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  • Writer's pictureRamya Harishankar


Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Author: Ramya Harishankar

Ramya is the artistic director of the Arpana Dance Company (ADC) and School, a premier school of Bharatanatyam in Irvine, California and has over three decades of training students. She trained under the late Swamimalai K. Rajaratnam who followed the traditional Vazhavoor style and Kalanidhi Narayanan, one of the finest exponents in the art of Abhinaya. Her solo career, spanning more than three decades, has taken her all over the world – performing extensively in India, Asia, Europe, Australia and North America.

When my ‘Vadyar’ (Sri Swamimalai K Rajaratnam)​ passed away in 1994, I was upset not only because of the loss, but the many avenues he had yet to explore and the ‘legacy’ he had yet to create. His extraordinary talent and creative energies I believe had not been fully tapped. Over the years, having become more aware of the history of their community, I understood and am more empathetic to his ‘ways’.

As I myself complete over 3 decades of teaching, I realize ‘legacy’ is very personal and nebulous. In fact, thanks to my views on ’Vadyars’ legacy, I was very focused and attached to my own. Only to realize as I grew older and hopefully, wiser that everyone has their own journey and one can only hope to be honest and sincere and the ‘legacy’ will take care of itself. In other words, it is possible to design a legacy only to a point. What shape and form it will ultimately take is not guaranteed.

The panel discussion yesterday(28th Dec, 2018) at Krishna Gana Sabha’s Natya Kala Conference, had a diverse group of artistes, who had differing views on legacy, both their own and the one inherited. Malavika Sarukkai was given lemons and she made lemonade to her taste. For those of us living abroad, there are several influences and more importantly, the need to make an ‘alien’ art form accessible. Hema Rajagopalan highlighted this but does mean you are in ways transmitting to the next generation, not what you inherited in its original form but adapting it? But isn’t that natural? I was fortunate to learn from two renown gurus/lineage who were not performers and always custom choreographed for each of their students. Though I often hear that my Abhinaya is akin to Mami’s (Smt Kalanidhi Narayanan), the only “legacy” that I inherited was their philosophy, not necessarily their performing style.

I could relate to Roja Kannans commitment to uphold her guru’s aesthetic sense and choreographic patterns. Tradition was mentioned often. But as the moderator, Chitra Sundaram hinted that ‘tradition’ is again a nebulous word - today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition. One has to acknowledge that artistes should have their feet firmly planted in their ‘inherited tradition’ and move beyond to keep the form alive and relevant. The most interesting and poignant comments came from Aniruddha Knight who has inherited a great legacy. He is at once fortunate, responsible and burdened by it. When I saw him perform a few years ago, it was like seeing his grandmother, the legendary Balasaraswathi, who I had seen as a young student of dance. It is a double-edged sword - does one continue that style and possibly risk becoming archival material or does one ‘evolve’ the form?

It was good to hear diverse perspectives, as it reiterated my view, that it is very personal. Living abroad, I don’t have the privilege of choosing those students that are ready to ‘immerse’ but creating enough passion for the form that they may choose to do so. As stated before, the roots have to be strong but one has to grow and adapt to the diverse student populations as well as audiences. Truly, Bharatanatyam is a global form thanks to the contributions of diasporic dancers and teachers. After all these years, the newer generation of students are at least twice removed from Indian culture or even those from India have limited to no exposure to the arts. So the teachers in the Diaspora don many hats and our legacy maybe not just creating next-gen dancers, but more importantly next-gen audiences! As Pericles says, ‘ what you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others!’

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