On Raghavendra RV’s desk is a folder where he files all the applications he receives from dancers—experienced to aspiring—from across the world seeking to perform at the many events and festivals at his prestigious 15-year-old not-for-profit trust, Ananya. Originally a consultant at Geological and Metallurgical Laboratories, a company that he co-founded with his wife, Pramila Bai, the couple is now committed to the cause of nurturing the arts—both classical music and dance—in Bengaluru.
Raghavendra’s folder has, since Ananya’s inception, grown in size and reputation. “When we began hosting dance-based events in 2005, after ten years of showcasing music, we’d receive less than 20 applications in a month; now it’s way more than 50,” he says, sipping his coffee, at his home in Malleswaram, “In fact, I have about 450-odd applicants still waiting for a chance to perform.” More than 200 applications from amongst that pile are from Bengaluru and a bulk are in the genre of Bharatanatyam.
Praveen Kumar is wrapping up a recording for an online event, and closing the day with a Hot Chocolate Fudge from the iconic Corner House in Shankarapuram, Basavangudi. A Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer, Praveen held a monopoly as the only Bharatanatyam teacher in his locality for nearly 12 years. He says, “In the last three years or so, in and around the street where I live, I hear there are more than a handful of teachers of Bharatanatyam.”
On January 17th, just as live performances returned, Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer-choreographer and actor Rukmini Vijayakumar performed Ishwara: A Journey to the Self, a production dedicated to her father, K Vijayakumar. This 90-minute performance in the Bharatanatyam framework, was presented at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), a 180-seat auditorium in Domlur to a full hall, needless to say adhering to social distancing protocols.
From her parents’ home in Hebbal, Bengaluru-based dancer Keerthana Ravi enterprisingly conducted the sixth edition of EVAM, a Mumbai-based festival of dance that arose after Keerthana moved cities, and that took an online avatar, courtesy the pandemic. Featuring a host of artists from across Delhi, London, Mumbai and Bengaluru, the festival clocked decent sales. “I’d say 25 per cent of the tickets purchased were by dancers from Bengaluru,” she says, quickly adding, “I’m not surprised because even though the city has plenty of performances, rasikas [connoisseurs] don’t hesitate to buy a ticket for a performance.”
For years now, Bengaluru has earned for itself many titles: the Garden City that slowly cracked the IT code becoming the hub for technology, a thriving city for start-ups, the capital of contemporary dance in India, a melting pot of cultures.
If numbers are indicators, content is proof and social media is a metric—for both quality and diversity of work—Bengaluru is fast emerging as the second capital of Bharatanatyam, after Chennai that has always been considered its hub.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to compare Chennai and Bangalore in the context of Bharatanatyam,” defends Priyadarsini Govind, Bharatanatyam exponent, and former director of the Kalakshetra. She says, “Chennai has lineage and a sense of history, as far as this art form is concerned and that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Bengaluru has always had a vibe of its own as far as the arts is concerned and many dancers of my generation and a few senior than me—Padmini Rao, Padmini Ramachandran, Kiran Subramanyam, B Bhanumathi, Dr Lalitha Srinivasan, just to name a few—have done some phenomenal work in creating interest and fostering the art form.”
In Malleshwaram, an old neighbourhood in Bengaluru, that is literally the epicentre of Bharatanatyam, where dance schools share space with arts patrons and auditoriums, big and small—Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Seva Sadan, Ananya, Shukra—interest has been cultivated through events and festivals that have accorded equal space for artists outside of the city with local talent, ensuring the co-existence of learning and performance.
Nupura, a dance institution founded by acclaimed Bharatanatyam guru, Lalitha Srinivasan, who is a specialist in the Mysore style of Bharatanatyam, having learnt it directly from K Venkatalakshamma, has, since its inception 42 years ago, trained more than 500 students who continue to perform and teach dance across the world.
In the year of the pandemic, Nupura celebrated 35 years of Nitya Nritya, an annual festival of dance that has raised the standard in terms of curation and presentation. “We feature all forms of dance, not only Bharatanatyam, but needless to say, the latter occupies pride of place,” says Manu Srinivasan, daughter of Lalitha Srinivasan and a dancer who is collaboratively also in charge of the festival with her mother who envisaged it. “To be honest, over the last few years,” she adds, “curation has been truly a challenge because of the spurt in the number of good dancers in Bengaluru, who are all raising the bar in terms of content and performance.”
Unlike a ‘sabha’ culture in Chennai where a group at the helm of an institution serve as gatekeepers of the arts, Bengaluru has emerged as a new centre of Bharatanatyam thanks to dancers themselves who have donned the head sets of organisers for years, curating consciously and presenting festivals that allow for learning, aspiration and showcasing.
