Blended in Natya – An interview with the Dhananjayans

 Madras has turned 375 today. As one sees various images that define the city, one cannot miss the dancers of Kalakshetra, rigorous in their practice, dedicated to the art. I spoke to the legendary Dhananjayans on the occasion of Madras Day, who drew a vivid picture of the Madras that was….

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Tucked away in one of the silent corners of Thiruvanmiyur is the Kalakshetra campus, where students can be seen undergoing a rigorous regimen of training in Bharatanatyam and other art forms. The lush green campus, lined with countless trees, is an oasis in the midst of the humdrum of traffic in the city. Six decades back, when VP Dhananjayan, a doyen of Bharatanatyam arrived in Madras (as it was known then), the city was a totally different place to be in. His memory is still fresh about the journey he undertook from his village in Kerala to Madras in 1953.

“Looking back, I think I was as excited as one would be while going abroad today. I was a complete village brat and the ways of the city were not known to me. I stepped out of the train at Central station with huge expectations in my heart and a jatka (horse-drawn cart) took us to the Kalakshetra campus in Adyar, which was then a very lush green village in the outskirts of the city. Then, Kalakshetra existed in the campus of the Theosophical Society. Adyar was extremely beautiful and had only one road, which led to the Elliots beach. Since the place was lined with plenty of trees, many films were shot here and I literally saw film stars running around trees,” says Dhananjayan, with a warm laugh.
The buildings of Kalakshetra consisted of thatched cottages and in the 1950s, the process began to build a new campus at the present location. The entire process took over a decade and the students were closely involved in every bit of its construction. “The students of our time were among those who built the campus. I would walk to the place every Saturday, with people like CK Balagopal, A Janardhanan, Kunji Raman, D Pasupathy and Adyar Lakshmanan, to plant trees and pave roads. It was all in the fashion of the old gurukula system, where students did every task and once the campus opened in 1963, inhabitation began in this area,” he says. Besant Nagar, back then was a very different place and Dhananjayan remembers how terrified people were to walk alone by the place at night. “It was a huge burial ground and many people came up with stories of ghost sightings then. Balagopal even insisted that he was carried by a ghost during his sleep.”
Back then, performance venues were limited in the city. Music Academy hosted its annual music concerts and dance events were conducted in the Parthasarathy Sabha and Rasika Ranjini Sabha. “We would go to these sabhas to see the performances of greats like Vyjayanthimala, Balasaraswati and Kamala Lakshman. We would walk to Mylapore and it took just 15 minutes to reach there as there was hardly any traffic. Kalakshetra also had a 10-day arts festival, which was attached to the Theosophical convention. It had delegates from all over the world,” he says.
Pic: Justin George
Pic Justin George
It was in Kalakshetra that VP Dhananjayan met his future wife Shanta, who was also a student there. And as he puts it, their meeting was like that of Ram and Sita, as described in the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas. “Shanta was extremely shy and reserved. We were rehearsing for Kalakshetra’s dance production Ramayana, where we played Ram and Sita and Shanta would call me a lousy Ram.” The duo share a hearty laugh as Dhanajayan relates this incident. “When we decided to get married, I wanted to throw a tea party and had no money. I borrowed some money from a friend and repaid it in installments. All these were like luxuries,” he says.
Shanta looks back at the time when they stepped out of campus to explore the city. “In spite of being in a campus where disciple was not compromised, the students went out to explore the city chaperoned. Like any student living in hostels, we too wanted a break from the usual fare of food. We would go to Hotel Coronet and have masala dosa. We also went to YMCA to learn swimming and movie viewings were very rare for us. We saw Ben Hur, Ten Commandments and Living Desert, as they were known for their high quality. The first movie we both watched together was Pasamalar (1961), at Chitra Talkies. On Sundays, we all would go to the cafe attached to the New Elepahstine Theatre, near Mount Road. The falooda, ice cream and sundae that you got there were simply out of the world,” she says. Shanta vividly remembers the first time she gave a performance. “We did a performance in the Panchami Hall  to welcome Rukmini Devi who was returning after a tour. It was a great moment to dance before her. The first public performance I gave was at the Rasika Ranjini Sabha and later, I performed with my husband at the Museum Theatre in Egmore,” she says.

The duo continues to teach at their dance school Bharata Kalanjali. “The entire approach to learning has changed today. I was a completed natyam student and did not worry whether I got a certificate or degree at the end of my endeavour. But out of several hundred students, even if some rise to become exemplary, it will be great,” says Dhananjayan.

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