Book release of 'Master of Arts: A life in dance'
- Lalitha Venkat

August 30, 2013

Hachette India and the Duchess Club of Chennai teamed up to host a well organized book release function of ‘Master of Arts: A life in dance’ by Tulsi Badrinath on August 27, 2013 at Savera Hotel, Chennai. The book traces the life story of Guru VP Dhananjayan, his struggles and triumphs, and includes those associated with him in the course of narration including the author herself who has been a student of the Dhananjayans for nearly 40 years.

The book was released by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Chairman of Kalakshetra, and as a man known for his erudite speeches, he did not disappoint. Speaking about how apt the title was, he said the book was a long overdue one on the maestro. Commenting on the ‘amazing’ cover photo design by CP Satyajit, he said, “It looks like the father is saying ‘I was like that long ago’ and the son looks like he’s avoiding the gaze saying ‘I can do better than you, dad!’ This book is about continuity and creativity peopled by exceptionally talented dancers. Dhananjayan’s rendering of the most exciting and subtle roles on stage are well known. Janardhanan as Ravana excels in his 40 minutes on stage in Sita Swayamvaram, the look of derision slowly developing into contempt. Narasimhachari is an effortless actor in his role of dance teacher in the film Sakhi Prana. Kalakshetra looms large in this book, not in some blindly worshipful sense but in an intelligently critical sense. The number of people who can be called pranamya is shrinking by the day. Every single person has an aesthetic in him, so this book is not just for those in the art community but to the larger community to see where we are headed. This book is written with sincerity and sensitivity and is frank, fair and hugely readable.” It was heartwarming to see the Kalakshetra gurus Dhananjayan, Janardhanan and Narasimhachari conveying their admiration for each other through facial expression on hearing Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s words of appreciation for their prowess.

The short speech was followed by a question and answer session between Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Tulsi Badrinath.

GG: Did you come across a problem in selecting the persons you have portrayed?
TB: Yes. A large part was set in Kalakshetra. I have spent 40 years with my guru who is from Kalakshetra. Gurus Janardhanan and CV Chandrasekhar were part of Kalakshetra, so in writing about my guru, their stories were part of Kalakshetra. That apart, I did ask a few dancers but they did not want to be part of the book. One was a transgender who refused because she was now a female and the book was about male dancers.

GG: Were there dancers who said some information is for the book and the rest is off the record? Perhaps that itself could be another book in the making?
TB: This is non-fiction so it straight away posed restrictions on me. Yes, my guru said a lot more that I could not feature in the book, like the legal problems involving his pet project Bhaaskara in Kerala.

GG: We know that Dhananjayan has a penchant for proof reading. In your writing and printing of this book, was your publisher as sensitive to the subject of this book or was it as difficult as choreographing and presenting a dance program?
TB: The chief editor at Hachette was very cooperative and helpful. Stories of backstage disasters was one of my favorite chapters but my editor felt it interrupted the flow of the text, so with a heavy heart I had to forego that chapter.

GG: Though it’s a book on male artistes, accomplished women artistes like Anita Ratnam also feature in this book. The part about what Navtej Johar went through in Oct 1984 in Delhi was very touching. So much comes to life in this book. Where do you think classical arts are headed in our complex times?
TB: I think part of the problems that exist now is chiefly patronage. In olden days, we had patrons for the classical arts, and dance existed in a social milieu as a divine art form. Now we have government patronage that’s not offered in a way that’s fair. In Chennai, some sabhas nurture and promote some artistes, but there are scores of dancers who learn and then drop out.

GG: The stage is as demanding of skill and training as it is of human values. Stage can be unforgiving if it’s anything less than a standard. Your conversation with Satyajit was particularly moving, about what it takes for a person to take up standards that is demanded.
TB: For 3 months, my gurus spent every evening speaking to me. It is easier to write non-fiction but one has to be clear on what to feature and what not to. Since Satyajit is here, he could perhaps say a few words.

Tulsi read a page from her book where as an 8 year old, she accompanied her mother with a plate of fruits on Vijayadasami day, to meet her future guru. Due to popular demand, Satyajit spoke for a couple of minutes on how he chose to drop dance and become a photographer, moving into avenues that were not comfortable for him, how to experiment and how he learnt more from this than from the dance field.  Not much is known about a dancer’s interests or prowess outside the dance field and in his black and white photo essay on the life of a dancer, Satyajit gave an interesting insight into the interests of some dancers. “This series of photos were inspired before the book was written. What would the dancers have done other than dance? I recorded the life of dancers as a small story of their life apart from dancing. This is a work in progress and I plan to work on it for another year.” We got to see G Narendra in his cricket gear, guru Narasimhachari playing mridangam and doing yoga poses like shirasasana, S Suresh concocting dishes in the kitchen, Suryanarayanamurthy astride his two wheeler and looking cool in a pair of shades, Sheejith Nambiar playing soccer and Renjith Babu stretching and bending his body in his favorite yoga poses inside and outside his apartment.  The surprise was Prof. CK Balagopalan on horseback. Known as a daredevil in his younger days and a lover of horse riding, Balagopalan was riding a horse after more than 40 years for the photo shoot!

When the Dhananjayans were invited to give an impromptu performance by Tulsi Badrinath, the maestro actually professed that he was nervous and then gamely announced that the audience would see a 75 year old Krishna romance a 70 year old Radha in ‘Radha Madhavam’! Tulsi presented “Nindati chandanam” with the maestro followed by the Dhananjayans presenting “Yahi madhava” and “Priye Chaarusheele” to the accompaniment of live orchestra. The female guests decked up in their designer saris and even more exotic jewellery added to the color of the function.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of