Amongst the leading festivals that have acquired landmark status, eight are curated by dancers. “Credit must go to them for bringing stalwarts like Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai to perform in Bangalore way back in the early ’90s, and that exposure introduced us, dancers to the idea of quality and standard in the arts,” says Praveen, a student of CV Chandrasekhar, a Bharatanatyam exponent based in Chennai, who has been performing regularly at the Margazhi season of music and dance in Chennai every December.
“Bangalore always had a constant thirst to learn and grow,” says Priyadarsini Govind, who travels often to conduct workshops in Bengaluru from her home in Chennai, “I remember going there when I was in my 20s with my guru, Dr Kalanidhi Narayanan for an abhinaya workshop and I remember being struck by the enthusiasm of the participants.”
Bustling with a vibrant workshop culture, the Bharatanatyam world in Bengaluru is also appreciative of many perspectives and styles that exist within its large and dynamic framework. Rama Vaidyanathan, Bharatanatyam exponent with students from across the globe, who visits Bengaluru from Delhi several times in a year—for both workshops and performances—reiterates that the “openness” of the dance community in the city has elevated its status as a dynamic centre for Bharatanatyam in India. “It’s also very heart-warming to perform there,” Rama says, “and to always have a whole host of dancers, young and old, always in the audience and who support other dancers.”
From her home in London, young Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer, Divya Ravi, with roots in Bengaluru, says the city provides three essentials every artist wishes for—“a safe space, an open-minded audience that can truly provide constructive feedback and a remunerative avenue”. Divya’s contribution to the dance landscape, especially during the pandemic was significant in terms of the immersive conversations she curated with a set of dancers and the range of content she created to keep pushing the creative envelope.
What is also significant in Bengaluru is the fact that almost all shows, small or big, are ticketed, enabling an ecosystem for the arts and the artists. “I think it is also fair to say,” Divya adds, “that Bangalore was among the first cities [in India] to begin live-cast, online ticketed performances well before the trend actually caught up in the year of the pandemic.”
‘Performing in this city is just special because I know the audience won’t judge me,’ says Rukmini Vijayakumar, dancer
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If marriage took artists like Divya out of Bengaluru, others like Apoorva Jayaraman, for instance, a young Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer, who was raised in Bengaluru and who studied astrophysics at Cambridge University, made a conscious decision to move to Chennai to pursue Bharatanatyam. Under the guidance of Priyadarsini Govind, and with a sparkling dance voice of her own, Apoorva, who is also a curator, says,“I had a remarkable amount of exposure—traditional, cross-disciplinary and contemporary work alike—even as a child, thanks to my teacher, Padmini Ravi. Owing to its nature, as a city, Bangalore gave, and continues to give, every young dancer, a personal space to flourish where no dream seems too big and you don’t ever feel afraid to experiment.”
Apoorva admits she “dared to dream big because of Bangalore. Yet, my own definition of what this big was crystallised in Chennai”. The arts scene in Chennai carries with it, she notes, “the gravitas of a long and deep relationship with dance and here I became cognizant of how much there is to know before one can really be ready to spread one’s wings in the world of the arts”.
Over the years, Bengaluru has also witnessed the birth of spaces, intimate and informal—Shoonya, Courtyard, Ishva, BIC—that have created possibilities for experimental work within a traditional repertoire and have served as an adda for dialogue and debate. During the pandemic, when the performance venue shifted from a proscenium stage to social media, Raghavendra watched with empathy how some dancers struggled to create spaces (to perform) within their homes. “Five months ago, to bridge that gap, we added a separate 150 sq ft space adjacent to the auditorium that dancers can book [free of cost] and hire a photographer to capture their dance in ways that work for the digital medium,” says Raghavendra.
Brimming with the voices of dancers who are keen to inspire a younger generation to pursue the arts, as a full-time profession and committed to make it work financially, Bengaluru is also vocal about resisting the culture of paying to perform at a concert.
Equally crucial from the point of view of an artist is the audience. Rukmini Vijayakumar, who has performed at prestigious venues across the world and whose home and heart is her hometown, Bengaluru, says that sharing work with an audience “here is just special because I know they won’t judge me. The eclectic nature of the city also organically manifests in an audience that sometimes walks into a performance with little or no knowledge of the dance form but filled with curiosity and an appetite to engage, without any prejudice or bias.”
Shruti Gopal, a Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer-teacher, who runs the Upadhye School of Dance with her husband, Parshwanath Upadhye, also a well-known dancer, takes pride in Bengaluru’s Bharatanatyam culture. “We are really a world of our own,” Shruti says, “Growing up, learning dance under my guru, Padmini Ramchandran, a student of Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, I always watched how she consistently pushed the creative envelope within the traditional framework. I still remember how she created a production inspired entirely by Bengali paintings and another one on Jesus that I was also a part of. I think our—and I mean, dancers in Bengaluru—box to create and innovate has always been a bit large, a bit open, a bit without boundaries.” Perhaps, the most crucial for any artiste; a box that can breathe, free, masked or otherwise.