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Remembering Maami: an Abhinaya Sudha student's perspective
- Dr Annapoorna Kuppuswamy

February 26, 2016

Cycling from LB Road in Chennai, in the vicinity of Ganapathyram theatre, to Shastrinagar to attend dance, music, theory, nattuvangam and abhinaya classes at Abhinaya Sudha is by far the most lasting memory of my childhood and one person who is undeniably associated with all these classes is Kalanidhi maami. Yes, maami did not just teach abhinaya, but a select few had the privilege of being trained entirely at Abhinaya Sudha where maami, who had the foresight to see the importance of holistic training, brought in the best teachers around town and abroad to train us in all aspects of Bharatanatyam.

I was the last in line of this select few who learnt from thattadavu to thillana, did their arangetram and graduated from Abhinaya Sudha, so I was the 'kuttiest' of the 'kutties.' I have known maami for most of my life and although the last time I met maami it was sad to see her so frail and I knew she would soon pass away, nevertheless her passing away has been such a shock. Unable to concentrate at work, my mind keeps wandering to her. I was hoping to see her in a couple of weeks' time when I travel to India and share with her all about my first full-fledged music concert. Maami was one of those rare teachers who was interested in all aspects of her student's development. Maami was an excellent singer herself and she would immediately spot mistakes in our singing. She insisted on being able to sing all our repertoire pieces. She was stern and wouldn't compliment easily but it came from the motto that achieving the highest standard in whatever we chose to do was paramount. However, she also was forgiving of those who did not have the right guidance, after watching a below par performance she would always say, Ava teacher appadithaan sollikuduttha (her teacher taught her so).

We always had an 'annual day celebration' where all of us performed. My first one was in 1987 at the Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple in Adyar; then it had a small stage, not the current massive auditorium. I still look at the photographs taken at the performance fondly. And no annual day was complete without Prasad anna, maami's son filming the whole performance! And these annual days were such fun; we all used to arrive at maami's house on the day hours before the show. Maami used to have food prepared for all of us. All the teachers used to take their places in the top floor of the house where we had to go from one to another, one for foundation, one for eye makeup, one for hair and so on. Our parents used to be milling around helping the teachers get us ready, then maami would get us all to eat before putting our costumes on. Invariably someone would be too nervous to eat which used to wind maami up! Then with costumes on, there would be a scramble for putting the alta on our hands and feet when one heard maami yell from below to get into the cars to be driven to the venue. Everyone in maami's family pitched in, her son, her daughter-in-law, her cook, the drivers and the handy man. It was such a mega operation and maami used to do this tirelessly year after year. The venue used to be carefully selected for each year and we performed at places where people may not necessarily get to watch dance like orphanages and old age homes. She had to be involved in all aspects of the organisation and implementation. She loved doing it, she loved being surrounded by her students, doing rehearsals and performances. Now as a grown-up I realise what a big role having such wonderful experiences has played in shaping the way I interact with people!

Maami used to take us on summer dance camps and what an experience it was for us! Students from other dance schools used to join us. For two weeks in May, we were all in the nearby SOS village where we ate, breathed and slept dance. The routine was punishing but if I were to go back in time I would do it all over again. Early morning started with yoga, followed by quick shower, then for a prayer and singing at the local temple, a quick breakfast, some theory before 4 hours of dancing, lunch, a bit of rest in the hot afternoon, back to dancing but this time, it was either learning new items or being introduced to new art forms like Odissi and Mohiniattam. Then we spent time with the residents of the village teaching them some simple steps. We were also working towards a show at the end of the camp including training the residents to perform. All this was done under the strict gaze of maami, she was very particular that we were well fed and hydrated. I hated the rooafza drink but she would make sure I drank! Also being the youngest in the camp, despite having my sister around I would sometimes not be quick enough to get ready in time, so she would plait my hair. Late evenings were for abhinaya lessons by maami and discussion about the nuances of abhinaya. Being the junior most I grasped little of the discussions but nevertheless was allowed to sit in and listen to the senior students discuss and debate, such a wonderful experience.

After my arangetram in 1994, maami had to close Abhinaya Sudha as she found it difficult to take on all responsibilities and expansion was not an option with the meagre funds she was receiving from the central government. She did not go down the route of increasing fees so she could make it work. She was doing it for the art to flourish, not to make money. We paid a total of Rs.30 per month for all classes! She was generous to a fault.

She was so proud of all of her students' achievements and also actively thought of ways to promote and improve their talents. When maami was awarded the Nritya Choodamani, I had sketched a portrait of her receiving the medal from M.S. Subbulakshmi and presented it to her. She was so pleased and hung it in her classroom and remarked about it to students and visitors. She introduced me to the legendary artist and singer S. Rajam to improve my sketching skills. He was formidable and did not take students easily, yet for maami he would oblige. She used to recall the times when S. Rajam was her neighbour and all his antics, such fun and a reminder of a bygone era. When I wanted to learn violin, she gave me her mother's violin so I could practice and asked Abhinaya Sudha's asthana violinist T.K.P anna to take me on. When I chose to study physiotherapy, she tried to see the positive side of it by saying all dancers these days need physiotherapy.

When I moved to England, she was a bit sad and said, Yellarum yennavittitu poraa (everyone is leaving me), although she wanted the best for us. I visited her every time I went to India and recounted all my dance escapades in the UK. She was so pleased and often remarked how despite not taking it as a profession, I continued to keep up dancing, singing and all the other activities. Then in more recent years she used to provide me opportunities to perform when I was in Chennai. I started to write for a south Asian dance magazine in the UK and every time I was published I would show it to her, she used to ask for a hard copy to read and then return it. She loved the fact that I had a very direct style of writing without mincing words. Now, I wonder where I got that from! Anyone who knows maami will know that if ever there was a straight talker, it was her. Everyone would be dreading the moment she made some blunt remark over microphone in the middle of a lec-dem or performance and hoped they were not the target of the remark. But of course everyone knew there was no malice, no hurtful intent, just plain speaking, why beat about the bush, which was so refreshing. Illness did not stop her from doing things. In 2012 when my sister and I put together a teaching DVD highlighting the salient features of maami's abhinaya and her style of teaching, she was very enthusiastic and despite having just returned from hospital insisted we go ahead with the scheduled opening at her house and invited guests over.

There are countless things to recount having been with her on an almost daily basis for most of my childhood; however it would suffice to say losing her is like losing my grandmother (she was the same age). She has been such a huge part of my life and with maami gone, all my artistic endeavours will be shaded with sadness and I will miss being able to share them with maami.

Annapoorna Kuppuswamy is a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, critic, classical vocalist and portrait sketch artist from Chennai, residing in London. She trained under Kalanidhi Narayanan at Abhinaya Sudha and Savithri Jaggannatha Rao. She is also a neuroscientist researching the brain's control of movement and what happens when the brain is injured. She is based at the Institute of Neurology, UCL, London.

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