By Sushila Ravindranath
It’s December, and the music and dance season is in full swing in Chennai. As always, there are performances going on from early morning till late at night. It is also the season for celebrations and awards. For a special couple, Padma Bhushan awardees Vannadil Pudiyaveettil Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta—students of the Kalakshetra and taught by the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale—it is a particularly special time. They came away from the Kalakshetra—a revolutionary thing to do then—started their own dance school called the Bharata Kalanjali in 1968, and are celebrating its 50th year. Shanta is about to receive the prestigious Nritya Kalanidhi award from the Music Academy, Chennai, considered the Mecca of classical arts. VP has already been presented with this award.
When I ask the Dhananjayans—as they are also known—where we can have lunch, they spontaneously suggest we meet at Paati Veedu, a vegetarian restaurant launched a few months ago and which is their current favourite. They celebrated the 50th birthday of their school here with family. The restaurant is set in a Chettinad house on a quiet street in the bustling T Nagar of Chennai. Paati Veedu’s (Grandmother’s House) menu consists of traditional vegetarian dishes with a twist and style.
We are served carrot apple mint juice with three different starters, small vadais with sambar, savoury little kozhukottais seasoned with mustard and lightly fried curry leaves, and sundal, which is boiled chana with a lot of flavours.
VP has been a trendsetter in many ways. He was the first male dancer to perform a full repertoire in Bharatanatyam. He took the stigma out of males dancing and made sure that it was no longer effeminate. I ask him about his well-known productions. “We have done many of them based on old classics. These stories have a lot of emotional content, which is essential for dance. How do we communicate, educate and entertain the audience without emotion? We do contemporary subjects that have a lot of physicality. We have chosen themes based on other religions, history, environment and many other subjects. People keep raising questions about whether our dance can be more secular. Dance is dedicated to devotion, finding salvation. Whether you are a believer or non-believer, you have to find salvation. This is the truth. But people want to create controversies,” he says.
How many students has the school trained over the years, I wonder. “I haven’t kept track,” VP smiles. “We started with one student. Now, we have 100. So, over the years, we must have taught 4,000-5,000 students.” The Dhananjayans have been conducting summer camps at the Satchidananda Ashram, Yogaville, Virgina, US, since 1988. American-born Indian children and students from different parts of the world came there to learn Indian art and culture, the philosophy and the significance of Indian mythology, and the characters in the epics. “At least 2,000 children have attended these classes,” VP says.
There have been accusations that Bharatanatyam has been appropriated by the upper castes. Is it true of his students? “When I admit students, I don’t ask them about their caste or community. There have been Muslim students who have done very well. We take children from the neighbourhood slums and have trained them. Who they are or where they come from does not matter. What is important is the dedication they show,” VP adds.
He also says that the last 50 years have been very fruitful and worthwhile. “Over the decades, there have been many changes. Children today are different from the days when we started. The younger people then had time to spare. Today, ‘natyam’, as I would like to call dance, is one of the many things they learn. They are not able to put their mind only to natyam. I have to follow a different methodology now. We have to teach them as quickly as possible. We have to convince them that they have to have a minimum vocabulary. Some succeed, some fail,” VP says.
We opt out of the next course, tiffin, and go for the main course. We have the traditional thali with rice and sambar made with ground coconut and spices, rasam shots, more kuzhambu, vegetables in various forms with dollops of ghee. The portions are just right, and the flavours captured from the spacious times of one’s grandmother’s kitchen.
As we start working our way through this meal, I ask the Dhananjayans how long can dance schools survive considering that the audience for classical dance is dwindling? “There are around 3,000 Bharatanatyam schools in the state (Tamil Nadu). They are all bursting at the seams. All schools in Chennai city suburbs are thriving. There is no uniformity of tuition fees. It depends on the location of the schools … You don’t learn dance just to perform. It helps you develop your personality. The training gives you ‘shraddha’—you learn discipline, focus and structure. Many youngsters concentrate better and do well in academics when they learn natyam,” they reply.
There are mounting criticisms about the dance scene in Chennai. Many organisations, especially during the season, are accused of taking money from the dancers and arranging for their performances. VP agrees that the supply exceeds demand. “Every child wants to perform. Every parent wants their child on the stage. The organisers make money by helping them perform. Only the best survive. Others go on to become doctors, engineers and professionals. Those who continue with dance do well for themselves. They are very creative and many become teachers. Have you heard of a starving dancer?”
After this rather substantial meal, we decide to skip dessert and have filter coffee instead. I ask the Dhananjayans about the commercial aspects of running a dance school. “You have to make money to survive. Good commercial discipline is very important. Without remuneration, I won’t do anything. I have been criticised for this. What people don’t understand is we put our money back to create the best facilities possible, and give the best training to the students. We have also taken talented students free of charge and taught them.”
Shanta and VP are childhood sweethearts who learnt, trained and grew up in the Kalakshetra. They have faced the challenges of starting a school together. How do they divide work. “I am the architect and she is the engineer,” VP says. They are delighted that their younger son Satyajit, a trained dancer and also a photographer, has stepped in to give a helping hand. The legacy will continue.