Gauri Diwakar, Aditi Mangaldas, GR Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty, Matt Ridley and the art of collaboration

22 January 2016 | E-Paper

What rehearsals tell you about an artist

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan


“The arts have become unidimensional, and we live in a multidimensional world,” says the petite Kathak maestro, Aditi Mangaldas. We are in the basement of the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Mangaldas and her foremost disciple, Gauri Diwakar, are rehearsing a new work, titled Hari Ho…Gati Meri: Muslim Poets In Love Of Lord Krishna. They will present it the following day.

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance. A few arts institutions—the Lincoln Center in New York, for instance—accord the privilege of watching a rehearsal for a price. I am at Kamani at the behest of Minaakshi Dass, whose venture, India Heritage Desk, aims to discover the next Aditi Mangaldas or Malavika Sarukkai. Gauri Diwakar may be one candidate.

In one virtuoso display, Diwakar—clad in yoga pants and a top—mouthes a series of bols, or syllables of beats, that sound exactly like a tabla would. To watch her interact with the tabla player, the harmonium player and the singer, is like watching jazz musicians jamming. A young boy—the tabla master’s son—sits in the middle, absorbing it all. This, I think, is how the next generation of musicians is fostered.

“One beat is off,” says Diwakar. They go over the sound of beats again. Her tongue does gymnastics. The tabla sounds like the beats coming out of her mouth. They are immersed in the complex rhythm. At the end, Mangaldas says, “It is still off.” And off they go again.

During a rehearsal, you learn many things. I learnt that Kathak dancers arch their feet like ballet dancers. That pure dance, called nritya in Kathak, can take your breath away. To hear Diwakar beat her feet to the immersive sound of the tabla master is to watch two bodies performing to the same beat, each one goading and celebrating the other. It is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. As I watch the group, I am envious. Diwakar dances joyfully, sweat running down her forehead; Mangaldas watches the dance she has choreographed come to life—with unwavering eyes and a slight smile. The singer plays the harmonium and sings. The tabla and mridangam players nod their heads, their eyes on the dancer’s feet. All of them are in unison; in another world. Dass and I are interlopers.

More than other art forms, dance is a synthesis—of music, song, lyrics, and costume. If Mangaldas believes that it is unidimensional, what does that say about the rest of the arts?

I think about this as I walk through Sudarshan Shetty’s new sculptural installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Haunting and intimate, the space he has created reminds me of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, which, as it happens, is where sculpture and dance came together during the Chola dynasty. What would happen, I wonder, if Mangaldas and Diwakar were to dance between the pillars that Shetty has erected in this vast space? Would it enhance the sculpture or detract from it? Shetty, more than other artists, would understand and appreciate this fusion of dance, space and sculpture. His wife is a dancer and his father was a yakshagana artiste.

Artists collaborate, of course. But as they become bigger—in fame, and perhaps, ego—the urge to merge with other arts falls short. When you are a Jitish Kallat or a Priyadarsini Govind, why would you want to inhabit another space, particularly after you have slaved away at technique, research and expertise in isolation? To collaborate, you have to leave ego at the door; and that, I guess, is what Mangaldas means when she says that most art these days is unidimensional. It does not mimic the richness and messiness of life.

Govind was felicitated last Saturday at the Dhrishti National Dance Festival in Bengaluru. I read about it in the Deccan Herald, my hometown’s paper. I have never seen Chowdiah Memorial Hall so full. Every seat was taken. Children sat on their parents’ laps. People crammed every aisle. It was among the best performances I have seen in recent times. Anuradha Vikranth and her dance ensemble presented the navarasas (nine emotions) of Durga. Ten beautiful dancers enacted scenes about the goddess. To choreograph two dancers is a feat. To choreograph 10 of them is like herding planets. Four male dancers—two in the Kuchipudi style and two in the Bharatanatyam style—followed; a treat to watch. Dass should keep an eye on Vikranth’s dance ensemble for the next rung of talent.

Which brings us to the question: How does succession planning work in the art world? How does the public access the artists, dancers and musicians in the rung below the top layer? G.R. Iranna is an example. He has had a mid-career retrospective of his work at the NGMA in Bengaluru, but isn’t well known outside the closed confines of the art world.

