The Dance of 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.)


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.”

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