Guru Bhanumathi – doesn’t the name ring a bell? Would you like to see her photo?
Did you recognise her seated in the centre, in the photograph on the right, receiving the Rajyotsava award?
And in this picture below, is the beautiful Bhanumathi, the young danseuse, in one of her numerous, highly-acclaimed performances.
In the exclusive picture below, going years back in time, can you recognise the little Bhanumathi, taking her first steps towards her illustrious career, nay, life as a danseuse and a strikingly original choreographer in Bharatanatyam?
Guru Bhanumathi – A STRIKINGLY ORIGINAL CHOREOGRAPHER!!!
Does the picture below jog your memory? Group Bharatanatyam?
Is the name Bharatanjali on the tip of your tongue?
Are you among the few lakh dance aficionados who have seen one or more of Bharatanjali’s over 500 shows in the last decade?
We are delighted to take you with us on a journey into the inspiring life of Guru Bhanumathi in this exclusive Drishti feature. The feature also carries excerpts from a long tete-atete that Anuradha Vikranth had with the revered Guru, the fountainhead of synchrony and synergy in Bharatanatyam; the founder of the remarkable and unique Bharatanatyam dance group, Bharatanjali and the dance institute, Nrityakalamandiram.
BHARATANJALI: Not just dance or entertainment. An experience – aesthetically engrossing, spiritually elevation!
She formed “Bharatanjali” for the sake of promoting her students and giving them equal opportunities. Bharatanjali has been creating waves for its exceptional choreography and performances. It is famous for perfect synchronisation, precision, and execution of adavus with style and cohesion. The group’s 500th show was presented on 8 Dec. 2004, at the Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore.
“As a child, I was fascinated by Kamala Lakshmanan’s dance, who continues to be my idol even today.”
Her early training in Bharatanatyam at Madras started under her favourite artist Kamala Lakshmanan, who taught her the power of perfection and also the technique of proper and graceful synchronisation of the movments of eyes, hands, legs and the neck.
Later she trained under Padmashri K. N. Dandayupadapani Pillai. For the theoretical aspects of the art, Shri T. N. Ramachandran (former Director-General of the Archeological Survey of India) was her guru, who was also a guide to Dr. Padma Subrahmaniam.
She also learnt Kathak, for two years as a child at Pune, under Smt. Rohini Bhate.
At Madras it was only learning all the way, as Bhanu views this period, though she was giving stage performances right from the age of ten. Kamala Lakshmanan also took Bhanu as her co-dancer for over 200 performances.
A DETERMINATION TO DANCE
Her father was in favour of Bhanumathi learning dance only as a hobby, and was against her pursuing it as a profession or a career. Her mother, a musician and singer herself, was in favour of Bhanumathi pursuing dance as a way of life and a mode of worship.
Though her parents and siblings were favourable, the rest of the family were up in arms against her learning dance as a serious pursuit and went out of their way to persuade her parents to prevent her from doing so. Of course, their opposition made Bhanu only more determined about pursuing dance.
The Birth of Bharatanjali
It all started sometime in 1994. Her mother had passed away leaving her in a state of shock and in a mood of despair. Time and again she thought of doing something in memory of her musician mother. There were other concerns too. Some of her very talented students were not getting a proper platform or the right opportunities to perform. She felt duty-bound to do something for them. There were many of them and she did not want to favour just one or two or a few of her students.
The Jayaramseva Mandali had approached her for a programme. Suddenly an idea gripped her. She thought: “Why don’t I do some group-presentation? Not a dance-drama. Certainly not. There were many others doing that.” Using the repertoire of a solo performance, Bhanu wanted to experiment with group choreography. “Why don’t I take some musical pieces and try?” was the next thought. That was how Saint Thyagaraja’s Vidhulaku (or Sarvadevanamanam) came to be one of the earliest items to be rendered as a group feature. So was Ra Ra Rajivalochana.
Anuradha: Did this unique concept in choreography come suddenly to you or had you been already working on it for some time?
Bhanumathi: It began as a spontaneous attempt. When I was composing a jathi, I thought, “Why not do it as a group jathi!” It clicked. Somehow I realised intuitively that I could develop this further. I worked on it and it turned out well as I developed on the initial idea.
Her mother’s masterpiece on Lord Muruga Thanigai Malai was also a natural and logical choice from both dance and music point of view. The idea caught her imagination and her students responded brilliantly. The result was so enthralling that within six days of the first performance, the next opportunity came from none less than the Sangeetha Nrutya Academy itself to perform at Kolar. 100 shows were completed by 1998 and the 500th came up in 2004.