The NGMA, Bengaluru was buzzing the day before the show opened on 16 January. A museum group from the US was chatting with Iranna. The usually dour museum guards accorded him the deference given to a native Kannada speaker. “He learnt shilpakala (sculpture) in Bijapur,” one guard told me when I asked him if he liked the show. I loved Iranna’s sculptures, which spoke of brave, rebellious politics. Made of white fibreglass, they are visually striking. I could imagine ayakshagana performance amid them. Or Akka Mahadevi’s poetry being read out by Ramya the actor—dressed in a white sari to match the white sculptures. Two different worlds colliding with each other. As they should. For, as Matt Ridley said in his TED talk, we live in a multidimensional world where ideas should meet and “have sex”.

Shoba Narayan loves watching artistic rehearsals. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Indian dance

Of all arts, dance is the one that encapsulates a country’s culture.

I was thrilled to discover this link about Kamala here.

My other dance connection is that I went to Women’s Christian College and Urmila Satyanarayana was my classmate. She is here.

A dance questionnaire for dancers and critics

The most important thing in dance appreciation is to have the courage to respond to it

Shoba Narayan


I am a failed dancer. As a child in Chennai, some of my most memorable visits were to my aunt’s house. Her name was Kamala and she was known in dance circles as Kumari Kamala. My uncle, Major Lakshminarayan, was her second husband. He would take us to The Music Academy, Madras, where we could sit in the front row and watch her perform. She received the Padma Bhushan and scores of other awards.
To us children, however, she revealed quirky human foibles. I eat curry leaves today because Kamala mami mentioned in passing that it would help hair growth. My love of Bharatanatyam comes straight from time spent with her. Their home in Poes Garden was filled with beautiful young girls and the tinkle of anklets. Singers would be rehearsing and endless cups of coffee and tiffin would appear from the kitchen. To me, it represented a world of beauty, art, and apsaras (fairies).
After my uncle died, my aunt emigrated to the US, where she still lives. She teaches dance and leads a quiet life. People still talk about what a fantastic dancer she was. She inspired this column, as she does anything I write about dance.

Chennai’s dance festival opens today. We asked a few dancers and critics the same questions.
1. Who is your favourite dancer and why?
2. Teach our readers how to appreciate dance.
Here are their answers, edited for length.

ALARMEL VALLI Bharatanatyam dancer
1. My favourite dancers are T. Balasaraswati, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Kumari Kamala. When Bala-ma won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, there was some controversy about whether it could be given to a dancer. Bala-ma sang a snippet of a song about 20 times and emoted different feelings. She established without a doubt that dance is visual music. Yamini was a flame. She just set the stage ablaze with her dance. I used to watch her vitality, fire and joy with fascination. I was watching Kumari Kamala on TV the other day. What grace! What life! Today we have become obsessed with the geometry of dance. Dancers of the previous generation paid attention to subtexts, nuances, and poetry that went beyond technical perfection (Valli did not know that Kamala is my aunt when she mentioned her name).

2. I think the most important thing in dance appreciation is to have the courage to respond to it. Dance calls for an investment of effort from the audience. A willingness to receive. Does it touch you? Does it move you in any way? Can it transform you? Don’t worry about the reviews. Cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. Listen to good music. The arts sensitize and refine your spirit, but you have to invest in them.


1. To give one name for a favourite dancer would be impossible.

2. I think the specific things you should look for are: a) The technical grounding of the dancer, in all aspects—the pure dance aspect, the abhinaya (emoting) aspect as well the musicality and collaborative aspect with the musicians. b) I give a lot of importance to the content and whether the content of the dance has been literally expressed because this will only invoke a feeling of momentary appreciation…. For it to linger as a fragrance in your mind for years to come, the entire performance has to be transformative. Therefore, one needs to look at whether the content has been merely translated or whether it has been transformed into something else. Has it evoked in the viewer a sense of wonder and magic? That to me is one of the most important things. c) To see how the piece has been choreographed, keeping in mind the space where it is being performed, the lights used, the costume worn. Whether the aesthetics of the work are in harmony with the dance.


1. A good critic cannot have a favourite! But since you ask: Padma Subrahmanyam for her academic mind and divine art and decades of sincere service; and Alarmel Valli for her precision, spontaneity, clarity, class and depth of art.

2. Go with an open mind. Try to understand the literature/poetry of dance because therein lies its kernel. Don’t see the physical features, but the inner beauty of the dance/r. Look for substance and structure. Clarity of positions, delivery; standards in aesthetics and overall presentation. Hidden in the word heart is art. See from your heart, not head alone.

