Asian Music and Dance

Rama Vaidyanathan – Dancer in her prime

She is considered one of India’s finest bharatanatyam artists. But for UK audiences Rama Vaidyanathan remains one of dance’s best-kept secrets.

I catch up with Rama Vaidyanathan at London’s Bhavan, where she has arrived for a series of performances.*Compared to her celebrity status in India, the turnout at the Bhavan is low-key. So why has the UK taken so long to recognise her? Reflecting momentarily, she replies there is a right time for everything. “I have done a lot of work in India, USA and Europe,” she says. “I knew that an invitation to the UK would come in its own time.”

Performing in London is different to continental Europe. The ability to personally introduce items in English without the need for translators is something she believes, fosters a deeper connection with audiences. “It’s more like dancing in India,” she says. “I want to be back because I have found audiences very perceptive.” What does she consider her unique assets? “Other bharatanatyam dancers share a guru, but I’m my Guru’s only performing disciple,” she muses, making the argument that her individual style upholds the legacy of Yamini Krishnamurthy, India’s iconic dancer. It is an image that fuels her.

Making her career in Delhi, where artists so frequently find themselves at the mercy of funders and patrons, Rama feels fortunate to have sidestepped much of the usual political power play. “I have tried to keep out of the rat-race and direct my energies into dance. I have allowed time to create its own magic, and let performances come to me, rather than vice versa.” Hard work, and a modicum of luck, appears to have worked in her favour.

‘..a shaft of light illuminating bharatanatyam’s geometry’

Rama’s work is intense. It has a clarity that is like a shaft of light illuminating bharatanatyam’s geometry. Her dance is sparse and uncluttered, yet rich in imagery; sharp and brisk yet unhurried; deep in philosophy yet easygoing in its conveyance. Rama stays within the bharatanatyam idiom yet can use a sway of the hip and the ever-so-slight hint of the tribanga. She achieves the perfect balance between the formality of structure and small, observed gestures of everyday life that imbue dance with a touching humanity.

Rama choreographs her own work. She conceptualises it, ensures that the lyrics and music are written in accompaniment and creates movements in parallel. It is not like taking an existing Dikshitar composition and just changing its movements. “The concept has to be strong, and I take time to meditate on it,” she says. The idea could germinate from a poem she has written, or a mantra like Shivo Shivaham, which has grown into a full-blown tillana. “I love performing traditional varnams, but my habit now is to have a daily dialogue with my art form,” she says.

So how did she create the Mayur Allaripu using the traditional bharatanatyam opening item? Her answer robs the mystique from the creative process. “I was invited to perform at a Monsoon Festival and toyed with the symbol of a peacock; the minute I took the Mayur hasta, the whole choreography came to me in a flash. In one session I had the makings of the piece. Much later someone told me that the mudras are connected to chakras in the body-energy centres, which have their own mood and quality. The mudra itself dictated the choreography to me.” 

She derives inspiration from Hindu thought and mythology. Her creations include a Navarasa based on different groups watching Krishna confronting unsavoury characters; padams based on doves carrying a message to the beloved or a Shiva mantra giving full play with the Nataraja iconography – all material that is familiar to classical dance. There is nothing radical in the theme or treatment.

So why does her work seem to reach out to today’s audiences? Could it be the visual aesthetic that shines from her dress and make-up to the lighting design? Or the delicate craftsmanship of movements and coverage of space? Or her bhava, with its contemporary sensibility? Her own choreographies were far more compelling than the traditional repertoire that she performed.

“working with GS Rajan… my choreographic practice came to full bloom”

Can she identify a breakthrough moment in her career? She pauses and repeats her mantra ‘slow and steady’ adding “nothing came on a platter”. Indeed,  the first decade she was confined to her a small circle in Delhi, dancing to a relatively limited audience. The turning point came in 1999 after her first invitation from the Music Academy in Chennai. “After that there was no looking back.” Rama was offered ICCR tours that took her around India and abroad. The progression to choreography and her collaboration with flutist and composer GS Rajan, who had been an accompanist for Yamini Krishnamurthy, took Rama’s work to the next level. “My choreographic practice came to full bloom and I experienced total satisfaction when I started working with GS Rajan eight years ago,” she said. They have created a number of pieces in the last eight years.

“I am my Guru’s (Yamini Krishnamurthy) only performing disciple”

When did she realise that dance was her calling? “In my mother’s womb,” she laughs. Indeed when Rama’s mother was eight months pregnant, a famous dancer came to perform at the Pune Army Officers’ Club. Mrs Gopalakrishnan became so excited that she climbed up on her chair to see Yamini Krishnamurthy dancing the Kuchipudi thali item. She dreamt that her child would be taught by Yamini. This dream was fulfilled when Rama, aged seven, enrolled at Yamini Krishnamurthy’s classes in Central Delhi. For the next decade Mrs Gopalakrishnan made the journey accompanying her daughter to the weekly dance class on the hazardous Delhi public transport. Despite being one of the youngest in class, Rama was bullish, standing under her Guru’s nose. Aged ten she had completed her arangetram. She continued dance classes through school and college, with no realisation yet of becoming a fully-fledged professional dancer.

Fate had it that she was introduced to a student at the India Institute of Technology, whose mother was the well-established dancer Saroja Vaidyanathan. The prospective mother-in-law was delighted to have a dancer, a bharatanatyam dancer at that, as her son’s bride. Rama started teaching at her mother-in-law’s school, where her classes expanded and prospered. She was able to raise a family while continuing earnestly with her dance studies. The support of her husband CV Kamesh and the artistic guidance by Saroja have been critical to her success.

Her mother had instilled the belief that ‘extraordinary practice made extraordinary artist’. Rama appears to have followed her mother’s advice and whether she makes the hall of ’great Indian dancers’ remains to be seen. We wish her the best on that journey.

*Promoted at Purcell Room by Iftikar Ahmed of Luton’s Academy of Performing Arts, and jointly at the Bhavan by the Institution and Vani Fine Arts.



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