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

Society - - CONTENTS - By RahulPaul

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.

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...with her pupil Aish­warya Rai

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