive and negative influence. Many music composers such as Naushad, M.S. Vishwanathan, Illayaraja, A.R. Rahman have contributed a lot, she says. "I won’t condemn all film music," she says. “Any music is good if it helps you to calm down in contrast to music that excites you,” she adds. In films, people want excitement. "Vulgar dance movement doesn’t matter at all. It will only live for a short while," she reasons. Classical music, on the other hand, will stand the test of time, she asserts. Padma is not unduly worried about talks of losing our cultural identity. "Yelling can’t be music," she asserts. "Something profound will live for ever," she declares. Even after 63 years of Independence "we are left with the ideas of our older regime". Media, she says, has a big role to play in making the art form accessible to common man through all channels. She, however, regrets that television channels hardly allocate any worthwhile time space for dance. Jaya TV’s “Ta ka di mi ta”, however, is an exception. Even the state-run Doordarshan is not helping the cause of classical art, she rues. Support does come from the media during the Margazhi season, she admits. Art has to be supported through out the year, she points out.

A spontaneous artiste
Between a solo and group dance, what will she prefer? "It is more difficult to be a part of group. You have to be in line with them. You have to go to right corners and do right movements in line with them," Padma articulates. "I am a spontaneous artiste," she explains. Asking her to dance for a recorded music, she says, will be the worst punishment for her. Yet, she concedes that recorded music could work for a large group dance. In Tanjavur, the group danced to the recorded music sans a rehearsal. To dance to a recorded music is not bad from a practical point of view, she says. "Times have changed now. We have to be here one day and travel abroad the next. Recorded music sung and played by good musicians is better than a cheap quality live music," she adds.

"One has to learn to live in time and also timelessness," she points out. On using technology as a tool to learn art, she says, "however much you learn from machine, it won’t be the same as learning from a guru." She goes on to add, "you can’t just be a parrot. You have to come under a guru."

Work is worship
Padma is convinced that India with its cultural values can rule the entire world. "India is expected to give humanity to the world at large. India has never been a materialistic society. Bhagwat Geetha says work is worship. If we think so, excellence could be achieved," she reasons. A professional artiste, according to her, is one who is completely devoted to the profession. Can a mother ever say to a child that her duty to the child is from morning 10 to evening 5?

She feels a lot rejuvenated post-Tanjore dance festival. A single e-mail has brought 1200 dancers to the Tanjavur temple. "Since there wasn’t space for so many more dancers, I had to filter and select only 1060," she explains. "They danced without any rehearsal. They didn’t do it for publicity. Nor did they do it for fame. They all did it for Brihadishwara. They danced as if they were a part of the temple for many thousands of years ago," Padma says.

Spreading dance
Is Bharathanatyam confined just to the cities? Padma feels dance is reaching even the interiors. Bharatnatyam, she agrees, is a costly art form. Even an arengetram costs a tidy two lakhs. Padma strictly follows the promise she had given to her father. Her father was running a dance school and giving free tuitions for those who couldn’t afford. He could not sustain that post-war. According to Padma, her dance institution has many students from across the society, including children from the lower strata. "Every one has to wear uniform. There is no class distinction," she says. " In the school form, we ask the parents to fill up the nationality of the students. There is no column for religion or caste," she says, driving home the point that art transcends religion.

For Padma, healthy criticism is good and welcome. What upsets her, however, is that some critics write without any knowledge on the art. "That kind of reviews are only useful for filling the pages of newspapers," she says. Padma wants young students to be trained as critics.
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