Padmashri Ananda Shankar Jayant – Part 1
“To dance is to live….to live is to dance.” ~ Heidi Groskreutz
Today we have a special guest.. someone for whom dance is an integral part of life… someone who lives and breathes dance.. A strong woman who danced her way out of cancer! Please join me to welcome the renowned classical dancer and a generous contributor to the field of arts – Padmashri Ananda Shankar Jayant!
When I first saw Ananda’s TED talk, I was awestruck! When I wrote to her, I was pleasantly surprised to find an affirmative answer for an interview from Ananda Maam. And today I hope to share with you some of the anecdotes from the interview with Ananda Shankar Jayant – A true role model for Indian Youth!
Me: Sundar Rajan G S
ASJ: Ananda Shankar Jayant – Padshri Awardee – Contribution to Arts
Me: Hello maam, welcome to the show on Coffee With Sundar! Dancing is your passion.. life and breath.. Can you talk about your story.. about when you started dancing.. your teachers.. role models.. when did you feel it was your calling.. Please describe your “natya journey”
ASJ: I am a Tamilian, and hail from the Tirunelveli district. However my family have settled in Hyderabad. Hence my education and upbringing has been in Hyderabad only.
My father Sri GS Shankar, was an officer with the Indian Railways. My mother Smt Subhashini Shankar, was a teacher with Keyes High School, and was a well known musician and violinist.
Born in a middle class Tamil Brahmin family, Tamil by birth but Hyderabadi in upbringing, I am a product of multiple cultures. My school education has been at St Ann’s High School, Secunderabad, and later on at Kalakshetra.
I have thus imbibed the best of both worlds, and am a true cosmopolitan.
My passion for dance began early in life – a chance meeting at the Subramanyam temple in Secunderabad, when I was 4 years old – a comment that ‘This child’s eyes are large – you must teach her dance’, had my mother Subhashini Shankar enroll me with Smt Sharada Keshava Rao. I later trained with Sri KN Pakkiriswamy Pillai (brother of Sri KN Dandayuthapani Pillai) who then taught dance in Hyderabad.
Invited on a scholarship to Kalakshetra, after winning the All India Gold Medal for dance in the Junior section, I joined Kalakshetra, Chennai at the age of 11 years. During one of our summer vacations when we visited our grandparents in Chennai, during the hot summer of Madras in May. My mother and I wended our way nervously into the courtyard of a building in Tiruvanmiyur. We waited outside the office, after having sent in a message, eagerly waiting to be called in. But we were not summoned inside. Instead, the very person we wanted to see came out to greet us.
The lady was none other than Rukmini Devi Arundale, the Director of Kalakshetra. After the traditional namaskaram, I remember asking her naively to bless me to be like her someday. “No, no, I bless you to be greater than me”, said the beautiful lady, swathed in a maroon silk saree, with her freshly washed hair falling down on her shoulders. What a blessing! This is really one unforgettable experience of my life.
She, Rukmini Athai, had made the decision for my parents and me. She scoffed at the worry of my parents about putting me into a hostel. She promised them that I would be safe and well looked after. I was admitted into Kalakshetra , to take up dancing full time. Such was the force of Rukmini Devi’s personality that it affected all who came within her radiating aura.
I joined Kalakshetra, exchanging pinafores and school bags, maths and science classes for Pavadai – Davani and dance classes. It was a sea change! Life in a hostel for most students in the first few months can be traumatic – and for me the different life styles that I was encountering in a matter of a few days were enormous. Yet, Kalakshetra, and Athai, enveloped me in their bosom, with lots of love and affection; that the transition from convent school to traditional Kalakshetra was ultra smooth.
Growing up in Kalakshetra, was great fun. Learning Bharatanatyam from Padma Balagopal, Sharada Hoffman and Krishnaveni Laxman was wonderful. Crying on Neela Aunty’s (Neela Sathyalingam) shoulders for a role in a production that did not come my way, listening to Jaya Teacher (N.S. Jayalaxmi) expound on the Nava Rasa or Tala Dasha Prana, tiptoeing into Peria Sharada teacher’s class for PG Diploma Theory, her giving us a detailed understanding and analysis for our roles in the dance dramas of Kalakshetra, learning from Janardhan Sir, Kaikottukali, as well as different roles in dance productions along with a brief introduction to Kathakali, learning folk dance from Anandhi teacher, perfecting concert roles with Krishnaveni Acca and learning philosophy from Shankara Menon Sir – He went on to compare my memory with his fabled memory power – Oh what a day that was – that too in front of the whole morning prayer.! O! What a life!
Life in boarding – friends from all over – studying by the dining room and common room lights, while others slept and I had exams coming up; actually quite enjoying the hostel food (I hated the upma though) sharing Avvakkai and Sohan papdi with friends, my parents receiving complaints that I laughed too much and read too much James Hadley Chase! Looking forward to my mother picking me up every 3 months to take me home to Hyderabad! O life was one roller coaster.
