A Legacy Beyond Borders - Prof Sudharani Raghupathy

The mediocre mentor tells

The good mentor explains

The superior mentor demonstrates

The greatest mentors inspire

How does one condense one’s thoughts on one’s guru particularly when the subject is living legend Prof. Sudharani Raghupathy, who celebrates 75 years on the stage this year? For almost 40 of those years, I have watched, learned, and been inspired by Sudha Aunty’s passion, elegance, and consummate artistry.

My introduction to Bharatanatyam, and to Sudha Aunty, was at the age of five, through the Bharatanjali programme - a TV series curated and produced by her for Doordarshan. I sat unblinking, I am told, through every episode, and begged my mother to take me to her. When Aunty told my mother I was too young to begin classes at Shree Bharatalaya, I was heartbroken - but even at that age, was quite clear: I would rather wait a few years until Sudha Aunty took me in, than go to anyone else.

Such is the immediate and deep impression Sudha Aunty made on a five-year-old.

Growing up in Chennai, it was a constant source of inspiration - and aspiration - to watch Sudha Aunty in action - be it teaching, performing, speaking publicly, planning an event, working on a research project, or just sharing her knowledge with students. So much of what I - and every student at Shree Bharatalaya - have modeled ourselves on comes from observing our guru. Her work and achievements in India are widely known and speak volumes, but besides the accolades and laurels she has earned in India over the decades, she has served as an ambassador of Indian art and culture across the globe.

In today’s world of instant communication, and globalisation of cultural influences, it is difficult to adequately imagine and contextualise Sudha Aunty’s experience in 1964, as the first Indian at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, Virginia, USA. Sponsored as an international student, she majored in World History of Dance, trained in the Martha Graham technique with Eleanor Struppa and in Western music with Elaine St. Vincent, and was elected to the May Court, a high honor for any student, let alone an international one.

She gave trailblazing performances on global stages. Today, Bharatanatyam pervades every corner of the world, and is performed at major dance festivals across the globe - a sea change from a few decades ago. During that era, when Bharatanatyam was barely taking its first baby steps overseas, Sudharani Raghupathy blazed a trail beyond India’s borders. Among the highlights of her career abroad are performances in Caracas, Venezuela; the Czech Republic; Hamburg, Germany; France; Russia; and Spain. With her sisters in dance, stalwarts Padma Subrahmanyam and Chitra Visweswaran, she presented Viralimalai Kuravanji on a tour of the Middle East. A visiting faculty at Colgate University, she taught students from their World Studies programme in Chennai every year. On one notable visit to Colgate University, at a church performance on Maundy Thursday, her depiction of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns had, by the end of her performance, moved the initially skeptical audience to tears!

But perhaps the most notable testimonial to Sudha Aunty’s stature on the world stage remains her invited performance at the United Nations, for Human Rights Day, in 1981 - the very first time (and one of only a handful of times) that an Indian artist has been invited to perform at that august gathering of world leaders. To a rousing standing ovation, Sudha aunty performed the iconic piece Aakasat patitam toyam, an ode to harmony across peoples, religions, and beliefs.

An architect of a worldwide legacy

The learning of Bharatanatyam today is almost a given for any Indian child who resides outside the motherland. Sudha Aunty’s legacy in this milieu is unique. Her students have gone on to establish the Silambam network of premiere institutions of Indian art around the world. Rooted in the firm foundations in art and so much else imparted by Sudha Aunty and Vadhyar (vidwan Madurai N. Krishnan) at Shree Bharatalaya, these institutions carry forward the high standards of art, and the life lessons that each of us, her disciples, have been privileged to imbibe. When I moved to the US in 2001 to pursue a doctorate in Biochemistry, my own visceral longing for the art form I loved and missed, led me to establish Silambam Houston. Over the past 20+ years, my work as a dance practitioner, teacher, has taken center stage over my science career, a testament to the flame of passion ignited by my guru. The challenges I have faced in sustainably raising the profile of Indian arts halfway across the world gives me a renewed perspective on the enormity of Sudha Aunty’s work over the decades - as a teacher and institution-builder, and as a global ambassador of Indian art. Through her pioneering work within and beyond Indian borders, and also through the sheer act of being who she is - the personification of elegance and subtlety, on whose deceptively slim shoulders rest a lifetime of artistic brilliance, Sudharani Raghupathy continues to inspire generations of students, practitioners, and teachers of Bharatanatyam the world around

by Lavanya Rajagopalan

(The author is a dancer/choreographer and writer. She is also the founder and Executive Artistic Director of Silambam, Houston)