CHENNAI: Malaysia-born classical dancer Shantona Kumari Bag nonchalantly juggles two identities — an internationally famous dancer, and a doctor. Often referred to as the dancing doctor, Shantona, who is now settled in Sydney, trained under several stalwarts in the field. Beginning with Ramli Ibrahim of Sutra Dance Theatre in Bharathanatyam and in Odissi with gurus like Gajendra Panda, Madhavi Mudgal, Sharmila Biswas, Ileana Citaristi, Meera Das, and Durga Charan Ranbir. She also learnt bharathantyam from Jayanthi Subramaniam. Doing her arangetram in 2007 with the works of Jayanthi, Shantona, who began performing at the age of 12, has toured Estonia, Finland, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.
After performing Odissi at the ongoing Vasant Utsav, Shantona talks to CE about the magic of performing at a temple, Chennai as a venue for dance and her experiences on visiting the city over the years.
The Vasant Experience
Performing at Vasant Utsav was an opportunity that came by chance, on meeting Mrs Gariyali at a medical conference in Australia. When she heard that I was a dancer and a disciple of Ramli Ibrahim, she was very kind to offer me this opportunity. For me, this was just a bigger excuse to start practising with focus again. Although I practise when I am in Australia, more often, it is not as frequent or as arduous as is necessary for a performance. I’m always open to performing so that I remember to keep challenging myself. The beauty of doing this performance was definitely in sharing it with Revathi, my dance schoolmate, with whom I’ve grown up with, and used to tour with. Since she gave birth to her two children, and I have started working full time, I had not seen nor danced with her for at least about four-five years. So, this meant we had one week to find ourselves together again. It was a magical experience to have this opportunity.
I have performed in Chennai a few times before, but mostly as Sutra dancer, under Ramli Ibrahim, in his productions. We have performed with his troupe at the Music Academy, DakshinaChitra, among some other venues in Puducherry, including the ashram. At the end of my year off in 2007, I had the opportunity to present my arangetram repertoire at a Chennai sabha, but this was in bharathanatyam. I like the city’s cultural vibe. I feel at home in Chennai, having come here more frequently than any other place in India. It feels like my second home, to be honest, especially as things keep modernising, it starts to feel a little like Malaysia in certain areas. I really can’t think of anything I dislike about this city.
It was a spiritual experience at its core. The energy was buzzing with worship, and as we had darshan the two nights before, and then finally presenting the performance we had worked so hard on for one week before that, we felt like the energy of the show was a part of the temple. It’s hard to describe. Although there were a few technical hitches, we felt like we were indeed offering our art as worship, and at the end of the day, this is what we wanted. Classical dance is a shared worship of the spiritual art with the Divine, between the dancer and the rasikas, and I felt like performing in the temple certainly achieved this purpose.
Bharathanatyam or Odissi?
That’s a difficult question because both dance styles are so different. But I think I would have to say I enjoy bharathanatyam slightly more, in that I find it physically more challenging, needing a lot of energy and stamina to make it enjoyable to both myself and the audience. I find comfort in its geometry, and clean lines. However, I must admit, they both appeal to different sides of me.
Midway through my studies, I realised that I had always maintained these two identities through my lifetime, and I seemed to feel a void when my life didn’t contain a bit of both. However, once I started working, it has become much harder to take time off, so the temptation is always there to settle down into a routine like everyone else. However, I realised that I was never happy, as by now my body/moods were dependant on dance to keep it in check. I found that I became a better doctor to my patients, when I had that release through dance, so this always encouraged me to continue returning to Malaysia and to my guru, every now and again.
I think it’s too difficult to choose. A few that stand out are the Istana Budaya in Malaysia, and the stone stage outside the Thanjavur temple.