“The special impact that Bharatanjali creates is because of the total dissolution of their ego by the dancers with only the team’s success as their goal, their genuine admiration for each other, their alertness and understanding of the need for retaining the group identity,” says Bhanu.
Bhanumathi Settles Down in Karnataka…
The family moved to Karnataka in 1974.
Anuradha: Why did your family move down to Karnataka?
Bhanumathi: My brother and sister got their jobs here. So it was a practical family decision to shift here.
This meant a much more serious sojourn as a performing artist for Bhanu. The ‘family-circle-opposition’ to her dancing had waned by then, though much to the amusement of Bhanu, so-called well-wishers in the family circle relentlessly tried to find her a ‘suitable groom’.
Anuradha: Why didn’t you enter into wedlock?
Bhanumathi: The answer lies in your question itself. Most people seem to lose the ‘key’ after getting wedlocked!. Well, jokes apart, I was too involved in dance. Besides having witnessed some horrible marriages, the thought of marriage always frightened me.
Establishes Her Dance School Nrityakalamandiram
Anuradha: How many students are currently learning dance under you?
Bhanumathi: Thirty seniors students and about the same number of juniors.
Anuradha: There are many artists / students who wish to learn from you. What do you have to tell them?
Bhanumathi: I am willing to teach anybody who is genuinely interested. I have students who started at the age of 35 and 45 and beyond.
Anuradha: Are outside artists allowed to come and learn from you? What qualifications do you expect them to have?
Bhanumathi: Yes, of course. All are welcome. If they are already learning under some teacher, I would prefer them to come with their teacher’s recommendation. As for qualifications, aptitude for dance, genuine interest and willingness to work hard are what I expect them to have.
What makes Bharanjali click in today’s times of break-dances is the imaginative an original choreography with interesting and popular stories chosen carefully for group choreography, careful choice of musical pieces with emphasis on high quality of music as a vital and essential ingredient, quick pace, and absolute symmetry, leading to an unbelievable final kaleidoscopic effect. Quick changes in pattersn, variety and attention even to entries, exits and formations leading to other formations smoothly are important factors contributing to Bharatanjali’s success. Another important factor is Bhanumati’s receptivity to suggestions and criticisms for improvement of the rendering in any manner.
Anuradha: What is the reference you use while choreographing, especially to show different hastas or patterns (especially to show a particular god or anything in different ways)?
Bhanumathi: I love our traditions and I don’t like the idea of tampering with or diluting our traditions. Therefore, as far as hastas or mudras or other patterns are concerned, I don’t like to deviate from tradition.
At the same time I also believe that conserving tradition does not mean stubborn adherence to a rigid framework sans creativity. Natyasastra is the basic reference for the right usage of hastas and postures but imagination and creativity play a very important role in choreography. Personally, temples have been a source of great inspiration. We find rare postures of gods and goddesses. I have studied the different ways in which one can show them..
Luckily for us, our mythology provides plenty of scope for creativity through its variety. For instance, Krishna is also Giridhar or Gopala or Radhakrishna or Muralikrishna or Gopikalola. Each deity has so many stories and epithets that one can exploit them to give expression to one’s creativity within the broad and strong framework of our profound traditions.
Anuradha: While choreographing, do you take a word-to-word translation or an idea from a composition?
Bhanumathi: Both. It all depends on the situation. Though I do try to bring in both the aspects, if opportunity permits. However, the choreographer should be fully aware of the idea even when just translating a word.
Among Bhanumati’s senior and promising dancers are Sheela Chandrasekhar. She also assists her in training and choreography.
Deepika Raveen is another student who has been the Guru Bhanumati for a long time.. A fiercely loyal student and performer of Bhartanjali, her roles as Seetha and Markandeya are always remembered for their effect.
Suneetha Srirangarajan, another senior student, is gifted with the natural grace of a classical artist. Abhinaya flows spontaneously through her in her rendering and she has been a pillar of Bhanumati’s US tours.
Suma Srishaila, Smitha Raghu, Roopa Anand and Aditi Swaminathan were among the members when Bharatanjali was launched. All excellent dancers in their own right, they continue their good work, now in the USA.
Radhika Chaitanya and Anupama Srikant, charming dancers, continue to perform for Bharatanjali despite their professional commitments.
Josephine Savitha is another versatile and talented dancer, with a spontaneous nature and with a readiness to be of help to colleagues and teacher alike. With her special training in Kathak and choreography, she also assists Bhanumati in her choreographic work.