Being selected to participate in compositions such as Matsya-Kurma Avataram, Meenakshi Vijayam etc., when Athai composed was, I think the greatest learning a student of dance could ever dream to have. In retrospect, I think, it was being part of the coveted concert section, and participating in the various dramas in roles from sakhi, to Apsara, that I imbibed the aesthetics, the group dynamics, stage design, lighting, entries, exits group choreography etc., inherent in the Kalakshetra training.
I spent six years at Kalakshetra, learning Bharata Natyam, Carnatic music, veena, dance theory, philosophy etc., and acquired a Diploma and a Post-graduate Diploma in Bharata Natyam. I also learnt the grace of a firmly executed movement, the need to perfect the bodily stances and thereby forget the body and rise above it, to think, to create, to go beyond and to ascend to realms of a higher consciousness.
On my return to Hyderabad, I also learnt Kuchipudi from Sri Pasumarthy Ramalinga Shastry.
Simultaneously I started teaching. Interested parents wanting me to teach their children and my own interest in sharing my art – made me a teacher of dance at the age of 17 years. I began with six students and grew up with my young students. They call me ‘akka’, elder sister. My dance school in Hyderabad, Shankarananda Kalakshetra, now has about 80 students and the relationship is that of a large family, a true guru-sishya relationship. My students learn to balance the traditional with the modern, the static body with the soaring mind. They experience the freedom to feel, to know, to break all bonds, all barriers, in an effort to touch one’s self.
Some time when I was in Kalakshetra I think I realized that dance was my calling
My Natya journey is that of living in dance and with dance inspite of a full time career in the India Railways. I have been able to perform, teach choreograph travel etc, as a full time dancer would inspite of another very different career. This strength too has come to me from the dance itself..
Me: What do you think are the high points and low points of your dance career.. Can you talk a bit about it.. Can you also talk about Padmashri award and your contribution to the field of arts..
ASJ: I think the best thing that ever happened to me was my 6 years training in Kalakshetra The six years at Kalakshetra, taught me a way of life – where dance transcends mere skill and becomes one’s very persona. My parents were great inspiration. The very fact that they pulled a high performing eleven year old out of school, to pursue dance, with schooling being utterly nebulous, trusted me enough to complete my education on my own, and backed me throughout, in spite of middle class worries about money – knowing fully well that this chosen career could well not be highly paid, is a great blessing and speaks of a family’s commitment to the art.
In today’s global world I am a composite of many cultural influences. My memories and life’s experiences need to be reflected in my language – which is dance. My personal, political and social concerns need to find voice in my dance – for that’s the way I speak, the only language I know. I as an artiste cannot live on the external fringes of society, irrelevant except as mundane entertainment. Sometimes I feel we artistes live on another orbit. My dance cannot just be pretty, beautiful and artistic. I need to voice my concerns. I need to integrate my artistic voice into the fabric of society. Thus I questioned myself:
Can I divest myself from the problems that surround me?
Can I live in an ivory tower and be just a pretty dancer?
Can I relate to traditional poetry with contemporary sensibility?
What About Me?, which premiered in 1999 was my reaction to the scarring gender issues, that surround us. Can I be inured and unaware of happenings around me? Can I eschew and ignore gender issues, racial and religious violence, and caste polemics? Is dance a mere bread winner, a performing profession? Or is it my life breath?
If it is my life breath, then I told myself, I cannot divide myself into neat compartments – espouse and speak up for causes dear to me but not relate them to my dance. Sure, to me dance exists on multiple levels, the physical, the esoteric and the spiritual. Sure, I relate indelibly to the jeevatma – paramatma theory and the bhakti bhava (devotion) in dance, training as I did from Kalakshetra. But, this search, this quest is a personal one. Yes, my art will lead me to spiritual upliftment, but my dance has also to touch base with the issues that surround me. I cannot look at the burnt face of a dowry victim and not allow it to find a voice in my dance.
Not only have I dealt with gender issues, but also with a fun production like Panchatantra. My belief is that dance is on one level my spiritual journey, but it is also my greatest communication tool. My dance is my best language. And yes dance really is my life breath! Why? How can I answer, why or how we breathe??!! When I saw my name in the Padmashri list on 26th January 2007… I couldn’t believe it.. I immediately missed my mother, and Gurus. How they would have been proud of me!
Readers, hope you enjoyed the part 1 of the interview. Stay tuned to hear more from the Ananda maam in part 2 about her tryst with Cancer and how she overcame the same. Previous interview with Guruprasad – Collector of Rare Photographs can be found here – Part 1 & Part 2.
All the interviews on Coffee With Sundar can be found here.