BICHITRANANDA SWAIN Director, Rudrakshya Foundation, an institute of Odissi dance

1. Sujata Mohapatra is the one dancer who stands out in my eyes. Not only is she a wondrous and brilliant dancer on stage, but also a charming, kind and compassionate human being off stage. When she enters, it seems sculptures have come to life and the finesse with which she dances, her technique, her abhinaya, almost everything about her can blow your mind away. Her strenuous dance regime and discipline is something many young and upcoming dancers should take note of. The Rudrakshya Foundation dance troupe. Photo courtesy Rudrakshya Foundation.

2. Watch as many dances as you can. You may never go into specific details as to which pose is what and what the name is, but once you have seen a large number of performances, you will automatically compare and will know good dance from bad. Also, since dance is all about aesthetic beauty, there is no specific need for the general audience to know the bhangis/charis/bhramaris (bends, specific leg postures, and movement patterns). Leave that for the critics and the scholars. The audience should just delve deep into the rasa. Talking about rasa (“emotions” would be an incomplete translation), classical dances are mostly made up of abhinaya, and any layman can understand the expressions of love, hate, jealousy, bravery, etc, just by looking at the dancer’s expressions. The only requirement is that the dancer should be proficient enough to portray them efficiently.

MADHU NATARAJ KIRAN Dancer and founder, Natya Stem Dance Kampni

1. I have several favourites, for different attributes constitute a great dancer for me. I have chosen the following: My mother and guru, the late Maya Rao, who was a beautiful dancer in her youth. Her lifetime’s commitment, passion, and complete surrender to Kathak showed even at age 86 when she demonstrated an abhinaya piece. The nazaaqat (delicacy) of old world Kathak and her training at European dance studios gave her dance an unparallelled edge. Anita Ratnam, for creating a neo-classical mosaic which balances artistry and accessibility to dance. She balances mythology with current women’s issues in a unique and potent manner Alarmel Valli, for personifying a dedicated regimen and clarity of form

2. My advice to a dance novice, or an enthusiast for that matter, would be to watch a performance with an open mind. It helps to research the artiste and her organization and gives one a glimpse into her ideology, her process of creation, which then makes the “viewing” more meaningful and multilayered. Traditional and contemporary performers explore and experiment with mainly two aspects: Form, which is her chosen dance vocabulary—Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, etc.—and content, which is the theme of the presentation, and which can range from the Ramayan to a very personal take on life. Although the classical forms follow certain codified motifs that provide a yardstick for critiquing, every performer also infuses her personality and vision into every piece. Try and catch a few performances of a young/emerging dancer, one in her prime, and a maestro, preferably over 60, and you will be able to see the phases, ranging from athleticism and virtuoso qualities to the dancer herself becoming a symbol of experiences and memories

Shoba Narayan wishes that Bengaluru had a dance festival to equal Chennai’s.

Read more at:

Kathak Maya Rao

I just loved attending this function.


How Kathak breached the north-south divide

At last week’s book release function of Maya Rao: A Lifetime In Choreography, held at the ITC Windsor, Bangalore, the stars were all in attendance. There was Vimala Rangachar, who headed the Crafts Council of Karnataka, in a rare shimmering Patola sari; Girish Karnad, who spoke about hiring Rao, or Maya Didi as she prefers to be known, to choreograph his film that ended up not getting made. In response, Rao playfully talked about watching Karnad dance while the music was being played. There was the Kannada movie star and politician, Anant Nag, who said amid much laughter that he had never danced in any of his movies but his daughter was a student of Rao’s. Three people read excerpts from the book: author Vikram Sampath, singer Tara Kini, and media professional Sandhya Mendonca. Madhu Nataraj, Rao’s daughter, choreographed the evening with precision and flair. Then there was Maya Rao, 86, resplendent in a red Kanjivaram sari (or was it a Molakalmuru silk picked out by Rangachar?), smiling.
The most touching part for Karnad, he said later while we ate green pea hummus outside, was watching Rao emote and sing a Hindustani sequence that had to do with how to open your ghungat, or veil, in a few short steps. Rao said that it was taught to her by her guru, Shambu Maharaj, and indeed her book opens with a quote by Maharaj in Hindi, “Saale, budhape se nahin bach sakte (Damn, you cannot escape old age).”
It was the sort of evening that was distinctively Bangalore, which stands at a crossroads of north and south in terms of culture and is generous and accepting of both. This is different from Chennai, where I grew up.
In Chennai, and I dare say, in many parts of north India, the music and dance that you listen to and watch are very specific. The milieu I grew up in was suffused with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. It was all we listened to or watched. We knew the idiom, the gestures, and the music. But there was no sense for, or desire to learn, the other Indian art forms that were out there. In that sense, my childhood was very parochial in terms of the arts. I didn’t have a clue about Hindustani music or Kathak, for instance, until very recently.
Not so in Bangalore. Here, people know and accept both streams. It isn’t the Dharwad-Hubli region, which is truly the place in Karnataka where Karnataka sangeetham meets Hindustani sangeet (difference in pronunciation intentional), but Bangalore is Dharwad-lite.