Snchasri Srinivas is a talented, committed and sincere practitioner of the art. Abhinaya is her forte and she emotes with a rare spontaneity. Musical talent and her basic qualification in English make her a useful compere for the group.
Chitra Vinod is another versatile artist being an accomplished dancer, teacher and singer.
Geetha Narayanaswamy is a committed and sincere artist who has been a part of Bharatanjali with a willingness to do everything for the Guru and the group. Her grounding in music and gift of a sweet voice are an asset to the group.
Nagabrinda Sriram has an imposing stage presence and stands out in her usual role of Sri Rama or Narayana. Affable and simple, Nagabrinda adds a charm of her own to the group. Yet another singer-dancer of the group.
Anuradha: Why is it that in spite of being very talented artists, your students have not established themselves as solo performers?
Bhanumathi: I have also been asking myself the same question for some time now. I think there is not just one reason but many reasons for the said situation. And I now admit that I am also partly responsible for this.
Firstly, like me almost all of my students are from the middle class and are into dance because of their love for the art. Like me, they too are not very affluent or have ambitious parents or spouses or godfathers to promote them and propel them into limelight at the national or international level as solo artists. Many of them, though, truly deserve to be great celebrities.
Secondly, my mistake. Despite their talent, they were getting only sporadic opportunities. So I created Bharatanjali hoping all of them would be noticed at least through that. This approach has affected their chances as solo artists.
After seeing Bharatanjali, everybody wants only the group. Even festival organizers (barring a few exceptions here and there) who fully agree that some of them are excellent and would easily click as solo dancers want only the group!!!
Anuradha: We often find the same dancers performing as the group Bharatanjali. What about other students being given an opportunity?
Bhanumathi: It is like our Indian cricket team. Gavaskar, Prasanna, etc. were on the scene for a pretty long time, repeatedly playing in various tournaments. But at the same time Sachin, Kumble and Dravid were also emerging gradually. Now we have Harbhajan and Irfan Pathan making the grade!
I hope you understand my point. Like our junior cricket players playing in the state level or league matches before becoming eligible for Ranji and later the Test matches, in Bharatanjali too it takes time for juniors to reach the top order. In order to make the grade, they need to be given opportunities which I do give them – making them play those necessary junior matches, which the public does not take notice of. There are no personal preferences or partiality. The emphasis is on standards. There is no compromise on standards.
Those who reach the top level stay there for a long time, while at the same time the second and third and the fourth line is also in the making.
Therefore I do not disagree with you that you see some faces repeatedly for a reasonable length of time. But you should also know that that there have always been new faces emerging one after another over a period of time.
So far there have been 40 dancers who have been part of the Bharatanjali team. All of them are top class artists that any teacher would be proud of.
Anuradha: Can you give some guidelines for younger dancers / choreographers to keep in mind while they compose a dance?
Bhanumathi: Yes. Firstly there are no ‘shortcuts’ to good work. As far as choreography is concerned, they should pay attention to aesthetics, crystal-clear communication, and geometrical and kaleidoscopic aspects to create the desired visual impact.
All this and much more will not yield any result unless there is perfect synchronization and coordination among the dancers.
Anuradha: You are an expert in abhinaya too. Your definition of abhinaya? How one can work on it?
Bhanumathi: My definition of abhinaya is no different from the already well-known and well-established definitions regarding Lokadharmi is very casual, natural. Natyadharmi is stylized. I use both depending on the theme as well as the audience witnessing the performance. As far as working on abhinaya is concerned, it is a very long-drawn-out process. It starts right from choosing a piece, then understanding it thoroughly, to improvising on all the possible points. It takes a very long time to enact a particular abhinaya piece to your satisfaction. Working on abhinaya involves concentration, going into the depth of each item and thorough practice before presentation.
Anuradha: Your message for young artists?
Bhanumathi: Luck and a suitable break may not be in your hands. But working hard to excel in whatever you do is certainly under your control. Do that and you will see that you certainly get respect even if you get no fame. More importantly, looking back on your life later, you’ll be satisfied, contented and happy that you gave whatever you did a genuine try. Keep smiling. Good Luck!
NOBODY QUITE LIKE HER
Guru Bhanumathi attends performances / functions even without being invited as a guest. Rare is the senior artist who attends concerts without an invitation.
She is always ready to promote and encourage good artists. (They need not be her own students.)
She has a great passion for learning: At a recent dance (Abhinaya) presentation by Kalanidhi Mami, she was observed taking notes – something younger dancers at the presentation were not doing so!