Tulsi Badrinath’s book ‘Master of Arts’ (a life in dance) chronicles the story of one of the first men to make a successful career as a Bharathanatyam dancer — V P Dhananjayan.
Dhananjayan created space for his dance where none existed, particularly in the late 60s, when there were no male dancers in Bharathanatyam and Dhananjayan could readily follow the path.
The one world famous Indian male dancer Uday Shankar had evolved his own unique style, Ramgopala. But the Kathakali and Bharathanatyam exponent had shifted back to London. Bhaskar Roy Chowdhry, born in Madras, went to find his fame and fortune in America. With Madras hardly offering him any scope to perform, it was a bleak scenario.
The various episodes in this book describe how a great visionary and aesthetic Rukmini Devi herself faced the problem of learning the ‘right vehicle of lyrics’ to carry forth her abhinaya and bhava. It also describes how in Bharathanatyam, ideas expressed in a particular item ride on those contained in the verse or poem, set to raga. The text defines the areas the dancer will venture. While one can expose an idea or use metaphors to convey a basic idea, one cannot introduce ideas, situations or characters that are not supported by the song.
Interspersing this remarkable tale of her guru with the stories of other young male dancers, she pays tribute to their extraordinary commitments, their talent and courage.
This is an interesting question — what drew young male dancers to dance and held them within its grip? Was it passion alone or the elusive quest for fame? Or was it restricted to low income families and lack of education?
The initial years of Dhananjayan at Kalakshetra make for an interesting reading. This was the time when his way of thinking, life and identity were entwined with that of Kalakshetra. How did Shanta get married to Dhananjayan?
“I had an image in mind as to how a lady should be ‘Roopeshu Lakshmi’ as I had learnt as a child,” says Dhananjayan.
Shanta interrupts and says, “I always felt that he was a very balanced person as I admired the way he conducted himself as a student. Friends would come and tell me — Oh Dhananjayan loves you, he likes you’. I was happy, but scared. I was shy to show my love. I did not know how to react.”
Dhananjayan, known for his quick-witted retorts at times, was not able to rein in his tongue. The ‘pay rise’ question for him and other students resulted in his exit from Kalakshetra. This changed the course of his life and this brings out his ‘mental frames’.
Though stepping into the great unknown beyond the gates of Kalakshetra was daunting in itself, for Dhananjayan, then came the choice of discipline, Kathakali or Bharathanatyam.
How Rukmini Devi took to heart, the departure of Dhananjayan from Kalakshetra when she had invested so much of oneself in teaching the little child and making him a potential graceful dancer, is interestingly portrayed.
How Rukmini Devi was easily swayed by others’ opinion (she loved to be praised) and Dhananjayan was the only person who told her things as he saw it, reveals the inner traits of Rukmini Devi.
Dhananjayan wanted to expand the way Bharathanatyam was perceived and proved that it was not just based on mythology or tied to legends and history. It had enough power in its movements, vocabulary to convey ideas, was free of religious symbolism or laden with spirituality.
The book describes how they performed multiple roles and dealt with organisers taken by Dhananjayan. It also vividly brings out how Shanta visualised, shopped for and designed costumes and trained new musicians and headed the orchestra.
The year 1973 was great. “We started to get many invitations to dance and started producing shows. One became ten and ten became hundred a little later,” says Shanta.
It is disheartening when we go through the chapter on the role of sabha secretaries and critics. Subudu himself sent a handwritten letter calling Dhananjayan sthitha pragna. This, he considers as the ultimate compliment as it comes from the most feared critic of his time.
What does it take to be a successful male dancer? Men have to have a certain calibre with the necessary physique if they are to compete with women. Unless a man totally invests in his dance, a personal journey, a rigorous self reflection, it is very difficult for him to click. Of course, the gods need to bless him with lots of luck. Dhananjayan, 73, is remarkably agile. His age matches perfectly the character he is playing — ‘this is the role of his life’.
He now commands the stature to dance alone on the stage, his beloved Shanta on his side, moulding the flow of music to his requirements. It was not always so, this is a space he has achieved.
“I am sad that my father and guru did not live to see my success that came in the seventies with an expressive countenance” says Dhananjayan.
The author, who had quit her job to pursue her twin passions — dance and writing, majored in English literature from India and did her MBA from Ohio University.