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Ananda Shankar Jayant: Convener, Natya Kala Conference 2008
- Lalitha Venkat
Photos: Jayant Dwarkanath

November 24, 2008

Dancer, choreographer, writer, scholar and cultural commentator, Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant, with an acclaimed and intense body of artistic work, continues to stretch the outer realms of artistic endeavor, using the grammar, idiom and space-time construct of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, making it at once contemporary and communicative.

A breathtaking performer, brilliant choreographer and erudite scholar, Ananda has polished her art to a fine pitch, where the rigor and intensity of training, deep dedication and commitment meets a finely tuned intellect, that blends with ease traditional structures with contemporary inputs.

She was conferred with the prestigious Padmashri, in 2007 by His Excellency the President of India, Shri APJ Abdul Kalam in recognition of her distinguished service in the field of art. She was also conferred with the sought after title of Nritya Choodamani by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, the Kalaimamani from the Govt of Tamil Nadu and the Kalaratna from the Govt of Andhra Pradesh.

Trained under Rukmini Devi Arundale at Kalakshetra, Ananda holds a Masters Degree in Archaeology and History, an M. Phil in Art History (Development of Bharatanatyam - Role of Kalakshetra), and a PhD in Tourism. Her deep interest in scholarly inquiry and research has seen her conceive, organise and chair conferences and seminars on dance, art and its related areas. A Colloquium on 'Bharatanatyam in the New Millenium' in 1999 and 'Criticism in Performing Arts' in 2002, are some of the conferences organised by her.

She is also a much sought after speaker on dance, art addressing social issues, classical arts in a contemporary society, gender issues, women studies, multi tasking, climate change and breast cancer.

Being a Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam performer, do you give equal time to both or concentrate more on one particular style?
I have been trained in Bharatanatyam by Sri KN Pakkiriswamy Pillai, and Kalakshetra, where I spent six years and received my post graduate diploma.

On my return from Kalakshetra, I trained in Kuchipudi from Pasumarthy Ramalinga Shastry. Why Kuchipudi? Because I found a verve and vivacity that just reflected me! Besides as I was living in Hyderabad it was the logical thing to do.

I perform equally in both styles as a soloist. However I only teach Bharatanatyam and my group choreographies are mostly in Bharatanatyam, while I use the Kuchipudi technique wherever necessary in my contemporary works.

When you were asked to convene the Natya Kala Conference, what was your first reaction?

WOW! What else?! It was December the 17th, 2007, venue - Krishna Gana Sabha. I received a letter, requesting me to convene the Natya Kala Conference for the years 2008 and 2009, from Sri Prabhu, Secretary of the Sabha, moments before going on stage, to present Sri Rama Namam - Entha Ruchi Ra, my critically acclaimed work, on the 16th century saint poet Ramadas' bhakti for Sri Rama. Here I was getting into the mood of Ramadas who gets jailed for many long years and pleads with his beloved Rama for deliverance, and I couldn't stop smiling! I was so excited and thrilled. It was only my years of training and my mind technique, of keeping everything in separate drawers in my mind that helped me get into the mood of the program!

Of course, now I'm excited and eagerly looking forward to the conference!

As it is, it's difficult to convene a local conference. This one is away from Hyderabad, in Chennai. What difficulties do you face?
I love challenges! I think I thrive on it! In terms of logistics, a conference in Hyderabad would mean that I have my full team from Shankarananda Kalakshetra in position. In Chennai, I will have a very small team to fall back on. But with help from Krishna Gana Sabha and Narthaki, I hope to crest this issue with ease.

However, this conference would not have been possible on this scale but for the mentoring advise and help that I have received from Anita Ratnam, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, Chitra Visweswaran, Leela Venkataraman, Dr Sunil Kothari, Nandini Ramani, Anil Srinivasan, Sri Jayant Kastuar and Ashish Khokar. I have harangued and harassed them without exception at all times of the day and night asking strange questions seeking approval and approbation for way out and sometimes impossible ideas! Gently they have nudged me back on track, given suggestions and better ideas and then very graciously applauded me for it!

Believe me, this conference is as much their idea as mine!

How did you come to choose 'Ramayana in the Performing Arts' as the theme of this year's conference?

I was toying with many ideas as themes for the Natya Kala Conference 2008, and was brain storming with Anita Ratnam, when she said, "Why don't you think of Ramayana?"

Was it coincidence? Was it a miracle? For, this idea was uppermost in my mind which then evolved into the theme RAMAYANA IN PERFORMING ARTS.

When I shared this idea with senior dancers like Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Chitra Visweswaran and critics like Dr. Sunil Kothari and Leela Venkataraman, the answer was a resounding yes.

I chose this topic as the Ramayana continues to influence us in myriad ways even today. It is the living story of India, nay Asia, and is seeped into the very collective conscious of us all.

The Ramayana has held relevance over the vagaries of time and ages... It is at once a story that continues to invest us with different perspectives every time. It is more than a story, as it has become part of the collective conscious of a whole sub continent... and marks relevance as the ultimate victory of good over evil. While it is obviously black and white, the shades of grey are too subtle and that I think is what captures every artist's imagination and angst!

