I was in Delhi recently for an event and once again had the privilege to meet and dine with my favourite, Dr Sonal Mansingh. She is a bundle of energy and in her enthusiastic self, she agreed to take me out and show me the dance scene in Delhi. That was an evening to remember for a classical dance-lover like me. Sonal Mansingh took me to the famous Kamani auditorium and that is where I experience the charisma and beauty of one of India’s best known Kuchipudi exponent Padma Bhushan Swapnasundari.
She was performing Vilasini Natyam, a form she has been extensive researching on. She is a true example of how a dancer is not only about making the pretty moves and wonderful expressions but a dancer who brings the age-old culture and heritage to society. Dancers are the ones who keep the traditions alive, a dancer is an activist, a dancer is a teacher, a dancer is a medium through whom stories are told and ethnicity is maintained.
Swapnasundari’s performance was true to her name. She was magnificently gorgeous, with impeccable technique and a personality that will make you want to see and learn more from her. No wonder she has written many books on dance and has won numerous awards in her career. After the show, I got talking to her and here are a few thoughts the Padma awardee shared with me:
You have learnt two forms — Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam. Why these forms and not others classical forms? What interests you the most about them that you took to them?
I started learning dance when I was five and did not know the distinction between these dance forms or for that matter any other dance form. I loved to dance, period. For a Chennai-based family like mine, Bharatanatyam lessons for me should have been a natural choice. However, my entry into Kuchipudi was spurred by my father’s intense love for Telugu culture from which he never delinked though he had moved out of Andhra Pradesh when he was himself very young!
Kuchipudi has not gained as much recognition as Kathak or Bharatanatyam. As a guru and an epitome of Kuchipudi, what are your efforts to further popularise the dance form?
I disagree. Kuchipudi is as well-known today as any other classical dance style, especially in India. By “recognition” if you are referring to the number of schools which teach this style, it should be remembered that the “anointment” of Kuchipudi as a “classical” dance form happened many years after such a status had been accorded to Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Despite this, Kuchipudi rose rapidly to prominence and has more than made up for lost time. Today, there are many flourishing Kuchipudi schools, especially in Andhra Pradesh. Senior exponents like me have done our bit to bring Kuchipudi to this level. Speaking for myself, I have developed a strong Kuchipudi technique and performance-format which I teach to those interested in my expression of Kuchipudi. I hope the next generation builds on the foundation thus provided. Now I am doing similar work for the other classical dance-style of the Telugu people, which is Vilasini Natyam.
Today’s generation just wants to dance and learn more steps after steps somewhere the history, origin n technique is forgotten. Your book, World on Koochipoodi Dance, was well-received and so was your album, Janmabhoomi Meri Pyaari. What advice do you have for the young generation?
I identify well with young people primarily because I appreciate and share their spirit of healthy curiosity. But such curiosity should not be just cursory. It should lead young people towards greater understanding and knowledge. Most youngsters, including aspiring dancers look for logic and substance behind an idea or theory that is presented. Instead of relying on information floating on Internet, they would benefit more if they took to reading seriously, especially on matters that interest them. Just as an example, young dancers may gain some insights by reading my second book, Vilasini Natyam -Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers. This book not only details the dance history of Telugu people but clearly establishes the distinct place and identity of the Telugu Devadasi dance form of Vilasini Natyam which has no relationship with the dance-drama derived form that we now recognise as Kuchipudi. Many consider this book as being better than my earlier one on Koochipoodi.
What is next for you after the wonderful performance of Vilasini Natyam?
I haven’t thought of that yet! Vilasini Natyam continues to enrich me artistically. Intense involvement with this style has given me great personal satisfaction. Audiences across India now appreciate and respect the very same performing-tradition which they had previously forgotten. The students whom I have trained also get invited to give solo Vilasini Natyam concerts at important dance festivals. We have recently developed a successful performance-package showcasing temple-rituals of Vilasini Natyam through group-choreography.
You have won so many awards for your wonderful work? How does it make you feel getting such appreciation?
All awards and titles are like a pat on the back for good work done so far. But they also bring more responsibility. Audiences including a whole generation of young dancers expect more from a celebrated and feted dancer. One has to live up to these expectations. I find that an exciting challenge to meet.
Bollywood stars take Kathak and Bharatanatyam classes often. Do you think lessons in Kuchipudi can improve them in their film performance too?
Kuchipudi is very different from these two styles but I would definitely say that if intelligently employed by the actor, Vilasini Natyam can be far more effective on camera than even Kuchipudi.
Apart from a wonderful performer, you are known for your creativity, imagination and execution of dance What if u get a chance would you choreography a Bollywood film?
Why not? I am a classicist by training but I am not afraid to venture into new areas. Choreographing for a film would be one such area. There is some wonderful dancing talent among today’s young crop of actors. It would be great to work with such talent.
With the legend Sonal Mansingh and my gorgeous dance partner Jesse Randhawa sitting besides me and another performing on stage, it was a wonderful evening in Delhi indeed. Meeting and experiencing a master like Swanasundari was surely a delight.
I am back home in Mumbai but can still remember her mesmerising expressions that left me spellbound, she is right our Bollywood beauties can learn a lot from her expertise.