New York: On the move
Remembering Dancers' Guild, Nartak Milan days in Mumbai
|October 15, 2009
The address was Lexington Avenue. The Church of the Good Shepherd. Saturday the 26th September 2009, morning 10am. The New York based dancers and few musicians were invited for a brunch 'to meet Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian and critic,' by
Bharatanatyam exponent Dr. Sanjay Doddamani, a cardiologist. He, along with Rajika Puri and Shridhar Shanmugam had made all the arrangements with south Indian breakfast and Ritushri, a Kathak dancer from Kolkata, another Asian Cultural Council grantee, had brought sweets for Bijoya greetings. Quite a gathering it was, reminding me of those halcyon days of Dancers' Guild, Nartak Milan in Mumbai in the late '60s and early '70s.
The Manipuri exponent Nayana Jhaveri and I had started Dancers' Guild, Nartak Milan in 1965 in Mumbai. Rukmini Devi was the President. Nayana Jhaveri and I were the secretaries. There was in previous years a similar organization started by dancer Dr. Nataraj Vashi. The main aim was to bring the dance community together. I did not know the terms like 'networking' then. I was a greenhorn, enthusiastic, bursting with energy to do 'something' on the dance scene, besides writing for The Times of India group of publications as an up-and-coming critic, researching on dance and also teaching accounts, being a Chartered Accountant, at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics near Churchgate. But my heart was in dance and I was continuing my lessons in Bharatanatyam under Guru Kalyanasundaram, Kali mama, of Raja Rajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir at Matunga.
But more of it later on.
Being New Yorkers, busy more on Saturdays and Sundays than on weekdays, it was heartening to see that so many could come. I had to catch a flight for Raleigh by 1pm to attend a conference on Dance and Music. So we had a tight schedule. Rajika Puri with her customary e-mail communication skills had informed most of the dancers and it was well planned by Sanjay three weeks in advance, with the result that the gathering turned out well. We joined hands and formed a circle, Rajika invoked images of Shakti rendering shlokas and after initial greetings, Sanjay performed an impromptu abhinaya to a shloka in Bharatanatyam and set the tone. I expressed my gratitude to all for sparing their time and coming in the morning.
I spoke about the Dancers' Guild days in Mumbai and how it helped dancers to remain in touch with each other and also lend moral support by attending their performances and informing each other about their work. I was very happy to meet them and learn about their activities.
Two days earlier, Rajika Puri had hired a car to go to Stony Brook University at Wong Centre to see 'Tejas,' a specially choreographed Bharatanatyam performance by Malini Srinivasan and dancers, and also to music by her music composer husband from Finland. We drove from Brooklyn, with Aditi Dhruv, a Bharatanatyam and Odissi exponent at the wheel, and another young Bharatanatyam dancer Nirali and her American actor husband, myself and Rajika all engaged in animated conversation exchanging information on the latest performances we had seen including that of Akram Khan with Juliette Binoche, the Academy Award winning French actress at Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM Harvey Theatre (http://www.narthaki.com/info/gtsk/gtsk12.html)
The dancers introduced themselves telling briefly their life stories, which were quite interesting, as some young dancers did not know that seniors like Uttara Asha Coorlawala was a student of Martha Graham, had studied Bharatanatyam under Kadhirvelu in Mumbai and Kathak under Mohan Rao Kalianpurkar, and was at present Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University and also teaching world dance history at Alvin Ailey’s studio. Or Carnatic vocalist and singer Shobana Ram had studied Kuchipudi for 8 years under Vempati Chinna Satyam, besides singing and accompanying dancers for music; Sonali Skandan's husband, mridangam player and musician was initially trained in violin, which he did not like; Sanjay learnt dance watching his sister studying and his parents arranged for him to study under US Krishna Rao and later on specially under Venkatalakshamma at Mysore, to study abhinaya in Bharatanatyam, and is at present a cardiologist in a leading hospital, continuing his interest and practice in dance. Parijat Desai, after completing her studies in dance at UCLA, moved to New York, continuing her studies in modern dance and offering classes in Bharatanatyam for some time at Mark Morris’s studio; Preeti Vasudevan, trained by Dhananjayans in Bharatanatyam had performed for many years with her gurus and later on studied Modern dance in London at Laban Institute, completed her course in one and half years and moved on to doing contemporary dance, and marrying the British musician Bruno Cavanagh. Aditi Dhruv from Houston studied Bharatanatyam and Odissi and moved to New York, performs regularly, has participated in Rajika Puri’s choreographic work ‘Tapasya’ and gives lessons in dance and yoga. Murali Balasubramaniam plays mridangam, accompanying dancers not only in New York but also Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy's Ragamala troupe in Minneapolis, and continues his office work in computer.
These musicians and dancers are sincere, dedicated and completely involved in classical Bharatanatyam, Odissi and also contemporary dance. New York, as the ‘Maximum City’ in words of Suketu Shah, challenges them all on several grounds: job, marriage, children, distances, wanting to watch several dance performances in the evening by many companies from different parts of the world. It is a happening city and one is tempted to see such varied fare, draw upon the energies generated all around. There is no domestic help like we have in India in terms of servants, and elder parents, or near ones to depend upon. Every one is busy, busy, busy earning money, rehearsing, performing, travelling, taking or giving workshops, choreographing and managing against all odds.
And yet dance matters to them. They cannot live without dance, working for dance, practicing hard, come what may, planning, networking, communicating, assisting each other, providing whatever help they can. This particular group of dancers and musicians are bound by their love for dance and a mutual respect for each other. Towards end of the meeting, I suggested that they should all form a group, build up a website, remain in touch through e-mail, phone calls and work out a solution as to how to keep everyone informed about their activities.
In the days that followed, I received several e-mails with many alternative suggestions, volunteering for website, group e-mails, similar to Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi groups, links and even a blog. I am sure soon Rajika and others will come up with some solution and we shall through www.narthaki.com know about their activities, performances and the latest.
As ill luck would have it, Shridhar Shanmugam has recently lost 'The Arch' studio, in the centre of New York, near 42nd Street Bryant Park, as the lease was over. It was an excellent place, easy to access and spacious enough for evening performances, music soirees, workshops, dance classes, lecture-demonstrations, and meetings. Such a place is the need of the hour, where dancers can drop in, meet at regular intervals and have a forum for their activities.
Working on a dance project of Indian Diaspora, I could interview most of them and saw priceless material of early photographs press reviews and how majority of us came from educated middle class families and took to dance.
Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award.