The Ramayana has been performed from the time of Lava and Kusha! What a hoary and glorious heritage of the Ramayana in performing arts!

The Ramayana continues to influence us in myriad ways even today- the blackberry and iphone toting executive, the video game punching youngster, the animator, the film maker and the TV soap creator alike are as inspired by the Ramayana as we artists, both performing and visual. This living story of Asia has inspired literature, art, music, dance, sculpture, iconography, poetry, and even fashion across the Indian sub continent as well as South East Asia.

Going beyond a mere conference, what purpose do you think this year's coverage will serve?
The Conference over the week seeks and attempts to understand the interrelationship and mutual influence of text, folklore, tradition and performing arts of the Ramayana.

Artists and scholars from across the board have been invited to share their research, art and creativity. What better and easier way to dip into their mind space to learn and understand their intellect and creative journeys?! This conference will be a meeting ground of some of India's best performers and scholars, interacting and sharing their knowledge, thus bringing together the multi hued streams of Indian thought and culture.

The conference has been structured to showcase different interpretations, varied scripts both ancient and modern, and a wide representation of the dance traditions of India, with the story line of the epic flowing through these discussions and lectures. In this conference, senior artists and scholars will explore, different facets of the Ramayana. These artists will interpret both characters and episodes of the Ramayana, from different interpretations and understanding, traversing as they do through their own artistic and stylised imagination and creativity.

The conference brings on one platform, legendary and iconic performers and choreographers like Rukmini Devi Arundale's choreography of the Ramayana, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, Dr Sonal Mansingh, Prof CV Chandrashekar, Swapnasundari, avant-garde and cutting edge contemporary thinkers and performers like Anita Ratnam and Navtej Singh Johar, and young choreographers and performers like Dr Alekhya, Sharodi Saikia, Rajashree Shirke, Sheejith Krishna, Dr Neena Prasad and Margi Madhu.

The styles being showcased are Bharatanatyam, Bharatanrityam, Odissi, Koochipoodi, Kathak, Kudiyattam, Mohiniattam, Sattriya, theatre and poetry, contemporary dance, dance drama, and Neo Bharatam, alongside eminent scholars like Dr Paula Richman, Dr Sunil Kothari, Leela Venkataraman, and Gowri Ramnarayan.

As a small representation of the Ramayana beyond Indian shores, Ms Sophiline Cheam Shapiro from the Khmer Arts Academy, Cambodia, will speak on Ramayana in Cambodia.

I have extended the scope of the conference beyond dance and also look at the innumerable oral traditions that have been inspired by the Ramayana through dialogue and performance 'God and the Musician' - The Role of Divine Inspiration in Today's Music - a discussion by leading senior musicians will be moderated by Anil Srinivasan and will explore music, spirituality and the modern musician. While, Dr Prema Pandurang speaks on eternal values of the Ramayana, OS Arun, Venumadhav, and musicians from Assam and Maharashtra share their musical traditions.

The Generation Next is treated to a story telling session by VR Devika, besides short performances by young prodigies.
A small exhibition and sale of Cherial (scroll) paintings, Kalamkari and Leather puppets based on the Ramayana will be held alongside the conference.

The Conference will also screen award winning animation film 'Sita sings the blues' by renowned American film maker Nina Paley.

There are international Ramayana conferences. Do you think this year's Natya Kala Conference is something like that, since you are covering many aspects?!
I sincerely hope so! The canvas is wide and the palette vivid! While I have chosen to go beyond dance and have brought in music, theatre, poetry, paintings, film, there is still so much more that one can present! Such is the emotional and psychological appeal of the Ramayana, seeped as it is in our very sub conscious and unconscious!

Are young dancers participating significantly in the various seminars / conferences nowadays? How can we attract more of them to attend / participate?
Young dancers will need to make time for discussion and dialogue. How else will they develop and hone their intellect? And what is any art form without an underlying intellectual appeal? The best of our artists appeal to us because they have chosen to explore the realm of the intellect and then having internalised that understanding, have risen beyond the intellect to touch a mystical spirituality, which we as audience are lucky to experience.
For young dancers, conferences such as this are a godsend as they can learn so much. They will also have to don this mantle some day in the future, so what better way to learn?

How important is it for you to perform in Chennai during the season?
The December season is a fantastic festival, really the Woodstock of India! So unique and beautiful. The beauty of this festival is that it is majorly a private affair with hardly any Government support! That is something unique to Chennai.

I love to come to Chennai to perform as I find here a true recognition of talent. There is very little parochialism, or feelings of region or language, that you often encounter elsewhere. The Chennai - December season, is truly national and should be branded so! The sabhas do not distinguish an artiste as local or from outside Chennai. The bottom line is good work! I love the atmosphere here! And love to bring all my works to be staged here.

What does Chennai December season mean to you?
A place to perform to a discerning audience, a time for validation of one's art.


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