Vannadil Pudiyaveettil Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan, also known as the Dhananjayans, are regarded as the legendary dancing couple of India. Both alumnus of Kalakshetra, well versed in the Bharatnatyam and Kathakali idiom as well as Carnatic music were recently in Kolkata, where in an informal chat they spoke about their dance life. Their school Bharata Kalaanjali completes half a century this year and the gurus are gearing up for a grand celebration before the year ends. Here is an excerpt from the conversation:
What teaching method do you follow to cull out the talents of your students? Besides teaching dance what other qualities do you inculcate in your students? What flaws do you notice in today’s teaching methods?
We have adopted a strict Gurukula system and contemporary academic method to suite the present generation of students.
Our watch word has been “discipline, devotion & dedication”.
We try to inculcate in the students a sense of patriotism and pride in their Bhaarateeya samskriti. Impress upon them the need for physical, mental and spiritual cleanliness. Love for mother tongue and mother land. Punctuality, environmental cleanliness, respect for elders and imbibe great qualities of people worthy of respect. To feel proud of our nation, samskaara (culture & ethos) and essentially one’s profession whatever it may be and practice it with total sincerity and feel proud of doing it to everyone’s satisfaction.
Do you both hail from a family of artists?
Both of us have no direct lineage of performing artistes like Bharatanaatyam or Kathakali, but for me (VPD) my father -a school teacher by profession used to make us all act in Malayalam dramas where singing was an integral part of dramas those days, they called it Sangeeta-naatakam. So I was a child actor.
Where as Shanta’s great grand fathers were Kathakali Actors and well-known teachers. (I heard this from the elders of the village Chittur, Palakkad)
What are some of your remarkable choreographic works in solos, duets and groups?
In solos our first venture NATYANJALI (1968) is a unique number incorporating important aspects of Naatya namely ‘nrutta & nrutya, swaras, pancha nadai(five beats) Devahastas etc. It was an innovative repertoire in place of Alarippu, Jateeswatam & Sabdam. At that period -1968 every one welcomed it and even today connoisseurs say, we were ahead of times.
NRUTYOPAHAARAM (1968) replacing the usual ‘varnam’ was an instant hit, even today it is a favourite repertoire of all our admirers. This was based on the Padavarnam of a great composer Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma on Sri Krishna. They say it is always refreshing to watch it even today.
We have choreographed such unique Nrutyopahaarams on Sri Rama, Sri Ganesha, Prakriti or nature, Karthikeya, Guruvayurappan etc.
Nrittaswaravali (1978) is yet another solo piece (song composed by contemporary musician Vidwan T.V.Gopalakrishnan a very impressive & interesting patterns of rhythm and nritta karanas with complicated sequences making it look very contemporary even today. Shanmuga Sabdam, Ganesha Sabdam and innumerable padams, jawalis, Ashtapadis and my own lyrics in Malayalam & music composition suitable for men and women as solo artiste. The list is long. We have composed/choreographed more than 500 compositions in Tamizh, Malayaalam, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Bengali.
Nrittaangahaaram in place of Tillana of a unique structure of music by Vidwan Dr.Balamuralikrishna is differently choreographed, unlike the usual Tillaanas. So we have been often referred as “trend setters and much ahead of their times etc” by critics.
We have quite a few major group productions which we have performed both at home and abroad.
We have dealt with the epic, mythologies, history, contemporary, social, environmental and themes relevant to today’s education and cultural upbringing. A political satire was choreographed for the 50th year of ‘Freedom’.
V.P.D.: I have created a complete Bharatanatyam repertoire with my own poems(songs), music composition and choreography. there is an audio CD available in the market of these repertoire sung by a celebrity Carnatic & playback singer P.Unnikrishnan. Songs suitable for male & female artistes.
Who were your teachers whom you admired the most and why?
Shanta: At Kalakshetra certainly Rukminidevi was an inspiring head and we had very many old and ripped Aachaaryaas to mould us. As far as my Bharatanaatyam is concerned Smt. Sarada Hoffman and N.S.Jayalakshmi were my teachers and of course, Chanduppanikkar Asaan (Kathakali) was a colossal inspirational teacher.
V.P.D.: Being a full-time Kathakali student Chanduppanikkar Assaan shaped me what I am today. Rukmnidevi, of course, was my mentor and the other teachers like Smt. Sarada Hoffman and N.S.Jayalakshmi taught me Bharatanatyam. Apart from these teachers, Guru Gopinath( an inspiring personality indeed) used to be my ‘maanasika guru’ and imbibed a great deal associating with him from my young age.
(His mention of Guru Gopinath made this reviewer proud. Guru Gopinath was my dance teacher for close to twelve years and the one who has shaped my life to be what I am today.)
How has your journey been? What were your ups and downs?
Our journey in our artistic life went through a lot of ups and downs. Our perseverance has earned us celebrity status.
Kalakshetra life was memorable as we lived an Aashram life of eternal learning always satisfied and happy and not bothering about name & fame or money. But coming out of Kalakshetra with nothing in hand taught us how to make a happy life through an artistic journey, working together with a perfect understanding of each other. Luckily God has been very kind to us and with our discipline, devotion and dedication elevated us to what we are today. We started with very meagre earnings, slowly building up an empire of our own and opportunities came to us without much PR work of trying to influence people of power and money. We are ever grateful to the Almighty and what we have imbibed from Kalakshetra. All the ups & downs in life seems to be a pleasant nostalgia or memories of the past which has helped us to march forward to enlightenment.
Do you think that the present times are the best of times as far as the flowering of performing arts are concerned?
Yes, certainly the present time is very much congenial for the arts and artistes to flourish. A lot of opportunities are there and good support from people who value art & culture. But unfortunately, sufficient funding support is lacking today as art activities do not fall in the priority categories, either with the government or Corporate houses who control the finances.
What is your advice to the dancers of today?
Do not make the Art a tool to promote yourself, but use it to promote Art as a Divine endeavour to have a happy life of good will and mental satisfaction. When one promotes the Arts in the right way, art promotes the individual the right way.
What is the uniqueness of the Kalakshetra bani as compared to other styles?
Shanta: They use a Very systematic & clear technique with profound in depth study of theoretical nuances employed. Long lasting & deep rooted training with aesthetic perception and aiming at a perfection of body, mind and spirituality is the uniqueness of Kalakshetra method of training. There is no Kalakshetra ‘Baani or paani’ as such, but a good system that emphasis clarity of movements, precision and clear understanding of each every aspect of Naatya. Sampoorna yoga-midan naatyam (a complete or comprehensive yoga is naatya) is the underlying principles of Kalakshetra technique. Now accepted as the best system for Bhartanaatyam throughout the globe.