Shantha Dhananjayan, 75, enters the stage as Manthara, the hunchback housekeeper in the Ramayana, to the sounds of the mridangam and her son CP Satyajit Dhananjayan’s sonorous singing, setting the tone for what follows. She pursues queen Kaikeyi, telling her that the throne of Ayodhya belongs to her son Bharat and not to her stepson, King Dashrath’s eldest child, Rama. Tailored movements and abhinaya (expression) — with eyes rolling, scowl in place — form the core of her performance. Sadness and disgust accompany Dashrath, played by her husband Vannadil Pudiyaveettil (VP) Dhananjayan, 79, in this Bharatanatyam rendition of Sita-Rama Katha from Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam.
“The piece has become very popular over the years,” says VP. The Dhananjayans, as the couple is popularly known, performed it at Kuchipudi dancers Radha and Raja Reddy’s Parampara Festival last month at Kamani auditorium, Delhi. “This presentation is also our favourite,” says Shantha, “It’s about the flow of the rasa. We evolve every time and the audience always finds something new in it.”
The Dhananjayans, who have danced together for 65 years now, being married to each other for 52 of those, have been trendsetters in the world of dance. Their recent television commercials as Asha and Bala, holidaying in Goa, in a series of Vodafone advertisements have garnered much attention. The duo is among a few to have taken the 2,000-year-old form a notch up by changing its interpretation while retaining its rudiments and aesthetics. “We were the trendsetters,” says VP confidently. Kuchipudi dancer Kaushalya Reddy cannot agree more.
Not only did the Dhananjayans fuse elements of other forms such as Kathakali into Bharatanatyam, they also merged the male and female principles of dance, which was unique. “In the world of Bharatanatyam, in the 1960s, this was revolutionary,” says Kaushalya. While Uday and Amala Shankar, too, danced together, in the 1940s, it was rare for Bharatanatyam to see such partnerships. Kathakali exponent Guru Gopinath and his wife Thankamani were the pathfinders in this regard. Radha and Raja Reddy introduced the same in Kuchipudi in the 1970s.
Shantha and VP also decided to present social, historical and religious themes through dance. They presented the story of Mary Magdalene written by Justice Nainar Sundaram as Stree (The Woman) around women’s liberation movement of the 1960s in 1986, Karuna (Compassion) based on Kumaranasan’s poem on compassion for those in need, Nritya Tarangini (Ripple of Dance) on the subjects of nature and the human body in 1987, and a dance drama based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika in 1982, with the message of equality. Before the Dhananjayans, most traditional dancers were presenting mythological themes from the epics and Puranas. “We enjoyed presenting mythological themes, too. But we also needed to evolve,” says Shantha. “Shiva-Parvati and Radha-Krishna themes were there and they (Western audience) saw these as being part of an oriental dance. As part of our repertoire, we brought in a lot of innovations and changes to create new productions,” says VP.
Shantha and VP met at Kalakshetra, Chennai, the arts academy founded by the legendary Bharatanatyam danseuse Rukmini Devi Arundale. Shantha was a serious nine-year-old, sent by her NRI parents from Malaysia to understand dance, and the discipline and aesthetics it could inculcate. He was a 13-year-old boy from a family in Payyanur in Kerala, whose father, a farmer, had a chance meeting with Bharatanatyam guru Chandu Panicker on a train, and asked him to take his son to Arundale. VP, whose family didn’t have the money to pay for his training, was admitted on a scholarship. There VP and Shantha learned dance together, even played Rama and Sita in the Kalakshetra production, Sita Swayamvaram, under guru Arundale, who is credited to have enhanced and polished the age-old techniques of Bharatanatyam.
Love blossomed and the two got married in 1965. Later, they became teachers at Kalakshetra where they taught for more than 15 years. “We are fortunate to have learned from a legend like Rukmini amma. She was a disciplinarian but didn’t run the gurukul with an iron fist. She was very gentle. The training and knowledge that she gave in Kalakshetra, and the exposure to Shastra technique was confined to some scholars earlier. Rukmini amma would always say that art wasn’t stagnant and that it was like a flowing river,” says Shantha. VP says Arundale “gave the idea to the people that natyam can be evolved”.
But being inside Kalakshetra meant sticking to a discipline and performing in a regimented way. “Inside, while learning and teaching, we did what we were supposed to do. At that time, Bharatanatyam itself was at a very stagnant stage. The repertoire just didn’t grow. We had a little bit of freedom on the stage which Rukmini Devi encouraged, but we were always a little apprehensive about doing our own thing in the institution because it would be frowned upon,” says VP.
The two moved out of the academy in 1967-68 to give shape to their ideas. A thatched-roof dance class in Chennai’s Sastri Nagar, called Bharata Kalanjali, came into existence, with just one student — Chittilakshmi, dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy’s cousin.
Greatly inspired by Karuna and Magdalana Mariyam, they introduced Malayalam literature to Bharatanatyam, and were dancing to poems — self-composed as well as by contemporary writers. Bharata Kalanjali’s first production, in 1974, was a dance drama on contemporary writer Periasamy Thooran’s Valli Thirumanam. Soon, they were performing to their students’ choreographies, showcasing complete presentations in Tamil padams (compositions) even when Kalakshetra focussed on Telugu padams and only scenes from plays. In Nritya Tarangini, they danced to a much-talked-about thillana by M Balamuralikrishna, despite its rhythm not being suitable for Bharatanatyam. Going against the grain, they also performed at weddings. “I said that if MS (Subbulakshmi) can sing at a wedding, why can’t the Dhananjayans dance. Natya is to be presented at auspicious occasions and weddings are auspicious,” says VP. They were severely criticised by their alma mater (Kalakshetra), seniors and contemporaries. By 1970, however, their student base grew to 50 and included foreign students. Even “Kalakshetra wasn’t open to foreign students then,” says VP.
The cultural amalgamation birthed two versions in 1984 of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (1894), in which a young Akram Khan (who went on to become a popular Kathak dancer in Bangladesh) was cast as Mowgli, though his sister had come for the audition. “We saw this boy with immense energy, just running around. His father wasn’t keen on him dancing. But we persisted and that’s how Akram became Mowgli. We are very happy to see a very successful dancer in him,” says Shantha. The production “brought in a lot of credibility to the Bharatiya technique of dance,” says VP. “Bharatanatyam and Kathakali were thought to be very static. With Jungle Book, they (the Westerners) were surprised that a dance drama not based on a traditional Indian theme was even possible.”
VP and Shantha were one of the firsts to demand a professional fee for performances, which led the Chennai sabhas to boycott them. Another reason was that some sabhas had an “all Brahminical” policy. “We are from Kerala — Malayalis, and non-Brahmins,” says VP. So when he received the prestigious Nritya Choodamani award by famed Krishna Gaana Sabha in 1983, it was a bolt from the blue. It was after this that the sabhas conceded to his advice for arranging sponsorships.
With a slew of film projects lined up, VP says, “Now is the time to try out a new medium. And both of us, as usual, are ready to experiment.”