If you ask people why Maya Rao is great, they will tell you one line: She brought Kathak to south India. As her book describes, she was based in New Delhi until former Karnataka chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde invited her to come and set up a dance school in Bangalore. The school was inaugurated by the great Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1987 and renamed the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. It is a beautiful building in the heart of Malleswaram.
I have visited it because my daughter is a student of a student of Maya Rao’s. Rao does not know me and would not recognize me from the throngs of other parents who videotape beginner Kathak performances at the ADA Rangamandira in Bangalore, where she usually sits in front and observes the proceedings. But she shows up to watch the six-year-olds dance, and this is the other reason why Maya Rao is viewed as a legend in dance circles—she has trained over 3,000 students. “To us, she is like God,” says Meghna Rao (no relation), who dances in the Stem Dance Kampni, a contemporary dance company founded and run by Madhu Nataraj.


Certain art forms are more connected with a country’s culture than others. To understand Russia, you have to know chess and ballet—the Mariinsky and Bolshoi styles, and names such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Svetlana Zakharova and, of course, Rudolf Nureyev. To appreciate England, you really need to know theatre—Shakespeare of course, but also West End. Fashion is a prism through which you can understand the French; rhythm the in-road into Africa. If you know and understand the tea ceremony and raku ceramics, you will understand the Japanese sensibility. The same applies for Dutch design, Italian opera, which opens up the soul of Italy to outsiders but only if you know the language, German automobiles, Catalan chefs, American start-ups, Chinese scale, and Korean pop. All these reflect an age and a culture.


Dance in my view is the route to India’s soul. It is the most effective way to immerse yourself in Indian culture; a shorthand kto the past. Dancers—whether they belong to the Kathak, Bharatanatyam or Odissi styles—inhabit a sacred space that is suffused with poetry, music, aesthetics, history, religion, and culture. To be a dancer, you need to know music, mudras or hand gestures, stories from the past, the distinctive Indian rhythms, theatre, aesthetics and jewellery, the Indian idea of beauty, our history, religion and therefore culture. At the very least, a young dancer will learn Urdu poetry and an appreciation for the animals, birds and nature that are depicted through gestures and poses.
What Maya Rao is known for is choreography. Once you get to a certain level, most dancers choreograph of course. But Rao was trained in Russia and systematized Kathak in a way that hadn’t been done before. Her institute offers a diploma in choreography. Her book is filled with characters who populated the vibrant artistic space that was India in the 1960s and 1970s: Siddheshwari Devi, Ravi Shankar, Anil Biswas, Inder Razdan, Kuvempu, Habib Tanvir and his wife Monica, Balasaraswati, Keshav Kothari, Rita Ganguly, and the doyenne, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

I hadn’t heard of Maya Rao till a few years ago and I don’t know enough Kathak to figure out her place in the pantheon of dance greats. But I feel that anyone who has engaged in the same art form for 86 years and trained legions of students counts for one element of what most of us would call the good life.

Shoba Narayan assumed, till recently, that only Bharatanatyam had abhinaya and Kathak only footwork. Write to her at


  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Dec 30 2011. 9:58 PM IST
Tradition still holds sway over this coastal city that is now home to scorching Thai food and trendy tapas bars

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 I am going to let you in on a little secret. I don’t know if it is the same in north India, but here in Chennai, where I grew up, everyone has this fixation that revolves around Bharatanatyam dancers. If you have a daughter, you want her to learn this ancient art form that originated with the sage Bharata and his text, the Natya Shastra. If you have a son, you want him to marry a Bharatanatyam dancer: she with the big, expressive eyes; slender fingers like okra (okay, it sounds better in Tamil, and perhaps that is why this particular vegetable is called lady finger); and a curvaceous figure that looks like it has sprung out of the Thanjavur temples. It is—if you’ll permit the expression—a collective Chennai wet dream, and it centres around one art form: Bharatanatyam.

