While Lata Surendra’s name is synonymous with Bharatanatyam, you may also know her as Aishwarya Rai’s dance guru. The lady of grace indulges in an intense conversation with Society
While Lata Surendra’s name is synonymous with Bharatanatyam, you may also know her as Aishwarya Rai’s dance guru. Catch the lady of grace in this intense tête-à-tête
It’s not easy to sum up Lata Surendra’s dance career in a few lines. As a performer, teacher and choreographer, her repertoire has given worldwide recognition to Bharatanatyam as an Indian dance form. In a career spanning four decades and with more than 75 productions in her kitty, dance is not merely an art form for Surendra. It is the medium to connect with her inner self. Over to the dancer…
What is your first memory associated with dance?
It was the post-war period where the national spirit was very high as Britishers were cutting our connection with our art forms as that was the best way to take us away from our culture. Hence, people of that generation were very particular about youngsters staying connected to their culture through some art form – dance or music. There were a lot of clubs like Bengal Club, Vanita Samaj, Vyayam Shaala, etc. So my father was really keen that my sister, who was
seven, learns Bharatanatyam. I was four and went along with her for the dance classes. There is a basic necessity of imbibing the technique of any classical dance form, which has the Alpha and Omega. It needs a very strong spine. When my sister was getting enrolled, I kept tugging my daddy’s hand and he tells me that I wouldn’t leave until I was enrolled too. My ‘Arangetram’, which one calls the maiden performance, took place when I was seven years old and that was way back in 1962. Since then, the passion has transformed to an obsessive madness which has had me go beyond the body.
So what is dance to you?
When I am dancing, it is not the body at all, I don’t step onto the stage as Lata Surendra. You transcend the body at some point during the performance and then dance becomes you. All existence moves through you. For me, dance is communion at its highest peak. It transcends communication because it doesn’t need words. The singer sings the lyrics and the dancer is emoting. And the most beautiful aspect of dance is that through the glamour of the classical costumes – the aharya as we call it. It is vital for the dancer to have the audience forget the glamour of the costumes and kiss the soul that the artist is trying to define through the delineation of the dance. So I always tell my students that if at the end of your performance, if someone compliments your costume, it means you have not danced well.
Tell us about your disciple Aishwarya Rai.
She was different. So I have this habit of talking. I talk to everybody, including small children. It’s not that they don’t understand. They understand everything, much more than anyone else. When I used to talk, some little children would get distracted, but Aishwarya was not like that. Right from her childhood, she would listen intently to what I was speaking. She was among the students who are possessive about their teachers. There were moments where she has come with me not to perform but just to watch and observe. She always wanted to get the movements right and if she didn’t, she would cry. In 2016, when the Dance Congress came to India, she told me, ‘Aka I am going to come to the inauguration’. When I told people about it, they couldn’t believe it. And when she came in, she brought 47 channels with her. She then asked me to dance. So I tucked in my saree and I danced. She started crying, as usual. Then she touched my feet. And that became a big event because she is so special.
You recently performed in Mumbai at the NCPA’s Mudra Dance Festival alongside so many other accomplished dancers like you. What was the experience like?
National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA) is very important to me like how Lord’s is for cricketers. NCPA by virtue of its workshops and umpteen demonstrations, makes everyone understand what are the other aspects that make dance and what goes into a presentation. I always dreamt of reaching out and being embraced in its ambience. I especially like the post-performance discussion
where we get to know the audience and actually understand the subtle things in a performance from their understanding. Also, the theme of interconnectedness was so beautiful this year because our whole life – from the cradle to the grave – what we are doing is seeking to communicate and it’s this communication that happens through analogies and metaphors. In some way, we try to connect that which is internal with the outside world. We all communicate with words, but when you empathise with mudras, dance becomes the mediator and the body becomes the bridging metaphor that connects the internal and external world.
Your dance career spans four decades. How has dance as an art form evolved or changed over the years, according to you?
So many aspects have changed. Number one is the manner in which the gurus are imparting knowledge today. Today, money has become so important. Back then, for gurus, it was not money, it was dakshina. Today, with more and more dance spaces, ornamentation of dance and the orchestral expenses that parents have to bear – things have gone beyond a normal man’s capacity. Also, solos focusing on a particular student is slowing veining away. Groups have taken the place of solos, where everyone’s calibre is not identified. The manner in which students receive what is taught has also changed. They pick up very fast. They go to YouTube, download a video and try to perform. But it doesn’t happen because the video is like a boutique piece, it won’t fit everyone. On the positive side, dance has grown as a vocabulary for a lot of things and it is expanding. Dance is not just a directed medium to connect anymore. You are using it for a lot of things like therapy, psychological disturbance, etc. Dance now serves as the outlet through which you can churn out all the emotions that pile up inside you and experience a catharsis.
Where do you think Indian dance forms stand on the world map?
I am the section President of the first official International Dance Council of India that was launched in 2016. India didn’t have a dance council before this. It took 49 years for Dance Congress to come to our country because in our country, people were isolated. There is a lobby for contemporary dance, a lobby for kathak but to get them all under one roof, was vital. The Dance Council crushes all partiality and treats everyone on par. You are supposed to interact with each other at a five-day congress, where you are attending workshops to understand dance and understanding the role of all the aspects and people on dance. So, through interaction, you understand the dance a bit more to appreciate it better. And then you become a living bridge and don’t require the central government, which anyway doesn’t do much for dancers, to create avenues for yourself.
...with her pupil Aishwarya Rai