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Bragha Bessell: Learning has no end
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

February 10, 2006

"Bragha Guruswamy Bessell is a rare joy for dance and dancers alike" is what dance and music magazine Sruti had to say in 1999. Six years of staying away from active performance has not in any way diminished her striving for perfection or her ability to mesmerize her audience with the beauty of her nritta and abhinaya.

Bragha had her initial training under late guru Mangudi Durairaj Iyer and did her arangetram in 1966 at the Chidambaram temple. She learnt for nearly 15 years from late guru Kunchitapadam Pillai and honed her knowledge of Bharatanatyam under eminent gurus Adyar K Lakshman (nritta), Kalanidhi Narayanan (abhinaya) and late guru Kamalarani (nattuvangam).

Settled in Saudi Arabia, Bragha who is in Chennai for the December season, gave a riveting performance at the Arangham dance space of Anita Ratnam, on December 25, 2005 for a select audience. This was her first performance of the season! What should have been an hour's presentation extended by more than 45 minutes, for the audience wanted more and more of the utterly charming items she presented accompanied by her equally charming introduction to each item. Among the items she presented that morning were Navarasa slokam from 'Soundaryalahari,' 'Netru andhi nerathile,' 'Indenthu vachithivira,' 'Ela vachitive,' 'Yarukkagilum bayama?' 'Sarasamuladedentuku,' 'Parulana matta,' and Annamaiya's keertanam as Mangalam.

Bragha shares her views on the Chennai December season.

After a break in your dance career, what made you get back to dance?
I always wanted to get into dance. I never missed an opportunity whenever I came to Chennai to work with my gurus but I could not accept performances because within the short span of time, I felt I could not work up to performance level. But my work was always going on whenever I visited Chennai. In December 2005, I was given a golden opportunity by director Leela Samson of Kalakshetra to share my knowledge of abhinaya in Kalakshetra. It was like a blessing in my dance career and I immediately accepted it. I could say that was like a knock on my door not to let my dance career rust and let go for waste, all the efforts that I have put in over the years.

My family members were also a driving force, encouraging me. All these years, my son was small and I had to take care of him. He's now of an age when I can leave him with his dad, so I'm back to dance seriously.

Your performance at Anita's dance space was your first of the season. How did you feel?
Performing after such a long gap, I had very mixed feelings. I was quite nervous, but performing at Anita's space gave me great encouragement and support and made me restart my career in a very relaxed way, because everyone in the audience were all art lovers. I enjoyed the intimacy of such a friendly, appreciative atmosphere. Thanks to Anita's invitation, it was a fantastic way to start my season and definitely something I will always cherish.

Performing in Chennai after such a long time, have you noticed any changes?
It has been about 6 to 7 years since I performed here. Not a very big gap, but the way the performance level has grown is amazing. The dancers have gone to the depths of not only the natyam but into lyrics, ideas, kavyas, orchestration, rhythm and also stage arrangements and costumes. In each and every aspect, the art has grown to a great extent which is very amazing and at the same time overwhelming. Even the fusion, in dance as well as music, has become very interesting.

Do you think too many dance and music programs crammed into 45 days is affecting the quality of the programs?
I have not seen an artiste more than once, so I have no idea if their other performances suffer in quality. But definitely too many programs cause a great deal of problems because we are unable to attend so many good performances that all take place at the same time on the same day, which was rather disappointing for me. The performance timings also of one and a half hours... covering 2 artistes in one evening was difficult because of the distance and traffic.

Do you think too much is being made of the season?
Coming from a rather dry place, this was not too much for me. Actually I had this feeling of joy of attending a thiruvizha, where you see crowds, deities, flowers, colors, music... it was like a long distance procession following a deity. I enjoyed every moment of this festival season.

Do you have any comments on the audience? Was being seen in finery and eating the tasty canteen food more important than the performances?
Fortunately I did not notice such things!

Do you have any advice for upcoming dancers?
Hard work. As a student, teacher and art lover, the mantra is work, work and more work for the knowledge and practice of any art form. There's been a thought going around in my head, especially of late, that whatever one has learnt is but a drop in the ocean. There is still so much more one should learn. Learning has no end. I feel very strongly about that.

You have not received that many awards though people rave about your dance.
I am not at all bothered that I have not received any major awards. I enjoy what I learn. I enjoy meeting so many nice people in this field. I am happy to perform what I learn from my gurus. If people enjoy seeing me perform, I am happy. That's all that matters to me.