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February 12, 2014

A dancer’s prayatnam to upgrade

A dancer’s prayatnam to upgrade

Sreelatha Vinod spoke to Anjana Anand

A gifted performer, teacher and researcher, Sreelatha Vinod wears many hats with ease. The first thing you notice about her is her optimism, not to mention her arresting stage presence, and desire to pass on her understanding and love for Bharatanatyam to the next generation. Excerpts from an interview: 

Tell us about your training and guru-s in Bharatanatyam.

I studied under guru Tanjai Arunachalam Pillai and completed my arangetram at the age of eight. I used to go for classes regularly and the training was on a one to one basis.When I was around ten, my guru became very ill and was no longer able able to teach me. My mother was keen I continue my training at an intensive level. We went to a show at IIT Madras and saw Master and Akka (V.P. and Shanta Dhananjayan) perform folk and Bharatanatyam. My parents were impressed with the show and requested Master to take me under their wing. He agreed on the condition that I inform my guru before joining Bharata Kalanjali (their dance school). It was difficult for me to face my guru and inform him of the decision but I did and left him with his blessings. I continued at Bharata Kalanjali for many years under a scholarship. Now, I go to Kalanidhi Mami (Narayanan) for abhinaya training and Seetarama Sarma Sir for nattuvangam.

Was it difficult to adjust to a new style?

I don’t remember much of Arunachalam Sir’s classes. There was no concept of a group class and I was quite a star! When I came to Master’s class, it was a big blow to my ego. In the initial year, neither Master or Akka took my class and I was in a group, dancing with whoever was free to handle the class. The first person to handle my classes was Radhika Shurajit. I was so skeptical and proud that I refused to do namaskaram to her before class because she was not my teacher. I was made to apologise for my behaviour, but I continued to be defiant and uninterested in learning to my full potential. Radhika Akka did not take it to heart and spent all her energy correcting me. At one point Dhanajayan Sir called me aside and said that a namaskaram done in class was the respect we show anyone who takes the place of the teacher, junior or senior.

There were many differences in style and although it was hard at first, I adapted rather quickly, though I think I have retained much of what I learnt in Arunachalam Sir’s class quite unconsciously.

What brought about the change in your attitude?

In the first dance-drama I took part in choreographed by Master, I assumed that I would naturally have the lead role. What a disappointment when I found out I was just a village girl with only a ‘ta tei tei tat’ to perform in my two-minute appearance! During the practice sessions I did it with the least effort and interest and Master did not correct me. One night while I was waiting for my father to pick me up, Master said, “Sreelatha, I am quite disappointed in your dancing and attitude towards dance.” I was shocked that he had actually noticed. He said, “It doesn’t matter what role we play—small or big—but every role counts and to do full justice to that is to be a good dancer.” Those words were the turning point for me. After that I came down a peg or two  and began to learn with more interest and enthusiasm.

Today you continue to perform, teach and involve yourself in the academic side of dance. Is this the vision you had from the very beginning?

I was always interested in dance and performing. At one stage when I was asked to handle a class for a few months, I realised how much I loved teaching. It gave me a lot of satisfaction. Performances continued side by side and I kept— and still keep — my practice intensive. From the beginning I loved to question — much to the amusement of my fellow dancers. I had an interest in theory and felt it should go hand in hand with my practical training. Both Master and Akka fuelled this interest. In 1994 I enrolled for my Ph.D in dance from the Indian Institute of Asian Studies but unfortunately had to drop it after a year as I was not able to handle the hectic performance schedule with the research. Three people inspired me to continue my questioning and study — Prof. Sharma, C.P. Unnikrishnan and Prof. S. Raghuraman. They opened up new avenues to my thinking. Now I have begun my Ph.D programme again at the Bharatiar University.

You launched an association for dancers called Prayathnam.

Yes, Prayathnam is the result of many ideas and a certain disillusionment which had set in over time about where we dancers were heading. I felt we were not upgrading and reinventing ourselves. Without constant upgrading there is a danger of stagnation setting in and this shows in performance, teaching and the current trend of the arts. I had a conversation one day with Divyasena and Sasirekha Rammohan and we found we had similar ideas about the changes we would like to make for ourselves and our students. That is how Prayathnam began. Our focus is on upgrading ourselves through monthly master classes and workshops. We also felt that when students reach the stage when they can perform, they should have a strong foundation in theory and practice. There should be some way of monitoring their progress and ensuring that all dancers have a basic level of understanding of the art form. For the past two years we have been conducting exams in both these areas after coming up with a syllabus to make a student of dance a holistic learner.

Do you feel that the margam is outdated and that we need to rethink our repertoire to reach a wider audience?

The margam is important because it gives us the base in the technique and understanding of the art form. At the same time we need to present work that is relevant to our times and brings a fresh artistic perspective to the audience. Both preserving the foundation of our learning and passing on its beauty and relevance to the next generation are important in the classical art forms.

(Anjana Anand is a Bharatanatyam dancer)

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