Keeping time: Students practise Bharatanatyam at the Kalakshetra centre in Chennai. Photo: Sharp Image

Keeping time: Students practise Bharatanatyam at the Kalakshetra centre in Chennai. Photo: Sharp Image

Chennai is in the throes of the “season”, and even for jaded me, the atmosphere is electric. Everywhere you go, there is music and dance—on television, radio and over loudspeakers. Tradition still holds sway over this coastal city that is now home to scorching Thai food and trendy tapas bars. Scratch the surface, and Chennai’s cultural heart still throbs.

Like all Chennai girls, I learnt Bharatanatyam as a child, thanks mostly to a family feud. My aunt is the legendary Bharatanatyam dancer, Padma Bhushan Kamala, who made her name as a child prodigy called “Kumari Kamala”. Her videos are still available on YouTube, uploaded by worshipful fans.

Kamala mami, as I called her, lived in Poes Garden, a stone’s throw away from chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s home in Chennai, and performed at The Music Academy, while my cousins and I ran amok through her green room. My mother, naturally, wanted me to learn dance from her famous sister-in-law, but Kamala mami told my Mom that I wasn’t ready for dance. I was too young, she said. Too tomboyish was the unstated implication.

Ramaa Bharadvaj interprets the traditional art in a modern way. Photo: Scott Ellis

Ramaa Bharadvaj interprets the traditional art in a modern way. Photo: Scott Ellis

Outraged by the rejection, my mom immediately enrolled me with the Dhananjayans, a dancing couple who taught near our house. They would go on to win fame and awards, including the Padma Bhushan. I mostly remember walking to their home in nearby Shastri Nagar, and slinking to the back of a group of girls who danced on their rooftop terrace. Six months later, I told my parents that I could not keep up with the squatting aramandi posture that is the cornerstone of Bharatanatyam. I quit.

My best friend’s sisters, meanwhile, were learning from my aunt. They were beautiful twin girls, Ramaa and Uma, who later married and moved to the US. Ramaa Bharadvaj returned to India last year and is the dance director of the Chinmaya Naada Bindu academy in Pune. Watch her Jwala-Flame dance on YouTube. She performs it with her daughter, Swetha, and it is, in my mind, an amazing if non-traditional interpretation of Bharatanatyam.

At Women’s Christian College, Chennai, I spent three years with Urmila Sathyanarayanan, who would become one of the top Bharatanatyam dancers in the country. She was learning dance when we were in college, but had not become the sensation she is now. Urmila was riveting, even as a psychology student clad in simple cotton salwar-kameezes, playing truant from Mrs Koshy’s classes and getting roundly scolded for it. Her abhinaya, or expression, was in evidence then as it is now. Urmila has a mobile expressive face that grabs your eyeballs and doesn’t let go.

Although I have watched all the big dancers of today—Padma Subrahmanyam, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Shobana, Anita Ratnam and even abhinaya queen Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan, who can emote the navarasas like none other—I haven’t yet been able to watch Priyadarsini Govind perform, something that I will rectify soon by attending her performance at The Music Academy on 3 January. Govind is a dancer at the pinnacle of her prowess. Her adavus, or steps, are precise and symmetrical. Her abhinaya, or expressions, are perfectly adequate, if dispassionate. They don’t sweep you off your feet like Ms Narayanan’s did (it is hard for me to follow Mint’s journalistic code of “last names only, no titles”, when talking about these dancers whom I revere). As a girl, my mother took me to Ms Narayanan too.

Why hasn’t Bharatanatyam flourished as much as Carnatic music? There are more musicians than dancers; and more weeks dedicated to music than dance during the December season. It doesn’t make sense because dance combines music and performance. It gives you more bang for the buck, to put it in crude economic terms. Yet dancers occupy a smaller space than musicians in the cultural landscape, even in Chennai. Why? Is it because dancers are mostly women and they quit to raise children? Then again, most of the top Carnatic music singers are women too—Sudha Ragunathan, Ranjani-Gayatri, S. Sowmya, Bombay Jayashri and Aruna Sairam. They’ve managed to stay on top even after they become mothers and grandmothers. Is it because dance is more expensive and therefore does not attract more students, what with the spending on costumes and accompanying singers? I don’t know.

Shoba Narayan is a failed Bharatanatyam dancer. Write to her at