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Athai and I
- Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant

August 10, 2013

I am a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, a recipient of a tradition of centuries, a recipient not just of the dance form but of its attendant psychological, social, philosophical, sociological, metaphysical and esoteric constructs. Such constructs can loosely be called tradition. Along with other artistes, I am given the responsibility by virtue of my years of learning, to learn, imbibe and carry forward a tradition of a particular style of performing art. We artistes thereby become dynamic links between centuries, between eras, and between ideas. This onerous responsibility sits heavily upon the shoulders of each and every serious artiste. I am part of that flowing river called tradition, a perennial river, meandering, striking new courses, accepting new temples and new pilgrims, supporting old rituals on its path to the sea.

My passion for dance began early in life - a chance meeting at the Subramanyam temple in Secunderabad when I was 4 years old - a comment that "this child's eyes are large, you must teach her dance" saw my mother Subhashini Shankar (herself a musician and violinist) enroll me with guru Sharada Keshava Rao. My initial years also saw me training with guru KN Pakkiriswamy Pillai (brother of guru KN Dandayuthapani Pillai) who then taught in Hyderabad.

My dance training continued in Hyderabad until the summer of 1973, when a mother and her very young daughter, wended their way nervously into the courtyard of a building in Chennai. They waited outside the office, after having sent in a message, eagerly waiting to be called in. But they were not summoned inside. Instead, the very person they wanted to see came out to greet them. The lady was none other than Rukmini Devi Arundale, the Director of Kalakshetra. The young girl was me, and with me was my mother. After the traditional namaskaram, I remember asking her to bless me to be like her someday. "No, no, I bless you to be greater than me," said the beautiful lady, swathed in a maroon silk saree, with her freshly washed hair falling down on her shoulders.

She had made the decision for my parents and me. She scoffed at the worry of my parents about putting me into boarding. She promised them that I would be safe and well looked after. I was admitted into Kalakshetra in June 1973 to take up dancing full time. Such was the force of Rukmini Devi's personality that it affected all who came within her radiating aura. I joined Kalakshetra, exchanging pinafores and school bags, maths and science classes for pavadai - davani and dance classes. It was a sea change! Life in boarding for most students in the first few months can be traumatic, and for me the different life styles that I was encountering in a matter of a few days were enormous. Yet, Kalakshetra and Athai enveloped me in their bosom with lots of love and affection that the transition from convent school to traditional Kalakshetra was ultra smooth.

I was enrolled as full time dance student at Kalakshetra where I was trained by brilliant gurus in the true guru-sishya parampara. Simultaneously acquiring a formal education - Matriculation, Pre-University and Graduation - through correspondence courses, I spent six years at Kalakshetra, learning Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music, veena, dance theory, philosophy, Sanskrit, etc., and acquired a Diploma and a Post-graduate Diploma in Bharatanatyam. I also learnt the grace of a firmly executed movement, the need to perfect the bodily stances and thereby forget the body and rise above it, to think, to create, to go beyond and to ascend to realms of a higher consciousness. My training in Kalakshetra went way beyond the curriculum! I was inquisitive and curious and shored up all what I observed!

I saw Athai confer with myriad artists while she created and choreographed. I saw the work that went into each of those creations. I stashed away the way she encouraged all of us young dancers, gave me the freedom to also pursue my academics and allowed me to perform solo while still being a student at Kalakshetra. I burnt into my memory the way her intellect and creativity met seamlessly in a vision of aesthetics. I also learnt from her the merits of a well balanced program and continue to try and replicate her veritable attention to every minor detail.

While I was in Kalakshetra, Athai choreographed the Matsya Kurma Avatarams, Meenakshi Vijayam, Damayanthi Swayamvaram and Buddha Avataram. I was selected to play different roles in these productions and was there when the process of choreography was on. What an experience, seeing creativity come alive in front of one's eyes. And what a way to learn! I learnt important tenets of choreography and stage craft just watching Athai choreograph and have a production go up on stage. Most importantly, I learnt that art is not mere performance, but LIFE itself.

On my return to my home town, Hyderabad, interested parents wanting me to teach their children and my own interest in sharing my art made me a teacher of dance at the age of 17. I began with six students and grew up with my young students. They call me 'akka' (elder sister). At my dance school Shankarananda Kalakshetra in Hyderabad, the relationship is that of a large family, a true guru-sishya relationship. My students learn to balance the traditional with the modern, the static body with the soaring mind. They experience the freedom to feel, to know, to break all bonds, all barriers, in an effort to touch one's self. I teach the style that I have imbibed, the Kalakshetra bani or style, with emphasis on angashuddha or clean body lines, subtle abhinaya and an abiding commitment to aesthetics.

Being in dance from the age of four, dance has meant many things to me, and yet it is not a hobby or a pastime or even a career, but just a reason to BE... I had been in dance for more than 3 decades when the year 2008 had other very deep and overwhelming meanings and connotations. On July 1, 2008 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the last five years, I have been undergoing treatment through surgery, chemo and radiation therapies and am in remission now. However, through all the treatment period, I continued to dance. By bringing laser sharp focus to my dance in all its multifaceted glory, I successfully tuned out of cancer and tuned into my dance. My dance saved me from myself! (

And today, with this experience behind me, I once again understand the true import of what my guru Rukmini Devi Arundale said: "Culture is neither performance nor entertainment, but life, and art is an expression of life."

Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant is a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer and runs her dance school Shankarananda Kalakshetra in Hyderabad.

Well written. From the first line to last line, the article speaks of the writer's journey of learning and life. What an experience and exposure! May God bless you to sustain that spirit of life. Your life is not simply living - it's LIFE WITH VIGOR AND VITALITY.
- K Padmavathi (Aug 13, 2013)

Our passion for dance is due to your passion towards this wonderful art form. I am proud to say I am your first student and feels great to have you as my daughter's guru. Indeed the parampara continues due to great teachers like yourself.
- Manju Koppuravuri (Aug 11, 2013)

Personally I don't know Ms. Ananda Shankar Jayant, I have seen only one performance. One day I walked into the auditorium. I was new to Hyderabad, I didn't know anything about her or her dance... Kalakshetra stamp was evident. KALA & KSHETRA, that is what it was. I am in no way eligible to say this… but she is one of the best we have. Keeping the essence of tradition, style, elegance and innovative ways of presentation sure connects her to both set of viewers, those who love traditional blend of the art and 'modernity'. Looking forward to seeing more from her and her students.
- Beena (Oct 4, 2013)

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