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March 18, 2014

“Dance is a window to a larger culture”

Chennai-based internationally acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer Chitra Visweswaran on her mindspace and why a multi-layered approach to dance is a step in the right direction for dance, and dancers.

The library on the first floor of CAPA (Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts), Chitra Visweswaran’s 30-year-old institution at Alwarpet, Chennai, is large, both in terms of size and variety. In it, books on dance, music and the performing arts rub backs with writings on art, architecture, science, spirituality, poetry and philosophy. Downstairs, in her home, where a love for art and aesthetics combine with a sense of hospitality, Chitra prides herself on a personal collection that she and her late husband Visweswaran, together, sowed and grew over the years. In many ways, Chitra is like her library – hearty, generous, open-minded and eclectic.

“Cross-pollination,” she says, “is an important aspect of growth in any culture.” Chitra is sitting on a threeseater sofa in her living room where lamps and lights add a warm glow to a room full of curios, paintings and concepts that find interesting re-interpretations on the walls and the door. “I like to keep a good home; you can say it’s my way of letting my hair down,” she says, as a preamble to our 90-minute long conversation that cruises seamlessly through dance, art, spirituality, yoga, books, life, and of course the length and breadth of India, and important performing centers in the world, “The excitement in my life is that every day is dynamic.”

 That dynamism – in creating and collaborating – in dance is really what distinguishes Chitra as an artist and it is exactly that multilayered, multi-disciplinary approach to dance is among the core steps that will define her performance as the President of ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India); Chitra was elected President in May this year. “A 25-year-old adult has been placed in my hands,” she says, “Much has been achieved no doubt, but the time has come for a new thrust; one that is wholesome and cross-contextual. You see, some young dancers tend to look at dance from a mere physical point of view. That stance is very limited. Dance, I have always believed, is a reflection of your soul; to bring out depth in your dance, it is imperative to allow breezes of influences into your art and its understanding, appreciation and creation.”

It is in the backdrop of this philosophy – “of being ready to receive and of recognising that dance is a window to a larger culture” – that ABHAI has, since Chitra’s tenure, played host to three ‘Abhivriddhi Shaala-s’ in May, July and September. “The idea of these shaala-s,” Chitra says, referring to the sessions that have had leading practitioners and scholars in dance, architecture and history, guide students, “is really about the need to foster a culture where dancers look at dance, in a more rounded, holistic way.”

On 14 November this year, to mark ABHAI’s 25th anniversary, Chitra invited the founding members to present choreographic works through a mixed group of young dancers, all from ABHAI. From the youngsters’ point of view, the idea (introduced some years ago in the monthly workshops of ABHAI) provides them a unique opportunity to learn and train under a teacher, who is not necessarily their own. “We are a very small community,” Chitra says, referring to classical dancers, “It’s mandatory that we hold hands and explore the possibility of creating physical and thinking spaces.”

In a way, Chitra, has, through this initiative, been “re-visiting her past. I remember how excited I was as a little girl to go to the wings and watch Yamini (Krishnamurthy) or Kamala dance. I think it is important to do what it takes for those transferences to happen to a younger generation of dancers; opportunities like these allow them to meet, mingle, create, and respond.”

CAPA – Chitra’s dance school was founded on this premise of holisticity. Among the many aspects that come together to form a whole, spirituality occupies an important spot. “There are many things my mother taught me,” Chitra says, “One of them is that dance is a prayer. She always said, ‘Dance not for name or fame’.” Those words have stayed with Chitra. It is also probably why the “happiest moments of my life today are when I have something, actually anything, to do with dance.”

Her more recent influence has been Pujyasri Mathaji Vithamma who heads the Sri Muthu Krishna Swamy Mission at Samiyar Pothai in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. Invitations to perform at the ashram’s spiritual centre have led to a series of personal miraculous experiences and a spiritual recognition and realization of the “goodness and the divine in everything. That also explains why, today, despite not dancing as much, I still manage to experience it, and at a very deep level,” Chitra says. Amidst creating and training, Chitra is also hands-on with the dance school project at Samiyar Pothai. “The plan is to teach and empower students in Bharatanatyam, veena and vocal music.”

Over the years, her dance course has also impacted and created a slew of dancers, many of whom are artists in their own right. In Chitra’s world, teaching is also “creating”. “It’s like fashioning clay into a form. The process of teaching is also a process of creating an artist.” And there are many who hold her in high regard: “A parent, for instance, is more proud of the child than herself, right?”

As a child, Chitra remembers, and very fondly, growing up – between Kolkata and London – in an environment of the arts. “And asking questions was something my father always encouraged,” she recalls. “If there were five ways to solve a problem, my father always insisted I find a sixth way of solving it.” Her father, N. Padmanabhan, an engineer from the Banaras Hindu University, was a top official of the Indian Railways. “He instilled the importance of discipline in me. I remember when I wanted to go to Chennai to pursue dance, full-time, he insisted I complete my B.A.  Honours from Kolkata University. I remember he told me that the methodology of an academic education would enrich my artistic pursuit.”

He was right. She pioneered a movement vocabulary of her own within the framework of the traditional, and her work is constantly a reminder of the body and of it being the most expressive tool. “Dance is like a language,” she explains, “the body is the brush and the colours we paint are the stories you tell and the emotions you create.”

 “Her body had a presence according to the character she assumed,” Chitra says of her guru T.A. Rajalakshmi. With a firm foundation in theatre in her formative years (in Kolkata) combined with a formal course in Western classical ballet (in London), and training under the doyen Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, Chitra’s choreography has consistently been about creating stories and worlds within them.

Research is an integral process in her artistic scheme of things. While creating Ganga, Chitra spent six months talking to saints and  historians. “Suddenly, during the process of conversation, a point of inspiration would happen,” she says, attempting to articulate the method and methodology of her creation process. “Plus, honestly, I’ve never been one to tread or look around with a particular theme in mind.  Themes are always triggered off somewhere, some place; sometimes, it may even happen in the middle of the night.”

Last year, at the Natya Darshan conference, curated by Anita Ratnam, the subject of which was Mad and Divine, Chitra presented a 22-minute piece called Meera. “I envisioned the piece in retrospect,” she says, “In it, Meera was at a stage when she had realised the ultimate and that was the starting point of the choreography.” In many ways, she admits, “Meera was a personal journey. I related to that piece a great deal. The core of the piece is the ultimate realisation that human and divine are but one and the same.” That’s a good space to be in.

(The author is a freelance journalist contributing to national publications)

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