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Classical dance is universal, feel Dhananjayans
CHENNAI, January 14: This darling couple is a daring twosome. From a husband-wife duo to a star couple, their journey to pinnacle wasn’t smooth. It was full of thorns. Unmindful, this couple stayed focused like a blinkered-horse. Today, the Dhananjayans occupy a pride of place in the world of Bharatanatyam. The title Padma Bhushan has not altered their disposition to life and art. They remain simple and easy.

During a conversation over coffee at the Rasam Restaurant here on the cool morning of January 8, 2010, this dance duo allowed a preview of their minds as they opened their hearts out and shared their thoughts. There was harmony in their thinking. There was convergence in their articulation. There was conviction in their words.

Kalakshetra bani
It is 75 years since Kalakshetra was born. "The name Kalakshetra and its style blossomed in our time after 1950s," recollected Dhananjayan. That was the time when Rukmini Devi choreographed a number of master pieces. There were more dancers, both male and female. "We were projected as the best of her (Rukmini Devi) direct disciples. Her senior teachers also taught us there. We performed along with our teachers," he recalled with a sense of pride and satisfaction. The Dhananjayans came out of Kalakshetra in the second half of 1960’s.Dhananjayans were extremely pleased that they were in a way instrumental in spreading the `Kalakshetra bani’ out into public. "I think we gave a new direction to the Bharathanatyam," he submitted. Bharathanatyam wasn’t repertoire-oriented until the Dhananjayans made it so. For Rukmini Devi, there was only two dance banis – good and bad! This couple was indeed instrumental in the evolution of `Kalakshetra bani’. "We specialized in solo Bharathanatyam consisting of ‘Margam’ natyam," he recalled. They were bold enough to venture into unexplored things, adding new dimensions to classical art. Unmindful of adverse comments, the dance duo kept their focus in tact.

Path-breaking
Time was when dance used to revolve around Nayika-Nayaka bhavam. The Dhananjayans introduced bhakthi-oriented pieces. "We were able to bring in new elements," they said. They added Natyanjali and Nrittopaharam to their repertoire. These were path-breaking initiatives. Such daring works elicited flak from even their alma mater. "These were part of our growing," the Dhananjayans reasoned.

As the movements of Kathakali bhavam were blended with Bharathanatyam expressions in a judicious amalgamation, the criticism died down slowly. Rukmini Devi saw the merit in this merger and insisted that all male dancers if they were to dance like men should learn Kathakali. Learning Kathakalai was easier said than done, as it required physical stamina and rigorous training, according Dhananjayan. Since to eke a living out of Kathakali was tough, especially in a place like Chennai, Dhananjayan opted for Bharathanatyam.

If MS could do …
The Dhananjayans set up ‘Bharatha Kalanjali’ after they came out of Kalakshetra. It was indeed a tough time for them. Dhananjayan had to take up a job with TTK. He did his Bachelors in Arts (Economics and politics). He also took dance classes.

He refused to perform for any sabha which didn’t compensate him adequately. After, all their work needed to be compensated. They made their living by giving performance for tourists from abroad, wedding reception and corporate functions. "We did get criticism," he said. "If M.S. Subbulakshmi can sing in a kalyana kutcheri, why can’t Dhananjayans?" he shot back. To perform sangeetham and natyam was akin to doing 100 yagnas. Hence, the couple saw nothing wrong in giving dance recitals for wedding receptions. "If we go to a wedding, we always make it a point to sit and listen to the concert first. We take food only after the conclusion of the concert," said Dhananjayan.

Sthitha Pragnan
"We are open to criticism. We welcome constructive criticism," the couple said. The acerbic Subbudu used to describe Dhananjayan as "Keralathu Azhagan" in his reviews. He always found faults with their shows. For Subbudu, the three `K’s – Kalakshetra, Kathakali and Kerala - were anathema. The critic in Subbudu always felt that Dhananjayan was mixing too much of Kathakail with Bharathanatyam in his abhinaya. Dhananjayan remained cool like a cucumber every time Subbudu let loose his pen on him. Towards the end of his life, Subbudu made a course-correction and awarded the title "Sthitha Pragnan" on Dhananjayan who had remained composed to all his criticisms. Yester-year critics such as E. Krishna Iyer, N.M.N, Bhuvarahan and others were knowledgeable and brought out the right criticism. "We could correct ourselves," the couple said.

In former times, a male dancer was a strict `no’. Dhananjayan was the first male dancer to perform as a solo bharathanatyam artiste. Couple dancing was also not encouraged those days, Shantha said. It took a long while for Music Academy to invite them to perform a duet dance, they pointed out.

Language of body & music
Vocalists were an absolutely important component for bharathnatyam, they said. They should know the meaning of the lyrics, the bhava delineation and mudra. A singer had to follow the dancer explicitly and "can’t afford to look at the book," the said. "We may choose to do an extempore for Kharaharapriya in Ramayana". Singers would have to adjust. They should also be good in literature. Dhananjayans favoured live music for dance. "Live orchestra is much better," they said. People abroad often insisted on a live music for orchestra, they pointed out. According to them, "dance is a language of body and music." Body was an instrument for the beautiful flow of music and lyrics, they added. Often times, the language could prove an impediment. "People do enjoy abhinaya," they insisted. "Sanchari Bhavam is to deviate and create a story from the subject," they said. They demonstrated this beautifully by taking "Lord Krishna" as the subject. The Lord in myriad forms - stealing butter, protecting Pandavas and Draupadi, doing Kalinga Narthana - Sanchari Bhavam could be done from 5 to 50 minutes. "One need not know the language or history to appreciate dance," he said. In this context, they elicited good response when they performed Jayadeva’s Radha Madhavam to a foreign audience. The petty quarrels play between Radha and Krishna – the audience was able to relate them to the day-to-day experience and frictions between a husband and wife. "Dance is universal," the Dhananjayans asserted.

Padma Bhushan
The dance duo was awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan couple of years ago. The life has not changed a bit for them since the award. The award fetched them no benefit at all. Of course, they value very much the honour associated with it. They had spent money out of their pockets to participate in felicitation functions organized across the country by friends and others post-Padma Bhushan.

In the medieval period, dance was a male-oriented art. "Bhagavatha Melas" were male-dominated. Since Devadasis earned more, male dancers during that time turned into nattuvanars. During the British rule, the Indian society aspired for doctors, engineers and the like. Hence, dance stayed at the periphery. "But now, more male dancers are doing well and have become good choreographers," he said.

Technology and dance
Dhananjayan recalled an interesting experience while he watched in theatre a movie in which he had acted. When his part came on the scene, there were huge claps from the audience. While he was coming out of the theatre after watching the film, he was mobbed by the crowd. Some wanted to know why he didn’t dance long in that particular clip. The fact was that most of his part was edited in the film, he said.

Dhananjayan also narrated an unforgettable incident when he performed in a village near Nellore. A huge crowd had collected to watch him for 4 and ½ hour. At the end of the show, an old man came up with folded hands to him to thrust a soiled five rupee note into Dhananjayan’s palm. This happened some 30 years ago, he recalled. "What greater award could we have asked for?" they said. "Our lives have been enriched by moments such as these," they pointed out.

Dhananjayans felt that technology must be used properly to expose the dance to people who were sitting in the last row at a show. "People here have not realized the value of amplification. The technology has not been exploited fully here," he said. "Western people do the amplification of live ballet shows with big screens. It will provide the audience at the rear a good view," he added.