Interview with Smt. Leela Ramanathan

The little girl, just about 10, seemed to be taking every step to the beat of the music playing from old records, as if it was second nature to her. A natural inclination to dance at that tender age became an all-consuming passion that defined the very course of Smt Leela Ramanathan’s life.

Grand-daughter of late H.V. Nanjundayya, the founder Vice-Chancellor of Mysore University, daughter of late C. Bhaskaraiya, Auditor General of India and wife of late Brigadier K. Ramanathan, Leela came from a very well-known family. Despite hers not being a family of artists, she became a well known among artists and art lovers because of her sheer passion for dance that made her an impeccable and versatile dancer.

She credits Kolar Puttapa Pillai, Ram Gopal, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Muthiah Pillai, Tanjore Kittappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri for her training in Bharatanatyam, Chandhu Panikar in Khathakali, Bowri Prasad and Sohanlal in Kathak, and Debu Prasad Das in Odissi.

She completed her MA in English Literature and Sanskrit from the Mysore University. She was awarded the Purna Krishna Rao Gold Medal in English Literature. it has been dance all the way all her life. She is noted for her contributions through research in dance and for her theory and writings.

She is currently the President of the Karnataka Nritya Kala Parishat, the External Professor for Dance and Examiner at the Bangalore University and Mysore University. She is the founder and Honorary Director of the Meenakshi Sundaram Centre of Performing Arts, established in 1971, where she teaches Bharatnatyam.

Now 75 Smt. Leela Ramanathan looks back on an eventful momentous life so completely dedicated to dance.

Q : Yours is not a family of artists. Yet, how did you take to dancing at a very young age?

I loved listening to old records, dancing in step to the music when I was as young as 10. Sidappa (my father’s valet who took to sanyasa) noticed my interest and talked to my mother about it. He suggested that I could be given formal training. I was very excited about it. Kolar Puttapa was my first dance guru.

Q : Going down the memory lane, what memories do you have of your first public perormance?

I was about 14 then. After giving me five long years of rigorous training, Puttapa declared that he would like to see me perform in public. It was at a Girl Guide Charity, and with Nittur presiding over the program, there was a large audience. Puttapa who was delighted to see me perform appreciated my performance.

Just 2 or 3 months after the event, Puttapa passed away. Then I started learning Kathak under Bowri Prasad and Sohanlal. But it was Bharatanatyam that captivated me and I was drawn to it more than anything else.

Q : Who were your preceptors after Puttapa?

After Puttappa’s demise, I was introduced to Ram Gopal who trained me in the Pandanalur style (I had learnt the Mysore style until then). Clear-cut rigidity and perfection marks the Pandanalur Style. Ram Gopal was a very good teaching, but with a violent temper. He left for England to pursue his dancing career. I had completely adapted to the Pandanalur style by then.

Later, for about three months, Mrinalini Sarabhai and I stayed in Tanjore where Thatha (Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai) would come to teach us. Puttappa and Thatha were a great blessing to me. They were among the wonderful teachers I came across who were keen on imparting and sharing their art and knowledge.

Q : Share with us some of your diverse experiences – you have performed at both global and national levels ?

Mrinalini Sarabhai and I were part of a delegation of 7 artists, sent to all the republics of South America by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when the Indian embassies were established there. Our mission was to introduce our culture to them. Mrinalini and I performed Bharatanatyam. We also gave lectures and conducted workshops on our dance. Six to seven hectic months with Pandit ji sending us very encouraging messages now and then – towards the end we did feel a bit homesick; my parents wanted me back home too.

Q : Having been trained in four different types of dance forms, why did you choose to specialize in Bharatanatyam?

I did learn Odissi, Kathak and Kathakali, but later on in my research I found that Bharatanatyam is the Nrityamula of all dances. In the 10th century AD when Sanskrit ceased to be a national language and regional languages developed, there was a rise of various regional styles of dancing.

Q : Bharatanatyam is said to have various styles. What are your views about them?

No, I believe that all the different so-called styles of Bharatanatyam are one and the same. A difference in style is more often than not just a difference in emphasis by a teacher; the style adopted by the teacher is passed on to the students.

Q : Your contribution to the theory of dance has been enormous. How did you develop an interest in the theoretical aspects of dance?

I have always had an enquiring mind. I have majored in English literature with Sanskrit as an elective. While performing, while giving lectures i began to feel I had to delve deeper into the subject of dance; read more about it, find out more about its origins, its history, its development – take a dip in the vast ocean, so to say.

Q : In your extensive research, what are the sources you have utilized to collect information?

The Natyashastra, Kavya and certain references to dance from Shakuntala are my main sources. Of course, my own experience in dance is another source. Discussions with senior teachers naturally yield a wealth of information not available in any book. In fact when I was with Thatha, there were lots of discussions, with Thatha giving and sharing knowledge easily. Unlike today, where each of us goes around trying to prove we know more than the others and are loathe to share what we know as if we would end up losing what we share.

Q : What kind of theoretical knowledge should teachers impart to their disciples during training?

Teaching dance is not just teaching items of performance. There’s a lot to teaching theory. After two years of adavus, the students must be taught about differences in Nritha, Nrithya and Natya. Stories about the origin of dance should be narrated and students should be encouraged to know the historical, mythical and factual aspects of dance and be able to correlate them. It is very important to learn the techniques of dance as today dance has taken to the Neo-Classical form and has departed from Natyashastra. The students should also know about the different types of dance forms like classical, folk and tribal. At an advanced level, the students should imbibe knowledge about different aspects of abhinaya, then the differences between bhava and rasa, the types of hastas. All these would enhance performance.

Q : You have been dance examiner for several years now. What do you feel about the examination scheme in dance?

Unfortunately, yes, I have been an examiner and a part of the examination board. We have now revised the syllabus for the Junior and Senior levels and are now working on the syllabus for the Vidwath level.

We realized having a set pattern and textbook would help students. So Keshav Murthy, many other dancers and myself together set the syllabus. The Vidwath syllabus is divided into a 2-year course (M.A.).

The examination system is good but I personally don’t approve of a dancer or a musician being made to go through an examination. What better real test of a dancer’s skills can there be than an Arangetram?

Q : A number of artists don’t respect the concepts of exam as there is no standardization and politics are involved. Your comments?

I have submitted to the state government (Department of Kannada and Culture) that the exams are not carried out properly; that there has to be a proper board with, preferably, artists of stature from outside the state. One local examiner and one from outside the state would, perhaps, be ideal.

Q : Any special feelings and special moments you would like to share with us?

There have been many memorable moments in my dance career. One of the most special moments was when I danced with my students at the military hospital. People had just come back from the war front – wounded, hurt; some lying on stretchers, some in wheelchairs. The program made them all so happy.

Another treasured memory: the Maharaja of Travancore invited me to dance for Navaratri in his private Padmanabha temple. He asked me to dance for only Swati Tirunal’s composition. My trip abroad was also a great learning experience and I am proud of my two children Malavika and Bhaskar.

Q : What is your opinion about today’s dancers and dance?

We have very good dancers here in Bangalore and I have faith in them. They are educated, articulate, enlightened, and always want to learn more. They have unique ideas and are very creative. All of them have a good future. As far as dance goes it was, it is, it will always be bright.

Great dancers are not great because of their technique;
they are great because of their passion
– Martha Graham