The Dance of Life
RECENTLY APPOINTED DIRECTOR OF KALAKSHETRA, ONE OF THE MOST RENOWNED DANCE INSTITUTES IN THE COUNTRY, ACE BHARATANATYAM DANCER PRIYADARSINI GOVIND LOOKS FORWARD TO A NEW CHAPTER IN HER LIFE
The new director of Kalakshetra, Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind on beginning a new chapter.
Early this year, Priyadarsini Govind received a call from her sister, Vidya, an attorney who resides in Princeton, New Jersey. But this wasn’t an ordinary what’s-goingon, how-have-you-been conversation between two siblings. Vidya’s intent was to get Govind to respond to an advertisement which invited applications for the post of director of Kalakshetra, an institute started by the legendary dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1937 in Chennai. It was a position left vacant since Leela Samson resigned in August 2012. “I was actually taken aback because the thought had never crossed my mind,” says Govind. “It was a last-minute decision (to apply). There is no place like Kalakshetra anywhere in the world. It’s a dream for any artist to be associated with it.” Today, Govind finds herself in the director’s seat of the institute.
The announcement created a buzz for two reasons. It was the first time that the institute had appointed a person who is not a student or teacher of the institution. In fact, Govind practises a different style of Bharatanatyam namely Vazhuvoor school; Kalakshetra on the other hand is known for a movement vocabulary that draws from the Pandanallur school and Arundale’s own distinct style. But more so, few in the Indian classical dance world expected Govind, one of the leading and most sought-after performers both in India and abroad, to take up a job which is known to have a fair share of administrative duties. But Govind, 48, was looking to begin a new chapter and found her calling in the Kalakshetra job. “My mind, time and effort has been focused on performing that I have not been to explore so many things which are possible,” says Govind. “My thought and intent was that ‘Now I am ready for other things’. I have wanted to dabble in choreography.”
This is the first time that Govind has a job to report to. Her working day begins as early as 8.15 a.m. with the morning prayers underneath the lush campus’ famous banyan tree. Conversations with the institute’s various administrative officials, artists and teachers keep her occupied. She stays back till 9.30 to 10 p.m. when there is a performance. “I can’t tell you how much I love it,” she says. That’s primarily because rather than looking at the job as an added responsibility, Govind sees it as an opportunity. “Dance has given me everything,” she says. “It has been on the back of my mind for a while to give back to the dance community. I feel very strongly about mentoring young dancers. They remind me of myself many years ago. I genuinely want to reach out and help in any way that I can.”
The decision to take up a full-time job means that fans of Govind’s dance will not see as much of her on stage as they’d like to. It’s a pity because her abhinaya (expression-driven dance centred on feelings) particularly is exquisite, relatable and so spontaneous that it is difficult to take your eyes off Govind’s face. “I have enjoyed performing over the last two or three years,” says Govind, who has scaled down the number of her shows. “My priority now is Kalakshetra. Its needs, its requirements and its goals are uppermost in my mind.”
Seated at the café of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, where she performed with the renowned Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna on September 24, Govind stands out even though dressed casually with minimal make-up. Govind is lean and has the figure of a woman half her age. Without any hesitation, she calls for a thick and creamy cold coffee and a grilled chutney sandwich with cheddar cheese and French fries. “I binge only once in a while,” she admits. Going by her appearance, you wouldn’t guess that she is a mother of two twenty something children. Her daughter, Aishwarya, 25, is studying editing, while her son Siddharth, 20, is pursuing a law degree in Pune.
Being a mother is one of the factors that sets her apart from her contemporaries like Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai. Govind has managed to strike a balance between family responsibilities and a successful professional career. Priyadarsini never fails to acknowledge the support of her children and her husband, Govind, a film producer, in every interview and this time is no different. “Without family support it is impossible to have a career in the arts,” she says. “There are a lot of adjustments
which the family has to make. It’s not easy. When you are away, you are thinking of them. When you are at home, you are worrying about your career. The forces that drive you are always pulling you in different directions.” As an artist, Govind sees positives in this balancing act. “You know that whatever you are doing is at the cost of something else,” she says. “So you make sure that you give your 200 per cent.”
But the stature she enjoys today didn’t come easy. There were spells of cynicism and frustration when despite being a motivated and talented dancer she felt she wasn’t getting her due. “This struggle would always come up in conversations with my family,” says Govind. “‘Why am I not able to approach people for work with ease?’ I realised there is no need to complain or whine. If you want to do something, you have to naturally find a way.” Govind is a late bloomer—someone whose career peaked only when she was in her late 30s. It’s not entirely an anomaly because classical dancers do take time to find their individual voice and style. Once Govind did, she never looked back. (Last year, she was presented with the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi award.)
Like most parents, Govind’s folks enrolled her for Bharatanatyam lessons at the age of six and ensured her interest didn’t wane over the years. “I was not left with a choice,” says Govind. By the age of nine, she was training with Kalanidhi Narayan, acknowledged as one of the best teachers of abhinaya which, she says, became her window to the world of dance. Govind continued training with Narayan regularly until 2011. Narayan in turn introduced her to Kalaimamani S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai, who’d be Govind’s guru until his demise in 1994. “They are the biggest influences in my life,” she says. “My taste and aesthetics have been shaped by them.” They encouraged Govind to continue her studies even as she chose to pursue a career in dance. (She has a degree in commerce and mass communication from the University of Madras.)
IF YOU UNDERSTAND THAT WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING IS AT THE COST OF SOMETHING ELSE YOU WILL ENSURE YOU GIVE THE TASK 200 PER CENT
Four years after Pillai’s death, arrived, Govind feels, the turning point in her career. Her three-year partnership with A. Lakshman, a dancer and teacher, which began in 1998, played a pivotal role in her rise. “There was no longer a shield or protection of a guru,” says Govind. “For the first time in my life I was working with an artist who was my own age. So it wasn’t a guru-shisya (teacher-student) relationship. I started enjoying the process of dancing. Both of us discussed dance, our passion, and shared our artistic vision. Every step of the way I was relearning what I had taken for granted. I now understand how to choreograph, review my work, find the dance within myself, work with musicians and how to be professional about approaching people (for work). I discovered my strengths and worked on my weaknesses. Lakshman has a great eye for line.” The duo worked together till 2001 and the results were plain to see. Govind’s nritya (pure, technique-driven dance) was enhanced. There was an added finesse to her jumps, floor movements and spins. The clear movements and the rigour with which she performed brought a vitality to her dance. She began to experiment without deviating from tradition. She played with rhythm and began choreographing more. But it is her abhinaya that she is most acclaimed for.
“To present a poem, you first have to understand the intent of the poet and follow the word-to-word meaning,” says Govind. “You have to train yourself to communicate your thoughts effectively. You have to find the language for the spoken word and develop a visual grammar.” But the biggest challenge is to not make the movements seem rehearsed. To take a performance to another level, Govind says one needs “imagination, intelligence, creative ability, mobility of expressions and grasping power.”
With shows having kept her busy, Govind has chosen not to focus on teaching. She has all of three students and says thoughts about leaving a legacy behind hasn’t crossed her mind as yet. “Wearing different hats doesn’t come easily to me,” she says. “I’ve consciously made a choice to do one thing properly at a time. I have always enjoyed teaching but it isn’t top on my priority list.” She may not have the time to teach regularly but she is more than happy to share her thoughts, discuss her work process and give advice to aspiring dancers and students of dance. As expected her advice is straightforward and practical.
“A life in arts is difficult,” she says. “You have to be committed and have grit and determination. You have to be ready to surrender, have the right gurus, stay passionate and realise that art is bigger than all of us.”