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Rajeswari Sainath: I feel and breathe music
- Sumi Krishnan, Sydney

January 6, 2009

Rajeswari Sainath received the prestigious Natya Kala Shiromani Award in Chennai on 5 December 2008. She spoke to Sumi Krishnan, during her recent trip to Australia with Guru Karaikudi Mani Iyer and his troupe called 'Shanmugha' in Melbourne and Sydney.

Sumi: How do you feel performing for Western audiences?
Rajeswari: I have been performing for Western audiences for quite a few years now. I performed in 2003 with the Australian Art Orchestra under the artistic direction of Paul Gabrowski. I have many Australian musicians who are my good friends such as Sandy Evans and I enjoy working with them. In Sydney, there is a good mix of eastern and western cultures which makes for an interesting mix of audiences. I danced to music of an orchestra made up of 29 musicians as a solo dancer to a house full audience from different backgrounds. Whilst that was nerve wracking it was perhaps the most challenging thing that I have done. The audience was very appreciative in Melbourne. I am expecting to tour through Australia again in 2009 for a festival in October in Adelaide.

Sumi: Upcoming artists in Western countries... What advice do you have for them?
Rajeswari: I would like to say learn everything perfectly and stay true to your own style and classicism. If you wish to try new things then do so not at the cost of diluting the very discipline of Bharatanatyam. In all my fusion productions, my classical training helps me. I do not compromise on the rules associated with karnas, charis etc. It is real hard work to find the balance but it has to be found. Secondly I would ask them to watch as many dances and styles as possible. Take what they can from more experienced dancers and respect their seniority. Learn from any visiting dancers coming from India if possible. Thirdly, dance, while a physical expression of art, is not just movement; it's also emotion. The mental journey of the dancer should be as visible to the audience as the physical. Fourthly, learn all the mythological stories that one is trying to portray through dance and expression. I could keep adding more things. One cycle of birth is not enough to conquer this art form.

Sumi: Talking about mythological stories, when performing to a mixed audience do you think of modulating the stories to present them in a modern context?
Rajeswari: Bharatanatyam is a versatile medium of art. You can show all types of emotions, rasanubhuthi, bhava. Through dance, one can depict a tree, a fish, a peacock, birds, nature. These can be introduced to a concept or a story line and help conceive any story whether Indian mythological or aboriginal. Really dance is a moving breathing art form that is adaptable. However they have to be pitched at the right level. It takes a lot of experience to choreograph and stay true to one's classical style of dance. I say this despite having 39 years of experience. There are many things that influence a production from physical fitness, body flexibility to expression, correct postures and footwork, to beautiful music.

Sumi: Which takes me to my next question. Despite being in the industry for 39 years, you look so young. Many good dancers put on so much weight. What is your secret?
Rajeswari: Positive thinking, I think is my strength. I feel and breathe music. From a physical perspective I really watch what I eat and I also practice Yoga. The rest takes care of itself.

Sumi: Bharatanatyam has its origins in the temples of India, yet it is now performed in modern venues. Has the dance form changed because of this?
Rajeswari: Bharatanatyam is a panchama veda, the fifth veda and it is called natya veda. Therefore it is divine. Dance was the art form created by Nataraja, the cosmic dancer. It originated in temple and has over centuries moved to theatres and now also in Sydney Opera House, despite which I think the purity of the dance has been maintained by all accomplished and talented dancers. Technology has its effects and advantages. I think that dancers of today are able to take advantage of modern technology whether it is by way of using music creatively or lighting. The choreography of the dance has taken transformation. I think the burden of the dancer has reduced and the dancer is free to concentrate on the quality of the dancing.

Sumi: You refer to quality of the dance. What do you mean by that?
Rajeswari: By quality I mean "nritta and abhinaya," "technical and emotional" expression. Maintaining correct geometric patterns that fit into postures with the perfect rendition of rhythm through footwork. Anything else is junk. There is a grammar to every aspect of dance. These should be used correctly, the geometric patterns is intermingled with strong line and length positions of the feet or the paadha bedhas.

Abhinaya or emotive expression has more of a creative element to them. For example in a Hastha Mudra there are many different ways of depicting laughter and every dancer may do so differently. Abhinaya is simply the expression of the inner self to the outer world. The Natya Shastra defines the nine experiences as Rasanubhoothi. These are common emotions such as beauty, fear, anger, love, compassion, jealousy etc. When a performer is able to take his or her viewer to a point where they are one, that is the great achievement of a dancer. The other aspect of quality is showing qualities of vallinam and vellinam, masculine and feminine. A dancer should be able to dance both male and female roles in a dance.

Sumi: Bharatanatyam schools abroad... what do you think of them?
Rajeshwari: The positive thing about the Bharatanatyam schools outside India is that they are mushrooming everywhere because of which awareness amongst youngsters of this art form is increasing and perhaps there is more active interest in the dance form because it also defines our cultural roots. It is important that teachers constantly update themselves and maintain the purity of the dance for the next generations. Dilution is going on everywhere, not only abroad but in India as well. I think however that a dancer who learns the art form the right way will stand out amongst others.

Sumi: Who is your idol?
Rajeswari: It has to be Yamini Krishnamoorthy. She once saw me dance at Habitat in Delhi in 2006. Yamini came up to the stage and said to me, "I was worried who would carry my baton after me but having seen you dance my concerns have been put to rest."

Sumi: Thank you for your time, Rajeswari. I hope we see more of you in Sydney.
Rajeswari: Thank you, same here.